Expect the Unexpected: A Conversation with Sparks
For nearly half a century (and a new album to boot), the Mael brothers Ron and Russell have been confounding listeners' expectations with their ever-changing, stylistically broad brand of artfully rendered pop.
No two Sparks records are ever quite the same. Over the course of 24 albums, they've gone from proto-glam Anglophiles to continental kings of the discothèque to arbiters of New Wave to classically-tinged art pop composers who devise an imagined narrative surrounding the life of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Why such disparate stylistic shifts?
"Why not?" is the better question. When you've afforded yourself the creative freedom Sparks and, more specifically the Mael brothers, have over their nearly 50-year career, refusing to perform to type or possess an immediately identifiable sound, why restrict yourself when your personal interests are so rich and varied?
"We're fortunate enough in a way that the nucleus of what we are is just the two of us, so we can have an open selection of where we want to go [stylistically]," explains Ron, 72, the elder, professorial Mael brother. "When you have that many options, you can also become paralyzed as to what the next step should be. We try to see it in a positive sense that we're able to go in whatever direction we want to go to. And I think the ability to make that choice is at least partly responsible for the fact that we never really felt creatively at a dead-end. We've always been able to find a way -- even externally, working with a different producer or whatever -- that would kind of open another direction to go toward."
Yet it is perhaps due to their strict refusal to adhere to any one particular stylistic aesthetic that they've remained largely a cult act in America and fared far better with European audiences. As a record label, how do you market an act that not only defies convention lyrically, musically and visually, but also refuses to limit themselves to a strictly rock, pop or dance sound?
It's an issue the brothers Mael have not let affect their creative output. For the better part of the last two decades, following stints on major labels like Island in the '70s and Warner Bros. in the '80s, they've instead opted to release their music on their own Lil' Beethoven label. This allowed not only full creative control over their uncontrollable creativity, but also the ability to work at their own pace, never having to release an album simply for the sake of having a product to sell.
"In general, over the past 20 years, we haven't worked with producers," says Ron, "and so it's been up to us to step back and look at what we're doing slightly dispassionately to judge whether it's really something urgent. We're not trying to fulfill what Sparks is supposed to be; it's trying to begin again each time, but obviously, there's a sensibility that we can't escape. But what we can control -- the externals and also just the strength of the material -- just within our own sensibility, that's something that we really try to judge pretty harshly."
For their latest, Hippopotamus, the duo of Ron and Russell Mael have once again surrounded themselves with other musicians, forgoing the piano/vocal route of recent years. According to Russell, 68, the younger, ever-sartorially-changing Mael brother, this was a conscious effort on their part to return to their pop roots following The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and their work on the forthcoming musical film, Annette.
"We wanted to just do an album that was, for us, back to working with three and four-minute song structures," says Russell. "We had taken a little detour recently working on a movie musical project [Annette], which is a narrative project where it's got a story that we wrote that goes from point A to point B as one long work. And so this was kind of a way for us to get back to being a pop band in that sort of sense where it's working within discreet songs and there isn't an overall theme for this album, but we thought that the songs, in the end, were vital to the whole album."
At its core, Hippopotamus may well be the most "Sparks sounding" album to date. Rather than adhering to one overarching stylistic approach, the duo has incorporated nearly all of their previous incarnations into a batch of songs that may well also prove to be some of their very best. When asked, both were quick to state that this was never meant to be any sort of career summation or intentional combing of their varying styles, rather it simply represented where they were creatively and, given the sheer breadth of their stylistic spectrum, it would be damn near impossible not to circle back around to a sound or style they've previously explored.
To wit, for a band that has been around as long as Sparks and has gone through as many styles as they have, it's only a matter of time before everything comes full circle, the multifaceted parts uniting in one gloriously cohesive whole. "It's of course impossible to blank out your whole history," he continues, "but we try as best we can each time to be making a musical statement with each album where the album just has some kind of exclamation point after it. Over time I think we've gotten better at kind of sensing when we're just kind of going through the motions and when we're doing something that really kind of shows the passion that we want to demonstrate in the record."
That they've remained as creatively vibrant as they have for so long is impressive enough, but the fact that they're a pair of brothers who have continued to be relevant five decades on is virtually unimaginable. Where other brother acts like the Kinks, Oasis and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Everly Brothers have all imploded as a result of brotherly discord, the Maels have remained a cohesive, focused unit that has now outlasted the vast majority of their contemporaries.
"The fact that we're brothers," Russell said, "there's a bond that you don't have to worry -- despite the other brother acts that prove what I'm saying to be completely wrong [laughs] -- in our case it's been an asset that there's the link that is that close because it's kept that passion and vision and focus. We just kind of put the blinders on and steamroll ahead." And this with older brother Ron writing the music and lyrics for Russell to sing at the top of his range (their 1984 album cover for Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat provided a rather tongue-in-cheek visual of this very concept, Ron the glowering specter with a puppet Russell on his clenched fist).
To say that listeners should expect the unexpected would be not only trite, but a disservice to this wildly imaginative group. In fact, it is the unexpected that makes them such a fascinating creative force nearly a half century after they began under the less-than-snappy moniker Halfnelson. This chameleonic approach forces even the most ardent of Sparks fans to check their expectations at the door. "We pretend that, in a way, people who know Sparks don't know Sparks," says Ron, "so that when we do the album we're not just kind of fulfilling what other people want to hear. We want to challenge even the people who are familiar with what we've done in the past."
