Looking for a Spark

An Interview with Russell Mael

by Adam Besenyodi


PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Sparks exist on the fringes of pop culture consciousness. And they seem content with being pop music antagonists—insisting that everything else categorized as pop music is crap, and that what they are producing is what pop music should be. But, if ones’ music is only heard and embraced by a limited audience, it’s hard to find a convincing argument that it actually is popular. This seems to be the trap brothers Ron and Russell Mael have fallen into over and over again throughout their 25-plus-year career.

With the pending release of Hello Young Lovers, Russell Mael presumably took at least some time to respond to an e-mail interview with PopMatters. Of course, there is a fine line between being clever and being an asshole. And part of what Sparks are all about seems to be walking that line.

PopMatters: 2003’s Lil’ Beethoven felt “processed”, like the music was being made by a computer. With Hello Young Lovers, you seem to have mastered an organic sounding orchestration. Was that intentional? Was it a planned progression?

Russell Mael: One of the channels must be missing on your stereo: the right channel of Lil’ Beethoven contained all of the organic, non-computer sounding orchestrations that you obviously missed.

PM: The first single, “Perfume”, has an “88 Lines about 44 Women”/“People Who Died” feel to it with the litany of girls and their signature scents. How did this song evolve?

RM: I think if you examine our 20 album catalogue, you’ll notice that most of our songs have been influenced by either the Nails or Jim Carroll.

PM: Hello Young Lovers is pop in that it is catchy as hell, but it really does fly in the face of pop convention in so many ways—the orchestration, the song structure, and so on. What were you striving for with this album?

RM: To fly in the face of pop convention. To find alternate ways of making compelling pop music that rely as little as possible on 50 years worth of previous models.

PM: Do you view Hello Young Lovers as a warning shot over the bow of pop music or a reaction to it?

RM: It’s modern pop music.

PM: Is there a risk of the anti-pop stance becoming forced and, ultimately, a parody of itself?

RM: We don’t have an anti-pop stance. You’ve said that.

PM: You have flown under the radar for the majority of your career, which seems to afford you some freedom from the pressures of conformity. How much of this has been by design and how much is a happy accident?

RM: Flying under the radar is nothing any pop musician aspires to. Food and shelter are wonderful things.

PM: You have thrived in a cult status. Tell me a little bit about your fans and the band’s relationship to them.

RM: Sparks has great fans. Few bands have 20 albums, and few bands have fans who have stuck with them that long while still attracting new fans. As far as our relationship to them, we do try to sleep with as many of them as possible.

PM: As a cult band, do you feel added pressure to deliver something eccentric? Do you feel there is any risk to pushing boundaries because it is expected of you, versus breaking new ground for the sake of growing?

RM: Reviewing the minutes of the last Sparks Board meeting, the subject was never taken up as to whether we should push boundaries because it was expected of us or to break new ground for the sake of growing. Do bands really talk about those things? I probably should have paid more attention in my Psych 101 class.

PM: Each new Sparks album seems to push boundaries in new and different ways. Do you begin with a set agenda for what you want to take on, or does it evolve as the album begins to take shape?

RM: We have a set agenda that usually evolves as the album begins to take shape.

PM: What is the process behind creating a Sparks album?

RM: Sit in a room all alone with your brother for two years and pray to God that something worthwhile happens.

PM: Working with family is always a dicey proposition at best. How has working with your brother influenced your work over the years?

RM: It’s made me realize that there are still a few chords that I don’t know.

PM: How do you plan to bring Hello Young Lovers to the stage?

RM: There will be a visual presentation that will hopefully enhance the audio portion. The album will again be performed in its entirety as the first half of our live shows.

PM: Will Hello Young Lovers receive a proper release in the US?

RM: March 12 on In the Red Records.

PM: Is there a vault of unreleased Sparks songs that are waiting for a box set or reissues or compilations?

RM: Not that I’m aware of.

PM: How does your love of visual arts and cinema affect the Sparks’ output, both on record and at live shows?

RM: It makes our music richer and bigger than life.

PM: Your paths have crossed with some interesting personalities. What is the story behind your near-collaboration with French filmmaker Jacques Tati in the mid-‘70s and the Confusion project? How does that tie in to your appearance in Rollercoaster?

RM: We were to be in Tati’s film Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV really is done. Unfortunately due to Tati’s declining health and ultimate death, the film didn’t get met. That has no tie in to Rollercoaster. One was to be a good film.

PM: “Angst in My Pants” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love” were so effectively used in the movie Valley Girl. How did the inclusion of those songs come about, and why haven’t other Sparks songs turned up on soundtracks in the 13 years since?

RM: February 21, 1982, Universal’s legal department hinted that they may want to include some Sparks songs in the film, Valley Girl. February 22, we received a provisional deal memo from them with copies to our attorney and management. February 23, neither Ron nor I were available to discuss the pros and cons of using the songs in the film as we were out of town. February 25, we are back in town and can focus on the deal memo. February 26, we meet with cast and crew members to see if there is a genuine connection. That goes well. February 27, our attorney sees if there is any more money that can be squeezed out of Universal. Later that afternoon, Universal does cave and the initial low-ball offer was raised. February 28, a courier comes to my place with cash for the advance. While the courier waits, I count all the bills to make sure the designated amount is correct. After recounting the stacks of 100s, the figures finally check out ok. I tip the courier a 20 for his extra waiting time. The deal is concluded.

PM: What has been the biggest disappointment and the greatest achievement of your 26 year career?

RM: Not making the film with Jacques Tati. Realizing that we have 20 albums.

PM: What have you been listening to lately, and what new music gets you going?

RM: The Beatles and the Yardbirds. No new music gets me going.

PM: What is your definition of art?

RM: Never having to say you’re sorry.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.


//Mixed media

20 Questions: Amadou & Miriam

// Sound Affects

"For their ninth studio album, acclaimed Malian duo Amadou & Miriam integrate synths into their sound while displaying an overt love of Pink Floyd.

READ the article