Spark-ing Creativity

An Inteview with Russell Mael

by Ari Lauren


PopMatters: You are a band with a strong “cult” following. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of working outside of the realm of mainstream commercial success?

Russell Mael: You don’t get as much money, but you get respect, so those are the pros and cons. If we had our choice . . . if we had a big cult, that would be the ideal thing. We have a loyal following, through thick and thin. The fans that have been with you tend to be more critical about what you’ve done in the past . . . but the new album was well-received by the loyal cult, so that’s good.

PM: I understand that both of you are visual artists by training. How did you become interested in music?

RM: We’ve always just been interested in pop music. It’s appealing. We were in various bands, not at the same time, and we finally just joined forces, and decided we enjoyed doing music more than we enjoyed what we were doing in school. Having the initial fortune of having Todd Rundgren [produce our album], we turned what was a hobby into…well, it’s thirty years and 19 albums later.

PM: In your estimation, is there a connection between visual and auditory media?

RM: It’s all the same for us. Our image is important, our live presentation is very visual now. They are all important elements of packaging the album. Obviously, the music is the most important thing, but those visual elements are part of what a pop band should be taking care of, so we treat them seriously. We have a fairly elaborate live presentation. It’s highly visual and complementary to what we’re doing musically right now.

PM: When you first started out, was it difficult to get the attention of the music industry?

RM: No one wanted to sign us, and then we sent an album to Todd [Rundgren]. He’s the only one who responded to us. To his credit, he wanted to keep [the sound] exactly as it was on the demos. There was no intervention from A&R people, trying to shift it into a direction that may or may not be necessary.

PM: Some listeners have stated that your music has changed incredibly over the years. Other claim that a song from, say, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins or Plagiarism could have fit in just as easily on one of your albums from the early 1970s. What’s your take on the matter?

RM: The sensibility is the same as it’s always been, but the new album is drastically different from its predecessors. It’s doing away with a lot of rock and pop conventions and trying to have an album that’s not relying on a lot of things that have become clichés in pop music. Trying to do something that’s really adventuresome. This album, even for us, is more idiosyncratic. My singing character, and Ron’s lyrical slant. It wasn’t based on songs in the traditional way, the way our past albums have been. It’s something else, and in that way, it’s really different from what we’ve done.

PM: Certainly, your albums have displayed a full array of influences and styles, often used in unexpected ways. Would you say that any style is “fair game?”

RM: Yeah. It is. Well, yes and no. On the new album, we had to go to different areas for absorbing influences. If anything, there are more classical-sounding elements. Anything from the pop world would be treatment of the vocals, repetitive phrases, in a hip-hop sort of way. The combining of those elements something that is not that related to either. Fewer elements have been absorbed specifically from other types of music.

PM: Who would you cite as your five major influences?

RM: Right now we’re finding it harder and harder to find people we look up to. Early on, we liked the Who, the Kinks, those sort of bands, but that was then, but we’ve moved on. It’s the past, and we kind of hate looking back, and you kind of look around now for certain things to get a buzz off of, to say, “That’s really interesting stuff,” but it’s becoming harder and harder to find. It’s a very conservative period. This album is a reaction to the conservative times, musically, that exist now.

PM: What is your working relationship like?

RM: He does the composing. In the studio, I’m doing more the engineering work and the computer stuff. The roles are really split, really different roles in the creative process. It’s highly delineated now.

PM: I understand that you performed in New York recently. What sort of reaction were you expecting from the audience?

RM: We didn’t know what to expect. This was the first time we played in New York in 20 years, and the first time playing our new album live in America. We present the album in its entirety, in order. We are proud of this album. We made a commitment to play the album in its entirety. It was a phenomenal reaction, a phenomenal crowd, one that was really willing to embrace our approach. We were ecstatic about the reaction.

PM: How did that show turn out, and is there a noticeable difference between the responses of live audiences in the U.S. and of those in Europe?

RM: We were really surprised that it was just so vocal and strong here. We didn’t really have any clue how it might be taken. A lot of times in London, the reactions have been strong and fervent. Sometimes, people check it out and want to hear more before they’re willing to commit. Last night, right from the beginning, people were really willing to embrace what we’re doing. It was a really moving evening for us.

PM: These days, looking at the current crop of bands out there, would you say that there is anyone carrying on the legacy of the Sparks?

RM: I don’t think so, in the same kind of way. I don’t think that there is. When people even say that there are some people who sound influenced by us, maybe it’s influenced by something from the past, with more electronic, danceable area that we were working in. Now, I just don’t hear much adventuresome spirit to what they’re doing. Things just seem to be very predictable.

PM: What would you say is next on the horizon for the Sparks?

RM: We’re going to keep on this same course. We feel that what we’re doing now is something that no other group is either wanting to do or capable of doing. There seem to be a lot of, people wanting to keep the status quo, and we’re so opposed to that. We want to keep exploring what we’ve done on the Little Beethoven album.

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