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Interview: RUSSELL MAEL (Sparks)

Rock Stars...


Few bands can boast a 35 year career that has scaled the peaks and troughs of the ever changing rock world.

Yet on the evidence of their last two albums (2002) 'Lil' Beethoven' and 2006's 'Hello Young Lovers' Sparks are once again enjoying a creative peak. As with most of their diverse career - the band have enjoyed dalliances with Rock, Pop, Glam, synth pop, electronics, art rock, techno, disco and operatic pastiche - their current output is once again characteristically ground breaking.

The Mael brothers, lyricist Ron, he of the famous Lennon observed 'Hitler moustache'and the falsetto voiced Russell cut two unheralded album in the early 70's before moving to the UK and enjoying both album and single success, most notably with chart album 'Kimono My House', and the lead track, hit single 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us'

31 years later finds the Mael brothers back in their native LA and once again achieving critical acclaim and measured commercial success with their current CD, 'Hello Young Lovers'. 'Lovers' is essentially an art rock album full of unique speech patterns, operatic forms, repeated vocal lines, fragmented time changes, wry observational lyrics and a frequent juxtaposition of complex musical formats with a mix of witty, naive, mundane and humorous lyrics. And all this before the lead track 'Dick Around' was banned by the BBC!

And with a career that has influenced everybody from Queen (Sparks had recorded two albums before Queen entered the recording studio), The Pet Shop Boys, Faith No More, Franz Ferdinand and The Darkness, their musical legacy has helped them sustain an innovative profile that is just about to boosted by their biggest undertaking yet. Between May 16th and June 11th 2008 Sparks will convene at the Islington Academy London to play all 20 of their albums, with the near month residency climaxing with a performance of their yet untitled new album at the Shepherds Bush Empire on June 13th.

Was Sparks always conceptualised as being more than just band?

Early on we thought that what we were doing was something unique, and that the term rock wasn't essential to what we were doing. It was just we had a special way or viewpoint of pop music and music in general. So we always had the kind of aspiration not to be going down the straight and narrow path of pop music.

And as time's gone on you've experimented in different directions of course?

Yeah yeah, you've got to keep pushing yourself and the audience who you hope will be listening to what you are doing, you know just keep going with forward thinking, staying fresh and being innovative coming up with new ideas and directions.

The new album is both challenging and enjoyable and at different times takes in a range of styles from Zappa to Gilbert & Sullivan and inevitably Queen? Can you relate to that?

Well I can see that it's kind of hard to pigeonhole what it is and I can see where you hear those references, but really we are more concerned with creating something that is less specific and maybe harder to figure out where it's coming from. It's something we are proud of, the fact of being able to create music that doesn't really fit neatly into any specific genre.

On 'Hello Young Lovers' you combine clever complex operatic arrangements with mundane, humorous, almost naive lyrics, is that a fair appraisal?

Yes we do produce music that can be really complex, and the album has got some really thought out arrangements and there are some kinds of jarring elements that occur. We like to be innovative and provocative through our music.

Isn't the idea of performing all 20 albums fraught with difficulty? Not least because a lot of people might want to hear 'Kimono My Bride'', 'Propaganda' or indeed 'Lil Beethoven' & 'Hello Young Lovers' but not necessarily 'Balls' or 'Big Beat'.

Well the whole project is more than being about the specifics of who will attend on which particular night. It's really more a statement of playing every single song and playing every single note off every single album we've ever done. The idea behind it is to find a bold way to introduce our latest, yet to be released album. We just thought about the best way to focus on the new album and thought this would be a unique way of doing it. It shows how strongly we feel about the new album.

So, the specifics are secondary to the concept of the event as a whole, which is bigger than any one night. You know the idea of a celebration of our 21 albums was so compelling that we wanted to do it this way. We understand of course that not everybody would want to spend a month of their life with Sparks (lol) but the idea was so compelling that we just had to do it.

Where did the idea come from?

