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Thomas Hasson , October 15th, 2012 11:21

We catch up with the Mael brothers ahead of their new tour, which will see them set out without a band for the first time

“We didn’t want it to be really disjointed so one thing goes to another thing and musically it kind of works that way. We didn’t do the setlist so it just goes fast, slow, fast, slow,” says the keyboard-playing half of Sparks, Ron Mael. “We wanted it to have more of a formality about it, as opposed to having something casual about it. So it’s more of a song recital rather than ‘an intimate evening with Sparks’.”

The Mael brothers are talking to me about their upcoming ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour, the preview for which was held last June in London and was described by Emily Bick as "a feat of stamina and courage and brilliance". This tour marks the first time in Sparks’ 40-year career that the brothers will tour simply as a duo. No band, no computers. Just two hands and one mouth (and a keyboard and a microphone).

The band’s last tour of the UK, in 2008, saw the 21-night 'Sparks Spectacular' in London, where they played each of their 21 albums (at the time) in chronological order, one per night. Since then the band have released only one album, 2009’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, a pop musical based on an imagined visit to Hollywood by the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman.

And now, as Sparks are heading out across Europe on their ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour (dates below), they discuss their upcoming shows, new music and maintaining the ‘Sparks persona’.

Sun 21 - HMV Picture House, Edinburgh
Mon 22 - HMV Ritz, Manchester
Tue 23 - HMV Institute, Birmingham
Thu 25 - Concert Hall, Brighton
Fri 26 - Barbican, London
Mon 29 - The Button Factory, Dublin

The press release for the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour says that you’ll ‘deconstruct and reinterpret songs’ from your back catalogue. What was the process behind this?

Ron Mael: The biggest process is just figuring out how to play the songs without a band, just a keyboard. But also not to do them in a singer-songwriter sort of way. We didn’t want to make them mellow, "here’s another song I wrote in 1987..." sort of thing. We wanted them to still be aggressive. Figuring out which songs would work with just a keyboard and singing. And also figuring out keyboard parts. I couldn’t play the keyboard parts that I normally play. It needed to be something more.


Ron M: I tend to hide, you know? And also a lot of the times the things I play are syncopated in some ways and other ways kind of strict. So sometimes I’d have to figure things out that were more off the rhythm so I wasn’t just chopping the whole time. It’s hard to explain.

Russell Mael: There’s a connotation with some people we’ve met who go, "oh, you’re doing an acoustic tour." And for us it’s not acoustic in the pejorative sense. Acoustic sounds pejorative. And the idea of a singer-songwriter, baring their soul in that sort of way... and as he was explaining, we wanted to keep the intensity of what Sparks is, and the thrust and personality of it, but figure it out with only two people.

Ron M: A lot of times people think of what we do as more of a style as opposed to songs, so I think maybe this is a way to show that even though they’re not necessarily traditional songs, they’re definitely songs.

Is this way of performing closer to how you write songs anyway? Before they take shape with a full band?

Ron M: There’s kind of three ways for the writing. Some of the stuff is written on the keyboard where the keyboard part becomes the singing. So it becomes kind of a song that’s not as natural to sing, but I like that. And some of the stuff is done where - and I’m not a singer but just for the writing I am a singer - where I sing to some sort of part, then [Russell] sings it. We don’t really use a band until there’s that basic structure. We’ve been really fortunate through the years because we really like musicianship, but it takes a certain kind of musicianship to play what we do. And we’re fortunate that the people who have been in our bands share our sensibilities.

Russell M: I guess the third way of that is sometimes going into the studio at my place in L.A., the Lil’ Beethoven album is the best example, where there wasn’t a lot of pre-written material, where we tried and just kind of winging it came up with alternate forms of doing songs where it’s not just verses and choruses and middle eights that are predictable. It took close to two years to record that album because we kept searching for something that we didn’t know what we were searching for. But we found it.

Going back to the press release, have any of your lyrics been reinterpreted or deconstructed for this tour or do those words refer solely to the music?

Russell M: I guess they’re the same lyrics but it forces the listener to maybe hear things in a different way because there is just the voice and the keyboard. I think in a lot of our recordings the lyrics kind of get buried in the sonic overload that we tend to like sometimes. And a lot of times it’s harder to understand the lyrics, but now with the tour it’ll be easier to hear the lyrics because they’re pretty prominent.

