Search The Line of Best Fit
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Nine Songs

From witnessing the birth of Elvis’ stardom, to crying over classic French film scores and learning to appreciate K-pop, Sparks’ Russell Mael walks Elise Soutar through his favourite songs, both past and present.

19 May 2023, 08:00 | Words by Elise Soutar

By the time most artists enter the 52nd year of their recording career, promote their 26th studio album, announce plans to write a second movie musical and are the subject of their own career-spanning documentary, you’d think you’d have what makes them tick pinned down. Then again, Sparks – the musical enigma helmed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael – are not even remotely close to being “most artists.”

Having pioneered their own eccentric brands of glam, electro-disco, art rock, synthpop and chamber pop, all while pivoting from mainstream idol status to cult staples and back again multiple times, there was no guessing how a member of Sparks would tackle an exercise like this.

Even when the format demands an artist to reveal the music and artists that cuts to their very core, baring their emotional attachment to the work they love for all to see, you know the very essence of Sparks relies on their ability to shapeshift, and therefore, to never be captured clearly. They’ve held up their end of the bargain by providing such multifaceted material to work with in the first place; it’s the listeners’ job to sort and decipher it for themselves.

Perhaps super-producer Jack Antonoff put it best in his interview for Edgar Wright’s 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers: “All pop music is rearranged Sparks.” How can you narrow your entire musical world down to a concise, finite thing when you’ve done everything?

Incidentally, both Antonoff and Sparks are set to appear at this year's Primavera Pro – where the Mael brothers will discuss the influence of their music over the last 50 years, highlighting their influence, unique style, witty lyrics and ability to constantly reinvent themselves.

As expected then, the elastic voice of the band, Russell, submits a delightfully varied Nine Songs list. Just by reading it, you get the sense that he could’ve gone on bridging each choice together with a thousand other songs that meet the ones he’s included halfway – this portrait of the artist can only remain a sketch, it implies.

He sends his picks along with a disclaimer saying as much. “The list is like saying you have ten children: your house is burning down, and unfortunately, you can only save nine of your kids. Which of your children are you leaving behind?”

“That note was me trying to be defensive without being too defensive,” he sheepishly admits when I ask about his process for deciding which songs to include. “I read lists that other artists did for this column, and I ran into the issue of not knowing if you have to stay strictly to inspirations from when you were young or inspirations now.

"But the inspiration for just being alive as a musician doesn't ever stop, it’s ongoing! I think it’s a good thing when you can find something in the zeitgeist and you’re able to get excited in the same way that you were inspired by music when you were first starting out.”

“So,” he concludes, pulling a printed sheet of notes out so that he won’t forget any of the points he wants to make about each track, “there are some old ones along with some new ones on the list.”

Sparks hippo

It would have been a mistake to assume he would ever take the “safe” option, in any sense of the word. In keeping with the essence of what Sparks is, as far as that can be defined, there will always be the inclination to pull from their storied past while keeping a steady eye on the future.

This is evident by the bold experimentation of their new album, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, which rounds up aggressive glitch-pop, sweeping classical-crossover ballads and stomping guitar-driven rockers, all accompanied by signature laugh-out-loud lyrical twists.

If his choices here have any clear throughline, it’s that they marked a moment of reinvention for each artist’s respective genre, creating a contained sonic world in which they could invent and reinvent, just as Sparks has continued to do. “Safety” is the last thing anyone should be seeking here.

Maybe sensing that we’ll protest the absence of his musical phantom limb, another concession comes with the fact that we’re only getting a piece of the full puzzle with his Nine Songs selections. “Ron would probably have a completely different take on what he would pick, so you’re only getting half of Sparks here.”

Even so, Russell Mael’s picks do more than their share to provide a glimpse at the inner workings of music’s most enduring and prolific oddities. Here, he poses for a rare portrait of the artist at play – just don’t expect him to still be in the frame next time you turn around.

“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” by Elvis Presley

It's from the film Jailhouse Rock, which we saw when we were really young. Even if you divorce it from that scene in the movie, for me, it’s musically kind of the essence of everything that pop music should be. Then, on top of that, you’re seeing the visual of him standing there being the absolute coolest person on earth and him knowing he was the absolute coolest person on earth as he was singing that song in the movie.

