The enduring appeal of Sparks – in conversation with Ron Mael

 

Mael Bonding: A pensive Russell, left, tries to avoid older brother Ron’s questioning look.

Many of us of a certain age will recall the first time we heard American art-pop-rockers Sparks, a band that properly appeared on the UK chart radar around the time of the glam movement, sitting pretty comfortably amid an air of flamboyance. Yet they were an outfit that always seemed so ahead of their time and never easily categorised – an enigma for sure, in the best sense of the word.

I was barely seven when This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us and Amateur Hour first stopped Britain in its tracks, struggling to make out be-flared singer Russell and altogether less-animated keyboard player Ron, on Top of the Pops and other notable TV music shows of the day. The fact that they were even brothers seemed bewildering enough. What a band too, not least the delightfully-named Dinky Diamond on drums. That’s if you could see beyond Russell’s wondrous falsetto, flowing curls, flowing scarf, and even more flowing trousers, or Ron’s menacing stare and ‘tache panache.

Where they quite fitted in, I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not so certain I know now. But they certainly impressed. As my friend Niall Brannigan put it recently, talking about that first hit single – kept off the top spot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love for two weeks – It seemed like aliens had taken over my radio. Nothing else sounded like it. It was exhilarating, plugged into the mains, overdosed on adrenaline. And then you saw them on Top of the Pops ….’

That year’s Kimono My House certainly proved an influential album, and some 40-plus years later you’ll still find plenty of acts who cite the Mael brothers as inspirations, these trail-blazing innovators regularly picking up new generations of devotees through high-profile appearances, big-name collaborations and so many great songs.

From those breakthrough singles to tackling crossover disco – with Giorgio Moroder on hand – five years later on songs like Tryouts for the Human Race, Beat the Clock and No.1 Song in Heaven, they remained a few steps ahead of the competition. And while in time the grand-scale commercial success tailed off, there’s been so much to savour since. Take for example, 1982’s Angst in my Pants (think Can doing Pop) and a wealth of material right through to their last big project, FFS, alongside Franz Ferdinand, soon to be followed by an album we finally get to hear in full later this summer, Hippopotamus.

In fact, right across the board, what’s not to love? They’re clever but fun – take 2006’s heavy metal pastiche Dick Around and 2008’s Lighten Up, Morrissey for example – and quirky, yet always understood the power of the pop hook, the first singles from their forthcoming LP proving Sparks remain on a long-time creative high.

I tell Ron Mael a bit of that down the phoneline, the 71-year-old sat at home in Los Angeles between UK visits, working on a set-list for a forthcoming tour while putting finishing touches to his band’s latest promo video, his band having not long before proved a big success at BBC 6 Music’s festival in Glasgow. And what a joy to make contact. He was everything I could have hoped for, those deep tones and an understated manner equating him all the more in my mind with the late, great Leonard Nimoy – to whom there’s been more than a passing resemblance in recent years as far as I’m concerned.

I started properly by telling him that while I feel title track Hippopotamus is super-catchy, clever and funny by turns, its rather splendid follow-up, What the Hell is it This Time? reminds me more of one of the band’s earlier contemporaries, Roxy Music.

“Ah … yeah, I guess so. That was an exciting period in Britain, with healthy competition between the two bands. They’d come out with songs, we’d hear them, be jealous and try and do that sort of thing.”

Big Splash: Russell and Ron Mael mull over their swimming pool dilemma

Big Splash: Russell and Ron Mael mull over their swimming pool dilemma

In the same way as it was for The Beatles and The Beach Boys a few years previously, pushing each other on?

“Yeah, and I think those kind of situations are really healthy.”

While the title song of the new LP had been around for a while by then, I told Ron I was still loving Hippopotamus, to the point where I could replace every song I’ve hated over the years with it – an earworm to end all earworms.

“Oh …. okay.”

I guess what I’m rather clumsily trying to say is that it has such a powerful hook, nothing can compete with it.

“Well, that’s good. We apologise for any kind of seeping into your brain, but in the end that’s what we’re trying to do anyway. So perhaps we shouldn’t really apologise!”

There’s even a brilliant fans’ version on the worldwide web, Sparks lovers filmed taking on a line or two for the camera (the fact that I know one of those featured – alongside his daughter – has nothing to do with my opinion on this, of course).

“Oh yeah, that turned out really amazing, with the scope of the people involved and the enthusiasm … fantastic.”

Breakthrough Album: Sparks’ 1974 classic, Kimono My House

You seem to have always had that cult following, and such a committed fan-base, several generations loving your work.

