Elvis Costello kicks off his early hit "Accidents Will Happen" by admitting, "Oh, I just don't know where to begin," and like Elvis, one huge dilemma when attempting to introduce the band Sparks is deciding just where to start. The brotherly duo of Ron and Russell Mael from Los Angeles was instrumental in both the '70s glam era and in the early development of synth-pop. Todd Rundgren produced their debut album, and disco pioneer Georgio Moroder produced the act in the late '70s. But no matter what style they've chosen, Sparks has always, to paraphrase Russell, rebelled against the lack of adventure in pop music. The rebellion continues on their 25th album, Hippopotamus, set for release September 8.
One way Sparks has consistently rebelled against the status quo has been with their wacky sense of humor. This characteristic comes through in a song like "Lighten up Morrissey," a good-natured rib aimed at an equally humorous artist who sometimes takes himself a little too seriously. Even the early album title Kimono My House was pun on Rosemary Clooney's old hit, "Come On-A My House."
This oddball combination of stoic keyboardist Ron and outgoing vocalist Russell remains actively creative and relevant. So much so, in fact, the hip rock band Franz Ferdinand collaborated with their heroes when forming the combo act FFS.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Regarding the new album Hippopotamus, you mentioned how you wanted to get back to three-to-four-minute pop songs. Is it more difficult to write shorter songs?
Ron Mael: In a way, I think it's almost more difficult to write within the three-to-four-minute song structure because there can't be any filler along the way. And, the song has to make sense.
You know, we try to break the rules. There are sort of rules as far as repetition of some area of the song. In a way, a film is easier. Even though you have to write a long narrative thing, it's easier because you can do anything and hopefully it works within the story structure of the film. But with three-to-four-minute songs, there are established rules. You can bend them as much as you can, but it makes it more difficult. But also, that kind of challenge is really fun.
Songfacts: What is the process for writing songs for Sparks? Do you have defined roles, as far as who writes the music and who writes the lyrics? Talk me through the general process.
Russell Mael: The general process is, Ron writes the music, and then Ron writes the lyrics. And then I go, "God, that's really good."
Ron: Also, in addition to songs we bring in, we write some things in the studio. Russell has a real command of the studio and how everything works, so we sometimes work from the sounds and just phrases that we might come up with and try to build the song. So, it's working in different kinds of ways.
Russell: I do the general fixing, and that kind of stuff. I do all the singing, so I'm singing and engineering at the same time. So, that's more of what I'm doing in the process.
Songfacts: I saw you guys when you were touring with Franz Ferdinand at The Observatory in Santa Ana, and it was a really fun show. How was it collaborating with another band? Was that more of a challenge, or did it feel natural as far as how you wrote songs with them?
Russell: Well, Ron wrote a good portion of that album [FFS, 2015]. So, basically, there were songs that Ron had written, and then there were one or two that Alex Kapranos had written on his own. And there were a couple of instances where they had a backing track of a song as a band, but no structure, so we took it and made it sound like a song.
Ron: Of that variety, "Man Without a Tan" and "Police Encounters" were both things they had written instrumentally, and we added a vocal and lyrics to those.
Russell: They had no melody, nor did they have any lyrics, so we kind of gave those a form and a shape.
Songfacts: How did you know that you would be able to collaborate? What gave you a clue that this would make a good pairing of two different entities kind of coming together as one?
Ron: Well, we didn't really. You never know. It's two strong sensibilities.
You never know if it's gonna work, but we didn't go at it like it was going to be a whole album, and definitely not that it was going to be a tour. Everybody just kind of tiptoed in and said, "Let's try one thing," and it grew and grew to the point where somebody had to be brave enough and say, "How about if we do an album?" And after that, "How about if we do a tour?"
But there are no guarantees. That's what's exciting: You don't know what the final result will be or if it's going to work at all.
Songfacts: The first song I heard from the new album was "What The Hell Is It This Time?", which I loved from the first time I heard it. I'm a Christian, and I imagine some of my Christian brothers and sisters might not appreciate it as much as I do, but even from a theological level, I imagine that God must get frustrated with humanity. But apart from the comedic value of the song, would you describe yourselves as being spiritual in any way? Do you believe in God?
Ron: I think just by doing what we do musically, there's a spiritual aspect to it. It's hard to describe because it isn't based upon a particular religion, but there's a spirit that we feel is a part of what we do and imbues what we do and makes everything rise up to a certain level. It's spiritual maybe in a more general sense.
Specifically, about that song, I know you're not taking it that way but it was never intended to be blasphemous. It is more just a wry look at people who maybe are asking of God things that are less monumental and should be solved on their own. It's definitely not an anti-religious track. It's more just a statement on people who feel that somebody else has to solve all of their problems. They can't do anything by themselves.
Songfacts: It reminds me of the movie The Life of Brian. There's this one scene where Brian gets frustrated with the people following him and basically tells them, "Just think for yourselves!"
Ron: I'm glad you can appreciate that movie and not feel that it's a threat to your beliefs. I give you a lot of credit for that.
Songfacts: One of the songs I really love is "Lighten up Morrissey." I thought that took a lot of guts on your part to record because he's pointed to your band as a big inspiration on him. Have you heard back from him on how he feels about the song? And has he promised to try to lighten up a bit?
Russell: He didn't promise to lighten up, but he really liked the song a lot. We were happy that he liked it. And like the song "What The Hell Is It This Time," it wasn't meant to be a derogatory thing towards him. It was observational.
We did hear from him, and he liked it so much, in fact, we did a video for that song and he used the video to precede some of the shows that he did. He used it as one of the projections before he goes on. He has a sense of humor enough to like the spirit of that song. He likes Sparks so much that he can bypass that.
Songfacts: When I first discovered your music, it was when KROQ was in its heyday with the whole emerging new wave scene. And I'll have to confess to you that I didn't have a lot of respect because it seemed like every song they played by you had to do with sex. There was "Angst In My Pants" and "All You Ever Think About Is Sex" and I thought, They're just another one of those acts pandering to these boys and their out-of-control hormones. It wasn't until later that I discovered the whole history and all the different phases that the band has been through that I grew to respect your legacy. Was it difficult for a time when you were sort of typecast as being a band that you really weren't, based upon what was being played on the radio?
Ron: Well, I think that at times people saw just one level of what we were doing and didn't see subtexts. So we, at least as far as we could control it, were never attempting to pander to any sort of audience. We were lucky at that time because KROQ was really championing our music, but you try not to let that sway you to what you are doing.
But, I don't know, there was maybe a spirit to the times that was conducive to a little bit more of that cheapish, hormone-lad kind of song.
Songfacts: There are so many songs I like that you've done, but if you were to pick out a few you're most proud of, what songs come to mind?
Ron: One would definitely be "Rhythm Thief" from the Lil' Beethoven  album. It came at a time when we had written a whole album worth of songs and we weren't 100 percent enthused. We had good songs, but it seemed like just doing good songs at that point wasn't enough to inspire us. So, it was really attempting to start from zero.
The song "Rhythm Thief" was working in a way that had worked before and it really pushed us to do a whole album that felt more motivated. I really like that song, and really what it meant creatively to what came after that.
Russell: "As I Sit Down And Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral." Ron played the organ at The Notre Dame Cathedral. If there's one song to play to somebody to put them on one side of the fence or the other regarding Sparks, I would take that song. It's just really super complex and has tons of vocals and tons of really dissonant organs. I think it's a pretty amazing song. It's off the Hello Young Lovers  album.
Songfacts: That album references Frank Sinatra. You also did a song, "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way.'" So, tell me about how Frank Sinatra has inspired you.
Russell: I don't know if he's influenced us, other than he's a cultural icon that's suitable for referencing in a pop song in a way that's maybe unorthodox. "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" is referencing that song that he sang that was one of the more famous.
Ron: He was the first person who really figured out that LPs could have a theme. In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning and Only The Lonely are two concept albums in a way, when nobody else was thinking of albums as songs that were related in that way. Not that we were necessarily inspired by that, but it was just that coolness of his thinking to realize that an LP could have one kind of mood to it through the choice of songs.
Songfacts: We were talking about vocalists. Are there vocalists that inspired the way you sing?
Russell: In the pop world, I always liked British singers, in general, that had a stylized approach to the way they sang that's not naturalistic at all. If you listen to people like Ray Davies, that's not the way the person speaks. And then you have a person like Bob Dylan. You listen to his stuff, like, "Stuck Inside Of Mobile" [doing his best Dylan impression]. People just don't talk like that.
I think that's how people put a voice to their music. It's like putting themselves into another character, almost, and it becomes their character, although it's not naturalistic at all to sing that way. Those kind of singers, I really like a lot from the pop world.
Songfacts: One of my favorite music industry stories was how Neil Young was sued by his label for not making "Neil Young music," because he kept changing his style. And I think about how your music has consistently changed, covering well beyond what's considered typical pop music. Have you ever had any of those kinds of difficulties with labels that maybe didn't understand what you were trying to do?
Ron: Never had, no [Russell heard laughing]. We've been fortunate because even if we've had people who didn't want to take the chance, we've been really lucky to always have situations where strong people really wanted our music to be a part of their label. Those are things where you look back and you think, "If that hadn't happened, how would things have gone?" In that way, we've been really lucky through the years.
Songfacts: I've never read the typical thing where you had brotherly quarrels like Ray Davies and his brother Dave or the Gallagher brothers. So, what's the key to getting along and just being in a band together for so many years?
Russell: Just sharing a common vision for what we're doing in Sparks. I think we share that mission – and I think the word "mission" is somehow more appropriate – where we don't discuss or talk about it but you just want to rebel against everything. Rebel against what you see in the world. Rebel against the lack of adventure in pop music. Rebel against all the bad people.
It's a common purpose to what we're doing and in our small way we channel that sort of vision and mission through the music we have and the sensibility Sparks represents. We speak similarly so there aren't those kind of disputes that you find in some of those other brother acts that you've mentioned. It's more puzzling that brothers can be in a band and not get along. That seems even weirder to me. It's kind of weird to think that's more the norm for brother acts. But you hear it all the time with The Kinks and the Everly Brothers.
Songfacts: You must have had great parents.
Russell: Good parenting and good genes.
August 29, 2017
Get Hippopotamus at allsparks.com.