It’s that combination of elements. I think that’s why you get excited and say, “Oh God, someday, I want to be that guy at that swimming pool being as cool as I can possibly be, standing there singing in front of all these women at the pool party.”

He's there doing all his early iconic moves. He later transitioned into the Las Vegas period, which I think sometimes gets too much attention. People tend to think of him as the white jumpsuit with the big old goggle glasses, and that's not the Elvis that I like to remember. There was another Elvis in his pre-army days, and he was the absolute coolest person there was.

With this song, there’s something so basic about it, and it's really, really short. I think it's just around two minutes long, but it also shows you don't need to overstay your welcome in a pop song. You can say it all in around two minutes, and if you've got the goods, like he did, there's no problem. It just makes you go and want to replay it that much quicker.

"Come Out” by Steve Reich

BEST FIT: So much of Sparks’ sound revolves around your voice and how you and Ron layer and manipulate it to build this unique instrument that’s so recognisable. From a fan’s perspective, it’s easy to see how this piece, which does something similar with an interview sample, might have inspired you. There’s a lineage there that makes sense.

Yeah, Steve Reich was doing all of that, using samples so early on. In this piece of music, he’s taken a boy’s voice that says, “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them,” and then he keeps repeating the phrase, “Come out to show them, come out to show them,” and manipulating the timing of that.

There’s something about taking this one line out of context, it amplifies the importance of what the person in the original sample recording was trying to say. Then he’s taking it and amplifying it by the fact that now you're in his piece.

I don’t remember the exact length of it, but it’s really long. He’s manipulating that little snippet for all of that time and altering the timing of it. Steve Reich was working so early on in using repetition and making use of recordings in that kind of way where you're manipulating samples as it were but doing it in a really sophisticated way. You know, he’s making it all into a musical sort of thing.

A lot of times, people have said, “Oh, there's a lot of repetition in Sparks’ music!”, whether it’s a compliment or something they're saying pejoratively. There is a lot of repetition, but we’ve felt that repetition has always been a part of pop music. The essence of what it is, is repeating phrases. When you're repeating a chorus of a song, that's the essence of pop music, and you can hopefully do it in a way that's not boring. That's your job as an artist, to make that kind of repetition - if you’re using that - interesting.

In any case, I think Steve Reich managed to use that form and use repetition in his music in a really creative and artful way.

"Whole Lotta Loving” by Fats Domino

When we were growing up, Fats Domino was another character and artist who we really loved. He had such a warm personality. You can't help but smile when you see him if you ever watch videos of him where he’s performing his music. In those videos, he is just the happiest person on earth, and this song, “Whole Lotta Loving,” is one of his songs that I really like.

There’s a certain point in the song where he keeps filling in the lyrics with sounds that he makes, like when he sings “I gotta whole lotta [claps twice] for you.” He doesn’t say what it is, but he just uses it! Instead, he occasionally claps in those breaks.

It’s really simple, that sort of thing. It’s not being able to really even articulate what his love for this person that he's talking about in the song is, but you know what he means. Again, it's a really clever way of presenting a simple theme, but doing it in a way that's really, really catchy.

BEST FIT: I was just going to say, it also goes back to repetition and how central it is to the idea of the pop song.

Right, it’s back to that nasty word “repetition,” but yes! It’s still that repetitive stuff but in a really clever and really interesting and artfully done way. Again, he was just such a warm person. There's so many songs by Fats Domino that are incredible, but this is one that I think gets a little bit short-changed. For me, It's almost his best one.

“Final” from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Original Soundtrack by Michel Legrand

BEST FIT: You’ve spoken about the band’s connection to French New Wave films before, and the two of you have also written your own musical for film, Annette, so it’s exciting to see a nod to director Jacques Demy included here.

Both Ron and I like movie musicals, but only when the material is in the right hands. There are also movie musicals that we don't gravitate towards for various reasons, where they're kind of bombastic or more stereotypically “Broadway,” and everything's got to be based around these grand movements. That sort of music and those musicals, they aren't really to our tastes, even though they’re valid. It's just more of a personal preference thing.

What makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg so special is that, first, all the music in that film is amazing, and also, that it’s completely naturalistic. There's no spoken dialogue. It’s all 100% sung, but it’s done in a way where after ten minutes of watching the film, you don't even remember if people are singing or speaking.

This one piece I chose is just called “Final” on the original soundtrack. This ending part it plays over is really tragic, the protagonist sees is the woman that he ultimately wanted to marry, but he had to go off to war and she was approached by another man who was earnest and said he could take care of her and give her a good life. Then, her former boyfriend comes back from the war and he finds out she's gone off with this other guy.

This is from the final scene of that movie and it's so sad. He owns a gas station now, the former girlfriend comes in, and she has her child with this other man. Coincidentally, she pulls up to get gas at the station and it's like, “Oh my God! It’s you!” and it's snowing, it's around Christmas time. Ultimately, she's just going to drive off and it’s made clear that that's going to be the end. It’s the last time they’re ever going to see each other.

Michel Legrand, who did the music, uses this one theme that comes about every 10 minutes during the film, and it's the saddest, most romantic theme you've ever heard. He obviously knew that as well, because he makes a point of ramming it home so often throughout the movie. Then, by the end, this theme comes for the last time, and if you aren't thoroughly crying by then, you have no soul.

“T.V. Caesar” by Procol Harum

Growing up, we were big Anglophiles, so there's probably a million British bands that I could have listed here who are not Procol Harum, but I really liked them as well. There was sort of an intellectual side to them that I really liked, and there was a real care for the lyrics, which were usually written by Keith Reid.

These are not lyrics you expect from a typical pop song, which was often the case with things he wrote. Maybe that was part of the appeal of the band to me: it was doing something that felt like a whole other world. So much of it was classically inspired. There are all of these arpeggios and melodic themes that feel classical, but they’re doing them in a pop-friendly sort of way.

It was this great combination of Gary Brooker’s voice and these songs that were, you know… kind of pretentious in a sense, but good pretentious! There's always room for pretension in pop music.

BEST FIT: They definitely feel like a band from that period of time that doesn’t really get their due outside of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” even though there’s so much interesting stuff going on in their catalogue. Maybe that “good pretentiousness” is what keeps people from revisiting them?

Well, if it's pretentious, you can count on us bringing it up as Sparks! [laughs] Another thing I like about that song is that, after a certain point, it just keeps repeating the chorus. I swear, it must go on for three minutes at the end, where it just repeats over and over: [sings] “T.V. Caesar, Mighty Mouse / Gets the vote in every house.” It's big and grand, and yes, pretentious, but I think it's also really moving as well.

“Envy None” by Chang Kiha

You know, it may sound awkward for someone like me to say, but I really like a lot of K-pop music, and I also think that people aren't exposed to everything that’s going on musically over there. There's a lot of new, modern pop music that's happening in Korea that isn’t part of that whole K-pop system we’re familiar with now, where it’s the choreographed boy band and girl band sort of groups.

Dancing and performance are the key elements in those cases, and that’s all fine. Those groups do what they do well, but I picked this one track by an artist named Chang Kiha. It's a Korean pop song that doesn’t have anything to do with those agencies that put groups together, where it’s manufactured and they get to spend a lot of time nurturing the people along so they all can sing and dance at a certain level.

This is a guy that's bucking that whole system and doing something really special. I think this song really shows there's a whole other side to Korean pop music that maybe we aren’t as exposed to here in the West.

We were in Seoul over last Christmas and New Year's, and we actually got to meet Kiha. Here’s a confession: he’s a Sparks fan as well, so we became buddies, but despite that, I do think his music is really great. It’s something fresh, and I enjoy this song I chose, “Envy None.” The one drag, obviously, is I don't speak Korean so I’m missing a huge part of it, but as it was explained, it's talking about envy and all of its various forms.

