Still crazy after all these years: musical mavericks Sparks head to Norwich
PUBLISHED: 15:02 11 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:06 18 September 2017
Sparks — aka siblings Ron and Russell Mael — who have influenced everyone from Morrissey to Franz Ferdinand, are coming for rare gig in Norwich with new album Hippopotamus.
If you were watching as a band called Sparks appeared on Top of the Pops in 1974 to perform their bombastic hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, you’re unlikely to have forgotten it.
The unlikely combination of exuberant singer Russell Mael, owner of one of pop’s most remarkable falsettos, and his keyboard-playing brother, Ron - the one sat down, starring straight at the camera whilst sporting a resemblance to Hitler – certainly struck a chord with those of an impressionable age.
The first UK sight of these musical mavericks was the talk of school playgrounds the next day and the oddball mix of Russell’s soaring voice and Ron’s disturbing inscrutability created an army of fans among bewildered British kids.
“The reaction of ‘what the hell was that!’ — hopefully in a positive way — is what we were kind of looking for, and we still are,” Russell admits. “Pop music really needs to be done with at least that kind of attitude, whether you succeed or not is another thing.”
It is fair to stay they succeeded and it is no surprise that numerous subsequent bands and performers, everyone from Morrissey to New Order, and even Queen, have cited them as an influence.
The groundbreaking electronic pop duo pretty much drew the blueprint for Erasure and Pet Shop Boys and they recently worked with Franz Ferdinand on joint project FFS.
Morrissey asked them to perform their 1974 hit album Kimono My House (his favourite) when he curated the 2004 Meltdown festival. But their quirky art-pop output has been subjected to innumerable variations over 23 subsequent albums since.
Russell is on the line to talk ahead of the release of their most recent album, Hippopotamus, and a UK tour that brings them to Norwich.
Sparks’ music has always been instantly identifiable whilst at the same time always innovative. “You have to set out to shake things up,” he says, explaining the brothers’ continuing musical invention. “That’s what pop music at its best has always been about – rebellion, and not just in terms of sloganising political rebellion but also doing stuff that is going counter to the norms. That has always been our goal but to find new ways after you’ve had 23 albums like we have it becomes more of a task to find ways to stir things up.”
Hippopotamus sees them take the pop form, shake it up, and create an album that is adventurous but also idiosyncratically Sparks.
“The last couple of things we’ve done were more narrative projects,” says Russell. “We’ve done two movie musicals, one called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and another that is going into production later this year called Annette, which is going to be directed by the French director Leos Carax [Holy Motors] and starring Adam Driver and Rooney Mara.
“Both those were really lengthy time consuming projects and we were working in a very different way to more traditional pop format, so we felt now we can go back to doing a more focussed albums that is more Sparks. It’s an album of pop songs but hopefully in a fresh and forward thinking way.”
The band debuted the album’s title track, Hippopotamus, when they appeared at the 6 Music festival in Glasgow earlier this year.
“It is a little mini-story about a guy who wakes up and goes outside to his swimming pool and discovers a lot of disparate objects in there including a hippopotamus. We thought that that is a topic that hasn’t yet been fully covered in pop music,” deadpans Russell.
As with all their albums it is full of quirky song titles, including Giddy Giddy, I Wish You Were Fun, Missionary Position and So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play? It also again indulges the sibling’s passion for lyrics and quirky wordplay.
“Ron is the lyrical creator and really takes pride in the artistry,” says Russell. “Often times nowadays in music that seems to be relegated to a second tier and is just wallpaper. We feel the opposite. Lyrics are something that can tell you a lot about the group. What they write about and the care and craft they put into it. We like to come up with really interesting themes and subject matter. It is the duty of an artist, to come up with new ways of presenting things, and if you don’t what’s the point?”
The brothers formed Sparks in their native Los Angeles in 1971. Ironically given their influence on British artists, their own influences came from this side of the Atlantic. “We were real Anglophiles and we embraced the early Who, The Kinks and The Move. They were bands that we felt had really strong songs and lyrics but also really flashy imagery really alien to us in LA at that time.”
Siblings in bands don’t have a great track record but it seems Ron and Russell remain as close as ever.
“Our relationship is really the same as it always was and that is what has given us the focus that we have always had that we both have a certain vision of what Sparks should be doing and share a passion for it,” says Russell.
“Our roles in the band don’t overlap so there tends not to be conflicts over who is doing what. It’s also having someone that you can always rely on. We’re fortunate to be amongst the few brothers in music that actually get along.”
What can we expect when they arrive in Norwich? “It’s always a theatrical experience to perform for us regardless of whether we have any extraneous elements on the stage because both my and Ron’s onstage personalities are very visual and the songs have a theatricality to them. Hopefully it’ll be special to everyone who comes.”
• Sparks play the Waterfront in Norwich on September 18, 7.30pm, returns only, 01603 508050, ueaticketbookings.co.uk
• Hippopotamus is out now