We caught up with Californian brothers Ron and Russell AKA Sparks
Described as “the smartest, most consistently evolving band in the history of rock”, internationally acclaimed pop pioneers, Sparks’ music has always been innovative and instantly identifiable.
Formed in 1972 in Los Angeles by Made up of Californian brothers Ron and Russell Mael the duo are known for their quirky approach to songwriting, Sparks’ music is renowned for its intelligent, sophisticated, and acerbic lyrics, and for the brothers idiosyncratic, theatrical stage presence which is typified in the contrast between Russell’s animated, hyperactive, falsetto frontman antics and Ron’s deadpan scowling.
With the rare ability to blend worldwide chart success with cult following, the band’s frequently changing styles- from rock god to synth pop legends alongside a starkly individual and visual aesthetic have kept the band at the forefront of modern, artful pop music.
Best known for the songs “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”, which reached No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart in 1974; the disco hit “The Number One Song in Heaven” in 1979; Sparks are back with their twenty third studio album ‘Hippopotamus’.
Recorded in Los Angeles and released ahead of a European tour which sees Sparks play Rock City, Nottingham on the 23 September and Birmingham’s O2 Institute 1 on the 24 September ‘Hippopotamus’ sees the brothers take the pop form, shake it up, and create an album that is adventurous, fresh and idiosyncratically ‘Sparks’ – how many band lyrics reference Hieronymus Bosch, Titus Andronicus wearing a snorkel and a Germanic van – and that’s just the title track! It could only be Sparks!
dluxe Magazine caught up with the brothers as they released second single Edith Piaf to find out where they draw their inspiration from, what audiences can expect from the tour and to find out which brother tells the best jokes…
Where did the inspiration for the title track of your new album, ‘Hippopotamus’ come from?
Ron: We had written the instrumental music for the song first and it needed a subject matter as idiosyncratic as the music. The word ‘Hippopotamus’ sounds cool and fit, and then it was working backwards and figuring out what happens in a song called ‘Hippopotamus’. Voila!
With a vast catalogue of material to draw from, what can fans expect to hear on ‘The Hippopotamus Tour’?
Russell: We will be doing an assortment of songs from out past albums as well as heavy emphasis on Hippopotamus. We are very proud of the new album and feel it’s a vital part of our catalogue and would love to share it with our fans. But yes, old songs as well!
You have been creating art, music and film for a few decades now – how has your process changed over the years?
Ron: Ideas are always the key and that never changes, but technology has allowed us new ways to make these ideas concrete. Musically we’re able to experiment more since we can record on our own, without worrying about time or budgetary constraints.
Which Sparks record would you suggest a newcomer listens to first?
Russell: They should start with our compilation box set call ‘New Music For Amnesiacs – The Essential Collection.’ This package is a perfect introduction to our career. It has songs from every album as well as a beautiful book documenting our career. And a bunch of assorted goodies thrown in as well. Highly recommended.
How does making a Sparks album differ from scoring a film, or a musical?
Ron: In an album, it is a collection of 3 or 4-minute complete ideas, whereas in a film, an idea is developed over an hour and a half or two hours. We tend, though, to use cinematic themes and sounds in our songs and a Sparks sensibility in our film and musical work, so there is quite a bit of crossover.
You’ve said that you find it frustrating that artists often play it safe and aren’t very adventurous. Which contemporary bands / musicians do you think are being bold with their music?
Russell: I’m not sure that there’s someone out there risking it all on their latest work.
At the start of your career you were drawn to the UK and it is where you had your first hit. What is it about the UK that appeals to you, and why do you think British music lovers are so drawn to you and your music?
Ron: We can’t completely explain it. All we know is that we had 2 albums out in the states that had very limited following and after moving to London in late ’73, we had tremendous success with Kimono My House. We had always thought of ourselves as more of a British band than an American band stylistically, so I suppose that has something to do with it. However there does seem to be an openness to eccentricity in Britain.
We’ve seen you perform with various set ups, from the stripped back ‘Two Hands One Mouth’ tour to performing at the Barbican with a 35-piece orchestra – what will you have in your musical bag of tricks this time?
Ron: Just you Wait! In the meantime, we very much look forward to touring with a fantastic band on the Hippopotamus tour!
If you could travel back in time to when you formed the band, and give yourselves one piece of advice, what would you say?
Russell: Make sure you book aisle seats.
Who tells the better jokes – Ron or Russell?
Russell: See Question 9. Obviously, Russell tells better jokes.
Hippopotamus by Sparks is available to buy, stream or download now.
Catch them live at Rock City, Nottingham on the 23rd September and Birmingham’s O2 Institute 1 on the 24th September.
For tour tickets visit www.allsparks.com