The Mael brothers talk about how British bands write the best lyrics, working with Tony Visconti and their hardest songs to sing
Russell: It’s been a blast! Thank you for all your questions, and sorry for those we didn’t answer. Our new album is great for gift giving – buy seven or eight copies!
Sparks’ new album, Hippopotamus, is out 8 September.
Ron: to the question we can’t find about the album artwork, we think that the visuals for our album covers are an important element of the whole process and we take a lot of pleasure in trying to come up with interesting visual ideas for the covers. We think the covers really reflect a lot of the sensibility of a band, and in our minds they tell you a lot about what Sparks is like, and a lot about our sensibility. Covers like Propaganda, where we’re being abducted and tied up in the back of a speedboat- you don’t know what happened before that photo was taken. We kind of like that idea of taking a slice of a scenario, and leaving it up to the viewer to determine in their mind what has actually happened. The cover to the new Hippopotamus album is one of those situations where we’re looking into a swimming pool – the perfect LA swimming pool – and we see the head of a hippo. You don’t know what happened before, or five minutes after – we like those situations, where you as a the viewer can make up your own story. Both those albums, the images are so striking that we suggested not having any typography, not even the name of the band, because the image spoke so much there was no other element needed. You didn’t need to know who the band was – the image is so striking you want to find out.
Ron: We’ve also always been huge cinema buffs, and so the covers seem to be a still from a movie that’s never been made, and taken out of context it’s up to the person viewing it to wonder what the whole film would be. We both like the photographer Cindy Sherman, who is the subject of all her photos, and has done that for many years – she has done a series of film stills of herself, that look like they’re from some film, but are just imaginary films. She isn’t an influence on us, but we identify with that sensibility.
Ian Nipper asks:
Russell: Have you ever taken singing lessons?
Russell: No, I never have. I’ve just had good luck.
Ron: What are you implying? I actually do sing, with nobody else hearing it apart from Russell, on demos of songs we do, but for the betterment of the musical environment everywhere, no-one will ever hear me. Don’t twist my arm.
Does the song My Baby’s Taking Me Home have any hidden meaning in it?
Ron: Thank you for thinking that it has some kind of subtext, but actually, that song is about my baby taking me home. And trying to construct a scenario with what sounds like a pretty banal phrase, can become something more through the repetition of it. It can be taken at face value, but the musical context can raise it into something that’s more affirming and uplifting. That album Little Beethoven, we used a lot of repetitive vocals and inspired somewhat lyrically by rap music where a vocal sample was used repeatedly, as well as by John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich. We were trying something along those lines, but the meaning really is: my baby is taking me home.
Russell: There’s one section where it breaks, and my favourite line to recite in that spoken section is: “a rainbow forms, but we’re both colour blind.” And the song kicks in again with: my baby’s taking me home.
If left on a remote island and allowed to bring only three things, what would they be?
Ron: Gillette Fusion power razor, with extra batteries and blades.
Russell: I don’t get anything to bring, because Ron has used up our entire allowance on shaving.
We’re you in it for the fun or did you know you were iconic?
Ron: When we started it was only for the fun. We never had any thoughts of legacy or anything like that. It was a thrill to have one album released. Music was only a fun thing to do for us, I was studying graphic design and Russell film – but it gradually became something more than the other stuff.
I thought that Let the Monkey Drive would have made a great (and commercial) single, as well as having the potential to be one of your best videos. Who has the most input on single releases: you or the record company?
Russell: We also felt that Let the Monkey Drive was a single as well, and ideally you ahve it where you and the label are in sync with the idea for what a single should be, so that there’s a consensus. Sometimes that happens, sometimes that doesn’t happen. And that was on our own label, so we only have ourselves to blame.
Ron: We fired ourselves from the label after that. A total shakeup
Have you ever had to overcome a creative block? If so, how did you get through it?
Ron: I’ve never really felt a creative block. I think there are times where you might have some trouble coming up with either a song or a direction, but if you keep working, that’s the solution. I have faith you can get through any of those slightly slower periods by simply pressing on, and the answer will come at some point. Abandoning what you’ve done in the past is a more general way to avoid the block – working with Giorgio Moroder in electronics, or Little Beethoven, where we decided to use strings and repetitive vocals instead of drums and guitars. The most important thing though is to not sit there and mope about the fact you’re having a creative block – it seems like it’s trying to romanticise your problems in some way. We try to find a solution, no matter how difficult it is, or if it requires you re-evaluating your whole approach to doing anything.
