Sparks: Two Hands, One Mouth, All Genius
by Erin Amar
People love to lightly throw around labels like “legendary” and “seminal,” but when it comes to Sparks, we’re not just blowing smoke.
For more than 40 years, the Mael brothers, Russell (the one with the soaring operatic voice) and Ron (the one with the moustache behind the keyboard), have been pushing the boundaries of pop music to the most gloriously uncomfortable of places. Best known in the US for mid-80’s electronic hits like “Cool Places,” “Eaten By The Monster of Love,” and “Music That You Can Dance To,” and abroad for a career with a longer, more graceful arc from 1972’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” to 2009’s “Lighten Up Morrissey,” Sparks’ name has become synonymous with addictive, incisive pop songs that color far outside the lines.
Though these LA natives can often be found touring the UK, in recent months the band’s focus has returned their homeland. When we got word they’d be hitting the US’s East coast, a place they haven’t visited in any comprehensive way in at least 20 years, we had to get on the phone with Russell to hear why we were suddenly getting so lucky. What we found out? From an upcoming film, to a retrospective box set, to a daring tour, these gents are busy as ever.
Rocker : I guess the main impetus of me being able to talk to you today, is I wanted to find out more about Sparks’ upcoming US tour. You haven’t played in Boston since, maybe, the 80s?
Russell Mael: At least! If the 80s! I think we probably came in the 80s, but it was a long time ago, if so. You know, Sparks hasn’t done a lot of touring in America, ever. We did more in the 80s, we did a few things even in the 70s, but we haven’t toured as much here as we do in Europe, and evenJapan. It’s kind of odd for us to be going to places like Boston, and then that becomes really exotic.
Russell: Exotic Boston, I’ve heard about it! Paul Revere, and Tea Parties, and we read about you guys in the history books! It really is. It sounds odd, but it’s going to be fun, and especially to be able to present ourselves to new people. A lot of people have never seen the group, and then for those that have seen it, to be doing it in this format [the current “Two Hands, One Mouth” show, where the brothers play sans backing musicians - Ed], where it’s something different for us, where we’re playing with just the two of us,… We wanted to try to come up with something for this – touring in a live way that was really challenging for us, and challenging hopefully for the audience, but something that would be also appealing.
We toured [the “Two Hands, One Mouth” show] about a year ago. We started in Europe, and the reception was so good, both critically, and from Sparks fans, that we thought we would kind of expand it and do one more final round in this format, and so it morphed into what is now called “The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth.” For a city like Boston, it’s kind of a moot point, but we’re doing a lot of different songs than we did on the first go-round, the first version of “Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth”, so it’ll be basically it’s going to be a pretty new show from the last go-around, but if people haven’t seen the last go-around, then they won’t even know they’re seeing an updated version. But there is a live album of “Two Hands, One Mouth” that came out earlier in the year. We weren’t planning to have a live album at all, Sparks has never had a live album, so for the first live album to be in this format,… It was a question mark for us whether we should do it or not, but we wanted it to be a nice souvenir of that time period, because it was such a really heart-warming thing for us just to see the reaction that we got in presenting it in this way where we’ve kind of cut to the bare bones of what Sparks is and has always been, with Ron’s songwriting and lyrical slant and my singing, but trying to find a way that it wouldn’t be perceived in the negative connotation of the singer-songwriter sort of thing. We didn’t want it to be, you know, “A Sensitive Evening with Sparks”. That thought repels us. We wanted it to be equally as aggressive but missing the elements that would normally would provide the aggression.
Rocker: So, there won’t be any sledgehammers, then?
Russell: No sledgehammers on stage, exactly.
Rocker: “A Relatively Safe, But Not Sensitive Evening With Sparks.”
Russell: Yea, exactly.
Rocker: When I think of Sparks, I think a lot of your theatricality. Was it hard to compact that to a two-person setting?
Russell: Well, it’s kind of odd, because a lot of people have commented, they think that the way we’re presenting it now is more theatrical. It’s kind of odd to us, because some of the last incarnations of the group we’ve toured with – for “Little Beethoven,” “Exotic Creatures,” and “Hello Young Lovers” – have been with projections, and they’ve been more elaborate in with a lot of trappings, and so you’d kind of think that would be perceived in a more theatrical way. But now we’re finding people are saying, “it’s such a theatrical performance you’re doing,” but we’re kind of more simplified in a way, I think it forces us people see our personalities more when they aren’t hidden behind the projections and things like that. So in a certain way, just ironically, the feedback we’re getting is that people are thinking it’s more theatrical.
Rocker: It’s interesting, because you mention projections, and certainly Ron’s image for many years was of this quiet face behind the keyboards. Does the current show make you feel a little more exposed to the audience?
Russell: Oh yeah, completely. It’s kind of harrowing. Touring is supposed be kind of fun going on stage. It’s still fun, but it’s also harrowing because with a traditional kind of band lineup, or even if you use computers or something to augment the sound, there’s something to fall back on, something is always going to be there, but this really is just the two of us and there’s no backing band or backing tracks or anything like that. So it takes a lot of focus and concentration, because Ron’s keyboard parts serve a different kind of function in this live context. They’ve got to be kind of fuller, and sometimes we have to change the arrangements somewhat to be able to make something work that’s a lot easier to do with a band. But when it’s just one keyboard, even though it’s not just like a piano sound, he has really rich sound, but he’s got to play parts that kind of work in a fuller way. So even though it seems like it’s just two guys on stage, it actually takes us a lot more preparation to tour this way than it does when you have a band.
Rocker: For your vocal parts, do you feel like you have the same challenges of changing things around at all?
Russell: Well, in a certain way, I get a little easier deal on the thing because my singing tends to be more like the actual song, the actual melodies that are on the records, obviously not having the stacked harmonies and that sort of thing, but the main lead vocal line tends to be the same, so as far as the preparation I have a little bit easier where I don’t have to completely re-think the part I’m doing. But at the same time, you realize that there’s a lot of scrutiny both on what’s being played, because there’s only two elements, so the thing has to be really good, or then you tend to risk being exposed as a fraud.
Rocker: At this late hour of your career!
Russell: At this late time. That would be a pity.
Rocker: It was just finally revealed you were frauds. It took a while!
Russell: I’ve gotten past that stage. I’ve been certified non-fraud, hopefully. So that’s something that I’m proud of.
Rocker: Is this the only time you’ve ever done just the two of you?
Russell: Yeah, it’s the only time. But we didn’t tour that way because there was no way of doing it.
With the “Number One Song in Heaven” album that we did with Giorgio Moroder, we got rid of the band context and placed ourselves in this sort of electronic context, but at that time there were no portable computers, and drum machines were rare. There weren’t ways of being able to re-create live all of that complex electronic stuff, so the irony was we couldn’t even tour and present it in the way we wanted to present it then. So that was the only other time when we were sort of not with a band, but then we didn’t do it live ever.
Rocker: Why now, will we get to see you live in the east coast when previously, there were very, very limited opportunities to see Sparks in plenty of these places you’ll be playing now?
Russell: I don’t know, we just thought, we wanted to. It was nothing that calculated, other than we just wanted to find a way just to be able to play more places, because we found there’s actually people that would like to see the band! [Laughs] Which kind of sounds silly, that we’ve never gone these places.
The last tour, earlier in the year, we played on the west coast, Portland and Seattle. We’d never gone to those cities, and after, we found out, “Wow, they came. We went to them and there’s actually an audience, and they were wild and vocal about the group!” So we just thought, while we’re in this format, before we move on to something else, we would maybe go to more cities, so that was sort of the thing.
We’re working on some new stuff that’s kind of more conceptual storyline stuff that we’ll be able to tour with, but it’s going to be in a completely different kind of way.
Rocker: Do you think that this tour might be the gateway drug to a bigger North American Tour?
Russell: It’s probably too early to know.
The last album we did was “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” and it’s being now kind of in pre-production for a feature film. It was originally done as a musical drama for Swedish radio, and it’s since expanded and it’s taking on its own kind of life now. As for doing it as a live touring thing, we did it once as a presentation at the LA Film Festival two years ago,…
Rocker: What did that look like? I know somebody who went, but I was really interested in hearing about how you developed a live show for that.
Russell: Because it was for the LA Film Festival, it was done with limited means, but we had projections and we had such really good actors with us that we were able to really present it well, and people thought it was some big-budget thing when in fact it was more just kind of being creative with the means you have. We had really nice projections that kind of punctuated the story, and the idea at that time of that presentation was to attract movie people to want to make it into a feature film. So we had projections that even highlighted lines from the story but on the projection, as if it was a script that you’re reading.
It came across really, really well and Ron and I went to the Cannes Film Festival this year, and we’ve gotten a couple of production companies that are now signed on to take over the nasty work of getting the funding and financing for it to become a film. We have a great director, Guy Maddin, a Canadian director that is on board to direct the film, and so we’re really encouraged by all of that.
How it relates back to the live thing is, we’ve kind of created a monster in that it was a 14-member cast, and to think of touring in that kind of way with that project, it just really became hard to do it, just logistically. So this new project we’re working on,… it’s another storyline project but it’s going to be with a more manageable-sized cast that will make it practical, that we could actually tour with that, too. So we’ll be doing that at some point.
Rocker: How did you get involved with Guy Maddin? I saw him here at the Provincetown Film Festival presenting a screening of “The Saddest Music In The World”. Did you know him personally before?
Russell: No, not at all, it was just a real bit of luck that we were on an NPR radio show about books, called Bookworm, and the host of that show, Michael Silverblatt, he’s a big fan of Sparks and was trying to tie-in how literate Sparks’ lyrics are. So, just as part of the interview, we were discussing “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman”, and saying one of our favorite directors is Guy Maddin, and he said, “Well, Guy Maddin is a friend of mine and I could introduce you to him” so he did, and it turned out Guy was a fan of Sparks. We’ve since presented the project to him, and he really likes it a lot, so it was then back in our court to kind of just organize the financial side, the practical side of getting funding to make it into a film. He’s definitely on board, in fact we’re seeing him next week, he’s out here in LA, he’s a really good guy, and so articulate and knowledgeable about film. It’s kind of crazy.
You mentioned “The Saddest Music in the World” and we think that if you apply that kind of visual aesthetic to what we’re doing in “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” it’s going to be a really amazing movie. We’re all convinced, and these new production companies that sign on in Sweden and Germany are convinced as well. So it’ll be exciting to see the path that the film takes.
Rocker: As soon as I had read that he was involved in the movie version, I could see exactly what it would look like.
Russell: The people that know of his work like you do just instantly see it, and then there’s the others that go, “I don’t know him” or “it’s kind of risky”, but the ones that understand him just instantly get it. There’s not a problem.
Rocker: Is that actually the sense with Sparks’ music as well? I’m thinking about how in America, your career has sort of been up and down, up and down, and it seems in Europe that you’re much more solidly successful, is that accurate?
Russell: There are some parallels between Guy’s career and ours. He’s a different person in a different medium and all, but things where you mention Guy Maddin or you mention Sparks, some people are “oh, yeah, amazing”, and yet you can draw a blank from other people on both him and us. You kind of can’t figure out. We feel we’re strong in what we do, and he’s incredibly strong in what he does, and now we’re defending him? If you haven’t heard of him, then you can’t consider yourself part of the film world. It just seems like if you’re knowledgeable at all on music or knowledgeable in film, then you would know both acts, or both artists.
That’s sort of another reason for doing the touring now, we’re finding out that maybe it was just our perception that people aren’t there, or don’t know about the band. When we go out to these cities, we find out there’s a really rabid bunch of fans there. So there are people that are aware of what you’re doing, and we thought we should be out there and expose ourselves at this time while we’re in the mood.
Rocker: It’s funny, as we talk about it, I think – if you’re interested in Sparks, they’re a fan with a capital F, you know? Either you’re fully in, or –
Russell: That’s what it is, it’s not casual.
Rocker: No! No.
