Sparks' Russell Mael
Published May 28, 2008Go to the airport right now. There still may be time for you to catch the tail end of the greatest career retrospective ever held - the Sparks Spectacular! Twenty-one albums deep into their career, with over 250 of the most incredible, sophisticated and clever pop songs ever written, Sparks are putting on a show like no other. Each of their records are being played in consecutive order at London's Carling Academy Islington, culminating in the first live performance of their wonderful new CD, Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
Imagine a sound born out of the airport lounges of Tokyo, London, L.A. and Paris, long before that meant security issues. Envision berets, tennis shorts, absurdist French comedy, espresso, faux luxury, fake English accents and a Hitler moustache, and some kind of picture will form that approximates the genius that is the first five Sparks albums: masterpieces released between 1971 and 1975 that are unparalleled and impossible to classify. From their icy future-disco 1979 vision, Number One In Heaven to 1982's Angst In My Pants, refinement of the new wave prog they invented, Sparks have challenged themselves and the conventions of pop music for close to 40 years. That their three most-recent releases are among the groups best is a feat accomplished by none other. Forget your sombre and mumbly Springsteen and your animatronic Stones joke, all hail the last standing geniuses of pre-post-past-present everything. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Sparks.
We spoke with falsetto-voiced singer, Russell Mael - still "the cute one" at 58 - for eight brief minutes the day before the first show, as the band tried to satisfy the onslaught of press and simultaneously put the finishing touches on live versions of a lifetimes body of work. Here's what he had to say.
This must be exciting and weird for you.
It's a very special occasion that's probably only going to happen once so, yeah, it's exciting.
With the evolving styles that Sparks has had, it has never seemed as though the band was cynical. It's never seemed that your choice to work in any particular style of music has been a strategic market aim. Would you say that's true?
Yeah, yeah. And it's also a good comment because there's always a temptation from someone who doesn't really understand the band to say there's a cynicism behind the stance of the band but we really believe, as you do, that it's a genuine commitment to what it is. What we do is not done from a distance or anything. I agree with you.
I recently found a copy of Canadian music mag Record Week that happened to have an interview with you from just before [1976 album] Big Beat came out. You declared a wish to have mainstream acceptance. Is that something that Sparks pursue or do you do what feels right in the moment?
I think that attitude has changed since that statement because any kind of mainstream acceptance that's going to happen is going to happen without our doing anything and it has been that case periodically throughout our career. Contrary to what that statement was at that time, we find the way that Sparks' music gets a bigger audience is when we are at our most eccentric and not concerning ourselves wondering "Does this fit in?" or "Is this commercial?" or "Is this going to work on a radio platform?" kind of considerations. When it's at its most extreme is when it's at its most interesting. Often times, those [albums] that are the most interesting do meet with some sort of commercial acceptance too. As an artist, you want to have as many people hear what you are doing as you can but our way to achieve that now, from our perspective, is that we can't mold our music in some kind of way that we think will be accepted. That whole way of working, now, in our eyes, yields the most bland results. I think even with the last three albums - Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep - we've really pushed things as far as we can to be unrelenting in what we do, just keeping all the edges intact and being as eccentric as we can with our music at the same time. More people are going to want to hear something from us that is provocative in nature than attempting to play it safe.
Looking at the chronology of how things came out, I really hear that the last few records, Hello Young Lovers and Lil' Beethoven are among your best. There was a really big shift that happened Plagiarism [the 1997 album on which Sparks covered their own reinvented songs]. How much of a role in re-evaluating your older songs did Plagiarism have?
The genesis behind Plagiarism was that we'd had big success in Germany with Gratuitous Sax (and Senseless Violins), and particularly When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'. Most people thought Sparks was a new band because it was so commercially on the map there. With the video being played every minute on MTV and stuff, people thought we were a brand new band so we did the Plagiarism album as a follow-up to Gratuitous Sax. We wanted to introduce a lot of people to the back catalogue and past history of the band and to do it in a way that we thought was interesting.
Since then, with the latest three more specifically, we have really adopted a new way of working where we just want to not necessarily work in usual song structure, or the instrumentation can be as varied or as extreme as it needs to be. You don't have to use any of the normal rules that exist in pop music. That's the one thing you have, the freedom to do whatever you want to do. It seems that with that kind of freedom, a band should make use of that opportunity if they have the capabilities. We just reassessed what we are able to do, and that we have a broad enough palate that we can attempt to do things in a slightly different way and use slightly different thinking in how to approach our music.
I imagine that some of that change has been supported by changes in technology. You record things at home, have great sounding strings, etc. Some of the string arrangements on Lil' Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers were so fantastic and rich and probably would have been a little more out of reach if you were working with a real orchestra. I noticed that you have an engineer's credit for the first time on the last album. How much has that contributed to the way you work?
