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Music interview – Sparks: ‘You have to find new ways of presenting what you’re doing’

Sparks. Picture: Philippe Mazzoni
Sparks. Picture: Philippe Mazzoni
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Veteran art-pop band Sparks are due to perform in Leeds for the first time more than 40 years. Duncan Seaman spoke to their singer, Russell Mael.

The hour may be early in California but Russell Mael sounds as bright as a button when talking about the late career renaissance of his band Sparks.

Restored to the top 10 in the UK last year for the first time in almost four decades, with an album hailed as a “masterpiece”, it seems Russell and his older brother Ron have much to feel upbeat about.

The high chart position for Hippopotamus was “a surprise”, Russell says. “We approach every album we do with the same kind of intensity and dedication and focus and we try to make everything really special, the Hippopotamus album was no exception to that, however the reception that it met with was something that did take us by surprise.

“We were happy that so many people responded, not only really hardcore Sparks fans, but a lot of people that had maybe been Sparks fans but they’d not been as intensely following the band as some others, they seem to have come back into the fold now and also just meeting with a lot of brand new fans that this was the first Sparks album that they were introduced to and then in turn they go and discover this band has 22 other albums that they have to wade through now. It was a really pleasant and happy experience with the release of this album.”

With any band whose back catalogue stretches as far back as 1971, there’s always a danger of repeating yourselves. Avoiding repetition has become a Sparks mantra, it appears. “We’re really conscious of that fact is one thing, just being aware that you can’t do that if you’re going to have that longevity in any kind of way,” says Russell. “You have to find new ways of presenting what you’re doing. We also have certain givens within Sparks – there’s my singing that’s been a constant throughout and there’s Ron’s writing and his lyrical slant, those things are going to always be there – but within those givens you have to find fresh ways of presenting what it is you’re doing. It’s a huge challenge because this is now 23 albums, that’s a lot of material.

Sparks

Sparks

“Also not trying to be fitting in with the zeitgeist, that’s almost the worst possible thing to do, finding sounds that sound exactly like what Taylor Swift is doing or whatever and then employ that within your thing. That’s not the way to approach finding fresh ways of doing what you’re doing. It’s some kind of intuitive thing that you have to seek out. We feel kind of lucky that people are saying this album sounds modern and also in certain ways it echoes back to other eras of Sparks too.”

Hippopotamus covers a lot of ground lyrically, from Scandinavian furniture to sex to Abraham Lincoln’s wife and Hieronymous Bosch, even Shakespeare. Russell says: “It’s kind of inherent that things can have a fun side or even a humorous or playful side but a lot of the time it’s balanced off with another subtext, it has a more profound counterbalance to the humour. A lot of times there are interpretations of something when it has some humour to it that it also can’t have depth, we don’t feel that’s the case necessarily, that things can also have a quality to them that can make you smile but also make you think as well. It’s a knack I think Ron, as the chief lyricist, has, just being able to write in that kind of way.

“A lot of people think a love song has to sound like the tortuous situation that you’re going through. We deal sometimes with relationship themes in the songs but kind of treat it in a more fresh way we think, not having a hackneyed or clichéd lyric to convey those things.”

Even before Sparks found fame in Britain in the mid-1970s, with hits such as This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us and Amateur Hour, they were confirmed Anglophiles. “We always liked the bands that had real personality and character in what they were doing musically, an image that was so important to the band and that seemed so fresh and contrary to what was happening here in LA where we’re from,” Russell explains. “We always gravitated to bands that would come over like the early Who, the early Move and The Kinks, bands like that, where the lyrics were special on a lot of their songs and the image of the band live was important and a visceral approach was equally important as well. Those things seemed exotic to us, being in LA, and then throwing in a British accent from various regions on top of all that was the frosting on the cake.”

It’s kind of inherent that things can have a fun side or even a humorous or playful side but a lot of the time it’s balanced off with another subtext, it has a more profound counterbalance to the humour.

Russell Mael

As well as recording and touring, the Mael brothers are currently working on a couple of film projects – one, a musical called Annette, is to be directed by the French auteur Leos Carax (Holy Motors, Les Amants de Pont-Neuf) who features on a song on Hippopotamus, and is “hopefully going to be shooting at some point in the first half of this year”, Russell says.

“It’s a project that we initiated and wrote from the ground-floor up. We had presented it to him, he’s a really great director that we like a lot, his last film, Holy Motors, was a really interesting film. We were waiting to hear the status from him. It was going to be shooting last year and then things happened with actors having other commitments but we’re hoping everything’s steaming ahead and it’s going to be a really big, interesting project when it does surface.”

For now there’s a UK tour to look forward to – including the prospect of Sparks’ first show in Leeds for 43 years. Russell may not be able to remember the gig at Leeds Town Hall in 1975 – “To be honest it was a long time ago,” he says – but he does remember that “the period in general was really exciting, that first blast that we had of acceptance and real pandemonium and mania surrounding the band when we played”.

“The shows were really wild and that whole period was really exciting, the music scene in general was so vibrant and we liked so much of the music that was going on then, like Roxy Music. We’re excited to come back to Leeds and do it again but 2018 style.”

Sparks play at O2 Academy Leeds on Wednesday May 23. http://allsparks.com/

CLICK HERE FOR TO WATCH SPARKS’ PERFORMANCE FOR BBC 6MUSIC