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Sparks Continue To Offer The Expected Surprise

Anna Webber

Ron and Russell Mael who, since the early 1970s, have performed under the moniker Sparks, will issue their latest album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip on May 15. With 23 previous studio albums under their belt, the brothers could have perhaps relaxed their pursuit of excellence and delivered an album that merely played to their strengths (wry humor, melodies that seem to at once belong to a bygone era and to have emerged from at least 15 minutes in the future) and called it good.

Instead, fans are treated to a collection that does that while also demonstrating a continued evolution. No small feat considering that Sparks has incorporated numerous styles seamlessly into its own highly theatrical and deeply inventive musical blend over the years. One can hear the high drama of glam on Kimono My House, a deep appreciation for dance music on Terminal Jive and a sense of being one step ahead of trends via Angst In My Pants.

Having influenced several generations of musical acts, Sparks remains a singular entity within the rock world. Although their early contemporaries Queen shared some of the same musical sensibilities, Sparks remained ahead of the curve all through the ‘70s and ‘80s, never settling long enough for anyone to quite pinpoint what made the band unique and, thereby, thwarting easy imitation.

Sparks has never had a prolonged hiatus: The music has come at steady intervals since the Maels signed with the Bearsville label and issued their Todd Rundgren-produced debut in 1971. (First as Halfnelson, then, in 1972, as Sparks.) And, in 2020, the brothers continue their seemingly relentless work pace.

In addition to the new LP, the pair have penned a musical film, Annette, which will, perhaps one way or another, find audiences by the fall and are the subjects of an in-depth documentary that Ron Mael, now 74, promises will not do anything to diminish the mystique he and his brother have built in their musical career.

The elder Mael recently spoke from his Los Angeles home about Sparks’ continued growth and its still-promising future.

Interview Highlights

Are you always writing or is there a specific time in the cycle between albums where you sit down and say, “OK, time to make a new one”?

I have trouble writing on tour but otherwise I’m always writing and working on things at Russell’s place, even if it’s not anything specific. We’ve had a lot of projects going on of late. We spent a lot of time working on the movie musical Annette. Last year, there was quite a long gap where they were just getting the business side of the movie together and we wanted to take the opportunity to make a new Sparks album.

This album is another example of you taking a step forward, artistically. How do you keep your ideas fresh after all this time?

We’re pretty merciless as far as axing anything that doesn’t seem like it’s advancing things. We were encouraged because the reaction to the last album, Hippopotamus, was good and we didn’t want to blow it.

Hippopotamus was successful on so many fronts. Did you have a sense of how good it was when you were working on it or is it something where you really just never know?

Maybe we’re delusional but we usually think that what we’ve done is something special. But as far as how people perceive it, that’s outside of your control. We were pleasantly surprised.

It seems like your audience is continuing to grow too.

Although I gripe about the online presence sometimes, it’s been an incredible thing. Younger people in particular are able to find out about us and in one fell swoop they realize that there are 24 Sparks albums. They’re able to absorb all of that. It’s almost like it’s a new band. That’s also true on the touring end. We played Mexico City for the first time last year. There was a whole new group of people who were just discovering us. You try not to be influenced by external forces, but those kinds of things do give you a reason to be doing what you’re doing.

The fan base also seems willing to grow with you. They’ll follow you through some significant changes.

We’re lucky because the people that are really avid Sparks fans know to expect the unexpected. We can do things that run the risk of offending people that have been there with us since the start because we know that that surprise is something they’re really expecting.

You have the musical film Anette that you’ve been working on for a while. Was this something that you had been wanting to do for a long time?

We’ve wanted to do a movie musical for a really long time. We had worked on this radio project, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and hoped to get that made into a film. About eight years ago we had written Annette, which is a narrative thing. It isn’t discreet songs like a typical Sparks album. We thought it might be an album and a live presentation but we went to Cannes that year to pitch The Seduction of Ingmar Berman and met with the French director Leos Carax, who had used one of our songs in his film Holy Motors.

When we got back to L.A., we sent him Annette and he was interested. Things take a really long time to come together but it’s been amazing. It stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It was supposed to be premiered at Cannes this year. Unfortunately, Cannes has been delayed and downsized. I think maybe the film will be shown at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals if those are still on in the fall.

It’s really special. It’s different than a normal movie musical, as you might expect coming from us. It’s just such a thrill that such big names were impressed enough by it to want to become involved.

You also have this documentary about the band. What was it like to go through that process? I’m guessing there are some things in the film that longtime fans don’t know and yet that you’ve managed to keep some of the mystique about the band intact.

That was the tricky thing to maneuver. Other people have come to us about doing a documentary but Edgar [Wright, director] was really the first one that we felt excited about doing it with. We love his films and it seemed like he really understood what we were doing. He was also sensitive to maintaining the mystique while still detailing things that people haven’t know before about us.

We would much prefer that other people talk about us and there are a lot of people talking about us in the film. The moments when we had to speak about ourselves were the most uncomfortable. But we got through it.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.