Sparks will fly again
INIMITABLE IS a word applied to an awful lot of artists but few are as deserving of the adjective as Ron and Russell Mael. The brothers more widely known as Sparks have spent the past 41 years quite carefully building up a body of work unlike any other in the wide spectrum of popular music. Sparks are, in some ways, the definition of a cult act: inspiring intense fandom in a very concentrated way, while never really breaking into the mainstream pop narrative.
Now, with an immense body of work behind them, the Mael brothers are once again setting out to do something they’ve never done before, this time in the form of the Two Hands, One Mouth tour. As the name suggests, Sparks will perform as a duo for pretty much the first time, Ron playing keyboards and Russell singing. With the spotlight entirely on them, Russell is well aware of the extra exposure.
“It’s really different,” he says. “You need a lot more focus when it’s just the two of you because there’s nothing to hide behind. When it’s a band, you can sort of blend in with your other bandmates, but when it’s just the two of you, you kind of look around for a friendly face and all I see is my brother. And that’s no friendly face!”
“It’s the very first time we’ve ever done this in our whole career,” he continues. “It’s something fresh that we’d wanted to try for a while. and we thought it would be something Sparks fans would embrace because it’s like seeing us as the very basic elements of what Sparks is. We’re throwing ourselves out there as naked as we can be.”
Having given London audiences a sneak peak at the stripped-down show with a one- off performance in June, the brothers have been rehearsing studiously in an attempt to bring that show on the road. Thankfully, it’s a much simpler operation than their last project, the grandiose piece of musical theatre known as The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. With a cast of 14 actors and a soundtrack devised by Sparks, it told the story of an imaginary visit to Hollywood in the mid-1950 by the legendary auteur. It would be easy to see this latest tour as a reaction to the massive cast and crew required to perform Bergman, but Russell says it’s less of a reaction and more an example of their impulse to stay working.
“I don’t know if it’s a reaction so much because we’re still incredibly motivated and passionate about having the Bergman project be seen by more people and we’re still pushing for it to be done as a real touring theatrical presentation, live and also as a feature film,” he says.
“All those things are still in the works so we thought, in the meantime, rather than be sitting waiting for those things to happen, we could be doing this. It’s really the opposite sort of approach, but it’s by no means one or the other. We’re approaching both things at once. It’s kind of schizophrenic on our part to be having two ongoing projects that are so diverse, one from the other.”
Though they continue to push forward, one of the most important chapters in recent Sparks history was the series of 20 performances they staged in the O2 Academy Islington in 2009, where they played each one of their albums in full, night after night, before premiering a brand new album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, in Shepherd’s Bush Empire on the 21st night. Russell looks back on the immense undertaking with a real sense of achievement. “We don’t generally like to look back at what we’ve done because that can paralyse you sometimes. We like to keep moving forward with new stuff, but it was a way that kind of forced us to look back at our own career and we were pleasantly surprised,” he says. “I think it will be something that, in its own small way, no one else will attempt. You also have to be slightly crazy to attempt it, it’s a lot of work!”
Did the journey through the back catalogue yield any surprises? Any influences that they only detected in retrospect?
“I think what was apparent to us was that it did seem like the material was in its own little world, that it was shut off from outside influence,” says Russell. “Sparks was really working in its own world and it has been pretty consistent keeping that world intact for this long and not succumbing to a lot of outside input, and I think that became more apparent to us in doing it. I think we can kind of stand back and see more of what we really had done and what its influence might have been on other people.”
While he feels they have influenced others, Russell is less than glowing about the state of the current pop scene.
“I think the whole climate has gotten really conservative,” he says. “You tend to think that, because technology has moved on so fast and has so many amazing things to offer, that people’s tolerance for new ideas would be kind of on the same level as the technology, that it would keep up. But I think everything has become more conservative, ironically enough.”
“We’re always listening to new stuff and trying to get inspired by things musically, but it just seems right now, there’s not so much, in pop music specifically, giving us that same buzz that we would have got when we were first starting. Everything feels so throwaway in a certain sense, everything moves really fast, so it seems there’s no intense loyalty to any one thing.”
So with so much history behind them, so much achieved, do the brothers ever feel like slowing down, or even – whisper it – stopping?
“No, we are either masochists or gluttons for punishment! I mean, it’s the one thing we both really like doing and I think that we have created a certain universe that we feel now needs to continue, in whatever form that might be. When you come up with fresh ideas, then you become re-energised and motivated again, to have more to prove to yourself and to prove to your fans and to an audience that maybe doesn’t even know Sparks yet. What you’re doing now has to be really vital, so that philosophy keeps us wanting to push on with fresh and hopefully exciting ideas.”
* Sparks play the Button Factory, Dublin, on October 29th