SPARKS are the most prolific band that you might not have heard of. The May 2008 issue of Arthur magazine featured an interview with brothers Russell and Ron Mael, in which Russell says, “I think the people that really like Sparks the most feel they’re part of a little club that’s sort of outsiders. They understand what we’re up to and they don’t want it to fit in with the rest of the pop world. They want it to be their own secret band they don’t have to share.”
As a huge Sparks fan myself, I completely agree. When you meet someone new (someone cool, of course) and you bring up Sparks in conversation, and this new friend has never heard of them, you get excited at the prospect of introducing them to this seminal band, potentially creating another convert to join the church of Sparks. With a career spanning four decades, 22 albums, and countless genres (with Sparks in fact creating new genres), with musicians from Morrissey to Björk calling them a major influence, and with their most recent albums being just as relevant and cutting edge as their younger contemporaries, the time to discover Sparks is now.
This current tour, titled “Two Hands, One Mouth,” puts vocalist Russell and pianist Ron front and center without an accompanying band. This has resulted in their their first-ever live album and a rare tour in the US with stops at Coachella and, lucky for us, Portland. You may think this tour offers a kind of "Unplugged” version of their songs, but this is far from the case. The show is full of the frenzied energy so indicative of Sparks, with song choices run the length of their entire career, made even more beautiful by the piano-and-vocal-only renditions. Russell Mael took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
MERCURY: The concept of “Two Hands, One Mouth” is a very interesting one. What informed the decision to tour without a backing band?
RUSSELL MAEL: Our recent touring history has consisted of more and more elaborate staging with each tour. The culmination was our last touring situation where we presented in London on 21 consecutive nights, all 21 of our albums, all 272 songs to that date. And now we wanted to find a way to do something equally audacious on stage but in a completely different way: hence stripping away all of the trappings surrounding the group, having no other musicians on stage other than Ron and me, and no computers or other backing. And in doing so we didn't want this to be mistaken for an “unplugged” or singer/songwriter performance but rather for it to contain all the power, size, aggression and urgency as if there were a full group with us.
How did you go about picking the songs for this tour? Were there songs that were a natural fit with the vocal and piano format? Were there songs that were attempted but abandoned because they were not working within this format?
A lot of trial and error went into the preparation of the material for the tour. As Ron's keyboard parts take on a different role within the context of a band, he was forced to come up with parts that could replace an entire band. Many tunes were discarded as they proved difficult to make completely successful in this format. But after three months of tinkering we felt that we came up with a successful concert's worth of material that could be done in the duo format.
Morrissey has been a longtime fan of yours. Did this play any part in the writing of the song “Lighten Up Morrissey”? Have you heard of his reaction to the song?
Our song "Lighten Up Morrissey" was born out of our friendship and respect for Morrissey. On the surface one might conclude that the song was derogatory in its sentiment; however, it is just the opposite. A song about a couple where the woman's love for Morrissey is to such a degree that her boyfriend constantly thinks to himself that if Morrissey would just lighten up in his beliefs and credos, then maybe the guy would stand a better chance of having the woman to himself and not having to share her with her imagined boyfriend Morrissey. And yes, Morrissey loves the song, and to such an extent that he has shown our video for the song prior to him going on stage on many of his tours.
Rock operas are nothing new, but your take on the genre with The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which is essentially a radio musical, is quite unique. How did the experience of creating this album differ from the other albums you have created?
We were commissioned by the Swedish National Radio to write and produce a musical drama to be premiered on their station and broadcast to the whole country. Not only were the Swedes very excited about the results when we completed the drama, but we decided after the fact that the piece warranted being heard by an audience outside of Sweden. Since that time we have been attempting to get funding for the project as a feature film to be directed by the acclaimed Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. We will be going to the Cannes Film Festival in May to meet with film producers in hopes of achieving our goal. What started out as a specific project for the Swedish audience has since escalated into a Sparks album as well as hopefully being a feature film in the not-too-distant future.
Your albums are extremely varied and have touched on almost every musical genre one can think of. Did you ever set out to purposefully make a genre specific album or was this just a natural evolution of your music?
In our eyes we are never genre specific but rather pre-genre specific. Usually the genres are born after we've released an album. For example, in 1979 with the No. 1 in Heaven album, we attempted a bold recording with electronics and danceable rhythms, abandoning our traditional drums, bass, guitar format and working as a duo with the studio as our real band. We worked with Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder on an album that in retrospect paved the way for every electro duo, from the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and countless others to now be a part of a new genre. We never calculate where we're headed with any new album. We want to do projects where the genre hasn't yet been created.
Looking back, were there any albums that were the most fun to record? Any that were extremely taxing where you almost gave up?
We've been fortunate to work with many great producers and have had great experiences with those projects. As I mentioned, Giorgio Moroder was one. Among our other favorites is Tony Visconti, David Bowie's producer who has done Bowie's latest album as well as numerous great albums from his past. We've worked with Tony on several of our albums and he's been an inspiration and great fun to work with due to his amazing musical ability as well as his great taste in music and wonderful engineering skills. Since working with some of great producers we've learned a lot and now create all our albums at my studio in my home with us acting as producer.
In response to people saying that your vocals were unintelligible you once said, “I deit slivijd mdbub fuus idoiala loodoosi fy idildoa aoso slso dodada nosthinj how is the tirghth dnowonv.” Is this statement still accurate?
Vlitoy pb tixal admxornin!
What’s next for Sparks?
To continue creating music that we feel is vital, and forward thinking for not only ourselves but also our fans. The next album with that sensibility is in the works.