The Mael brothers on their two new films, new album, and 50 years of being slightly misunderstood
Sometimes, we take on unconscious beliefs about music without really thinking, like the idea that serious, clever music is made by serious, clever people who look an awful lot like they mean it. We all like Nick Cave, but it’s important not to let these misunderstandings last a lifetime, or lead us to a place where we look at a band like Sparks and use words like ‘arch’ or ‘kooky’, when really we should be acknowledging that Ron Mael has been one of the most inventive and insightful narrative songwriters of the pop era.
Sparks – Ron and his brother, Russell – arrived in Britain at the high point of glam rock, as it was shifting from its initial, stomping rock’n’roll phase to something a little more refined. Like Queen, they used glam rock as an open door to access something entirely separate. Unlike Queen, it’s the year 2020 and Sparks continue to make work as vital and as stellar as at any time in their career. A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, continues something of a late career purple patch for the group, one which began with their Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, continued with 2017’s top 10 Hippopotamus, and looks set to be cemented by the release of not one but two films still scheduled for release in the coming year: a documentary directed by Edgar Wright, and a musical starring Adam Driver.
How are you both doing, how are you finding the present moment?
Ron: Strange, strange. Obviously just like everybody else you don’t even know what’s happening really. I’m jealous of the people you see who say it’s given them an opportunity to read all of these books and paint things because I’m kind of in more of a daze than being able to be motivated and do too much. I’m trying.
Russell: Just trying to be as productive as possible. We’ve been doing some videos and stuff to keep ourselves occupied, we’re still abiding by our self-isolating rules but did a video as well as one can without being together in the same room – that’s for the song ‘Lawnmower’.
A lot of very established artists in your position have delayed upcoming releases at the moment, whereas you have kept to your original schedule regardless – which I think is quite gracious. What was your thinking behind this?
Ron: Not to try to sound like a good person or anything, but it just seems like it’s not the right thing to do, to delay the streaming version of the album. The physical date had to be delayed, but we thought that it was too much of a business decision to be delaying the streaming of the music that we wanted to come out. Delaying it for a marketing decision to keep everything tidy, it just didn’t sit well with us. So there’s the release of the beautiful objects later, and there’s the release of the beautiful objects in your head as you’re listening to it.
Something you’ve done before, that you do on this album, is take a historical figure – Ingmar Bergman before, Stravinsky in this case – and place them in a fictional setting. How much biographical research do you actually do?
Ron: [Laughs] Well, probably none. No, in the case of both Bergman and Stravinsky I knew enough about them that it wasn’t totally just choosing a name and hoping it was applicable, but neither of them were heavily researched. I’m really familiar with a lot of their work, in film with Bergman or music with Stravinsky, and even the fact that Stravinsky moved to Los Angeles, he lived about fifteen minutes away from where I’m speaking to you now, so it’s bizarre in that sense. I enjoy taking a figure that’s historically important and is known in a very serious way and putting them in a fantasy situation. Whether it’s with Bergman coming to Hollywood, where he’s seduced by Hollywood, or in ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’, it seems as though it’s a personal choice that the fictional Stravinsky made to enter the pop world, and the surprising thing is that he really enjoys a lot of the perks of being a pop star.
It seems that, even before all of this, your writing was getting slightly more apocalyptic – on tracks like ‘The Existential Threat’ or ‘Please Don’t Fuck Up My World’, it seems like there was a bit more doom in Sparks’ world than normal…
Russell: ‘I’m Toast’ I would add in that section of songs that are more resonant now than at the time they were written. Obviously all of those issues and threats existed prior to the current situation, and they’ve sadly taken on an extra bit of relevance now. [Mock sighs] It’s Ron being again overly prescient in some of the subject matter – damn.
As a fan of Sparks, I’ve often found some of the discussion around Sparks being a little bit wide of the mark – yes, you use humour but you’re generally writing about the big questions of being alive that affect us all. I can relate more to the concerns in the song ‘iPhone’ than a lot of successful love songs…
Ron: The intention that you’re reading into our music is the intention, where the humour is there but there’s an undercurrent of something that isn’t so humorous, or is more poignant or emotional. The danger of using humour in pop songs is that there are people that sometimes only see that level, and people can take whatever they want from what you’re doing but we feel they’re missing the greater point of what we’re intending. The humour is there, but it’s… leading to something else.
You’re unlucky enough to be operating in two industries this year that have sort of shut down: the music industry and the film industry. Edgar Wright is obviously an incredibly innovative director so I’m curious about the kind of story he’s trying to tell about Sparks.
Russell: Edgar approached us after a concert in Los Angeles a few years back, introduced himself and said that he would really like to make a documentary on Sparks – would we be up for that? We’d been approached in the past and never felt that any director was the right person to be able to tell Sparks’ story with the same sensibility that we feel we have in our music.