I've engineered on the last three. We've always been very insular in the way we work but now even moreso. The recordings are just Ron and myself working in a vacuum. He's doing all the string arrangements and the musical side of things and I'm serving more on the technical side, engineering the recordings. Sometimes when we do the final mixes we bring in someone else just to give us an extra ear but we now kind of like that there's not a lot of input from the outside world. We can be a self-contained unit and do all the recording on our own. For better or worse, it's not shaped by any outside forces.
In doing this huge retrospective and learning all of your songs, there must be songs you are hearing that are making you say, "Omigod, I love us, we are so great!"' What songs would you say are happening for you in that way?
Well, there's a lot. It's really true, without sounding overly boastful. There's a lot of albums, particularly from a British perspective that are under the radar, mainly in the '80s. Those albums in particular are going to be fun to do for a British audience. A lot of people here in England tend to think Sparks were inactive at that time but in fact, it was one of our most active times. In a live context, it will be the great leveler. If someone just popped in on any given night that wasn't something like the Kimono My House night or the Number One In Heaven night (because they were also commercially very popular albums here), apart from any other musical considerations, there's ones from other eras or periods that we feel musically are just as solid as the ones that people are more aware of. Also, the first two albums are going to be really fun too because they were really special albums, getting by on less power and urgency. There's a kind of charm to them from the actual recordings that we want to try and recreate live. We've never done those albums live.
I imagine there's a good 100 or so songs that you've never played live.
Definitely more than that. I'd say half! There's going to be over 250 songs.
In that catalogue, what are the ones that you're thinking "I can't believe we released this"?
I don't know. After going through all of them, we don't really feel that way. We're just really proud of the whole ensemble of songs. We're happy that we got from there to here where we are now and it's just part of the whole journey. I hate to use that word but it's all been made up of those parts and for us, they're all a part of the whole process. There's nothing within it that we're not looking forward to playing.
I've been listening to the catalogue in preparation for the concerts and this interview and it's a pretty remarkable body of work. You must be very proud at this point. I saw that there's a concert when I arrive in a big stadium that's like Heaven 17, ABC, Nick Heyward and these bands that are newer than Sparks yet doing the nostalgia circuit. You're still a relevant band making new recordings.
We're proud of that and the only reason that's the case is that we work hard and have some ambition to not become that sort of thing. You can become that if you decide that's what you're going to be. Sometimes bands don't have the capability of changing what they do. You have some say in your career and we fight hard to preserve that fact that we are a current band with an album that's being incredibly well received so far - not that that's the criterion for whether it's a successful album in your eyes anyway - but as a by-product it's been really well received so far and we're really proud of that. Your comment about not being seen in the same terms as the bands that you mentioned that are on the nostalgia package tour things, it seems kind of a sad thing when that era becomes a nostalgia era. We really are proud and in fact work hard to be a contemporary act.
The last time you were in Toronto was, I think, for Angst In My Pants. Why has it been so long since you have been here?
It's been a long time since we've been anywhere in North America to a large extent, other than New York and Los Angeles. We haven't singled out Toronto or Canada for any specific reason for our absence.
It's no 20-year plan to come back as a "legendary act"!
Hopefully we'll be able to come back under different circumstance than it would have been had we come back sooner so we'll just say that that's the story, but we do hope to come there with the current album.
In doing the albums chronologically, has it felt like psychotherapy to you?
Kind of because we hadn't done some of those albums in a long time so some of them seem like we're doing cover versions of Sparks. We hadn't even listened to them, let alone performed them. It is a weird kind of psychotherapy thing.
Will we get to hear some of the new album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep in encores?
No, we're saving it all for show 21! There's going to be one encore song per night and it's going to be a b-side or something obscure.
We might get to hear Arts and Crafts Spectacular?
You will, in fact.
We've only got to hear one song, "Lighten Up, Morrissey" from the forthcoming album. Is that indicative of what the sound of the album is?
I don't think so. It really is something that needs to be heard as an entire thing. When you hear one song leak like that. it is one of the songs and we love that song but I can't say that if you heard that song, you got what the album is by any means because it's really varied. That song sticks out as being one of the odd men out in a certain way. The album is not easily classifiable. It's hard for me to say what it is so you just have to hear it.
What kind of a person sponsors a Sparks gig?
I guess the same kind of people that buy the Golden Ticket to come to all the shows. The ones that are the super... you hate to say obsessive because that almost sounds like a pejorative term and with especially the people that have chosen to sponsor the shows, we're really grateful to them that they have that much admiration for the band that they want to contribute in that kind of way so you hate to say obsessive because that sounds creepy. Devoted is probably a better way to put it. Going out to buy the album is enough and is the most that you would hope for from a fan and you're grateful just for that. It's something really special and we're grateful that we have those kinds of fans.
To check out the rest of Don's photos from the Sparks Spectacular click here.