Interview: Russell Mael of Sparks on the Kiss of Death in Pop Music

Kiva Ramundo / April 22, 2013
Russell Fore / Sparks: Photo courtesy of Republic Media
Russell Fore / Sparks: Photo courtesy of Republic Media

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael are more than your average phenomenon. When the Swinging Sixties were succeeded by the decade of the ‘Third Great Awakening,” the duo out of Los Angles embraced the spirit of change and saw to re-title their musical project (originally called Halfnelson) with a name that would soon become an infamous staple of the era. Sparks has been accredited with pioneering glam-rock and near every derivation of pop music while they have been acknowledged as an influence by a range of artists from Paul McCartney and Kurt Cobain to Arcade Fire and MGMT. In 2008 they held a monster of an event called the “Sparks Spectacular” where in London for 21 consecutive nights they performed each of their 21 albums in their entirety to culminate in the release of their latest release Exotic Creatures of The Deep. In relative measure, that is more than thrice the length of Wagner’s master-epic Ring Cycle with more musical notes than there are Irish in Ireland. They created an acclaimed radio opera, collaborated with some of the most revered producers in the industry and perhaps most impressively, continue to reinvent their genre with wild abandon and ambition. Russell is the voice of Sparks, as renown for his flamboyancy as he is his falsetto, an infamous contrast to the stern countenance of his brother during their performances. It was my immense privilege to speak with the architect behind the weird and wonderful side of the pop music soundscape.

Brothers Russell and Ron
Brothers Russell and Ron circa 1974 | Photos courtesy of Sparks and their many fans

Russell Mael: I think you are right in that it was an event for us that no one else will ever do. For a few reasons. There are not many band that have as big a catalog for starters and the ones that do, they become lazy and don’t have the drive or stamina to want to undertake something like that, because it took four months of rehearsing to be able to learn over 250 songs with a group that was willing to stick with us and go along with our folly. It is a combination of things and I think that no one else will ever do something to that extent. It is a lot of work and you really have to be driven. The groups that do have that many albums, I can almost guarantee that they do not have the hunger, the need to do it. Then it is not so much a matter of being lazy. They do not need to prove a point in the same kind of way and really no one else will ever do anything like it.

SSG: I have to say, I honestly do not know if I have ever heard another band that was able to make such a claim and really, truly mean it. Or that I believe it when I hear. It is something immensely rare and special.

RM: Yeah, thanks! It was something both for ourselves and Sparks fans. It was a special thing, to put our whole catalog into perspective and revist songs, the majority of which we never have done live before, and to see all the albums we have done up to that point. For our fans as well, to hear everything we have ever done. There were quite a few people that came to the whole month of shows and we really have to hand it to them. People have lives and jobs, you know? Obligations, and to devote a month of your life to Sparks made us feel really good.

SSG: When you were revisiting your work, your self-titled, Kimono My House and kind…I mean those were released four decades ago. How do you feel about your early material now? Is there anything you wish you had done different?

RM: I do not think so. I mean, that is one of the things we meant to do with the 21 nights. To see and hear everything we have done. The result was, in hindsight you maybe produce something differently than it had been but by an large, we were really happy to see the whole 21 albums worth of stuff. We are really happy with our career.

SSG: I have heard someone say that Propaganda was in their opinion the greatest pop album ever made. But then I have actually heard the same said about The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and for just about every album you have made, someone feels it is the most important ever made. Why do you think they would feel that way?

RM: We always feel that we want to be pushing things forward for ourselves and our fans. First always has to be for ourselves. We feel like we are constantly trying to do something that is bucking the system and those albums you mentioned, Propaganda, at the time, and I am happy you mentioned The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman because we really think of it as a Sparks album. People say, ‘a Sparks album is in a sense twelve songs,’ and for us, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is just as much an album as anything we have done. Whatever form it takes it is still us. We were given a commission by the Swedish National Radio to do a radio musical so we took that as an opportunity to do something broad and big. The form is not the same kind of form you hear all the time now, that you are too familiar with in the structure of pop music, and for us the boundaries are really boring. When you turn on a radio you can tell where it is coming from. For us, it is always trying to find a way to rebel against that sort of thing, where you know what the expectations are and you know where the parameters are. When you know all those things, it is too safe and too predictable. That is sort of a long winded answer to say that every time we try, in our own minds, to do something that is hopefully not conforming to the expectation of what pop music should be. Even the stations, the radio outlets are sort of liberated in a sense. NPR sort of stations that are sort of “credible, ” it is still incredibly safe. Everybody sounds like they are doing music to fit into that form because if you don’t then you don’t get played. For better or worse, sometimes initial reactions when you do something unexpected is being taken aback a bit. We found that over time, when things are reassessed, like with our album No. 1 In Heaven, when we did that in ’79 with Giorgio Moroder, everyone said it is sacrilage. Some people who are clueless said it was disco music. It is far from the intention of anyone to take what we do and put it in an electronic context. Then with time, that whole album became reassessed and people started saying it was the album that redefined a whole genre of synth music. Now people expect 25 more The Seduction of Ingmar Bergmans to come out.

