Ron and Russell Mael are an incredibly hard working pair.
Not only have they just released their twenty-third Sparks album (not including the incredible FFS, a collaborative album with Franz Ferdinand), they have also written a musical film which is set to start filming soon, featuring Adam Driver and Michelle Williams in the lead roles. Titled Annette, it is directed by avant-garde filmmaker Léos Carax (Holy Motors). They have also just embarked on a tour of Europe, America and Japan.
For a band to be as consistently inventive, funny and original as Sparks continue to be is rare indeed. Sparks’ new album, Hippopotamus is a masterpiece. It’s full of the sort of humour that fans are used to: from absolute joyous nonsense (“Giddy, Giddy”; “Hippopotamus”) to more sly jokes about pop culture and modern life (“Scandinavian Design”). “Life with the Macbeths”, the operatic closing track, is a particularly dazzling piece of work; imagining what a reality TV show or soap about Shakespeare’s character Macbeth would look like. It’s a work of pure, undiluted genius, with plenty of wonky, Sparksian pop songs to boot.
Holly Read-Challen chatted with Ron and Russell at their Wimbledon rehearsal studio the day before the release of Hippopotamus, which has now charted at number seven in the UK. Far from being the intimidating pair many might expect – thanks to Ron’s infamous on-stage stare – they were both incredibly warm and charming company.
I love the new album, and you’ve been getting a lot of good press. Do you pay attention to that?
Russell: well, only the good press […] the bad press we say that they’re wrong! No, it’s nice that the general feedback we get is really positive, and we’re surprised – not surprised that we’re happy, but surprised because you never figure out exactly why certain things just click with folks.
Do you have a favourite song on the album or one that you are particularly proud of – or is that like choosing your favourite child?
Ron: It’s difficult because this is the most songs we’ve ever had on one of our albums. We were wanting to prune it down and it was hard because we thought they all worked in some way on the album. It’s hard to choose one because they’re in so many different styles… off the top of my head I like the “Hippopotamus” song because it’s hard to kind of place musically.
So it’s a classic Sparks song in that sense?
Ron: Yeah! I guess so, it’s kind of the definition I guess.
How does it feel to have the album coming out so soon, when you’ve been working on it for a wee while now?
Russell: We started out working on the album a year ago and tomorrow is the day [but] the record label’s sort of been letting stuff appear slowly […] so it’s been teasing the thing along the way and now tomorrow after all this time, it’s finally coming out!
Are you excited to just have it out in the world now?
Russell: Yeah it’s exciting! We assume everybody knows all of the songs but there’s […] only been three or four songs that have been heard, so there’s eleven more that no-one has heard at all.
Ron: We did four shows already in Scandinavia before the album was out, but we did eight songs from the new album [and] they all got a really good reaction. So now it’ll be a little easier – hard-core people will know the songs!
You’ve got a very long tour lined up haven’t you?
Ron: Yeah, that’s what they tell us! (laughs)
How do you manage touring for that long? Do you just have to take it day by day?
Ron: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Judging just by the reaction in Scandinavia, you gain adrenaline from all of that. I’m really pleased with the way those shows went, and we’re really looking forward to the Edinburgh show – I don’t know, for some reason Scotland always… they’re pretty wild shows! You just get by just because we really love playing the songs, even if the reaction weren’t whatever it is, but knowing that people are responding to things, it’s invigorating.
Do you have anything special lined up for the tour? Any projections?
Russell: The “show” is based on the theatricality of the songs and of our personalities, as opposed to having extraneous things like projections and things we’ve had in the past. This time the band is really strong and really exciting. We’re doing a lot of the new songs, and there’s a larger than life quality to some of the subject matters and lyrics.
So I wanted to chat about FFS a little bit, I’m sorry if you’re sick of talking about that!
Working with Franz Ferdinand – doing a whole album together – it’s a big collaboration. Has it influenced this record at all: in the way you’ve written it, the way you’ve recorded it or anything?
Ron: I mean less of that, but just more of the overall idea that we were excited to work in that format again. We’d been working on a movie musical for several years and we’d kind of gotten away from working in three and four minute songs and with a band, and playing in front of warm-bodied people. Doing the FFS project [with Franz Ferdinand] was really exciting. I think the influence on us in a more general sense is that we really wanted to work in that way again.
At the beginning of last year we had a break in the movie […] so we just wanted to see if we could come up with songs – traditional in the sense that they’re pop songs but perhaps not as traditional as some other people’s pop songs. We really enjoyed the shows with FFS. The recording was fun and we think the record is really great it’s just the live shows… there were 41 shows we did with them and every single one was exciting.
Speaking of the movie that you’re doing with Léos Carax, how is that going? I heard Adam Driver is on board! It’s a musical, right?
Russell: Yeah, and it’s something that we initiated and wrote from the ground floor up. It’s a narrative story called Annette. We were thinking that it might be Sparks’ next album when we were did it four-and-a-half years ago, but then we met Léos Carax, the French director, at Cannes film festival. He’d used one of our songs in his last movie Holy Motors, and we got back to LA and we thought we would send him the project on a whim, not really expecting anything. He came back and said “I really love this and I want to direct it,” and we went “wow, that’s pretty amazing.” So, in the last four-and-a-half years we’ve been working with him periodically just refining things.
It’s pretty far along in its pre-production, and is supposed to be shooting next year – only because the actors are so busy doing things like Star Wars! So we’re waiting. Léos the director was really passionate to have Adam Driver, and Adam Driver’s really passionate about the project. We met him once and had a really good meeting, going over stylistically what this should all be and he seems to be on the same page. It should be a pretty amazing thing when it’s done; it’s pretty uncompromising stylistically and it’s the first English language film for this director. It has a more international scope to it just because it has American actors and stuff, so it’s pretty exciting.
Yeah, I mean I saw Holy Motors and I thought it was incredible
Russell: It’s a really odd movie. You kind of can’t put your finger on it. The weird thing is that our film Annette is not traditional because it’s a musical, but there’s more of a specific story to it than Holy Motors, which has some abstract elements to it. In a certain way this is may be easier to follow even though it’s not conventional in its nature.
Did you have a hand in writing the script as well as the music?
Russell: Yeah, it’s one and the same.
Ron: There isn’t any – well at least as this point – there isn’t any spoken dialogue. We had finished the whole project on our own before we met with Léos and we thought it was going to be something we would present live, or an album […] so it was always thought that it was going to be wall-to-wall just vocals. We like that kind of artificiality – positive artificiality in a way. Also, the movie has some humorous elements but the basic tone of it is very serious and we really like that thing where people are expressing their emotions but through music, but it isn’t song and dance type things. It’s serious too. And Léos, we spoke with him at the beginning of the project just about the tone of musicals and we’re completely on the same page as far as what we all like and don’t like about movie musicals.
He’s on your album as well, right?
Russell: He is, and was a huge Sparks fan from when he was young, so after finishing our whole album – he was aware of us doing it at the same time as working on the Annette project – he just said “is there any way I can be on this album? I have to be, I’ll do anything- play accordion!” So Ron wrote that song which is kind of a stereotypical American asking stereotypical questions about what a French director is, but obviously the answers are given by a real French director too so he went along with the slant of the song. He’s maybe going to come on stage with us in Paris and do the song ther, which would be a real treat, just to do it one time. He’s a character too so it’ll be cool.
It sounds like he’s got a similar sense of humour to you guys?
Ron: Yeah, it’s kinda… sly!
I asked some Sparks fans if they wanted to ask you any questions, and we were talking about social media. I was wondering how social media has changed what being in a band is like for you, or do you sort of ignore it?
Russ: It’s only positive I think. In the past, you had to rely on other means to communicate with fans or it was solely based on getting something played on the radio, and if not then there’s no real way to have a universe of people who are kind of rallying around things in the same way and can share thoughts on the band.
Do you engage in the social media side of things?
Ron: I get told about what’s happening (laughs)
I was going to say you [Russell] definitely take some selfies and put them on Instagram!
Ron: (laughing) Yeah! Yeah
Russell: (laughing) One or two! If I’m feelin’ good!
Another one of the fan questions was about the amount of fan art that gets put on the internet and whether you see any of that?
Russell: When we do in general we really like it, yeah. I think it’s amazing whether it’s like caricatures of us. We think it would be really nice to have a book of a lot of the fan art, because people have interesting takes on things!