It's exactly this restless creativity and constant sense of having something to prove to listeners new and old alike that has allowed Sparks to remain a consistently engaging (albeit criminally underappreciated) force on the pop spectrum. "There are still some people -- it's hard to believe -- that aren't aware yet of Sparks," jokes Russell. "So we still kind of go at what we're doing with the same spirit we had when we were first starting out: that we've got a point to prove; that we've got to do stuff that's not middle of the road pop music; and that has a voice and a stance."
This past August, with a newly-assembled band in tow, the Maels embarked on a two-month-plus tour of Europe behind the release of the new album, bringing to the masses such perfectly, idiosyncratically Sparksian songs like "Missionary Position", "I Wish You Were Fun", and "So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?" From there, they'll begin work on what could well become the fascinating next chapter in the Sparks saga: the world of film. After years of false starts and projects residing in a sort development purgatory (their adaptation of Mai, the Psychic Girl has been in the works since at least the mid-'80s with Tim Burton attached to direct), the brothers are set to see their first scripted musical be released into the world.
Russell explains the upcoming work on Annette: "It's going to be directed by the French director Leos Carax and the principle actors are going to be Adam Driver and Michelle Williams and is supposed to start filming at the beginning of the next year. It's been in pre-production for quite a while now and we've been working with Leos for the last four years or so refining and revising certain elements. It's been a really lengthy process, but it's going to be a project that's really something special and high-profile because it's going to be the first international film for Leos Carax and his English language film so it's going to theoretically be given a bigger treatment than some of his other films."
Underselling the potential for a significant rise in their own international profile, they hope that this will serve as their proper entry into the world of cinema that they've been so enamored of since their days studying the medium at UCLA prior to the formation of Sparks. And while their first proper film has indeed been a long time coming, they've long combined their love of the visual with their musical output. "People have always commented along the way that, 'You guys are always so visual in what you do'," explains Russell. "The songs have always had a lot of visual imagery in them that's not necessarily orthodox subject matter or themes or the way those themes are treated are kind of unorthodox. They could be taken as little mini films without the visuals."
So after years of virtually going it alone, the Maels have once again teamed up with like-minded creative types for their latest endeavors. Both with Annette and Hippopotamus, they've returned to the mainstream, leaving behind their own Lil' Beethoven imprint for the much higher-profile BMG. "It just takes the right pairing of people to make the situation work," says Russell, "and the situation with BMG is that they're really passionate musically about what we're doing and creatively and supportive of all the things that we like about being in a group where we think that the visuals are really important.
"They're really supportive of making videos," he continues. "We're doing the third video for the album already and it's going to be for the song 'Edit Piaf Said it Better Than Me', and then just the album cover artwork where we thought that that image for Hippopotamus was so strong without any typography or even the name of the band, that we would prefer to let the visual speak for itself."
When asked how such a pairing came about, Russell explained: "Our publishing side for our back catalog of all the songs we'd written was up for renewal, so BMG really wanted to take on our whole catalog of songs. Once we did a publishing deal with them then the record label side of BMG really was interested in listening to the new album. So they flew out from London and we played them the album and they just kind of flipped out and said, 'This is amazing, we need to do the record deal now as well.' So they signed it worldwide and we're just really happy with the situation."
What this partnership might mean for the band's future is anyone's guess, but for now, things are moving along swimmingly. Not only will Hippopotamus receive the requisite digital release, but also the once-obsolete cassette and a double-disc colored vinyl. "It's been really refreshing for us to find a label that sees everything so far in the same way that we do and has just been supportive of what we propose in any sort of creative way," says Russell. "Especially in this day and age where everything is so fast and throw-away; because everything is digital and online, the tendency is, like, 'Well, it's online, why do you need a vinyl album?' Things like that are just cool and they're actual, tangible objects as opposed to being a digital thing that doesn't even really exist."
Indeed, it would be hard to image consuming a new Sparks album as little more than a series of ones and zeroes. Since their inception, each Sparks album has functioned as the physical extension of the music contained therein, the images as closely tied to the band as their impossible-to-pin-down-sound. From Kimono My House to Angst in My Pants to Exotic Creatures of the Deep, the album artwork for any Sparks album is almost more iconic and culturally resonant than the music itself. Knowing this to be just as much a part of the band's image as their polar opposite stage personae -- Russell the flamboyant peacock vocalist, Ron the old-before-his-time straight man looking constantly out of place -- the visuals for Hippopotamus were key to the album's overall aesthetic.
"We felt the title was strong and the visual side to be equally strong with the album cover," says Russell. "The odd thing about that song, too, is that it's not necessarily a representation of what you're about to hear on the rest of the album. All 15 of the songs we think have their own place within the album and that they all have their own thing going on. If someone were to hear 'Hippopotamus' first from the album and say, 'Aha! I see what they're doing here.' And it's actually not that. It's one reason why we were hesitant to make it the title of the album, but we thought we should do it anyway."
Not that anyone would necessarily expect the album title, artwork, hell, even the opening track, to be indicative of the forthcoming Sparks experience. But it's this type of meticulous image consciousness that has kept the band at the musical, if not necessarily cultural, vanguard. There's no sense standing still when creativity abounds.
"In a purely practical sense, we have to [remain creatively restless] out of self-preservation," says Ron. "Especially in pop music where something new is coming out all the time. And so in order to be a part of the conversation, we have to do something that's attention-grabbing in a non-cheesy kind of way." With Hippopotamus, they've once again transcended expectations, continued to push the creative envelope and firmly ensconced themselves within the broader cultural dialog.