Maelstrom! Sparks Interviewed

Jeremy Allen meets Ron and Russell Mael in Paris to talk Morrissey, Moroder, Tati, Adjani, Carax, Ronson and Rundgren, and to discover what it’s like to make music as siblings for nearly 50 years

Edith Piaf may have said it better than them, but Sparks regret nothing. Well maybe there was that time they missed out on starring roles in a movie with French comedy auteur Jacques Tati, or that other time when Mick Ronson joined their ranks but then went off on tour with Bob Dylan (more on those later). But on the whole, they’ve led a charmed career, breaking big in new regions around the world when other previously conquered territories had gone quiet – never spreading their genius too thinly – releasing 23 albums over nearly five decades that to my ears are unrivalled in diversity, vitality and creativity.

Now they’re back with Hippopotamus, the Mael brothers’ first band-orientated album in nine years (discounting FFS with Franz Ferdinand). Fans will delight in a cornucopia of songs about film, religion, art, sex, Piaf, Hieronymous Bosch and Scandinavian furniture, and newbies will have the enviable opportunity to work back through 22 other albums (Sparks always pick up new fans with each release). I meet them at a hotel just off the Palais Garnier in Paris, and despite it being 9am in the morning, they’re both dapper, convivial and on fine form. The fact they have a new album out in 2017 is a cause for celebration, but a meeting with Ron and Russell at this stage in their careers is too good an opportunity not to delve into at least some of their history. Writers often wheel out that old cliche about not needing an introduction for groups with such an illustrious history, and yet maybe Sparks do need one (not that this résumé will be in any way comprehensive). Certainly from my own experience and from the experience of others I’ve talked to, they’re a band the phrase “hiding in plain sight” could have been coined for had that phrase not taken on unwanted connotations of late.

It’s nearly half a century since Ron and Russell Mael started out as Halfnelson, attempting to imitate British beat bands with little success. A five piece back then, from the off they were as difficult to classify as they are now, and after a period of not being noticed it was thanks to interest from rock star Todd Rundgren – who produced their self-titled first album in 1971 (re-released as Sparks the following year) – that they got off the ground commercially. Although a fine followup, A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing failed to establish the Pacific Palisades-born band in the US, a tour of the UK helped garner them a cult following as well as an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, much to host “Whispering” Bob Harris’ chagrin.

The denuded Maels returned to Britain in 1973 and put an advert in Melody Maker in search of “beard-free and exciting” musicians. Their British purple passage ensued with Island Records during the heady days of Glam Rock, starting with their undisputed chef d’oeuvre Kimono My House, recorded with Muff Winwood and featuring the UK no.2 hit single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’. Other albums followed that didn’t do quite as well but were nearly as good, featuring two members of bovver rockers the Jook in the lineup, including Indiscreet with Tony Visconti who they’ve worked with several times since.

The band completely reinvigorated their sound when they collaborated with seminal Eurodisco deity Giorgio Moroder on No.1 In Heaven in 1979, upsetting the general consensus amongst rock journalists who believed that disco sucked. The following album Terminal Jive dived as a consequence, but they took off in France where the Maels became bona fide pop stars. This wouldn’t be the last time they’d tap into an unexpected wellspring of appreciation: support from KROQ on the West Coast of America throughout the 80s turned them into an alternative mainstay in the US, and they became pop stars in Germany for the first time in 1994 when ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ became a big hit there.

Although Sparks see themselves as a forward-looking duo, in 1997 they re-recorded a number of their own songs with acts as diverse as Faith No More and Erasure on Plagiarism, and in 2008 they played each of their albums over 21 nights in London, a feat that will take some beating. The 21st century has seen them reinvent their sound to many plaudits, especially on 2002’s Lil Beethoven, a hip-hoppy, neo-classical masterpiece that sounds like nothing else. For some, Sparks will always be the band with the guy with the Hitler moustache, or the band at the end of Morrissey’s fax machine, but they’ve been making incredibly varied and eye-poppingly brilliant pop music for 48 years now, with life-affirming songs that try to unpick what this living thing is all about in a smart, wryly forensic and yet somehow absurdist way. There have been many imitators but there is only one Sparks.

So, it’s 48 years you’ve been doing this together.

Russell Mael: Thanks for reminding us! We don’t tend to look at ourselves through the rearview mirror where dates are concerned. We have blinders on the past and try to look forward.

No valedictory laps of honour in a couple of years then? No celebrations?

Ron Mael: If there are then they’ll have to be thrown by other people. It’s something we would rather avoid.

Russell: If anyone wants to give us gold watches then we’ll take them and hock them.

It’s definitely a long time in show business – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that – for a band that to an extent has been under-appreciated and sometimes undervalued.

Ron: The whole thing is just surreal that we’re still doing this, and doing what we think is fairly vital. We try not to look back, but looking back to the time of that first album (Halfnelson), that was success. We were college students and we thought we’d made it. We got a record out and that was all we needed. And then all of sudden they’re giving us gold watches.

Russell, you once said you need to re-convince your fans all over again with each new album. Do you hold to that?

Russell: I dunno if it’s re-convince as much as always wanting to do something that’s really urgent and vital, because we’ve had a long career and Sparks fans expect us to push things and not rest on our laurels. In a certain way maybe the term “re-convince” is appropriate: we don’t want to let down our fans, and for those who are new to the band, we have to approach a new album with the spirit that this is the first album anybody’s ever heard by Sparks. We approached Hippopotamus in it that way – it has to stand on its own for anybody who doesn’t know the history. Whether they know it or don’t know it, it’s gotta be good for what it is.

Rather than do Kimono My House twenty times over?

Russell: Exactly. We felt we said everything we could in that format on the three albums we made in England. There are certain givens: my vocal style and Ron’s songwriting, but within those givens we try to place them somewhere different. So with No.1 In Heaven for instance, we abandoned our past and put ourselves in a whole different format with an electronic sound with Giorgio Moroder. We weren’t consciously saying we can’t do another Kimono My House but we get queasy falling into that trap. It’s diminishing returns, that’s our philosophy.

Ron: We sort of have an advantage over a lot of bands in that the nucleus is just the two of us. We can slip into other situations a lot easier than with six people without having to worry about hurting anybody’s feelings.

You’ve had more lineup changes than The Fall. Do you find you’re more cohesive with other band members now – like say with Franz Ferdinand – than you were in the early days with, say, members of the Jook?

Ron: Not really. It’s always awkward for us working with other people just because we work so much by ourselves. We don’t worry about what the other person thinks in Sparks, but working with other musicians, you’re always thinking, “Are they gonna think this is lame?” Even though we’ve done this for so long there’s still a lot of insecurity in your abilities. So it hasn’t become more comfortable working with other people, but the experience with Franz Ferdinand was a positive one for us, and it also rekindled a desire to do an album that’s more band-orientated than what we’ve done recently.

A lot of bands that have been around for a while get a kind of universal acceptance of competence, whereas you have these small pockets of absolute devotion. You first made it in Britain, and then France when things weren’t going so well back in the UK. America took off in the 80s and Germany in the 90s. That’s quite unusual isn’t it?

Ron: Yeah, I mean it’s not a part of a plan, that’s for certain! We try to take it as a positive: “Isn’t it great that we’ve had those moments which have kinda come out of the blue?” And they weren’t done with music aimed at anybody, it’s one of the mysteries of why some things work somewhere and some things don’t. I wish we had the competence to universally reach people all at one time.

