Sparks talk to Tony Bartolo about the current state of pop and their desire to create the grand classical culture.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael are in town to promote their new album L’il Beethoven as new and fresh as anything being done by bands half their age. It’s Sparks reinventing Sparks. So, did Russell approach this album as if Sparks were a new band, determined to make a fresh start?
“We spent a year in our studio trying to come up with something that we thought was going against the real blandness in pop music right now and we thought for better or worse we try and make a musical statement that would be striking. Whether it hits people or not is out of our control, but it’s something we feel is exciting.” Ron continues: “We had around 20 songs written for this album that were a natural evolution from our last record, and while we were working on them we thought, what do we have to lose? We are both irate about what is around at the moment and we wanted to try something unknown. I think that the albums that have worked well for us have been the ones we have worked blindly on, not knowing what the finished result would be.”
Most artists who have been around as long as they have seem happy to capitalise on their back catalogue. Are there plans to dip into the archive or any box-sets in the pipeline? “No, we are looking to go forward, we are not interested in going back,“ says Russell, “There is a new ‘Best of’ coming out, but that is out of our hands.
So what are they currently listening to? Russell: “To be honest, this album is the kind of reaction against the lack of finding anything new or exciting. We find the whole pop scene really bland and predictable, with very little ambition out there.”
How does their unique sense of humour translate overseas? “We played Japan a couple of years ago,” says Russell animatedly, “and we didn’t know how it would relate to an audience that doesn’t speak English at all. But they understood the humour and saw it as a universal thing.”
In the songs ‘Suburban Homeboy’ and ‘What Are All These Bands So Angry About?’ they seem to be dealing with sanitised rebellion. “Yes, it’s trying to talk about the difficulty within popular music of making an impact,” says Ron, “when there is so much other stuff to compete with, like politically and any other kind of way. Their kind of anger is just not going anywhere.”
I asked about Faith No More member Dean Menta’s contribution to the album and live show. “We found out through a journalist that Faith No More were big fans,“ says Ron, “and for our album Plagiarism we were looking to collaborate with other artists and that is how he got involved with us.”
So what is it like being back in England? “It’s great!” says Russell. “England was the first to adopt Sparks on a big scale. It’s exciting to come back, especially with the new album and playing at the Festival Hall. A lot has gone into the recording of the album and the stage show.” The show is divided into two sets with the first set being the whole of the new album, where the majority of the audience will not have heard the songs. “It is something we had to do,” explains Russell. “We can’t worry.” Is everybody dancing after the first ten minutes? “It has to be taken on a much deeper level. What we are doing with this album is important to us, and we are willing to forego some of the hysterical response for some positive response to it.” Ron adds “There is a lot of fear, but we feel really strongly about what we are doing. It is not a disdain to the audience at all, it’s just knowing that we can do something challenging that people will respond to. We find it very exciting.”
(From ‘What’s On In London’ March 12th 2003 – refers to upcoming gig at Royal Festival Hall 21st March)