Russell: And the ones that are with a capital F, they almost in a certain way like to flaunt the fact that they know about us, it’s like a secret fan club that you need to get into where you almost don’t want to share it with other people. I can kind of see that whole rationale, too, that it’s part of the exclusivity of what Sparks represents to a lot of people. I think they really relish that in a certain way, even though there’s a frustration that they wish their neighbor would know about it. But then at the same time, I think they also deep down inside kind of like that, the obscurity, in a certain way that they feel that the band has. That they want to protect us from the outside world.
Rocker: I actually went to London to see “Indiscreet” on your 21 Albums in 21 Nights tour there. I think probably what struck me the most being in the crowd was seeing people of every age group. When you started “Happy Hunting Ground” there were two guys in front of me, hippy sort of guys, long hair, I would guess probably in their mid-50s, and they turned to each other with the biggest smiles on their faces when the song started and just began dancing around like crazy. I remember looking over and just seeing this very made-up goth girl standing at the bar, and I thought, “They’re all here!”
Russell: Yeah, yeah, it tends to have that kind of eclectic sort of audience that you can’t kind of pin it down. And more so now, the demographic is getting all over the place. There’s more young people, especially via Facebook and stuff. We’re finding there’s a lot more youngish people that just didn’t know or weren’t alive to catch the early years, and they are finding that the music has a relevance now, and that’s really satisfying for us to know that it’s connecting with people, and they like it. So it’s really an interesting mixture of people that make up the audience for Sparks.
Rocker: I can’t imagine that when you’re penning a record like “Kimono My House” you’re thinking “How can I make this relevant for the next 30 years or so?”
Russell: I think that’s why this stuff is the way it is. The reason even we’re talking now is that this stuff wasn’t ever calculated to say, “Well, how can we do something that will last 30 years or whatever.” It just inherently has a timelessness to it so you can listen to an album from that era and it doesn’t sound like it’s dated in the same way that some other records from that era maybe would sound really dated. If someone came out with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” today, I think it would still be an edgy, forward-thinking song.
Rocker: You’re going to have a new box set coming out as well, right? Tell me about how that came together.
Russell: It just seemed like the timing was right, because one doesn’t exist. There was one in, I think, the early 90s, on Rhino, but it obviously was only comprehensive up to that point. So this is really the first real, comprehensive box set with lots of goodies, and a 64-page color, 12” sized hard bound book in it. We’ve been following the design of it. There’s a lot of photos and stuff that people haven’t seen, from different eras. Especially maybe even more so for newer fans, to kind of see more visually see the history, the band and the different periods. It’s pretty elaborate and really rich as a visual way of telling the story of the band, but without a text in a traditional way. It has some quotes from us along the way that probably better tell the whole story than having it be just a biography.
Rocker: And then, musically, what are people are going to hear in that box set, and what are they not going to hear?
Russell: We went through and tried to make a representation of sometimes three, sometimes four, song from each of the albums that we thought represented what we felt was something strong from those albums. It’s not definitive, but you understand you’re not going to include the entire album, we had to make some decisions. So, it’s got 81 songs on it, and it ends with that song I mentioned, actually, it’s called “I’m a Bookworm” from the NPR radio show, we wrote the theme song for that show. After 20 years they got rid of their Disney Jiminy Cricket theme and wanted a new theme so they asked us if we would do it. There are fans that want to hear more obscure B-sides and downloads and stuff, but for this compilation and box set, that wasn’t the goal, it was more to have an overview for anybody that’s sort of new to Sparks or anybody that wanted to have a sampling of all of our albums in a convenient, one-stop place.
The songs have been remastered too, and we haven’t ever heard the songs in that way before. It sounds so beautiful. The sonic quality of it. You get used to hearing things on Spotify or iTunes and that sort of thing – and we’re not purists in any kind of way – but I mean, the difference is so… It sounds like a new recording, almost. It was done by this guy Bill Inglot who does a lot of remastering. So on that score, no one’s heard the songs with this sort of attention to the sonic detail and all. They sound really beautiful.
Rocker: Did you pick out Bill yourself as the mastering guy for this?
Russell: We did.
Rocker: I feel like mastering gets a really short shrift. I myself, really, in the past year have come to understand a bit more about mastering.