“It’s really amazing, and makes our shows so enjoyable for us. And we really don’t take it for granted. It also inspires us when we’re working on albums to do something we think has real substance and is special, because we know those people really do care and it wouldn’t be right to not do something that has something to it.”

While I find it hard to categorise Sparks, I can see key components in several other acts. And one enjoying similar degrees of love from their audience is fellow US art-pop-rock outfit, They Might Be Giants. When I saw them – finally – early last year, I was of the opinion they could well be Sparks for another generation. But I’ve since realised I was wrong – in fact Sparks are Sparks for another generation, having never lost that vitality.

Ron laughs at this, then adds, ‘Well, we really try. There is our past and legacy, but we really try to fight the thing of being one of those kind of bands. It gets harder and harder, but we’re aware of that situation and want to try to avoid that as much as we can.”

At the time of the interview, I’d only heard four of the new songs, the two mentioned plus Edith Piaf (Said It Better than Me), typically surging and stirring in equal measures, and Missionary Position, again so strong. But that was enough to back up the accompanying PR description about the band and how they take ‘the pop form, shake it up, and create an album that is adventurous, fresh and idiosyncratically Sparks’.

Besides, who could resist a record which includes the inspiringly-titled, ‘So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln, Aside From That How Was the Play?’ What’s more, this is – their PR adds – ‘the smartest, most consistently evolving band in the history of rock’, a combo once memorably described by BBC presenter Bob Harris as a cross between Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and The Monkees.

I tell Ron next that I feel Edith Piaf (Said It Better than Me) is possibly the best song the Pet Shop Boys have released in years (come to think of it, I could have said the same about When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’ in 1994).

“Oh, well that’s okay then … yeah!”

Meanwhile, Missionary Position. carries traces of early Queen to me, another band Sparks have played with in the past.

“Yeah, a long time ago, at The Marquee club. They were setting up their own equipment at that time, which shows you how long ago it was!”

Board Masters: Russell and Ron spell it out, ahead of their September album release

You did a residency there, didn’t you?

“Yeah, we came over, having been playing in Los Angeles before, at places like the Whisky a Go Go, to no reaction. Then we came to London and did things like The Marquee, and the reaction was totally different.”

That must have been special for someone who loved so many of the bands who played there in the ‘60s, including a few acts your countrymen dubbed the ‘British Explosion’ groups.

“It was a dream. We always pretended in our own minds we were a British band, and really didn’t go along with the whole American sensibility of it only being about music. We thought that flash element was tied in, really loving bands like The Who and The Move.”

Arguably, music lost its way a little during that following era, but Sparks never seemed to fall into the trap of the overblown theme and the whole prog movement. You must have been doing something right, I put to Ron, and always seemed quite grounded.

“Yeah, we were kind of aware of what we were trying to do. They aren’t traditional songs but in general we’re working in song structures. As strong as we want the music, it all came back to what the song is, and we’ve never lost sight of that.”

All these years on, that remains the case, as seen from their performance and resultant critical reaction to their BBC 6 Music festival appearance in Glasgow. Did they enjoy that?

“Oh, it was beyond what we expected. It was a little nerve-racking because it was the first show with the present band, doing four new songs, but it really went well and inspired us for doing the tour – we have confidence that it’s going to work.”

Incidentally, do you still own the BBC, as you first informed us back in the mid-90s?

“Ah … as a matter of fact, yes! Paid for – lock, stock and barrel.”

Has that resultant power gone to your respective heads?

“Just slightly, yeah. Hee hee!”

With the next live dates in mind, are you a good traveler after all these years, or is the whole touring thing a bit testing?

“I love being in cities and around, and love playing. But the traveling part has got worse and worse. And airports now are not my idea of a good time. But once you’re on stage, you kind of forget about all that. I love traveling as far as seeing other places, and we always try to be real tourists and get out in the mornings. It seems a shame just to be going on stage, when that stage could be anywhere.”

So we get to see you over here in September, with lots of dates in the UK and mainland Europe. Will you get to sing My Way?

“Err … yeah, actually!”

I hate to point it out, but the years are advancing though. Does that mean the end of the touring Sparks show is on the horizon? Or do you aim to keep doing this as long as you can?

“Well, we haven’t really thought about it one way or another. We’re at a point where it’s all kind of surreal to be doing this now and in a way that doesn’t kind of look back, as much as we can stay in the present. But things just kind of happen. We haven’t really got a grand plan. We’ll see … I mean, who knows?”

Keyboard Wizard: Ron Mael gets down to it at the Barbican in London

That’s the thing. I take my eye off the ball for a while and suddenly realise Ron Mael is 72 and his little brother Russell is 68. Time flies. Does Ron feel any different to the fella who wrote and performed This Town Ain’t Big Enough and Amateur Hour when I first heard him on the radio as a seven-year-old?

