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Sparks Talk About Their Past, Present and Future: Exclusive Interview

Philippe Mazzoni/Sparks
Photo credit: Philippe Mazzoni

For the better part of 50 years, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, as Sparks, have been making some of the most adventurous, exciting and unique music ever heard. Whether via the stomping glam era attack of albums like Kimono My House or the disco-fueled Number One In Heaven or the utterly unique Lil’ Beethoven, Sparks have always rode their own rails. Over the course of some 24 albums, the brothers have been celebrated and ignored, but that has yet to put a damper on their enthusiasm for adventure. With a stunning new album, Hippoptamus, just released, we recently chatted with the duo about their past, present and future.

Congratulations on the new album. Does it get tiresome being so consistently brilliant?

(much laughter)

Ron: Oh, it’s such a burden. (more laughter)

Did you approach this album any differently after doing the FFS LP?

Russell: We really wanted to set out to do something that was really striking — varied and striking, something that wasn’t resting on our ass. Something that the hardcore Sparks fans would accept. People who are passionate about Sparks always kind of expect us to up the ante each time we set out to do something. They kind of expect the unexpected. First and foremost we need to do something that we feel ourselves is really exciting to be working on, and also vital for someone that may have no knowledge of Sparks as well.

Right, it’s not like you’re walking into a story that you need to know the history on, you can pick up from here and move forward or move back.

Russell: Exactly!

As usual, the lyrics on the new album are intriguing, amusing, and entertaining. Are there any lyricists you have always looked up to?

Ron: I like Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and then I like Morrissey, if you can call that more contemporary, and Jarvis Cocker, Randy Newman.

Russell, has there ever been a song that Ron wrote where you thought, “How am I going to get all those words into that space?”

Russell: All the time! It’s always a challenge, but I like the challenge of doing stuff that’s out of your reach [and] out of your comfort zone. When you’ve done that many albums you always like to be challenged with new things. I’ve managed to be able to sing everything that’s been presented to me.

Some of the songs on Hippopotamus recall different eras of Sparks, but you never sound like you’re consciously trying to bring up your past. Do you think most artists, or people in general for that matter, give in too easily to nostalgia?

Ron: It’s a difficult thing to answer but I think it seems like a lot of people are too easily satisfied. The other thing is that people that have been doing it for a while become sort of reflective, mellowing out and outwardly express how they feel about life in general, whereas we have always attempted to be a bit more oblique than that. For whatever reason, and I’m not even sure I can really explain it, but we have just a real drive, even at this point, to really prove something even if we’re not really sure who we’re trying to prove it to. We always want to do something spectacular and we continue to have that passion. It’s hard to be too critical of other people because then you start sounding bitter and snipey and all, even though at times we’re bitter and snipey.

We do wish there were more things that seemed ambitious around us because, in a selfish way, I think it would be good because we like those moments, like in the ’70s. We liked when we were kind of label rivals with Roxy Music where they would come out with something, then we would come out with something. We always felt an unspoken rivalry that was a pushing rivalry that made for better music.

When you guys moved to England in the early ’70s, it was like you wandered into the perfect environment for your music.

Ron: We were really fortunate. The strange thing was, our passion for music always was inspired by the British bands, so when kind of became a transplanted version of that; it was a dream come true for us. We felt like we fit in really naturally, where in Los Angeles we felt like fish out of water.

Did you ever get to see those bands that influenced you like the Who or the Move back in the ’60s?

Ron: Oh yeah, we saw the Who, the Move at the Whisky a Go Go, we saw all the British bands, very few of the American bands. We were fortunate. We saw people like Tyrannosaurus Rex, pre-T. Rex, it was just this world we really wanted to be a part of.

When you first formed the band as Halfnelson around 1970 were you active on the L.A. club scene?

Russell: We played at the Whisky a Go Go often. That was our main, maybe only place really. They really liked us there, so they would have us back, despite our not having a massive following.

How did Todd Rundgren get involved to produce the first album?

Russell: We sent our original demos to everybody and got either no response or one of those “we really enjoyed your material, however, at this time we are unable to sign you but if you have any new material in the future, do not hesitate to send it to us” kind of letters. We got those from everybody, then one last person who was sent the material was Todd Rundgren, and it was just like 180 degrees from everybody else that had a position to sign us. He had his label Bearsville, which was him and Albert Grossman. The two of them were really passionate about what we were doing. It was kind of shocking that they saw something unique and special in what we were doing when no one else was able to see that same thing. We owe Todd a big bit of gratitude.

That’s interesting because even back then, with so many different things going on in pop music, you guys really didn’t fit in anywhere, even at that time.

Ron: He saw that as a strength, where everybody else saw that as a weakness. Everybody wants to find where you fit in with things, but Todd, because he saw that we weren’t fitting in with everything, that’s what appealed to him. He never tried to sand down the edges.

You’ve always had a loyal fan base who have stuck with you through the various stylistic changes, are you seeing younger fans turning on to the band?

Russell: Yeah, yeah! A big help with that was the FFS project where we were able to play in front of audiences that were mixed with Sparks fans and Franz Ferdinand fans, and we ended up retaining a lot of their fans as a result of that project. And, the internet has helped attract new fans. That’s how people discover a band now and so there are still new people discovering the band all the time. It’s really satisfying to see that what we’re doing now is able to attract new fans, and that they then go back and discover the older stuff, and are kind of shocked that what we’ve done in the past still sounds kind of timeless and not necessarily of another era.