Russell: Me too, because you kind of think “Oh, just slap the things on the CD and it’s good enough,” but it is a real short shrift that the guys are getting, because it is an art. You want to preserve what the original recordings were, because that’s part of the deal with doing a re-issue, but then at the same time, they can be enhanced or have things that are already on the recording but be kind of presented in a better way, so it’s a compromise to not tamper too much with them, to kind of lose any of the character that they originally had. But these, they sound like wow! It’s a really, really impressive, the job that he did.
Rocker: This is released on Lil’ Beethoven, is that right?
Russell: Yes, it is, though it’s initially distributed by Universal, their own distribution online web site that they distribute box sets through like this and special projects. So, our label but through Universal.
Rocker: Why did you start Little Beethoven, what has it ended up becoming now?
Russell: We aren’t at the mercy of having record labels give us budgets to record like we would in the past, because we have our own studio, and so we can record on our own. Things, obviously, have changed with time. The whole meaning of what a record company even is, is kind of obsolete unless you’re in an echelon like Celine Dion or a Taylor Swift, where it’s a machine behind you, but it’s a select amount of artists that have that kind of machine, and it has to be with groups that they’re guaranteed are going to sell as many copies as possible of something. And then there’s everybody else.
And in that everybody-else kind of area, we can do as much as any other label. Those distinctions of what a company can even do are blurred now,
Rocker: You don’t ever put out anybody else’s recordings, have you?
Russell: We haven’t, no. We have a full –
Rocker: A full roster of you?
Russell: A full roster just dealing with us. We’re pretty temperamental.
Rocker: [Laughs] I’m always interested because I feel like, especially with artists who have long-term careers, the entire music industry has become so different than what what it was when you started. Has that been difficult to adapt as new things come forward, like a Spotify or…
Russell: In a certain way, it kind of levels the playing field, so it makes things easier in certain respects, because you can compete. Our songs are on Spotify the same way everybody’s else’s songs are on Spotify. But then again, it doesn’t mean you’re going to earn any money from that. Because Spotify screws everybody, all the artists that is. It’s great for the fans and the public. So if you just put up with that, accept that you won’t make any money ever…
Rocker: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Russell: – But on another level, it’s evened the playing field where people can find you, where they couldn’t maybe if they didn’t have a record shop in their little tiny town, now they can get your record and listen to you. So in certain respects, the situation is okay the way it is now, and in certain ways it was better in the past.
The main thing is that you’ve just also got to ignore all that stuff. If your primary concern is worrying about distribution and all that, it’s the wrong focus, too. You’ve just got to bury your head in what you’re doing creatively. In our history, we’ve been lucky that what we’re doing manages to seep out at times and hit people, and so that’s the first concern, is what we’re doing creatively. All the other stuff, we kind of let somebody else worry about.
Rocker: A wise choice. Have you never done any sort of solo projects?
Russell: No, not really, no. I sang at a Sgt Pepper Anniversary in Milan, Italy, just myself, with a bunch of other artists like Jarvis Cocker and Marianne Faithfull, but that was my only solo appearance.
Rocker: Have you never had any real interest in doing that?
Russell: No, because what we’re doing, both of us, I think our egos are completely satisfied in the context of what we’re doing, and I can’t see how it would be any different or what you would do differently if you were doing something on your own.
Rocker: Can you imagine if you weren’t born into a family with Ron, do you think that you would have still pursued music?
Russell: I don’t know, probably not, because of the motivation thing, having both of us it works really good, the two of us feeding off of each other. So, probably not.
Rocker: So he’s part of the thing that motivates – you have a symbiotic relationship of motivation?
Russell: Completely, yes. He’s really a workaholic and ambitious, and just not lazy.
Rocker: I guess my only closing question is you said you’re super-busy, so after this North American tour, what will be happening for Sparks?
Russell: We’re working on this storyline musical project that I mentioned, and that we’re doing simultaneously with rehearing new material for the live tour, so those two things are a handful. It’s kind of schizophrenic having to hop back and forth between the two, because one is going back to the past with older your songs, and the other’s going forward with new stuff, so jumbling the two together is not an easy task, but that’s what we’re doing, and it fills our days, every day.
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