I like to think I know a little bit about music but I still didn’t get you for ages. I’m a Sparks late adopter. I wasn’t ready when I first heard ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ and I was mystified when you recorded with my then favourite band Faith No More. My hip hop loving friend was blown away by Lil Beethoven which I also liked, but even then the penny didn’t drop. It was only when I was sent the compilation New Music For Amnesiacs about four years ago that the scales fell from my eyes, and I thought ‘why haven’t I been listening to this band my whole life’…

Russell: It’s a strange thing. There are similar stories where people can’t believe we now have 23 albums. They’re like, “You can’t have that many albums? How is that possible? You slipped under the radar for me”. It’s probably as peculiar for us as it is for someone like yourself [laughs]. We don’t know why that is.

I picked up Introducing Sparks in a vintage record shop recently, which actually was your seventh studio album. I think that’s an amazing set of songs but it kind of disappeared at the time didn’t it?

Russell: We almost rediscovered that album ourselves when we did 21 nights in London. Because it comes and goes with little fanfare, in your own head you start to think, ‘Well maybe there’s something inherently inferior with that album,’ and you cast it aside. So for the 21 nights, we were forced to reinvestigate and reevaluate a lot of our albums which we thought had something wrong with them. We did songs like ‘Goofing Off’ and there was an actual audience who were liking those songs on that evening, and so we really thought there was some substance to that album when we rediscovered it. In our heads it’s hard to figure out why some things work and some things don’t.

Ron: One misgiving is that it’s the only album we’ve ever done where we used real session people. They were obviously great musicians, but one guy was from Toto and there were even some backing singers who would be hired to sing on any commercial where they wanted them to sound like the Beach Boys. So the way we went about recording some of the albums wasn’t exactly the way we should have, but we were proud of the songs. The event was a great equaliser.

The way you ended up working with Giorgio Moroder was thanks to…

Russell: …a lie. As is our wont.

Ron: It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last.

Russell: We’d been doing an interview in LA with a German journalist and she said, “What’s next for you guys?” And we said, “Oh, we’re going to be working with Giorgio Moroder on our new album” and we hadn’t even made any contact with him. It was something we wanted to do. She said, “Oh really, that’s great, Giorgio is my good friend”. We went, like, “Oh shit”. We owned up and said, “We haven’t actually approached him but we would like to work with Giorgio” so she said she would introduce us. No one knew what that album was going to be like. There was an intimidation factor because he was knowledgeable about electronics; at that time we didn’t have any knowledge of that – we’ve since learned. And the other thing was he was used to working with Donna Summer who’s this great singer, so it was intimidating for someone like me coming from a band world with these stylistic eccentricities. In the end, he really embraced it and we think [No.1 in Heaven] was a really special record.

Moroder was certainly an expert in his field, but dance music was definitely in its inchoate phase wasn’t it? When you read about the laborious process of recording ‘I Feel Love’, rerecording the same note and having to tune the synthesisers time and again, it’s all a far cry from the push button technology anyone can use now.

Ron: Oh yeah, there weren’t drum machines at that time. So Giorgio had a session guy, Keith Forsey, who would kick drums for fifteen minutes and they’d record a live kick drum. We became friends with Giorgio later, and we were at his house the day Roger Linn dropped off the first LinnDrum which was the first electronic drum machine. But at the time we were recording No.1 In Heaven there was none of that. Also the equipment at the time didn’t allow us to tour it live, so it was purely a studio affair.

SO you inadvertently became a singles band for a short while.

Russell: Yeah, from that album there were three hit songs in the UK and we would do Top Of The Pops a lot with those three songs: ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, ‘Beat The Clock’ and ‘Tryouts For The Human Race’. We couldn’t think of a feasible way to tour it at the time so we’d go on TOTP and hire a different drummer for each performance and lip-synch.

When one looks back at the Disco Sucks movement at the end of the 70s, it seems, shall we say, unprogressive. Did it seem like that at the time?

Russell: There was some critiquing of us by the press. We had, “How can you guys do this? It isn’t rock music? You’re traitors to the cause.” We didn’t see it that way. We didn’t think of it as dance music but just placing what we do over a sound with electronic backing, which Giorgio had some expertise in.

