For nearly 50 years Sparks have been one of pop music’s biggest conundrums. If you’re way out of the loop the LA duo are a one-hit wonder, but they’ve had over 20 albums since their 1974 hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us.
Since then, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have gone glam rock and art-rock, synthpop and disco, new wave and metal, dabbling in minimal composition, opera, Vaudeville show tunes and the odd waltz.
They’ve collaborated with Erasure, Faith No More, Giorgio Moroder, Orbital and Franz Ferdinand, going through as many band members as The Fall. They’ve just written the musical Annette starring Adam Driver and Michelle Williams, with French director Leos Carax – who also sings on their new album in a song called When You’re a French Director. The pair are an inseparable work of performance art with a relentless sense of the absurd.
The Maels’ 24th album Hippopotamus is out today, and while many of their previous records are genre exercises – even half-inventing the synthpop duo in 1979 with Giorgio Moroder on No1 In Heaven – this one has all of the above, all their best bits crammed into an avant-garde pop triumph.
“We wanted to do an album that would excite someone with no knowledge of the band as much as a fan who discovered us in one of our earlier periods,” says Russell over the phone. “We wanted a distillation of everything that is Sparks, something really modern and vital, and something really striking for 2017.”
I catch Russell when he’s in London at the end of a press blitz that included a slot on uber-fan Jonathan Ross’s BBC Radio Two show. He admits he’s “just a little bit” tired but he’s on form — the reviews have been piling in and all thumbs are up.
Unusually for Sparks, the last decade has been full of nostalgia – aside from their opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, commissioned by Swedish state radio, and their joyous collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS.
They curated an 81-track box set and published a book of Ron’s select lyrics, to coincide with their Two Hands One Mouth tour – reworking their back catalogue for keyboard and no backing band. In 2008 they took on a high-wire project bordering on insanity when they booked a 21-night residency in London, performing each of their album chronologically, including the premiere of Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
That nostalgia is in the past for now, as they’re “incredibly proud” of the new album and they’re in the middle of their first Sparks full band tour this decade.
Still, Russell says the “21-night thing” had to be done, to get it out of the way: “We thought, ‘Well what can we do as Sparks that no band has ever done, that no band would be able to do, and that no band would wanna do? We came up with that concept and it was looking back in a certain way, but it also led to the presentation of the brand new album, so it had a purpose beyond just looking backwards. We’re of the mindset that a band should always be proud of what they’re doing now.”
In 1994 Sparks released the single Now That I Own the BBC, and the Beeb has been a constant in their career. Their first Top of the Pops performance in 1974 sealed the deal, with Russell prancing in a jumpsuit and besuited Ron giving the side eye to the camera in his toothbrush moustache, leading to reports of John Lennon shouting, “Christ, they’ve got Hitler on the telly!”
The Maels chose the BBC 6 Music festival in Glasgow in March to introduce four new songs, including What the Hell is it This Time?, a song about an overworked God who’s sick of minions praying to him for the small things. Normally when veteran bands play ‘the new stuff’ it’s a cue for a piss or a pint, and if the Rolling Stones played four new songs in an hour-long set they’d be bottled off the stage.
Glasgow was all over the new songs though, chanting the choruses and hollering when Russell introduced another exclusive.
“Yeah, we were really happy with the 6 Music show, you always have a little bit of trepidation when the album hasn’t been out,” he says. “But Sparks fans really like the fact that we’ll always surprise them – that’s part of the essence of being a Sparks fan, you hopefully go along for the ride wherever it might take you… they do indulge us in that sort of way.”
One of the great indulgences for Sparks fans are their song titles, always a giddy shortcut into their unique world. They’ve a deep well of classic (Lighten Up Morrissey; I Married Myself; The Ghost of Liberace; Pretending To Be Drunk; What Are All These Bands So Angry About?), but of their nearly 300 songs, the new LP may have their greatest title: So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?
Ron writes all Sparks’ lyrics and song titles as well as the music, so Russell also gets these pleasant surprises as well as the fans, when his brother hands him words that defy all pop conventions, be it unlikely premises, cluttered lines and couplets, or high notes that’ll strain even Russell’s famous falsetto.
“I’m always happy to hear and read something new from Ron,” he says. “He writes them and there’s usually not any debate at all, maybe minor things get revised.
“Ron takes a lot of pride in coming up with really interesting subject matters and ways to see things… we just like having something that’s striking and provocative, and not some cliched or middle of the road lyrics.
“And live, we’ve got tonnes of new lyrics and very few instrumental passages to get a breather, so it’s a real workout and takes a lot of focus, but I’m always up for the challenge.”