Well it came from (laughs) high consultation and board room meetings with the principals of Sparks and Spark's manager. We needed to come up with fresh and new ideas of how you want to present yourself. And the next album is very important so we thought it was better to bring attention to it in a noteworthy way. By doing it this way people would be thinking about our next piece of work. The hard work on our part is to get it all together but we are up for the count.



Ron worked out we have to play 4,825,623 notes during the performances of all the albums.


How long will it take to rehearse all that music?

We are starting in January so there will be 4 months worth of rehearsing for a one off performance, and that involves a lot of preparation.

But you did have an idea for doing that in miniature before, as you've played a couple of albums in their entirety on recent tours?

Yes we kind of undertook the idea for this in a limited form with 'Hello Young Lovers', 'Kimono My House' and 'Lil Beethoven', so we only have to learn - what is it - another 180 or so songs!(laughs). Ron worked out we have to play 4,825,623 notes during the performances of all the albums.

On the other hand it might be a good time to re introduce people to albums they may have overlooked like the love songs on 'Pulling Rabbit's Out of a Hat'.

That's the thing yeah. Some of those albums may have slipped through the cracks and some of those albums people may already have an opinion about. So when people see them in a live context it's a kind of new reassessment in a different way. So I hope some albums might shine in a different way from the perception people already have of them. That's particularly so with some of our 80's albums as there are a lot of gaps, especially in the UK.

Going back to your early career, you wrote some of 'A Woofer in Tweeters Clothing' yet ever since Ron has written most of Sparks stuff?

I wrote some of it yeah, but not most of it. Yeah I contributed to it and did my fair share of the lyrics. And it is correct to say that the starting point for most of Sparks's songs is Ron's lyrics. He keeps pushing me to do more but I think Ron's stuff is better and besides writing involves so much more work (laughs).

You moved to the UK in 1973 and album success followed quickly with 'Kimono My House' and the singles 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us' and 'Amateur Hour'. Did the UK turn out to be what you expected, both socially and musically?

Well the most important thing for us has always been what we are doing musically so in that sense England did fulfil our vision of what we thought it was going to be in terms of the music scene. The music scene over there has always been far more vibrant than what it is in LA. So we got drawn into this diverse scene and it led to our album being such a success at the time.

Your career has shifted emphasis from Glam to synth pop to Electronic and even operatic Pop, but you were never really happy with the Glam description at the time were you?

Well we never considered ourselves to be a Glam band especially as we had done two albums prior to 'Kimono My House'. We had kind of already developed our style and put our slant on the music and so the general mould of where we were coming from was already established. So when we became associated with the Glam thing we were kind of puzzled, cos we had charted our own course before then.

But then back in 75 you hired Tony Visconti who was known for his work with Bowie and Bolan to produce 'Indiscreet'?

Right, but I think that was more a musical and taste kind of decision than anything, cos we loved Tony intensely as a real musician and as an engineer and producer. So the decision was more about the fact that he could do those big band arrangements and could arrange outside instruments like he did on tracks like 'Look Look Look', 'Get Into the Swing', 'It Ain't 1918' etc. So it was those elements that drew us to Tony and not the fact he had a recording connection with the Glam scene.


'This Town' also marked the time when you made your first promo clip, which was very groundbreaking at the time.

Yeah, well actually the 'This Town' video wasn't even a video it was a film as at that time there were no outlets to show that kind of thing. This was pre video days and there were no video channels or MTV. But Island records positively encouraged us to come up with something and I think they wanted to capture the idea of the song on film in non concert kind of setting.

In 1979 you hooked up with Georgio Moroder for 'Number One in Heaven' and 'Terminal Jive' and leapt into the vanguard of Synth Pop. Did that label put any constrictions on your creative side?

No in fact working with Georgio opened up new ideas for us. For one thing it showed we weren't tied to the guitar, bass and drum format and it showed you could work in other ways in a non band context. Making that record also showed that you could use electronics and then after that you could go on to use electronics with guitars. So I think in terms of finding a new way to present our songs he really opened up things for us.

Were you surprised with the success you had at that point?