It’s this simple song and it’s almost a little bit hip hop-influenced in its presentation, but it’s really cool. So, I highly recommend it to anyone who has trouble getting into what’s going on over there. When you mention Korean pop music, someone might cringe if they feel strongly about it, but there's a lot of different facets of Korean pop music that I think are interesting.

“More” by j-hope

BEST FIT: Another Korean pop choice, but from a name we might already be familiar with from that boy band side of the genre.

Right, it’s a song by j-hope from BTS. They've all sort of been going off on their various solo projects, and some of them have even been called into the army now, including j-hope. I think he’s the latest of the enlistees, so sadly, we’ll be missing him and his work with BTS for a while until he returns.

This particular song was from an album he came out with shortly before being enlisted and I think that it's really a cool song. He played at Lollapalooza in Chicago this year, he went and performed as a solo artist, it was very strong performance, and very striking.

Again, you can kind of say, “Gosh, he’s talking about BTS,” and that kind of music will have certain connotations for people, or they have an idea of what it’s about. I think if you investigate it and approach it in a neutral sort of way, just listening to this particular song from j-hope especially and then seeing the performance he did of it at Lollapalooza, it's as compelling as anything else coming out right now. It’s up there with the best of modern pop music.

“Push Upstairs” by Underworld

I had to be reminded of Underworld’s place in pop music recently. They just played at Coachella here in L.A., and when I watched their performance, it didn't sound dated or like it was from another era or anything. To me, what they were playing sounded so modern.

This song, “Push Upstairs,” is probably from 30 years ago or something like that. It's old, in any case. It took seeing it in this specific context now, placed beside all of these new groups playing at Coachella. To me, it was more cutting edge, more vital and more with the spirit of what pop music can be than what a lot of other acts that are brand new are doing. I just found it to be really driving and compelling.

Again, they're a group that has created their own kind of universe. I kind of said it before, but the bands that I think are the strongest are the ones that have a special world that they create and they’re able to stick to that world and do it well. They know not to veer off into other areas that may water down what their essence is, and I think they've managed to do that.

BEST FIT: There have been a lot of conversations recently about house music and its role in the pop world, and I feel the fact that artists like Underworld, who have been working within that genre for a while, still feel fresh means that mainstream pop music is only catching up to them now. They were miles ahead for such a long time.

Yes. What they brought to that performance at Coachella was so striking to me.

“The Tora-san movie theme (‘Otoko wa Tsurai yo’)” by Naozumi Yamamoto

This is from this series of 48 films, and it might sound a little out of place today, but the title of them translates to It’s Tough Being A Man. Don't judge me for that, I'm not not subscribing to that sentiment! [laughs]

It was an ongoing series of Japanese films that would come out twice a year, once in the summertime and one at New Year’s. They all focus on the same character, Tora-san, always played by the same actor, who was an itinerant salesman who’d travel around the country with a little suitcase, selling trinkets.

He always returns home to this town called Shibamata, where they live, after wandering for one episode. He’s not the most handsome guy, but he’s really lovable and he invariably meets a woman in each one. You always think in one of these films, he’s finally connected with the woman of his life, but instead, what happens is he ends up giving advice and helping that woman out, so that she can go and be happy with somebody that she actually loves. It’s this deeply sad story, and we follow this guy from 1969 until 1995.

In any case, this piece of music I picked is the theme song from the films, and they use it as the opening theme in every one of these 48 films. It's this bittersweet music that's almost like the character himself. They really managed to embody Tora-san and his dilemma, where he’s never going to really find his true love. Somehow, the theme song from this series of movies has been haunting me for forever, and it’s just really beautiful.

We had the good fortune to meet the director of this series of films, Yoji Yamada, who's still alive. He's 91 years old now. When we were in Japan during this last trip over Christmas, he was introduced to us and we went to the town that they filmed in. It's the quaintest little town just outside of Tokyo. There's lots of little cafés and restaurants that all are honouring that film series and the lead actor, who became a huge celebrity in that area, just as the director did.

So, we were introduced to him and had tea in a little town of Shibamata. It was special for us.

The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is released 26 May via Island Records; Sparks appear at Primavera Pro on 1 June; find out more.

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