The cult of Sparks
Sparks is a prolific veteran band, playing together for 40 years having released 23 albums. The brothers Russell and Ron Mael are talented pop alchemists, and arguably THE quintessential cult band. They have just released the first live album of their career and, of course as one would expect it’s not a traditional ‘live’ album, more a review of their tracks through the ages with the classics stripped back to the minimum: keyboards and vocals, no rhythm, no strings, no guest musicians. “The revenge of two hands one mouth” is the name of the second leg of this tour, and it’s an excellent opportunity to enjoy these artists in our city. We spoke with Ron and Russell via e-mail, this is the result of our virtual chat.
You’ve been around as a band for a long time now, a lot of musicians like Morrisey, Faith No More and Paul McCartney mention you as an influence or as a favourite group. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a cult band?
Well, I think that Sparks fans like the idea that they are part of a unique, special club that isn't open to the general public. In that respect, the cult of Sparks holds a special mystique. Of course having fans like Morrissey, Faith No More and McCartney is also special. And maybe our cult status is alluring to them too.
Back in 2008 you started a concert cicle that has now become legend where you played your first 21 albums lives on 21 consecutive nights. How did you manage to prepare for that marathon? Did you have to relearn your back catalogue? Will you ever do anything like that ever again?
This was a huge undertaking. 4 months of rehearsals in LA and relearning over 250 songs is something that no other band will ever do. I promise. We are proud of this achievement. It took a massive focus to be able to attempt something as overwhelming as doing this many songs, but for everyone who attended, it was a magical experience.
What would be Ron’s and Russell’s favourite Sparks album?
There are many albums that have a special place in our hearts but for various different reasons. Some for an era that they evoque, some for a special hit song, some for a trendsetting style such as the No.1 In Heaven album or Lil' Beethoven. It's hard to narrow it down any further. We are proud of all of our work that we've done.
How do you manage to remain creative 40 years after starting off your career? I think that you’re like David Bowie or Madonna in the way that you’ve reinvented yourselves in terms of your sound and style, without ever losing the essence of Sparks. What do you think defines the sound of Sparks? ... Is it the melodies, the witty lyrics or these "two hands and a mouth" that the title refers to with this current tour and your brand new live album?
I agree that we've always managed to retain our unique world while still evolving and attempting to place our lyrical slant, Ron's melodies,my singing and our overall sensibility in new contexts. We are always hungry to move forward and do music that is both challenging to ourselves and also to our audience. Having 23 albums, a group can't afford to rely on the status quo. We always want to be provocative and challenging in every project.
This tour is just keyboards and vocals, no percussion, base or rhythm box. Is this aimed at hard core fans or can newly arrived followers of Sparks enjoy this in the same way?
We feel that we've attracted a lot of new fans doing the Two Hands One Mouth format. We've played big festivals like Coachella and Fuji Rock in Japan and were happy to have played in front of a public that wasn't necessarily that familiar with Sparks. It's a challenging live format that we think has succeeded. We didn't want this to be perceived as a mellow 'singer-songwriter' evening, as that is a repellent idea for us. Instead we wanted to retain all the power, urgency, sensibility and personality of our albums, but with just that core of what Sparks has always been, Ron and me.
You were the first pop group to hire Giorgio Moroder as your producer, who’s back in fashion thanks to Daft Punk right now. Did you think at the time that that sound would be so influential and last so long? Do you think that the "synth pop" format would be around today if it hadn’t been for the album "No. 1 in heaven"?
When we did the "No. 1 In Heaven" album, none of us had a clue what the final outcome would be. What we did know is that we all wanted to create something new and special. We were the first band that Giorgio ever worked with and we feel that the exploration and uncertainty of where we were headed is what made the album so special. We had no idea that that album would prove to be as influential as it has become. I don't think that the synth pop format, especially of 2-man groups, would have existed had we not taken this step. Everyone was curious as to how a band that came from a more traditional band format would take this drastic new way of working. We're very happy that we had the nerve to attempt this!
Recently Thom Yorke referred to Spotify as "the last fart of a dying corpse" in reference to the music industry. What is the position of Sparks regarding the current state of the industry and the distribution of music online legal or illegal?
I have to agree with Thom Yorke. And of course, illegally distributing music on line is not only immoral but criminal. However, we don't like to wallow in what the industry has become but rather to channel that energy into creating our music. We can't fight illegal downloading, but we can do something about trying to do the best possible music. That's our only concern.
What bands or sounds on the current scene do you admire?
We have to turn to other scenes than the current pop scene to get our inspiration. Pop music is too in-bred at present -everyone is seemingly attempting to fit in to what is around them and that is the kiss of death to us. Classical music, good films ... those are areas to find things that are not as easy place.
Any plans for new material in 2014?
Yes, we are currently working on a big conceptual project that will be out in 2014. It is a story line conceptual piece that we are very proud of. We have plans to also tour with it It will be a very different approach than the Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth. We are excited.
Finally ... how would you react if it turns out that after death and making it to heaven the number one song is by Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber ..? Would it be a matter of resusitation or heading in the opposite direction?
If the number one song in heaven is by Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber then I am heading in the opposite direction, to Hell.