Daniel Prendiville asks:
How much of a culture shock was it to come to the UK in the early 70s, and where do your Island releases sit within the context of your overall material?
Russell: Well, it was a dream of ours to come to the UK in the 70s and be given a record deal with Island Records, as we were huge Anglophiles. It was a huge culture shock to come here, we were from LA and used to sunny skies every day, but the music scene and the opportunity for us to record an album which became Kimono My House was such an amazing opportunity for us, that the culture shock aside, we were just really happy. the Island albums really mean a lot to us; we have other periods that also had a huge significance to us as well, for various reasons. Certain songs have been really successful in France for instance, and a song like When Do I Get to Sing My Way was huge in Germany, so they have a huge emotional significance to us, because of the time they were in a particular part of the world. There were albums that were less well known in Europe but big in the States, especially on the west coast, and we did large concerts in the US as a result, so the significance of a particular album has different meanings for us depending on the time they were released and the part of the world where they attracted more attention. Hopefully with Hippopotamus we’ll have it be successful everywhere in the world at the same time.
Ron: Even before we came here, just reading Sherlock Holmes, that was our view of what England was – this kind of fuzzy, brick buildings, vaguely mysterious… that whole sort of thing. We’d never been here, so it was like a fantasy place for us, both musically and in a more general way.
What is your favourite classical piece of music? Which musical instruments do you most enjoy playing?
Ron: one thing I listen to a lot of is Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould. I’m a big admirer of Gould as an artist, and as a piano player; he recorded that twice in the 50s and in 1980, it’s interesting to see the differences, but both times his playing is so idiosyncratic. He doesn’t care about the purity of the music, he sees the music as a way to express himself. His playing was loved and hated at the time, because he wasn’t sounding like other classical pianists; his technique was as good as anyone, but his interpretations was sometimes off the wall, and I just love that spirit.
Which of Sparks songs are most difficult to sing?
Russell: The difficult songs fall into two categories – the ones that have an insane amount of lyrics in them, and the ones that have the insane amount of range of the notes, going from incredibly high to low. Actually thinking about it, there are ones with an insane amount of lyrics and an insane range of notes – ones like At Home At Work At Play, even a song like This Town, the range of that song, and hitting that last F-sharp, the word “leave”, I have to psych myself up for the final note. On the new album there’s a song called Giddy Giddy, and it has a crazy amount of words and also the fact that most of Ron’s songs don’t have long instrumental passages in them, so it forces me, live, to have to continue singing non stop without any gaps. That’s a big challenge for me.
Do you have any routine before going on stage?
Russell: Nothing other than the traditional fly-check.
Russell: And since I drink so much water on stage, I have to make sure I’ve peed 11 times before going on stage.
Ron: I sometimes have a similar problem – it must be genetic I guess. The first time we played in Japan, the shows start early, sometimes 6pm. I was in the toilet and heard our intro music playing – the train was leaving the station, and I had to start running.
Is originality in pop – as you are! – now a lost art or cause?
Russell: We’re trying our best in Sparks to not make it a lost art.
Ron: Bands that are kind of working in three and four minuite song structures, and aren’t trying to bare their souls in overt ways, like the Lemon Twigs where there’s a lot of flash involved – it’s not as if they’re emulating us, but that sensibility, we admire in other bands. It’s the thing that’s inspired us from the beginning – it was always British bands that had that flash and colour to the lyrics, rather than the American bands who were more involved in the wrong kind of sincerity. There are all kinds of ways of being sincere – people think we are being overly ironic and insincere, but we value sincerity where it’s less overt.
I don’t enjoy music any more. Whose fault is that?
Ron: I feel some sympathy for that. There are times I feel the same way. Hang in there – you’ll return to it. Maybe you’ve gone to too many restaurants with bad Muzak in them, turn everything off for a while and you’ll come to love it again. There’s nothing wrong with you – it’s just overload. My doctor’s note will be arriving in the mail.
If you had to pick one song from the Sparks catalogue to introduce your music to someone who has never heard you, which one would it be, and why?
Russell: It’s so difficult having over 280 songs to choose from, but if I’m pressed today for one, I’ll say When I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral, from the album Hello Young Lovers. I really like the complexity of that song. From the new Hippopotamus album I would pick Missionary Position. I feel that the subject matter hasn’t been dealt with in popular music: the missionary position, it’s saying that the tried and true is good enough for me and you. It’s taking a reactionary position that experimentation is fine, but sometimes the tried and true is the better path. And I also like the emotional quality of the melody.
