Ron Mael on the Past, Present and Future With FFS: Franz Ferdinand and Sparks

The song “Collaborations Don’t Work” appears near the end of the self-titled new album by FFS, the inspired team of Sparks and Franz Ferdinand — and the timing is perfect. By that point on the recording, the combined efforts of the two bands, which will play October 11 at the Ogden Theatre, make it abundantly clear that, in this case, collaboration works far better than anyone had a right to expect.

As a bonus, the merger provided the opportunity for the biggest Sparks tour ever, according to Ron Mael — who writes most of the collective’s music as well as the majority of the lyrics warbled by his brother, Russell — and given that the two of them have been performing together since the late 1960s, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Sparks is among the most unusual musical combos of the past half-century, thanks to the two Maels — vocalist Russell, who’s always looked like a pop star, and Ron, who’s known for a mustache that once seemed like a simultaneous nod to Charlie Chaplin and Hitler (it’s more of a pencil-thin version these days) and a practically motionless stage persona that comments sardonically on all the bizarre activity taking place around him.

But a devoted cult following that appreciates the Maels’ off-kilter yet grin-inducing vision has kept the group going for decade upon decade — and the fandom of Franz Ferdinand is just one example of the mark they’ve made on the musical landscape.

Our conversation with Ron details the history of Sparks and how the band came together with Franz Ferdinand, led by the charismatic Alex Kapranos, over an eleven-year period and discovered that the years separating them were no match for their shared love of music that values sauciness and impertinence over self-serious pretense.

Michael Roberts: If you trace the history of Sparks back to the formation of Halfnelson in the late Sixties, the band is approaching its fiftieth anniversary. Does that seem bizarre?

Ron Mael: It does. It seems incredibly strange. When we did our first proper album, the Halfnelson album, with Todd Rundgren, maybe that was 1971 or something like that.

[Check out the Halfnelson album here.]

But when you do your first album and you're young and really excited and everything is new, you don't expect something like that. The concept of the future is not even part of your thinking. So just to have that first album was such an unbelievable thing for us — to go into the studio and work in that kind of way and work with Todd Rundgren.... We had great respect for him, and to his credit, he was the only one who wanted to sign our band. So it's really strange. It's kind of perverse in a way that we're still doing it.

When you and Russell first started performing together, what was your concept for the band? Was there any particular style from those days that you were emulating or, perhaps, reacting against?

In general, we wanted to be an English band. We really loved the Who and the Kinks, and even though we're from Los Angeles, we pretty much based our lives on those kinds of bands. We always thought the English bands were cool, and the American bands, other than a few of them, like the Beach Boys, they didn't care about stage presence and flash. There was the idea that if you showed any kind of visual flair, it was because you were trying to hide the fact that you didn't have any musical substance. They thought there was a real dividing line between style and substance. So we naturally reacted to all those British bands and early on tried to emulate them.

At the same time, though, you always had a unique sensibility. Do you think being an American band that was so strongly influenced by British bands helped you find your own voice?

It's always hard to analyze the effect of your nationality and your surroundings or anything like that. I think in some ways we failed to become the textbook British band, but we kind of turned into something else — and it wasn't even intentional. At this point, there isn't another way of our doing it. For better or worse, what we've done from pretty early on was idiosyncratic. There has been times when we've had really great commercial success in various parts of the world. And the sensibility is something that's kind of been maintained, but I'm not sure how much our musical environment has entered into it, or if we were more or less trapped into doing what we're doing by the nature of our personalities.

The humorous aspect of work wasn't totally unknown in Southern California. Frank Zappa is another example. But it certainly wasn't the norm. When you were starting out, were there some cocked eyebrows when it came to that element? And if so, did that kind of response inspire you to keep going in that direction rather than turning back onto the road more traveled?

We kind of have a cranky side of ourselves, so when people get upset about what we're doing, we kind of feel that we're on the right track. But it's really difficult using humor in pop music. Sometimes it can appear that you're frivolous or there isn't any depth in what you're doing. But we always tried to have humor anyway.

