2 brothers, 23 albums, 50 years of freedom
“There’s a lot of love in the air,” says Sparks’ Russell Mael, referring to the band’s recent run of emphatically received shows. In fact, their early evening day one Primavera set was an enduring highlight of the festival; one that was loaded with idiosyncratic charm, oddball theatrics, pink suits, soaring vocals, glistening pop and euphoric disco. Watching Mael and his brother Ron on stage – Russell shooting up and down the stage manically and Ron sitting generally motionless looking like a disgruntled accountant behind his keyboard – it’s hard to believe they have been doing this for fifty years. And they’ve crammed 23 albums into that half-century period. “The Primavera show was really exceptional,” Russell adds, looking back. For Ron, playing festivals has factored into Sparks’ on-going modus operandi: constant evolution. “We’re really happy that it’s working in festivals because the people that come to our shows are pretty die hard, by and large, but with festivals you’re playing to the unconverted a lot of the time, or a younger audience. That is something that matters strongly to us – we want to go beyond people that are just the usual fanatics.”
The brothers began performing together under Halfnelson in 1968. One of their first recordings was a song called ‘Computer Girl’ that the pair remembers being recorded in one of those pay-by-the-hour places where you get a finished vinyl copy of the song at the end. Growing up in L.A., they were exposed to the late 1960s boom of music that played out on Sunset Strip, with groups like The Doors and Love becoming local staples. However, it was the British invasion that caught the band’s ear and they became self-described Anglophiles. Their 1971 debut, produced by Todd Rundgren, touched upon the stomp of T-Rex and the strut and melody of many of the groups from that era such as The Kinks. However, what followed soon became the defining sonic characteristic of Sparks: reinvention.
By 1974 they’d released their third record, ‘Kimono My House’, which contained the hit single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’; a bonkers piece of pop music so unique in structure, layering and ambition that it was arguably something of a precursor to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There’s even a longstanding rumour (some suggest that was perpetuated by the band itself) that Elton John placed a bet with producer Muff Winwood that the track couldn’t break the top 5, given its oddness. It charted at number 2 in the UK.
By 1979 the British fascination had melted away and Sparks collaborated with electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder for a truly staggering record in ‘No.1 In Heaven’, one that vibrates with pulsating synthesizers, disco rhythms and Russell’s typical falsetto vocals to create a landmark record of the disco era and one that sounds like another band from the one that existed only five years prior. Vastly different records followed, some more successful than others. Their self-described “career-defining opus” ‘Lil Beethoven’ arrived in 2002, and in 2015 they collaborated with Franz Ferdinand on the project FFS.
Perhaps most against the grain of all, though, is how in 2017 Sparks managed to release one of their finest works to date. The ‘Hippopotamus’ LP is a beautifully unique, unpredictable, yet succulent and intoxicating pop record. Reflecting on fifty years of doing this, the pair remain vehemently anti-nostalgia.
“Obviously we don’t reject what we’ve done in the past,” begins Ron. “We embrace all that, but as far as what we’re doing, we are constantly trying to start from zero every time. As far as we can, we reinvent ourselves every time. We’re always trying to excite ourselves with what we’re doing in the hope that whatever is interesting to us will also translate to other people. We’re lucky that a lot of fans of Sparks don’t want re-hashes of what’s gone on in the past from us, they want something that is going to surprise them.”
By ingraining constant stylistic overhauls into their core philosophy, the brothers have created a loyal and cult fan base that doesn’t just hope for huge change from record to record, they demand it. This can become challenging so many years in, admit the pair. “It gets harder and harder,” Russell says. “You’ve been down so many different routes and avenues over the years that finding a new one becomes harder. We try and find new ways to write along the way. You have to avoid falling into old habits.”
However, releasing an album for them isn’t just a Rolling Stones job of dumping out any old shit once every few years just to keep things ticking along. They have to be defining pieces of work over and over again. Sparks have high standards and demands of themselves, as Ron Explains when he says, “A lot of bands that have been around as long as us often release obligatory albums just as an excuse to tour, and for us it’s the opposite. We want to do something strong enough, musically, so that we’re able to present a lot of new material live within the context of older material. We like to feature a lot of the new stuff. So the record to us is the basis of what we’re doing – the touring is an extra affair.”
Russell even tells me that fifty years in, two thirds of their own lifetimes on this planet, they are still crippled with fear and insecurity when they approach new work. “I think it’s good to be insecure about what you’re doing,” he says, “because that means you’re then trying to do something way beyond what you think is necessary. We’re always trying to prove ourselves every single time in an artistic and commercial sense. People can take us for granted because we have been around for so long, like, ‘oh it’s Sparks again’ and we have to prove ourselves every time.”