If someone could translate that in a visual way, through a documentary that would maybe in the wrong hands be dry and maybe less than what the band actually represents to us. Edgar, through his passion for music in general and a real passion for Sparks and wanting to convey what we are to him, to spread the word about Sparks in a filmic way, he convinced us that it would be in the right hands. We didn’t need much convincing.
So for the past two years or so he’s been working on this, he followed us around the world to Japan, Mexico City, Los Angeles, London – not just concerts but us in various settings in those places. He’s gathered together an amazing amount of archive footage, a lot of stuff that’s not been seen, all different periods in our career. And other artists – be it musicians from a stylistically varied range of groups, or actors or writers who have all wanted to take part in the documentary. It’s really amazing that he’s able to gather these people to speak about the band, I think it will be quite surprising for people who know Sparks to see the varied amounts of well-known people speaking about the band.
The film is nearly finished – there’s a three-hour version, and Edgar’s trying to edit down a slightly shorter version too, but he feels that the long one is the one that has to be there. It needs that long to tell the whole story.
Ron: Whether it’s true or not, we like to think it’s true, Edgar believes that what we’re doing now musically is as strong as what we’ve ever done, and he wanted to convey that. There’s an incredible amount of archive footage in the film, but it’s also really up-to-date and shows what we’re doing now in relation to what we’ve done in the past. It was important to us that it not be a nostalgic thing, that it’s really comprehensive. And making music that matters.
I understand that Annette is also now finished too…
Russell: Fortunately everything was finished, the filming was completed at the end of last year, it’s going to be ready to go. We’re very excited about it, it’s an amazing and unique film, we were really lucky to have Adam Driver become involved in wanting to do the lead role in the film. To have not only a really great director – Leos Carax – wanting to do this, but to attract actors who want to be in a film that’s so unique and uncompromised stylistically, and how it approaches doing a musical. Both Adam and Marion Cotillard are amazing, that it’s all sung is pretty special for both of those – it’s a big leap to jump into something that’s not being done in a Broadway style, but in a pretty fresh approach to a musical.
I really loved the track ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ as part of your FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand; how smoothly did that collaboration work?
Ron: Musically it worked out really well – both bands obviously have such a strong identity and individual personalities, so each group had a kind of realisation that some control had to be given up to create something interesting from the combination of the two groups. It was a different situation for both bands, because they’re uncompromising in a Franz Ferdinand way in the same way that we are, that it’s pure. That was an understanding that we made, but the actual experience of recording and the subsequent touring was something really fantastic. It was, we felt, a moment in time that would not have the same effect maybe if we worked again, so we felt it was better to have it just be the one time.
Last year you reissued that absolute landmark 1979 album No. 1 in Heaven. In the early part of the ‘70s, your group kind of implicitly challenged a lot of rock – its machismo in particular – and then in the latter part of the ‘70s you really make that critique explicit by making this electronic disco record with Giorgio Moroder. Reading the interviews from around that time, you seemed really ideologically committed to guitars being passé.
Russell: At the time, what we said was something we were really meaning. We just thought that it was a real opportunity for us at that point to try working in a different kind of format for a pop band. Things didn’t necessarily have to be guitars, bass and drums. We heard ‘I Feel Love’ and thought, God, what if we were able to put Sparks in another musical context? Retaining our identity, my singing and Ron’s lyrics but in another framework?
We approached Giorgio, nobody knew what the outcome would be, he’d never worked with a band before. It was all trial and error, we went in not knowing what it would be like, what the outcome would be. We were all incredibly happy with the results, we like that album a lot too. It became a blueprint of sorts for other musicians who were listening to that album, to try to work in that format of being a duo. The more stoic keyboard players and the more outgoing lead singer, that whole blueprint was adopted by a lot of folks from that point on. For us, it was a really special experience – we’re still really good friends with Giorgio.
I saw a picture on Twitter of you both with Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, you can certainly draw a line from No. 1 in Heaven and a lot of what New Order were doing in the 1980s…
Russell: Since you saw that photo, without giving too much away, they’re in the Edgar Wright documentary speaking about exactly what you mentioned. They spoke about their love for Sparks and how they were listening to that album a lot. It’s great that bands of the order of New Order would speak out for Sparks and how much that album was influential in their whole career.
Ron: It felt very lonely at the time, it was seen by some people as a betrayal of the rock cause. We never saw it that way, we saw electronics as another tool or instrument. There weren’t other people working in that way, there was Kraftwerk but that was a different thing to what me and Giorgio were doing. To know that deep down there were others that responded, when at the time we felt like where is everybody, that’s quite special for us.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip by Sparks is out now via BMG.