This is kind of looking at it in hindsight. We never went into this analyzing anything or deciding on a direction beyond liking some things and trying to be British. But as far as sitting down and saying, "We need to have a combination of humor in what we're doing," we never had that conversation — and we still don't go into that kind of stuff.

But when it comes to the humor part, there always seems to be another side of it, where things are more bittersweet rather than just having one level of a song being funny. Even when something's funny, it has to be well-written, too. So we are really aware of the craft part of pop music. We really have a respect for the genre and feel that it's valuable. It's legitimate in its own way and it has as many possibilities as any other kind of music.

You mentioned the visual aspect of your presentation. Was the contrasting styles of you and Russell, particularly on stage, something that you guys consciously conceived? Or was the approach something you naturally exaggerated based on your own personalities?

It was more the latter. I wanted to be in a British band, so I wanted to be Pete Townshend. But when you're a keyboard player, well, I never really moved a lot. I thought it looked kind of silly. Everybody else kind of did what they did and it looked cool. It looked like what they were. But for me, it didn't come as easily. So I just decided to go the other direction and become really stoic on stage.

It wasn't like it was repressing any part of my personality. That's kind of the way I am anyway, but maybe exaggerated more in a live setting or a television setting. That contrast, again, is something we never really discussed or analyzed. It was there more out of necessity for me, because I needed to have something to do amid the flash of the rest of the band. And when we moved to England in the middle Seventies, television, Top of the Pops and all, were just so important to the national image of a band, and the closeups of me had this tremendous effect, which really shocked me. It wasn't the usual sort of effect a person in a band would have on an audience. I was as surprised as anyone that my doing what I thought of as very, very little would have such a big effect.

Given the way you've dressed and worn your hair and your mustache over the years, you tended to look older than you were in the beginning. And so, as a result, you've looked pretty much the same for decades. It seems to have worked out for you much the way face paint worked out for the members of KISS, in that it makes it seem as if you haven't aged. Is that a happy side effect of your visual approach?

Pretty smart, huh? (Laughs.) I'm lucky that way. I realize that I'm not the same as I was in the Seventies, but the general impression is that I haven't changed my persona. So I'm really fortunate that way, because my appearance was never really based on looking youthful. Now I just try to stay as healthy as I can so I have the stamina to do things, and also so people don't think you look pathetic. Image has been part of what we've been for so long that people might judge your musical level at a certain point by how you look. So we have to have enough of a positive look to what we're doing and ourselves that people can judge the music on its merits and not on how pathetic we look.

In preparing for this conversation, I had the pleasure of listening to a lot of your older material, particularly on the Rhino collection [1991's indispensable Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection.} And from "Wonder Girl" on, it struck me that your music hasn't dated very much, since it all sounds like Sparks music. And that's remained true even though your music has evolved over the years.

[Listen to a "Wonder Girl" here.]

It's really strange, because we always felt we were mutating through the years: working with Giorgio Moroder and working with Tony Visconti and using outside instruments and working within dance constructs. So we put ourselves into a lot of different contexts. But the sensibility has remained.

There are downsides to that, of course, especially when it comes to a mass acceptance of what your'e doing. But the sensibility has allowed us to remain outside the mainstream of what's going on to a certain extent, despite the musical trappings in which we placed ourselves. So it's timeless in the sense that it's us. The odd thing is that when we first started out, so many people thought we were a novelty act. And for it to be continuing this long is strange.

[Listen here to "The Number One Song in Heaven," produced by Giorgio Moroder.]

There's so much more to talk about when it comes to the old days, but let's turn to the new days. It's my understanding that the FFS project has been in the works for over a decade. Is that the case?