But whilst Sparks are not nostalgic, they are from a time and place in the music industry in which battling it out with fellow major pop stars was part of the game and as we talk about their slightly ambivalent feelings towards a lot of contemporary pop I suggest they appear to be missing the competitive element from the old days. “Oh yeah,” says Ron without hesitation. “I hate to hark back but when we were on Island Records in the ’70s and you had groups like Roxy Music, you would hear them and you would feel kind of threatened but it would be a good type of threatened. You’d realise it was good stuff, so you’d have that feeling of wanting to surpass somebody else. We find less of that now.”
As a result, the band feel like they have to push themselves forward through inner pressure now rather than exterior pressure from other pop groups. “I don’t get the same kick out of other bands as much as I used to,” Ron says. “I can’t determine whether that’s the fault of other bands or whether it’s me getting bored of things but it was more fun for us when we felt pushed by what other bands were doing. So the motivation comes more from ourselves. We need to make music for ourselves that we feel nobody else is making now. That’s what pushes us, it’s more an internal thing rather than being pushed by inspiration from other sources.”
The group have remained an undeniable cult phenomenon, minus the odd commercial and mainstream crossover single, but as a group who have continually been releasing records since 1971, moving their deeply unique take on theatrical pop through huge cultural and taste shifts, there must have been some moments when they felt so out of step with what was going on? “There was a time when punk stuff was coming in,” Russell says. “Like the Sex Pistols and stuff, and we loved them but we did wonder about feeling relevant at that time. When we did the ‘No. 1 In Heaven’ album, that was really not fitting in in any kind of way. You didn’t really know how to fit into that kind of world. Although strangely we became friends with Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and was surprised to learn he loved things like ‘Beat the Clock’ from that album. It was flattering to know they were listening to it. So I guess sometimes when you do feel out of place, maybe what you’re doing actually isn’t as out of place as you may think.”
Speaking of feeling flattered, you don’t have to look far to see Sparks’ influence on a great deal of contemporary music over the years. They’ve had an obvious impact on the electronic pop of the 1980s, with fans such as New Order, Depeche Mode, The Human League and Erasure all making their love for the band known. However, they’ve also spread into stranger corners, with the likes of Bjork, Kurt Cobain and Thurston Moore expressing a deep love for them. When asked about this influence, Ron and Russell seem to be humbled by the love but mildly frustrated when it turns to emulation. “There’s an ambivalence to how we deal with that,” Ron says. “Obviously you’re happy that something you’re doing is something somebody else thinks is special enough to grab a hold of in a small way for them. But when those bands become commercially successful and you hear large elements of what you’ve done in that, to be honest there is a certain amount of jealousy about that. We try and shove that aside. You just move on, you don’t fixate on that too much and become bitter and paralysed.”
Across fifty years, the shifts that have taken place in the music industry are so vast that it is an unrecognisable landscape to when Sparks started. When I talk to Ron and Russell about this they seem indifferent to it, perhaps due to their rejection of nostalgia. Russell says: “One of the reasons we remain being vital, in our minds, is that we really don’t care all that much about those industry shifts. In the end you have to do something really strong, musically. Those other things have an importance but at the end of the day you’re an artist who is doing music and the distribution and digital versus whatever… it’s kind of not that important for us as musicians. I think it’s a distraction for people to be all up in arms about. There’s downsides to the system now in terms of people not buying as much and people using Spotify, but in the end that stuff is less important than what you’re doing creatively. It’s a lot harder to do good music than it is to moan about how inequitable the system is.”
“But we’re really fortunate,” admits Ron, “because if we were coming up now there’s no way we’d have more than one album. It didn’t matter for us on the first couple of albums if they only sold five thousand copies – [the label etc.] would stick with us and we are appreciative of those people. Now everybody has to do very well very quickly or your opportunity is gone and the next person is moving in.”
Russell chips in, offering a thought that he wishes their music could be judged and consumed without their own history, imagining how Sparks truly would be received in this era. “There are a lot of times that I think if we were judged solely on the music and not also on the fact that we do have a history, that we might be embraced more strongly in a commercial sense,” he says. “I don’t think our music sounds like it comes from somebody who has a long history, necessarily. In a larger and more commercial sense it makes it more difficult for us, so in a way we wish we could see what would happen if we were a new band presenting the ‘Hippopotamus’ album for the first time.”
The future, as you may well expect, is completely wide-open for Sparks. There’s even talk of a movie musical with French director Leos Carax. “What we do is expansive enough in its scope to be used in ways that aren’t just necessarily three or four minute pop songs,” Ron says. “We’re going to continue to see how far we can push Sparks.”
Photography by: Elaine Stocki