Ron: It’s funny how it’s changed. A long time ago we were getting postcards with drawings on them and now it’s kind of evolved into what it is now. Just the fact that people would take the time to do that in whatever form they do it in is amazing!
Russell, you record your vocals alone don’t you? Have you ever thought about co-ordinating the outfit with the song that you’re recording? A fan said that they imagined you recording “Dick Around” in sweatpants and a stained T-shirt to fit in with the character of the song!
Ron: (laughs) Method acting!
Russ: It’s a good idea! I actually don’t. A lot of the time [I do record alone]. It’s just that thing about not having to worry about what anybody thinks of the singing. It’s also a tedious process so sometimes it’s kind of better if [Ron]’s not there and then can just respond to it when it’s finished as opposed to being there for the whole process, and then he’s probably a better judge of it if he comes in with a neutral opinion about it.
Ron: Because I don’t have that luxury with the whole rest of the recording. Sometimes we just get away from the album for a while and come back to it to hear what’s there.
So is it the music that comes first?
Ron: Yeah. The lyrics are incredibly important and need to be up to the level of the music, but we start with the music so it has more freedom to do anything along the way rhythmically and not worry about working to the metre of a written poem or whatever you’re writing it to. It’s kind of always been that way. If things are working in a good way maybe the title or the theme of the song will come at the same time, but if not it’s just waiting for the moment of inspiration.
Do you ever just start something which you think is going to be the best new Sparks song and then you can’t find the spark – the moment of inspiration?
Ron: Sometimes there are songs that you have that you feel so strongly about musically and you can’t come up with something that does it justice you know? It’s easy for me to come up with something that works, but to come up with something that’s in the right mood for the song, that sort of thing…
Russell: Sometimes he’s written several sets of lyrics that are different and then asks my opinion.
Ron: So even “Edith Piaf Said It Better Than Me” went through several cycles. Sometimes there’s alternate titles of a song and even on the last [song], Life with the Macbeths, it was hard to figure out what to do with that
It’s a beautiful song!
Ron: Oh thank you, thank you. You don’t wanna screw it up or something (laughs) because it’s something that always annoys me in songs that I hear from other people, where it just seems like their lyrics that work with the [song] just don’t feel inspired. We try and do it in such a way that real care is put into both the songs and the lyrics and just hope that people appreciate it.
Who is the singer that duets on “Life with the Macbeths”?
Russell: She’s an opera singer in LA that’s become a friend that also sang on our seduction of Ingmar Bergman, I think it’s only one track but she’s the kind of Hollywood diva who sings on “Why Do You Take That Tone With Me” […] so she’s become a friend and so – oh, and then the new movie musical Annette, one of the characters is a famous opera singer, so she did all the demos for the movie and sadly will have to be replaced by Michelle Williams! The “Life with the Macbeths” song came pretty late in the recording process and we had the idea of having these two characters in that song, so we enlisted her to do that.
I think your voices work so well together
Russell: Yeah, surprisingly it worked! Her name is Rebecca Sjowall.
You also want to make a film of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, is that right?
Russell: Yeah, we’ve been trying to do it for a while but it’s finding the right angle to approach it. We were really inspired too by the work that Joseph Wallace, the guy that did the “Edith Piaf...” video did. After seeing that we were thinking it might be a treatment for The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman to do it that way, animated. We talked to him about it and he was really up for the idea. We originally thought just live action, but doing it in that style we think that maybe we could do things like a stylised Hollywood that’s anything you want it to be, as opposed to worrying about how much it costs to create that set. That’s an idea, but it’s still in the pipeline.
Ron: We don’t always like the caricatures of ourselves, but he was able to come up with something that was very interesting and I think if he did the Ingmar Berman project he could do something amazing with that as well.
Just one last question, going back to the fans I spoke to, is it supposed to be a compliment if you look like Iverson from Suburban Homeboy? That’s from a fan of Alan Iverson!
Ron: I think so. Iverson was short but cool, well, as a basketball player. I was always more of a Michael Jordan fan, but Iverson was the guy who brought street and hip-hop into basketball. He was the coolest looking guy. I always admired him! I mean his attitude – he wasn’t afraid of anything. But yes, it’s a compliment!
Russell: And to the other person, I’m going to re-assess my way of doing vocals now, thinking of co-ordinating my outfit. Tell whoever that was I’ll be reshaping the way I do vocals!