Are there any songs from your back catalogue that you found did not translate to the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ format?

Ron M: There’s a song, ‘When I’m With You’, which was really big in France, and we wanted to do that one because it’s known in some places, but we couldn’t make it work. There’s something about it rhythmically that just didn’t work.

Russell M: The opposite was ‘The Rhythm Thief’ song from Lil’ Beethoven. We thought there’s no way we can do it in this format because it’s so multi-layered on the recording and dense with vocals. But [Ron] kind of figured out a way to do the song. So some of the ones we thought wouldn’t work in this format ended up working after all.

Were there any new songs written for the tour?

Russell M: There actually is one song called ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ that we thought would be fitting, and we’re going to end the show with it as a sort of recap of what you the listener has heard. It has a lyric that says, "two hands, one mouth / That’s all I need to satisfy you". So you can take that as either referring to what you’ve heard this evening or, in a relationship.

Ron M: Depending on how dirty your mind is.

Any plans to release it?

Russell M: Actually there is, available on the tour will be a vinyl-only, 10” picture disc.

You debuted the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour back in June at Bush Hall in London. Why debut the show in London?

Russell M: Well England, and Great Britain in general, has sort of been this place that really embraced Sparks. We’re from L.A. and we moved here in the ‘70s and there was this instant reaction to what we were doing that we didn’t get in L.A. In L.A. people thought we were very esoteric and didn’t fit in. But when we came to Great Britain and we were on TV, maybe people still didn’t know where it fit in, but they accepted it and embraced that quality. That it didn’t fit in was one of its strengths. So there’s always been this kinship with London, England in general, but London in particular. So we thought we’d launch it there.

The show was described by some reviewers as being ‘brave’ for doing away with the band and performing your hits simply as a duo. Do you see what you’ve done as brave?

Russell M: In a certain way, yes. Y’know, we’ve done 22 albums now and have never done that. I don’t think it’s even crossed our mind to try and do that. You’re supposed to be a band, that’s what we’ve always been. Even [during] the more electronic periods. So No. 1 In Heaven, we were a duo then but were sort of also reliant on mounds of sequencers and synths and stuff. And there was rhythmic tracks going along with that even though it was just two people. But this is the first time that we ever considered just dispensing with everything. There’s nothing on computer on this tour. People think it’s going to be like that period of Sparks where they could see a duo going out but could also see loads of computer stuff, that sort of thing. But it’s not that either so in a certain way it was something that was a little bit courageous to attempt to see if we would pull it off without a band and without computers either to enhance the sound. So if someone says we were brave, we take it as a compliment.

Most of the venues you’ll be performing in for the tour are all of a similar size but they are also similar in their decor and structure - why did you choose venues like The Barbican and Brighton Dome over larger but maybe soulless venues, or small, CBGB-style venues?

Russell M: One in particular we wanted to get right was the London one. We’d never played there before and the cache it has of being a cultural venue where there’s operas and ballets and films and that sort of thing, that in a general way was appealing. It reads differently than just "here they are in a rock venue". Maybe sometimes there are places that don’t exactly fit that mould, but even the place in Sweden we’re playing, it’s a really beautiful theatre that looks like a little opera house. So the setting is really right for this thing, where it is in another context where it’s a little less rock, where it has a little less ‘rock cooties’ on it.

Have you felt pressure to maintain the Sparks personas of Ron as the straight man and Russell as the more flamboyant of the two?

Ron M: It comes naturally. It’s accentuated when we go on stage but I don’t think either of us could really switch roles for very long. Because it’s pretty much how we are, but maybe exaggerated. When we first started I tried to fit in with everybody else in the band, jumping around, but it didn’t sit right. So I just kind of went more stoic and it attracted attention in this weird way where I was getting as much attention as those who were flailing about on stage, so I thought, "well, why not?"

But we didn’t have a band meeting to decide which individual personas we were going to be. It was just natural. Also it doesn’t feel like "here we go again", every time we go on stage. To be honest, doing the show this way I have to concentrate a little more on actually playing than I would normally do. So there might be less eye contact but that’s kind of the only real difference. I’m not used to having to be so exposed. It’s pretty nerve-wracking in some ways, to be that naked, at least from my end. The singing is always exposed anyway but I kind of fit in with the other instruments so maybe it loses some of that aspect. It’s natural now and it’s not painful.