Russell uses the word ‘challenge’ often, when other singers may think downright impossible. Even Faith No More’s Mike Patton, with his six-octave range, couldn’t hit the final killer note in the 1997 Sparks/FNM revisit of This Town…
Surely some of these more “challenging” works — and the fact that Ron and Russell are two brothers who’ve been in a band since 1968 — must lead to serious ructions in the studio?
“No, no no, not at all,” Russell says immediately. “That’s part of the reason why we’ve continued to make music for this long… we both get along well and see eye to eye on most matters in the studio. So we manage to coexist, we both have a similar mission in mind of what Sparks should be.
“I know it’s a pretty unique situation but that’s how we’re coming up with albums that are still really strong in this period in our career. It is true, most bands, brothers or no brothers, don’t last as long as Sparks, so we’re really proud of that.”
Among Sparks’ high-concept song subjects and dazzling wit, you’re occasionally hit by a disarmingly honest line or sentiment, it’s not all arched eyebrows and literary pats on the back. It could be a melancholy yearning, as in the song When Do I get to Sing My Way? or in their French No1 When I’m With You, the crushingly naive line, “I never feel like garbage when I’m with you / I almost feel normal when I’m with you.”
Hippopotamus has a few of these melancholy sidesteps. Probably Nothing masquerades as a play on forgetfulness and banal arguments, but hints at a couple’s crippling inertia and creeping dementia; I Wish You Were Fun echoes a million humdrum relationships with the line, “In many ways I find you amazing, but I wish you were fun.”
And the song Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) may seem like a breezy tribute to the iconic French singer, with it’s nod to Je ne Regrette Rien, but it’s a first-person lament by a man whose life’s been so uneventful that he hasn’t done anything interesting enough to regret (“Need a sentence at most, when assessing my life.”)
“I’m glad that that emotion comes across, because there is something melancholy in these songs,” Russell says.
“We always appreciate it when the emotional quality of the material does get through to the listener… I think it’s only the people who give us a casual listen and don’t really have that much of an investment in the band, they kinda think the songs are lightweight and that the humorous side is all there is.
“Of course we have a humorous element but our songs also have a flipside that’s a bit deeper with an emotional side, especially on Edith Piaf.”
Anyone struggling to find subtext in the title track will be at it for a long time though, tangled up in the most brazen rhyming couplets that would make a tabloid journo blush.
Aside from the staccato lines bemoaning “a hippopotamus in my pool”, the protagonist notices a “painting by Hieronymus”, a “Volkswagen microbus”, “a woman with an abacus” and “Titus Andronicus… wearing a snorkel in my pool”.
Russell laughs, saying: “We’ve been asked a lot, ‘Is the hippo a metaphor?’ No, it’s not a metaphor for something. It’s a short little story about a guy who finds a hippopotamus in his swimming pool. And he finds other things in his swimming pool too. So you don’t need to reach into it much more, it’s exactly what it is, you don’t have to try so hard to get it!”
On the new album Sparks sing about Scandinavian Design, praise conventional sex on Missionary Position and ponder Life With the Macbeths. Previously they’ve concocted songs from a telephone hold message, a love letter to a Martian and a list of designer perfumes. It often seems the starting points are infinite.
But besides an oblique swipe at Bush on 2006’s (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?, politics is off the table, even as the world nosedives around us.
“Well, we just feel that people should be able to gather our political stance just by the nature of how we are,” Russell says. “It’s just too easy and too specific to speak about it now, it’s just an easy target – doing metaphors about the political climate is just not our thing. I mean, we do have strong viewpoints but we don’t like to channel that through the music… you can just guess, really.”
They mightn’t be able to avoid politics if one of their dream collaborations follows through. Sparks’ recent Spotify playlist for BBC 6 Music’s Sunday Service had some usual suspects like Miles Davis, Little Richard and The Beach Boys – along with serious outliers like Einsturzende Neubauten, Rammstein and Babymetal (“The first album is really striking”).
Public Enemy’s 911 Is a Joke makes an appearance, and it leads to a head-spinning fantasy team-up idea, with Russell revealing: “Yeah we’re big fans of Public Enemy and Chuck D. We spoke with him at a festival we both played at with FFS a few years ago, we broached the topic and he was intrigued. We don’t know if it will ever come to fruition, but it would be something pretty special I think, it’s something we have in the back of our minds.”
At the minute, though, Hippopotamus is the only thing on their minds, and in their pool.
“Our plate is pretty full at the moment, so this is what we’re doing,” Russell says. “But you never know what might come along at any point. So we’ll see…”
- Hippopotamus is out today. Enter Ron & Russell’s world at allsparks.com
Published in Irish Daily Star