SSG: You recently gave hints to a new project along that exact line though you have been a touch mum about the details. Could you be coerced into giving us a taste?

RM: Yeah, without going into the specifics, we wanted to try and do something expansive like that again. Some really exciting proposal. We really like that challenge. We want to do something else that is story driven but not musical in the sense of “The King and I” or “Oklahoma” or even “Chicago,” the Broadway sort of things. But that had the same sensibility of Sparks done in a sensible way with a story-line of sorts. It will be something big and bold. With The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman there were fourteen people in the cast. We did it once at the LA film festival two years ago, but because of the size of the cast it is kind of difficult to tour with that, where we have this big, expansive project but it is hard to find the means to do it right. We are hoping with the new album that we are working on that it will prove less difficult to take to people so they can hear the whole thing and listen to the whole thing.

SSG: You have mentioned the influence that musicians from London have had on you recently, and I came across some words of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull infamy that I would love to hear your opinion on. He said, “a lot of pop music is stealing pocket money from children.” Is this a stigma you have had to overcome? Do you feel this applies to other artists in your genre?

RM: If you are talking about Brittney Spears type stuff…well, I think if it is a worthy cause and the music is good then I think pop music can be substantial  It obviously depends on the artist. It is possible for it to be something more than just fluff, where it does more than just take money from poor, innocent children. It all depends, I guess. I think a lot of artists are completely conscious of trying to make it work and that is the sad part about it. When you try to figure out what will work with the implication of being commercial, that is the kiss of death. You are finished then. You may make some money, but what does it matter? That is part of the thing we rebel against. When we have had commercial success it has been on our own terms. It was never something we did to be more commercially viable. We were lucky that from time to time and territory to territory that success happens, when you are not expecting it, even. That is the most satisfying. To us, that is why pop music is in the state it is. Everyone trying to over-think and over-calculate what to do without trying to do things in a musically provocative way. Modern pop gives me a headache. It should be something you can hear and say “man, I wish I could do that” because it is beyond your expertise. It is just not interesting!

Sparks II

SSG: Many of your songs entomb more serious subject material. Does pop music provide any advantages to share such experiences in a lighter manner?

RM: I think we just like having lyrics that are provocative  You are given all this space on an album and that is special. You should fill it with lyrics that are not cliched or hackneyed or that you have heard a million times. That is what we want. Whether it is heavy or light, we want to say something that has not been said before. Ron is really an amazing lyricist and underrated in pop music. If you examine the lyrics you will see so much there. I think that someone is actually coming out with a Sparks lyrics poetry book at the end of May, beginning of June. When you see the words divorced from the music they sometimes take on another feeling. We are really happy about that. We were not sure if it would work but from the early version we have seen, we are glad someone has done it. It has a forward by Morrissey, as well, so you know it is certified and passed the lyrical board of reviews. He gives his blessing.

SSG: I believe a few fans are still waiting on the Sparks-Morrissey collaboration album.

RM: So are we! It would be great; not even knowing what it would sound like, it cannot help but be good. We spoke to him about three weeks ago when he played L.A. and he is still there and we are really hoping we can do something with him.

SSG: Have there been any influences that have faded from your early sound or that have entered into your music that were never possible in the ’70s? Is there a point when you have performed for so long that your musical process becomes sort of self-sustaining?

RM: I think that is kind of the case now. You are always listening to stuff out there, and we have fewer and fewer influences from pop music now because fewer and fewer pop things are of interest to us. It is so rigid now. We always hope we will hear something that will floor us like when we were starting out and you hear groups that you thought were amazing. But it just does not strike us that way anymore. It is kind of why we push ourselves. You kind of put blinders on, to work in a vacuum  shut off from the rest of the world, where you listen for five minutes to that music and say, ‘okay, I got it’ before you retreat and go about your business.

SSG: I spent a small while immersing myself in your fan forums to get to know what some persons have called, your cult following. In your forty years of performing, has there ever been a particular fan interaction that stands out as especially memorable or unusual?

RM: We are really happy that there are a lot of blogs around by different people. Many are young and most are female even, that obviously were not even born when we had Kimono My House or something and that they are championing the band is really an interesting phenomenon. People who have discovered us in the past few years like we are a new band in their eyes and are now more well versed than older fans because they have really delved into the group meticulously. They know every nuance and appreciate the theatrical side of the band as well as the musical side. Young fans from the beginning we always, like, the England-and-screamy type. It is an interesting new development.

SSG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

RM: Not really. Just really looking forward to playing Seattle!

SSG: Sometimes I like to ask if there is anything fans do that makes you especially happy as a musician. Since you are coming here soon, if you make a request here like that they throw you roses or such, some may actually heed.

RM: Cash! [laughs] We are kind of like strippers at a bar. Just throw us some dollars down our g-strings and we will be happy. Preferably larger denominations so it feels like a fancy strip-club.

SSG: I cannot promise anything, but I will put the word out! Thank you so very much, Russell.

Russell Mael circa 1974
Russell Mael circa 1974

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *