Never Turn Your Back on Brothers Mael:
No. 1 in Heaven, England and Germany, Sparks Keep Pushing the Boundaries
It’s still early on a Monday morning – by musician standards – and Russell Mael is almost audibly nursing a cup of tea at his Los Angeles home. He’s fighting the lingering effects of a head cold picked up on a return flight from Japan, where he and older brother Ron recently wrapped up a brief extension of Sparks’ “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour. A little congestion hasn’t dampened Mael’s enthusiasm, though. Frankly, I was prepared to encounter a bit of a diva – probably a subliminal byproduct of Russell’s operatic falsetto and British dandy attire – but even after 45 years in the business Sparks’ frontman comes across as thoughtful, energetic, and refreshingly un-jaded.
The brothers Mael have been basking in the glow of a storied career (or series of careers) for some time now, but in typical Sparks fashion they’ve used the opportunity to push the envelope rather than rest on their laurels. In 2008, for instance, they launched a 21-night London residency during which they performed one of their albums each night, in chronological order. The following year saw the premiere of their multi-language stage musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. Finally last fall, the pair embarked on a European “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour, tackling material from across their catalog stripped down to just Russell’s voice and Ron’s hands on keys.
“We had this idea of doing a tour eliminating the band while retaining the core perspective and lyrical slant, trying to find a way where it didn’t come across as a sensitive singer-songwriter evening, in the worst sense of the word,” Mael explains. “And without adding canned stuff – backing tracks, computers and the like.”
I was amazed to learn these shows marked the first time Sparks had ever performed as a duo – wouldn’t their landmark 1978 Euro-disco album No. 1 in Heaven have provided the ideal outlet for such a format? “We weren’t able to,” Russell reports regretfully, pausing to cough. “At the time of No. 1 in Heaven there were no inexpensive synthesizers, let alone computers. We would have needed banks and banks – it would have been economically and logistically impossible. Ironically, that album was never done live until like 1995 or something.”
OK, I inferred that cup of tea into Mael’s hand – perhaps because he’s a sexagenarian, perhaps because he and Ron seem so quintessentially British. Sparks have long enjoyed a higher profile in Europe – the Angelino brothers even relocated to London for their mid-70s breakthrough period, regularly gracing the covers of NME and Melody Maker and serving a stint as honest-to-God, tear-the shirts-off-their-backs heartthrobs. Well, at least the then curly-locked Russell did; Ron’s rail-thin look, slicked-back hair and Hitler-meets-Chaplin moustache is straight from the art house. They’ve always harbored a British sensibility – Sparks’ lyrics could provide a textbook illustration of “arch” – weaving a healthy dose of humor (some silly, more often high-minded) into their pop smarts. Ron handles most of the composing duties, and can be just as loquacious in interviews, but on stage he’s the silent partner, the Teller to Russell’s Penn.
It’s hard to think of another band outside the superstar echelon that’s pulled off more reinventions, or rubbed elbows with such a wide array of A-listers. But as they say, you make your own breaks. Yet Sparks aren’t ones to look back in “we never imagined we’d still be doing this in 2013” wonder.
“When you’re doing stuff early on, you’re so happy and blind to the whole thing,” Russell marvels. “When we got our first record deal with Todd Rundgren it was like ‘we’re happy now, content, we don’t need anything else.’ Twenty-three albums later we’re still out there doing our stuff. You just kind of plow on – you don’t have any reference points for beginning, middle, and end. To our credit, we still approach stuff with the same kind of excitement, which is why we think our stuff is still fresh. Approaching it in a naive, excited way.”
Sparks has long been viewed as the Brothers Mael plus a roving cast of sidemen. Few if any of their extensive roster of alumni have gone on to subsequent fame. Original guitarist and college pal Earle Mankey became a go-to regional producer in the ’80s and ’90s, linked particularly to LA’s Paisley Underground scene. And then there’s fan favorite Dinky Diamond from Sparks’ British incarnation, notable primarily for his status as a drummer with a name like Dinky Diamond. On the other hand, by 1975 they were able to attract name producers like Tony Visconti, who manned the board for Sparks’ bizarre Indiscreet the same year he helmed David Bowie’s Young Americans.
At their mid-70s commercial apex Sparks were an unlikely mash-up of T. Rex, Queen (who once actually opened for them) and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. By 1979 they had linked arms with Giorgio Moroder – not long removed from his chart-topping smashes with Donna Summer – to make the divisive No. 1 in Heaven, which was instantly loved in Europe, seen by many in the States as a disco sell-out, and is now widely viewed as a synth-pop touchstone. For the ’80s they settled in as a reasonably commercial West Coast new wave band with varying degrees of quality – unfortunately the sound too many casual observers associate with Sparks. But they upended the formula again in 2002 with Lil’ Beethoven, which brought their long-present faux classical effects front and center without the safety net of guitar and drums – and somehow worked like a charm.
Now comes the piece de resistance – New Music for Amnesiacs, a four-CD, career-spanning retrospective gathering highlights from all of Sparks’ albums (save for the long-form Ingmar Bergman) along with a handful of well-chosen B-sides and a lengthy booklet heavy with photo memorabilia. Over the years Sparks have acquired the rights to most of their back catalog – now reissued on their own Lil’ Beethoven imprint – but needed to swing a licensing deal for their three Island Records classics, Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet, to present a complete picture.
Taken as a whole, these 81 tracks reveal an unexpected internal logic. Most remarkably, remastered versions of 1971-72 singles “Wonder Girl” (recorded under the name Halfnelson, Spark’s original moniker dating to 1968) and “Girl from Germany” sound downright contemporary. Another early track, “Whippings and Apologies,” presages both the glam that came soon after as well as the motoric beat focus that emerged six years later. Only the late ’80s material (from albums like Interior Design and Pulling Rabbits out of a Hat) sound truly dated – give ’em another decade and that’ll probably change too.
Earlier this year the Maels compiled the best performances from their European “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour to create Sparks’ first ever live LP. I was struck by the extent to which the track listing favored earlier material, but Russell advises not to read much into that balance. “Maybe it was just that we landed on ones that worked and then got lazy and didn’t pursue more options. But for this next go-round it’ll probably be more evenly divided across different periods.” That’s right, amnesiacs – Sparks are billing their upcoming US tour as “The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth,” with a re-worked set list. Ron and Russell don’t feel proficient enough to call audibles on a nightly basis, yet they didn’t want to get “lazy” (Russell’s word, and one he used more than once – in what did not sound like false modesty) and simply re-hash last year’s set. “It’s pretty harrowing going on with just the two of us – it takes a lot of focus. We like to be well-prepared and we’re not Bruce Springsteen, playing for four hours and changing up the set. It’s simpler, this form, yet the preparation is probably a lot harder than doing it with a band – it puts so much weight particularly on the keyboard player to pick up the entire sonic load.”
On the other hand they have plenty of material to choose from, having re-learned their entire repertoire for the 2009 London residency. That process revealed some hidden gems. “An album like Introducing Sparks (their 1977 seventh album, titled in typically sardonic fashion) kind of went under the radar and even hardcore fans sometime ignore or dismiss it. But when we did it live it took on a different sort of context – maybe it wasn’t the material that held it back but rather the production. That album, I think, if we had to re-do it it’d be very different.” Introducing didn’t receive an initial “Two Hands” bow, but it will get its Revenge.
Sparks has been getting more than its share of love from the next generation, and the one after that. Morrissey wrote the fawning testimonial that opens New Music for Amnesiacs’ booklet – apparently he took their later-era track “Lighten Up, Morrissey” in stride. Neko Case covered “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” finding an earnest core in the lyrics to match her conservationist leanings, and her partners in crime the New Pornographers have covered “Throw Her Away (and Get a New One),” nodding to the source of their early maximalist approach. Perhaps most incongruous is Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, who recently penned a lengthy mash note to No. 1 in Heaven on his blog. “We’re finding there are a lot of musicians coming out to the shows. It’s nice to see us connecting with musical peers.”
Sparks have had so many Forrest Gump-type moments that it can be hard to determine which might be pranks. For instance, I’ve never believed the tale they were employed as catalog models in their tween years; However, video evidence exists to validate claims they were in the audience for the classic ’60s concert film The Big T.N.T. Show. And Mael confirms that the brothers’ dalliance with legendary French filmmaker Jacque Tati – which sounds on its face like a farce – was very real. “We had met with Tati over at least a year period, in Paris in the ’70s,” he explains, recalling a film provisionally titled Confusion. “It was someone from Island who suggested we try to connect because they felt we had a similar sensibility. We met off and on – to this day it’s one of our great career disappointments that it never happened, mainly because he fell into poor health and died not too long after that.” Tati had also been struggling with financial issues in the aftermath of the spectacular flop of his prior movie. “There’s a clip in the boxed set booklet about it from the NME, it even lists a supposed release date – which was a bit pushy but in everyone’s mind the project really was that far along.”
Despite this disappointment, and a six year investment in a manga film musical project (with rumored Tim Burton involvement) in the early ’90s that’s yet to pay off, the Maels haven’t given up on a film version of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. After years of false starts they’re still brimming with the sort of optimism it takes to survive in Hollywood. “Oh yeah, it’s in the works,” Russell insists. “Ron and I went to the Cannes Film Festival this year, and came back with a couple of production companies that are now representing the film’s development so we don’t have to scrape around on our hands and knees begging people for money. We haven’t starting filming yet, but we’re hoping to by early next year.”
Ron and Russell each attended UCLA (studying film and theater, respectively) so this channeling of energy has a solid foundation. “We live a ten minute drive from each other – we see each other almost every day because we work a lot,” Russell explains, with Ron usually heading his way to their studio in Russell’s house. They’re also working on a new story-driven project for which Russell is loath to share details, other than to say it involves memory and is most likely non-linear. “The idea is to structure it so that we can actually tour with this one, as opposed to Seduction. The fourteen member cast made that one almost impossible to mount.”
After riding out the inevitable up and down cycles that accompany such a long run, Mael remains uninterested in valedictories and unfazed by the whipsaw of critical acclaim. “The important stuff is being creative and coming up with new material – the rest is just peripheral.”