Ron: Our reasoning was based more on the electronic sound, and to be honest we didn’t really care about doing dance music. As a byproduct all that was fine, and guys would do mixes and we were fine with that, but our reason was just because we were trying to find a different sound.

Russell: Now of course it’s completely turned around, and if you’re Daft Punk it’s the coolest thing you could possibly be doing, but at the time it was, “Whoa, these guys are from a rock band, what are they doing?”

Speaking of being completely turned around, ‘Missionary Position’ on the new record is making a case for a lack of sexual adventure isn’t it?

Ron: There aren’t enough people fighting for being conservative with your sexual tastes. There’s a little too much adventuresome stuff going on, so it’s good to return to the basics.

There’s a song about a hippopotamus in a swimming pool (‘Hippopotamus’). How did it get there?

Russell: And how did the painting by Hieronymus Bosch get there, and the 58 Microbus, the book by Anonymous and the woman with the abacus? That’s what I kind of enjoy about the song. It’s not a metaphor for something else either, it’s a short story about this guy discovering all these elements and there’s no sort of resolution either.

Maybe Keith Moon put them there. You were big The Who fans weren’t you? I can never quite make the connection.

Russell: Ha ha, we thought there was.

Ron: Early on we were pretty delusional. Apart from maybe The Doors and Love, all the bands we saw in LA that were American were really boring. So The Who came on with a British flag, jackets and all geared out and destroying things, and the stage act mattered. We really liked that and we didn’t see a separation between the music and the way it’s presented live. At that time it was all about the honesty of performing in the blandest way possible to show that you were genuine in your feelings about the kind of music you were playing, and we thought that was the most ridiculous idea ever. So in hindsight even if there wasn’t any similarity in what we were doing, we made an attempt for there to be a similarity. We just failed.

Is that why you started smashing the piano stool up?

Ron: That was part of it, because what’s a keyboard guy to do? It was rough at the beginning, because everybody else in the band when we were a five-piece had an English band person to mimic, but as a keyboard player you got a bench there and there’s not a whole lot of jumping around you can do that doesn’t look, at least to me, ridiculous.

Russell: He looks stupid in a Rick Wakeman cape.

Ron: Yeah, I never tried that. So I just went in the other direction and was fortunate that I was commanding attention while not mimicking a British band, even though I had a great desire to be in The Who.

You were trying to mimic lots of British bands, and then in turn, lots of British bands imitated you. Queen for one. Didn’t you once try to get Brian May to join Sparks?

Russell: We did at one time during the 70s. Queen had done one tour of America and things weren’t really happening for them in a big way just yet. We met with Brian May and just said, “We have a position open for a guitar player”. It was maybe being entertained but I don’t know to what extent. We had meetings with him but it obviously didn’t work out that way.

Did he mention badgers?

Russell: It didn’t come up.

Ron: He was late to the cause of badgers. We have a strange history of meeting with iconic guitar players. We also, at the time of Big Beat, had got together with Mick Ronson. He was actually going to play on it and produce it, but somehow it didn’t happen. It wasn’t a musical problem.

Russell: He went off on the Bob Dylan tour actually, he was in his band. We rehearsed with him in either Philadelphia or New York for about a week. And unfortunately we only have these really poorly recorded cassettes of Mick Ronson playing on the songs from the Big Beat album, but yeah, he was really great [laughs].

That must feel like an opportunity lost. Big Beat has wonderful songs, and had it been produced by Mick Ronson then it might have been quite something.

Ron: You’re right.

Russell: Yeah, maybe Rupert Holmes wasn’t the perfect producer for that.

Ron: There’s a lot of Piña Colada on that album [Holmes had a big international hit with the fromage-y ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ in 1979]. He did a good job, it’s just Mick Ronson’s sensibility probably would have been more appropriate.

You once said your biggest regret was not being in a film with Jacques Tati. You were all set to star in a picture called Confusion, but ultimately his ill health meant it went unmade.