Yeah, although it was commercially fulfilling and we really liked the album, it was critically tough at the time cos people thought it was puzzling for Sparks to be doing what they perceived to be Disco. We saw it as an electronic album where the synths had replaced the aggression of guitars, and really that album was about the songs. The way it worked we'd come up with some ideas and Georgio would tell us which one's he thought would work or not. We didn't set out to make 'disco record' as such it was more to do with the style and maybe the instrumentation of the thing, and even how it was recorded.

Much like Devo you were also embraced by MTV and then almost shunned?

Well at varying different period they would play us and then not. I guess they just play us whenever it works for them. I'm not really sure about how the whole thing worked for them as I really don't know what the ins and outs of MTV.

Did make a conscious decision to change direction from time to time in your music like for example with your 1994 Techno come back album 'Gratuitous Sax'?

We never analysed our music in that kind of way, we just approached each album as a fresh departure and in some sort of way different from the previous stuff we'd done and so we approached songs like 'When Do I Get To Sing " My Way in a different way using electronics.

One of the newer aspects of the 'Hello Young Lovers' album has been the use of speech patterns. Were they all pre planned and did they come before the song?

It was all done in the studio. Ron's lyrics were the starting point as they always are, but a lot of it hadn't been planned before so there was a kind of trial and error thing going on and we were winging it. But you know it was two years work to get it all to work. There was a lot of experimenting going.

Given that you are brothers you seem to work together well and in recent years haven't felt the need for an outside producer?

We're kind of very strongly opiniated about what it is we should be doing and if there was someone we could trust our output with we'd be more than happy, cos it's easier that way. I guess what we do now on our own is a lot more extreme because of that. So we tackle the production ourselves rather than use someone from the outside to produce it and I guess it gives the music a kind of reckless edge.

Moving on to your career in general, you were always more accepted in Europe than the US? What do you think the reason for that are? Is it because of the art rock side of your work?

Maybe, maybe, but also things are transmitted around Europe in a more centralised kind of way and things get disseminated in Europe much easier. In America it's more fragmented, there's no centralised radio to cover the whole country so it has different things.


Thinking about you playing all 20 albums live and the re recordings on 'Plagiarism', do you sometimes feel that it was a different band at times?

In a way yeah, but it's a living breathing kind of body of work; and each album reflects what was going on at the time.

What was your approach to re recording the songs on 'Plagiarism'?

People might know us for our better known songs, but for example when we had a hit in Germany with 'When Do I Get To Sing My Way', we suddenly realised that a lot of the younger fans had no idea about our previous recordings. So we thought that it would be a good idea to introduce some of our older stuff to a younger audience. And we wanted to do it in a creative way and come up with new arrangement of those songs.

Were you disappointed that 'Lil Beethoven' didn't chart?

Well yeah in a way cos you do want to get more people to hear what it is you are doing. We know that the album was a creative success, and the press really liked it as well. So it's a disappointment if only for the sake that more people don't get to hear it after you've spent a couple of years of your life making it.


And how did you choose the songs on the 'Dee Vee Dee Live at the London Forum' DVD? After all you left out some of your big songs?

Yeah, well some of the favourite songs had already been on previous DVD's so we didn't want to repeat ourselves and also we wanted to reintroduce some of the older songs we hadn't yet done on DVD. The main thing about the DVD was to showcase the 'Hello Young Lovers' album in its entirety.

Finally what can we expect from the new album that will be showcased on the 21st concert?

We will be taking some of the stylistic things that we did on the previous two albums and develop them even further with more vocals and singing on it than the previous two. There will be certainly less spoken word and we will still have complex arrangements on it, but overall something a little different again from what we have done before.

Good luck with the 21 album concerts. I hope the voice can make it?

Ha ha, I hope so too, we'll soon find out!

Interview December 2007 Pete Feenstra

Sparks' tour runs from May 16th to June 11th 2008. Album No. 1 - Album No. 20, at Carling Academy Islington, N1 Centre, Islington, London N1 0PS

On June 13 2008 there is the world premiere of Sparks as-yet-untitled 21st album at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The live concert DVD 'Dee Vee Dee - Sparks At The London Forum' is released on 20 November 2007.

DVD review

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