We first heard the Franz Ferdinand song "Take Me Out" in 2004. And then we read an article in NME about Franz Ferdinand, and they mentioned that they liked Sparks. They were in Los Angeles at the time, so we arranged a meeting with them for no particular reason — just that we really thought that song was great. And at the end of the conversation, we said, "We should do something together some time."

[Here's the Franz Ferdinand hit "Take Me Out."]

Usually, that's an empty kind of expression between bands, but we really got along with them well, and we liked what they were doing. So we wrote the song "Piss Off," which is actually on the album that came out eleven years later, but at the time, everyone was really too busy to make a commitment to the project.

Then, a couple of years ago, by coincidence, we ran into Alex in San Francisco, because both bands were playing there. And we said, "Whatever happened to that project?" And since that time, we've been trading music back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean — trading ideas and songs. There was no thought at first to it being more than one or two songs, but then it was an album, and then it was a tour. It all really developed organically, but both bands were in tune with each other. This is an album that neither band would have done on its own.

[Check out "Piss Off" below.]

"Collaborations Don't Work" is an incredibly Sparks-y tune to include on this project. Tell me what kind of role that song had. Was it in some ways a cheeky kind of nudge to prove the idea behind the song wrong?

In a certain sense, although we had a feeling this was going to work. That was one of the first songs we sent over, and it was already pretty well developed. We wanted to see their reaction, and they responded favorably. They have the same sort of sense of humor that we do. And also, we wanted to see if the responded musically to it, because it's a pretty complex song — and they did. The positive response to the song signaled that maybe the song was appropriate.

[Listen below to a live version of "Collaborations Don't Work."]

When it came to recording the album, I understand that you felt the configuration of your band and their band fit together in a natural way.

We spent a couple of years writing, so we were really prepared when we went into the studio. And the selection of John Congleton [who' worked with St. Vincent and Anna Calvi] as a producer was really intentional. We wanted somebody who was a modern producer; we definitely didn't want this to be retro in any way. And after meeting John and really getting along with him, he just seemed like the right person sonically for the album. So it was all arranged to be recorded in London.

The first time we all stood together in a room and played was a week before the recording, in a rehearsal space. And fortunately, it all came together really quickly. We were prepared as far as the material, so it was just a question of whether the playing styles would mesh — and even more importantly, if the singing would mesh, because both Russell's and Alex's voices are very particular. We didn't know how they'd work together. And we were very fortunate that they did.

In terms of the songs themselves, what was the division of labor? How many came from you, how many came from them, and are there songs where it's difficult to even trace the origin because they're so the authorship is so mingled together?

I sent over the original ideas for things like "Johnny Delusional." But the most collaborative song, I think, was "Police Encounters." The Franz guys had sent us a track, but it was just an instrumental track. We wrote a melody and lyrics over that. They added their parts to that, and then Alex added a vocal intro that wasn't originally part of the melody. And then the vocals are intertwined with each other in what I think is a good, chaotic sort of way. I think that's the song that represents the collaboration in a way that's difficult to really determine who came up with what or even who's doing what.

How long has it been since you've done an American tour quite like this one?

We did do a couple of tours — the Two Hands, One Mouth tour, which was just Russell and myself, where I played keyboards live and there were no computers. So we did do that two years ago or something like that. But when it comes to the entirety of the tour, this is the longest that we've ever toured. We've done thirty shows so far and we're doing eleven more in the states.

Considering the length and breadth of the tour, is it something you're still enjoying? Or have you found yourself wondering at times why on earth you signed up for this?

When you have to go through airport security every time, you kind of think, "Why am I doing this?" But the actual performances and the reaction from the audiences has been so amazing and really consistent. I kind of expected there to be a physical toll on this kind of tour after not really doing it to this extent for so long. But it's actually been kind of painless, and I think it's because the shows have gone over so well. There's been such a uniform reaction to them. We haven't had one show in the thirty that we've done so far where everyone said, "Mmmm, well, that one wasn't up to snuff." We've enjoyed all of them, and audiences have, too. So all of the other things become much less important.