Ron: Yeah, it’s really, even to this day, one of my biggest regrets. We were, and still are, huge fans of what Jacques Tati did as a filmmaker, and also just the struggles he had to go through to get films made. We were introduced to him by a guy from Island in Switzerland in the mid-70s, and Tati came up with this idea, which seemed bizarre at the time, but kinda made sense after we sat back and thought about it for a while. We met several times in Paris with Tati, and there was a film that was going to be made about two American television people – a director and a technician who were gonna help out a struggling French TV company. The one thing that we can still take from that is meeting him, and just him walking into the room and it’s M. Hulot, you know, and he has his kind of crumpled up mac and hat.

Russell: We were also able to do one TV show in Stockholm with him. He was really popular in Sweden and knowing that this project was happening, they invited us to come and do something on TV with him. He wanted a horse and we went on and just kind of ad libbed stuff with a white horse.

Does that footage still exist somewhere?

Ron: We’ve been hunting.

Russell: We’ve not been able to find it and we have pretty good contacts. We did the The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman with Swedish national radio [Sveriges Radio Radioteatern]. Someone from there was trying to locate these tapes because it was on Swedish national TV and no one seems to know where they are. We hope they’ll turn up one day.

So what I really want to talk about is beards. Are you still dead set against them?

Russell: It depends. You could maybe get away with one in our band now if you sculpted it.

Bob Harris, who had a big bushy beard, didn’t like you did he?

Ron: It was really bizarre, and we couldn’t really figure out what his problem with us was. He thought that we were…

Russell: …a cross between the Monkees and Frank Zappa I think he said. Which we thought was kind of not that bad, but he was obviously using it in the pejorative.

Ron: He really did not like us. And they’ve had all these compilations of The Old Grey Whistle Test and I don’t think we’re on any of them.

He didn’t like Roxy Music or the New York Dolls either mind you.

Russell: Ah well there you go!

And he sat on the show and slagged you off with Neil Sedaka.

Ron: Oh. I don’t remember that.

There’s a story about you trying to watch it in the TV room back at your hotel digs, and there’s this man there who was maybe also a guest at the hotel, and he’s shouting abuse at you all the time you’re on TV, completely unawares that you’re stood next to him. By the looks on your faces I suspect this story is somewhat apocryphal.

Ron: [laughs] I want to believe it’s true.

Russell: Let’s say it’s true. It’s a good story.

You said you were happy to work with Todd Rundgren because he had a good pair of satin trousers. Is that true?

Russell: That was part of the reason we approached him, because we thought anybody that has that fashion sense at that time, surely he would understand us musically. And we were right, which was the other irony of that thought process.

Ron: His music wasn’t always the most English-based, but his personal style seemed to be, so that was one of the reasons we were motivated to send him our tape.

Russell: He was actually the only person who responded. Because we gave the initial tapes we’d made for the Halfnelson album to everybody on every label. And nobody responded other than Todd, so we owe him a debt of gratitude.

I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but didn’t you have an assignation with his girlfriend?

Russell: You can’t ask that! Geeeeez. She was partly responsible for us getting our record deal. She liked the band as much as Todd did [laughs].

Elvis Costello had an affair with Bebe Buell, another of Todd Rundgren’s girlfriends. I know the 70s was all about free love, but it also seems to have been open season on Todd Rundgren’s girlfriends.

Ron: [Laughs] That’s the unofficial name of the 70s: Open Season on Todd Rundgren’s Girlfriends.

Shall we talk about Morrissey? Does he need to lighten up?

Ron: I hope he doesn’t. It’s more interesting if he doesn’t.

Russell: Even sometimes politically now, you kind of go “Morrissey?” It’s intriguing that he’s contrary on so many political issues now, and social issues. And you kind of go, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” this, you know, vegetarian-

That’s the way Hitler went.

Ron: That’s true!

It is true that you used to always communicate by fax?