You’re actually touring the U.S. though with limited dates.

Russell: We’re test-marketing the show in America in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. (laughter)

Ron: We wish the tour was more extensive, it’s just worked out the way it’s worked out. We’re hoping we can come back and play more places, in particular maybe do some festivals.

Your influence has a wide reach – everyone from the Darkness to Depeche Mode over the years. Is it any easier to be Sparks in 2017 than it was in say 1977?

Ron: I think there’s more acceptance of what we’re doing, less questioning of where we fit in. Sometimes it borders on the amazement of some people that we’re still doing this with some passion, so just the admiration of stamina some people show. I think it’s easier in the sense that what we’re doing now is being accepted in total, at least by a certain audience. There’ve been times in the past we’ve had to kind of focus on one era or even one country’s knowledge of us, but now we can kind of present ourselves in our totality so it’s kind of easier being what we are, which is the sum of everything. It’s also been easier in a sense because we’ve have the experience of late of working in the film area which really rekindled a passion for coming back to working in a more traditional song structure. In the past when we tried to kind of reinvent ourselves, it had to still be done within three and four minute songs, and that would involve either trying to find a producer who could alter how you were doing things, like Giorgio Moroder, or trying to do it on our own somehow, reinventing things with Lil’ Beethoven.

I read something about Annette, the musical. What is that all about?

Russell: It’s a project we wrote and initiated and did all the music and dialog for, which is all conveyed via the songs. We approached the French director Leos Carax. About four and a half years ago, we met him at the Cannes Film Festival. He used one of our songs in his film Holy Motors. On a whim we sent him this project, and he was really passionate about it and said he would like to direct it as his next film. It’s in pre-production now. He’s gotten Adam Driver and Michelle Williams involved as the leads. This will be his first English language film, and kind of more international. This one is kind of on a different scale. It seems like its going to be a really high profile film.

Are there any producers or other musicians you always wanted to work with that never came to be?

Russell: Producer-wise I don’t know that there’s anybody. I mean we really worked with great guys like Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder, Todd Rundgren.

Ron: At one point, earlier on, we might have had a desire to work with Phil Spector, but then we became friends with Joey Ramone and his experiences with working with Phil Spector were not the most pleasant, that kind of put the kibosh on that.

Russell: Roy Wood was actually the first name we thought of when we did the Kimono My House album. We were signed to Island to work with Muff Winwood, and he was friends with Roy, because they’re both from Birmingham, so he approached him on our behalf. We really loved the Move, and in particular Roy Wood we thought was amazing. I don’t remember the circumstances, but he wasn’t able to do the project, obviously, then Muff just said, “I should just do it” and we thought, “Well he’s the brother of Stevie Winwood and the bass player from the Spencer Davis Group, so how great is that?” So we said, “Yeah, you do it.”

When you did the 21 albums in 21 nights thing in 2008, how did that concept come to happen. It seemed like a goofy idea that someone tossed out that somehow actually happened.

Russell: It was a goofy idea alright! Our manager came up with that. It was one of those things, great conceptual thing. We’re always for big concepts, then the reality was trying to figure out, after we came back down from the euphoria of “this is a fantastic idea,” was to figure out how we’re going to logistically do it, to learn that many songs. It was a big challenge and it was something that no one else could do and probably no one else will ever do cause it’s pretty labor-intensive. First of all it requires you to have that many albums before you can consider to do something similar. Most of the bands who have 21 albums that I’m aware of would be too lazy to attempt this.

Is there any particular era or album, not that you want to pick a favorite, but is there any you see as very significant in your career?

Ron: I think that the Lil’ Beethoven album, whatever that period would be called.

Russell: That would be the Lil’ Beethoven period.

Ron: The Lil’ Beethoven period, as it is known in musical history, is something we’re really proud of. It was a way to kind of reinvent ourselves and figure out if maybe the traditional drums, bass and guitars that were propelling rock music could be replaced by, not sappy or saccharine strings, but really percussive and driving and edgy strings and also having vocals that were repetitive and really pushing, being the elements moving the songs along. So we started with that approach and without any songs. We had scrapped all the songs we had written in a more traditional way, so we’re really proud of that album. Having hung around Tony Visconti’s work for so long, he is a such a brilliant orchestrator, we don’t put ourselves in that class, but we know how to achieve the effects that we want to achieve within what we’re doing, and some of that obviously had to rub off.

When you see old clips of you guys on American Bandstand, it seemed like Dick Clark genuinely loved having you on the show. Was that your first national TV appearance?

Ron: Yeah I believe it was. It was kind of amazing of him because it was always, “Here they are playing their new hit single,” but at that time they weren’t hit singles. You just always kind of thought of him as being Mr. Squaresville, but there was something about us that he really found appealing, and he had us on several times. It definitely wasn’t for commercial reasons. He was a like a really genuine person and went along. You know, most people have trouble when you kind of go off of what they’re comfortable doing, but we would sometimes throw him a curve and he was able to adapt to those things and it didn’t make him mad. He seemed to really enjoy that. It was great being on his show, and the show meant so much to us as we’d grown up, you know, American Bandstand was such an institution, and for us to actually be on American Bandstand was unbelievable.

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Next: Our Review of 'Hippopotamus'

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