Thank you so much for all of your music. It got me through some difficult times earlier this year. But thanks to you guys, I have my positivity and energy back. And I’m probably not the only one. How does it feel, knowing you and your music had such an impact on people’s lives?
Russell: It’s really heartwarming to hear when our music does affect people in that sort of way. Sometimes people ask us about whether our music… whether we want to be doing things that are more related to the political climate now, and for us, we really feel that the diversion of our music, when it does affect someone and helps people get through difficult times, that that for us is something that is really satisfying for us. Being overtly political just seems, for us, too easy of a target to be doing. We like to channel our creativity in a way that’s more through a spirit, and a sensibility, that runs through all of Sparks’ albums.
Ron: You can be making a more general political statement by making music that is counter to the general flow of what is accepted. Our fans really feel they’re part of some movement, that is beyond the specifics of a political party. People know how we feel about things in general, but referring to anything specifically feels like it’s minimising the universality of your music. But it’s obvious to anybody, I would think, how we feel about the situation in different countries at the present time.
Any juicy gossip on your collaboration with Les Rita Mitsouko?
Ron: We were lucky enough to meet the band when they played in LA, and we really liked their music. They were also at that time going to be produced by Tony Visconti, so we went to France, and had written a song called Singing in the Shower for them. We don’t have nasty things to say at all! We loved them both. Visconti was so strong as to get two French people to not smoke in the studio, which is probably one of the biggest feats in his career. We’re going to do a duet with Catherine in the next two weeks at La Cigale, for three songs, so we’ve kept in touch with her, and just think the music she and Fred did and the music she’s doing solo, and the style of her singing, are truly amazing. We’re really looking forward to working with them again.
Sparks’ music never ages. Any advice to musicians today wanting your length of artistic longevity as to how to Beat the Clock?
Russell: We always set out to try and challenge ourselves and our audience each time we make a new record. With that kind of goal in mind, we’re happy to hear that it strikes you and hopefully other fans as being ageless in its content. Having had 23 or 24 or 25 albums depending on how you’re counting, it becomes a challenge to present what we’re doing with a fresh slant, so that challenge at certain times in our career, we’ve put ourselves in a different musical context like working with Moroder – we abandoned the classic rock instrumentation for this electronic instrumentation. Then we did an album Little Beethoven, trying to find another context to place Sparks’ music, where we attempted to not use any of the rock or pop instrumentation, and replacing the aggressiveness of bass and guitar and drums with aggressive strings and stacked vocals. It’s being hungry every time we set out to make a new record, to just want to find new ways to be able to present ourselves that are hopefully vital and fresh.
The narrative of This Town somehow reminds me of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Was it an inspiration?
Ron: I really always liked Thurber as a writer, I like that style of writing. That particular song, it wasn’t perhaps inspired, but the concept is the same as Walter Mitty – an individual in each verse, there’s a different situation that expands into a bigger than life fantasy, in the same way as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As an aside, I think James Thurber had the best book title ever: Is Sex Necessary? He was always number one on my witty and good writers list; I enjoyed Dorothy Parker in the same vein.
I bought Tryouts for the Human Race 12-inch picture disk. Most exotic record I ever owned. Do you think it was enhanced by the Peter Cook monologue? It was very mismatched, wasn’t it?
Russell: We thought it was very well matched! That Virgin Records at that time had the good taste to want to have Peter Cook do a monologue as a kind of intro to that song, we thought it was hilarious, and meta at the same time – he’s commenting on the song you’re about to hear.
The only joke I ever wrote myself was the following: I was with the wife the other day at an airport gate for our flight. We’d been called and were queuing for the boarding desk when the two guys in front of us started arguing with the crew checking the passes. I couldn’t tell what it was about, but one of the guys with curly locks and a high-pitched voice suddenly snapped: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” and marched off towards the plane. His mate with a little Charlie Chaplin moustache just gave the desk crew a big weirdo stare and then followed on. I said to my missus: “I can see sparks flying here.”
Ron: I love it!
Has anything else interesting turned up in your pool?
Russell: No, nothing!
What is your favourite Sparks album from the 70s?