Russell: Yes, we did. We have all the fading messages which we’ve kept. By fax and in giant letters, and even more recently – several months back – on my doorstep. I didn’t hear him. I was working at home, and I go outside and there’s an album propped up against the door and it’s a Morrissey album with the Ameba Records sticker still on it which had just been purchased there obviously, and it had been inscripted by Morrissey saying “Russell, you have to record ‘Windy Day’” – which was a demo we made in the Kimono My House period that was recently released in a repackaging of Kimono with various tracks that were demos at the time. And he said that, and it was just left there, and he was gone in the wind. He didn’t want to speak, so there’s this odd relationship from a distance. It’s intriguing and nice.

Have you read any of his books?

Ron: Only the sections we’re in. We’ve got them all underlined.

Actually he writes beautifully about music, just not so well about himself. As a songwriter he writes well about himself of course.

Ron: That’s what I was gonna say. It seems like songwriters should express who they are through what they’re doing rather than trying to go legit in that way. What he presents as a personality is so much more interesting and deep and intriguing in his music than just saying it in prose.

You have no plans to write memoirs yourselves then?

Russell: We don’t like talking about ourselves; I mean we’ve done it with you here for an hour, but we like to let the music be the spokesperson for us. So doing a memoir and all that chronological ‘and then this happened and then blah blah’ doesn’t appeal to us that much. We think there’s more mystique in what you don’t know about. We’ve been approached about doing several documentaries and nobody can understand why we’re resistant. We want an angle or approach that would be fitting to our sensibility rather than just a dry talking heads-style documentary.

If you did write a memoir you might have to write it together. I mean you are separate people but not to the world you aren’t.

[Ron looks aghast]

Russell: We find that odd. We’ve got a studio at my place and Ron is there a lot because obviously we work all the time. And people come over for an interview sometimes and they just assume that he lives there and that it’s kind of like A Hard Day’s Night.

Ron: There’s two front doors and we exit through our separate doors at one residence.

I love the Leos Carax When You’re A French Director track on the new album. Holy Motors is one of my favourite films of the last 10 years.

Russell: Yeah, that’s how we met him. He used one of our songs – ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ – in Holy Motors. And we met him at the Cannes Film Festival about four years ago and we’d written this project which is a narrative album that we thought was going to be Sparks’ next album. So we said, “Let’s just send it to Leos and see if anything comes up”, and he said, “I really want to direct this!” And we were shocked – most directors have ten projects in development and Leos didn’t have anything at that time. It’s hopefully going to be shot at the beginning of next year and there’s a couple of big name actors attached. So anyway, we’d kind of completed all the songs on Hippopotamus and Leos says, “Is there any way I can be on it? I’ll do anything. I want to be on a Sparks album”, because he was a really big fan. We walked with him once here, just across the Pont Neuf, and he was telling us when he was 15 years old he would walk across that same bridge singing ‘Without Using Hands’ which talks about Paris and the Ritz Hotel, and he didn’t have any money at the time so he used to steal Sparks LPs from the local record shop and hide them under his jacket.

And he made the film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf of course. I thought I’d seen him attending your gig at the Alhambra a few years ago. I don’t spot that many famous people in Paris because I don’t know who they are. I have to content myself with getting starstruck when I see the Isabelle Adjani Bateau-mouche.

Ron: Ahhh Isabelle Adjani… [holds heart]

You’re big fans of her Pull Marine album written by Gainsbourg aren’t you?

Ron: It’s really great.

Russell: Our one story… we were in this dancey tearoom sort of place and it was around 5pm or 6pm. We’re all sitting there when Isabelle Adjani walks in and she sits by herself at this table just over from us. And it’s a dance place, so we’re all nudging each other and whispering, “Go ask her to dance!” “No I can’t!” So the biggest regret in life was not asking Isabelle Adjani to dance.

Ron: Even more than not working with Tati.

Hippopotamus is out on September 8. Sparks kick off an extensive world tour in August

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