an interview with SPARKS

In their 40 years of existence as a band they have been called eccentric more times than Dali waxed his moustache. Though born in the USA – a country of which irony is thought to be a foreign concept – they possess humour, idiosyncrasy and a cerebral approach to music that has made them a cult group for all those who appreciate brains and originality baked in their musical soufflé.
As Sparks, Ron and Russell have navigated the murky waters of pop music since 1972 – sometimes winning, sometimes losing and occasionally capsizing.
Ron Mael plays keyboards and writes lyrics that favour caustic wit over personal problems. Musically, his tunes have covered the gamut from trivial chart pop to crunching rock to futuristic techno disco. Visually, Ron prefers neckties and a quiet menacing glare rather than rock n roll excess, though he did accidentally knock over his keyboard bench and break it on one occasion.
Russell Mael doesn’t merely sing, he wraps his rollercoaster falsetto over his brother’s impossible lyrics and rides the track. He has the voice of an angel sentenced to earth for poking fun at God. Russell has sung songs, written by Ron, from the point of view of sperm, Mickey Mouse, suicidal supermodels, Liberace and a faded opera star.
Ron and Russell are the classic case of underappreciated overachievers. If the advancement of pop music was a human-rights issue they’d have been swamped with honorary doctorates, Amnesty International accolades and a series of Nobel prizes.
Sparks were at the forefront of glam rock, kick-started new wave, reinvigorated disco music and inspired artists as disparate as Fear, Depeche Mode, Devo, The Ramones, New Order, and Barbara Streisand. They are also directly responsible for Björk and Morrissey deciding that music was the path in life that they wanted to follow.
Sparks’ almost arrogant disregard of trends may have gotten them pretty much ostracized by the music business in America, but it has made for an oddly reassuring agelessness in their work. Practically everything they have recorded in the past 40 years sounds as if it could have been released at any point within those four decades.
there are very few bands in music who have had ‘legendary’ status conferred on them who are actually still innovative and worth going to see in concert – Sparks are most certainly one. But, since the 1980’s, Sparks approach to touring their music has been simply that they would do it when they felt like it. They haven’t often felt like it – mainly due to their reluctance to leave Los Angeles (also home to close neighbour and friend Nancy Sinatra and, once, Morrissey), though in 2008 they undertook the astonishing feat of playing each of their 21 albums in full, and in chronological order, over 21 nights in London.
Since then there have been sporadic gigs and mini-tours with various other musicians in support of the brothers but, this year, Sparks have decided to go back to basics and are presenting a series of stripped-down dates featuring just Ron (with keyboards) and Russell (with voice) – including five in the UK.
In advance of the tour, Russell answered a few questions for The Mouth Magazine.

When Sparks started was there any desire for commercial success? The first two albums – particularly HALFNELSON, which still seems very strange – suggest a yearning to be more ‘out there’…
We never seek to be ‘out there’. We do what we do and what we know. To some that may be ‘out there’. To us it’s ‘in there’.

In the 1970s you had that run of wonderful albums (KIMONO MY HOUSE, PROPAGANDA, INDISCREET) that built you a strong following, but not the global superstardom you probably merited. Was that a disappointment?
Every artist wants to be loved, no matter what they might say. We’ve always felt that there can be love on one’s own terms. And there has been. We’ve always played exactly what has excited us – and in doing so, we feel that there will always be a public that will share our vision.

I’ve always thought that Sparks followed their own musical trajectory and that it occasionally crossed over with mainstream musical appeal – mainly in the first half of the 1970s but also at the end of that decade with the NO.1 IN HEAVEN album. Do you ever feel influenced by current musical trends or do you work in splendid isolation?
We work in our own isolated universe. Unexpectedly, sometimes that isolated universe meets up with the other universe. Often there are outside circumstances that influence those two worlds connecting. It’s out of our hands. We’ve been fortunate that even without musically compromising, we’ve managed to occasionally have commercial success.

Do you feel that you’ve not been given the appropriate credit for effectively inventing the template for any number of singer / keyboard duos that have followed on over the last three plus decades (eg. Soft Cell, Erasure, The Associates, Pet Shop Boys)?
Well, you’ve just credited that influence… So it does happen. Many of those bands have told us that as well…

Has it ever occurred to you that your strong UK following is due in no small part to the British love of eccentricity and irony?
Yes… There’s always been a strong bond between Sparks and the UK. I think that the British embrace eccentricity…

… so do you feel that audiences in the US have never quite got where you are coming from?
The British embrace eccentricity more often than our fellow Americans, but in Sparks case things are starting to level out throughout the world and our body of work is now as appreciated in America and Japan as it is in the UK. At least by those who are at all serious about music.

How did your friendship with Morrissey come about? Do you share common interests, perhaps bridge or croquet?
There has been a long, ongoing mutual admiration society between Morrissey and Sparks. Letters of admiration were initially exchanged, but our interests don’t comprise bridge or croquet. We appreciate each other’s musical abilities and personae. Ron Mael and Morrissey – two great lyricists.

What are the chances of a Sparks / Morrissey collaboration? An album of you and Morrissey sharing vocals, and Ron orchestrating the music, would be fantastic…
We would love for that to happen. We broached the issue years ago, but the timing wasn’t right. Maybe something will happen one day. I agree with you that it would be a great album, me sharing vocal duties with Morrissey, while Ron orchestrates. Bring it on.

Sparks have been self-producing their music for many years. Do you not feel the urge to have some outside influence – or do you think that you know what you want so well that no-one else can be of assistance? 
We have worked with some great producers, from Todd Rundgren, to Tony Visconti, to Muff Winwood, to Giorgio Moroder. We’ve learned a lot after 22 albums. We enjoy the luxury of not having to answer to anyone but ourselves. We feel our music continues to advance and continues to be provocative as a result.

Your upcoming TWO HANDS, ONE MOUTH tour will present Sparks naked, musically speaking. Have you got any reservations about appearing without the security of a full band?
We love playing in a band, but we always like new challenges and ways to place our music.

Do you think performing this way will show the older songs in a new light?
Initially, we didn’t know how we’d feel doing a tour with just the two of us, sans band. But the experience has been a great challenge, and it does present the songs in a pure form where Ron’s lyrics and melodies can shine and my vocals can come to the fore. The TWO HANDS, ONE MOUTH format gives us a new avenue and gives our fans a new way to hear our music. We’re excited about the tour…

{ Interview by PS}