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s self-delusion, but I really don’t feel any different when we’re doing shows. It just feels the same. The exciting thing to us is that so many new people are coming in to be Sparks fans, the same kind of age that were discovering us a long time ago. That really is inspiring, when you can see you’re doing something where chronologically you’re older than somebody but in attitude they’re able to pick up something that seems for them.”

I was thinking of that recently. I loved the 2015 set-up with Franz Ferdinand, and you’re forever finding new audiences. I was only recently reminded of the band’s cameo on Gilmore Girls, performing a short section of Perfume in 2006. In short, it seems that every once in a while something else comes along and a new generation asks who Sparks are.

“Yeah, just being rediscovered along the way by new people is exciting, and knowing what you’re doing at the present time has some kind of relevance – although I don’t like that word – for a new set of people.”

It’s now been 45 years since the marvellously-quirky Wonder Girl single was released (initially in the US, proving a hit in Alabama at least, then later in the year in the UK), taken from the reissued album Sparks, which was previously released under the band’s initial name. In fact, as I put it to Ron, that whole album bore a strong relationship to one released by a group called Halfnelson. What became of them, and did they ever try to sue?

“Ha! Not really, the similarities are too close, I know, but … yeah. It was one of those things – we had that name, and Albert Grossman, who was with Todd Rundgren, thought the reason the Halfnelson album didn’t sell was because of the name, so we felt we should change that.”

They’d call it a re-brand these days.

“Exactly … although it didn’t really have the right effect at that time.”

First Footing: The debut 1971 LP, Halfnelson, later reissued under the new name, Sparks

Looking back at those formative years, were Mr and Mrs Mael very encouraging of their sons’ early forays into music?

“I think like all parents of musicians, when you first start off, they’re warning you that you should get a real job and not mess around with this. But when you do have some success, they become your No.1 fans. It was one of those things. In general they were always really supportive, and my mother had me take piano lessons when I was really young, which in the end was a smart move!”

Was there a lot of music in the Mael household?

“As far as records, yeah. It was odd, looking back, but I was really exposed to popular music, yet not so much any other form. Things like Elvis and Little Richard, which at the time was a little more forbidden to be listening to. It was pretty daring at the time, but our whole musical education came from records and the radio. It wasn’t so much from any special training.”

Judging by your UCLA days (Ron studied cinema and graphic arts in 1963 while Russell studied theatre arts and filmmaking between 1966 and 1968), it seems that you might have followed in your father’s footprints as a graphic artist. But I guess music got in the way and you expressed yourself in a different art-form.

“It’s really odd, because that was my intention – to be some sort of graphic or industrial designer. But then we made a record, sent it to everybody, and it was rejected by everyone apart from Todd Rundgren. So we had an offer we couldn’t refuse!”

In time, you got to be an influence on so many acts (including the afore-mentioned Morrissey) and have worked with a lot of big names over the years, not least on 1997’s Plagiarism, with last week’s writewyattuk interviewees Erasure, plus Jimi Somerville and Faith No More. Is there anyone out there you still want to work with?

“Well, there was always the thought of doing something, not electronic, but we did a festival where Public Enemy were there, and talked with Chuck D a little, so that would be a dream for us – some kind of collaboration with them. I’m not even sure where that would go, but we’ve always been huge fans of theirs.”

Intriguing! And finally, I make Hippopotamus your 24th studio album, if you count the FFS collaboration. Have you a favourite of the less celebrated ones?

“I don’t know. It’s so hard to know. I really think that what we’re doing now is as strong as we’ve ever done. But looking at our recent past I think the Lil’ Beethoven album (2002) was something really special for us. We were searching for a way to do something that was true to Sparks but where the formation was different from what we had done before. And I think in some ways we succeeded with that album. So that’s one that stands out for us.”

Well said, that man. Well worth checking out, but then again that goes for pretty much every other Sparks album. And let’s just hope there are still many more fine moments still to come, starting with this September’s long-playing offering.

Mirror Men: Ron and Russell Mael reflect on their longevity

Sparks’ new LP Hippopotamus is released on September 8 on BMG, with a number of UK and mainland European dates around that, starting in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland in August, before the following month’s shows in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and nine UK dates, right through to two Shepherd’s Bush Empire appearances in London and a Paris finale at La Gaîté Lyrique on October 1st. Check out the band’s official website for full details. You can also keep in touch with Ron and Russell via their Facebook and Twitter links. 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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