Russell: If I have to pick one I would say Indiscreet. Having worked with Tony Visconti, we think he’s an amazing producer, and some of the orchestrations he brought to that album are really amazing. From using big bands in Looks Looks Looks, to having a marching band in Get in the Swing, and string quartets in Under the Table With Her, there’s no-one else, other than a George Martin, that has that musical ability, to be able to incorporate those kinds of stylistic treatments to pop songs in that kind of way.
This question is for Ron. Why did you eschew the toothbrush moustache for a pencil moustache in the mid-80s?
Ron: The old Hollywood actor Ronald Colman. Our mother must have been a film buff because I was named after Ronald Colman – thankfully not Reagan. In almost every film he had a moustache, and it’s really strange thinking back that my mother named me after a guy whose trademark was not only a beautiful speaking voice, but also a cool moustache, which I attempt to have – it’s strange that that moustache has become part of my image.
Kayla D asks:
Do either of you enjoy the films of Studio Ghibli (and if so, do you have any favourites? I have also wondered if either of you read the work of Osamu Tezuka, as I have seen photos in which Russell has an Astro Boy statue at his home. His graphic novel Apollo’s Song would make an incredible rock opera.
Ron: My favourite Ghibli film is maybe lesser known: the Tale of Princess Kaguya. It’s a different visual style, by a different director to most of the films, but it’s really beautiful, and an old Japanese fable brought to life in an almost moving-watercolour kind of way.
Russell: I really love Spirited Away, it’s just got an amazingly haunting atmosphere, and the technique is so non-Hollywood CGI – it’s really refreshing to see other beautiful styles of animation that don’t have to be the Hollywood bombast.
What award would you most like to win: a Grammy or an Oscar?
Russell: Good question!
Ron: We’re happy to be in the position where we’re eligible for both of them, from having worked on a lot of records we’re waiting on that Grammy call, but we’ve worked on several film projects as well. Just because the area of writing film musicials is more novel to us, and also because it’s much more glitzy, I think I would prefer that Oscar sitting on my mantle. Were I to have a mantle. But either one would be perfectly acceptable.
In Morrissey’s autobiography, he talks of getting Russell’s autograph at the age of 17, and how the first five Sparks albums were constant companions. There’s a lot of flowery praise, such as: “The lyrics of Ron Mael and the vocal sound of Russell Mael are solid and original factors, so unique that by the very laws of existence I can hardly believe they exist.” You then go on to release the single Lighten Up, Morrissey. Aside from that signing when he was “17, clumsy and shy”, have you ever encountered Morrissey, and if so, do you think he liked the song/video?
Russell: Yes, we’ve had many meetings with Morrissey throughout the years, and surprisingly Morrissey really loved our song Lighten Up Morrissey, and so much so that he’s used the video we made in a montage before he goes on stage. He was happy enough about it so he’d want to show it to his fans. He was very consistent with our impression we had of him – he lived up to that.
Ron: Estimated number of ties in your closet? 0-10? 10-50? More?
Ron: Definitely more. I’ve gotten quite a few ties from Japan, they always tend to reinvent and improve things that you can get anywhere else in the world, so I’m really a huge collector of ties from Japan in particular. It’s a good period for buying ties, because they’re the right width – there were periods when they were too skinny and too mod, or too fat, and you looked like a bad businessman. I’m trying to buy as many ties in this golden age of ties, when they’re the width they always should be.
Is Pineapple your greatest-ever song? Congratulations on being one of the greatest, most original and longest-lived acts of all time!
Ron: Out of the three songs he’s written… it is a good song, I have to say.
What are your favourite Ingmar Bergman films?
Ron: My favourite is Wild Strawberries – i’ts difficult to choose because they’re all masterpieces, but Wild Strawberries, about an old professor facing death, and the way it’s presented is the most beautiful and meaningful Bergman film for me.
Russell: Virgin Spring also comes to mind.
They are one of the most idiosyncratic acts in pop history, probably the only band to have made disco with Giorgio Moroder, formed a supergroup with Franz Ferdinand, and created a musical about the life of Ingmar Bergman.
Now approaching 50 years in the game, Sparks – aka brothers Ron and Russell Mael – emerged from Los Angeles in the glam rock era, and they scored a UK No 2 hit in 1974 with This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us, before embracing electronics and dance music. They have continuously released records since: in 2008, their Sparks Spectacular concert series saw them perform all 21 in their entirely. Their 23rd album Hippopotamus is out on September 8.