Originally published in Arthur No. 29 (May 2008) (which also featured a massive Sparksography by Ned Raggett).
Chris Ziegler and Kevin Ferguson visit veteran sui generis pop duo SPARKS in L.A. as they prepare to perform their 240-song oeuvre in a single month-long London engagement in May. “We’re actually better than we thought,” say the brothers Mael…
Sparks have about 60 days to finish learning the five million notes necessary to reproduce live their entire 38-year discography—20 old albums, select b-sides, one new album, and a special song for anyone willing to buy tickets for the entire month-long event in London—but brothers Russell and Ron Mael remain relaxed and ready in Russell’s home studio, where a portrait of Elvis watches over rehearsals so intense that Russell can’t stop singing his songs even in his dreams. Brand-new album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep will debut live this summer in London after prior nights each dedicated to an existing Sparks album—a marathon physically and psychologically and an occasion to revisit a band almost totally untangled from the industry music mess just miles away from Russell’s Los Angeles home…
Arthur: Ron said that you’ll be playing 4,825,623 notes during the complete 21-show run. That works out to about 230,000 notes per album and maybe 34 notes per second. Does that seem accurate?
Russell: On some of the early albums it’s probably true—the Island albums are probably 64 notes per second. Those were really hyper.
Did doing that kind of statistical analysis on your lifetime of work reveal any greater truths?
Ron: It’s actually a leveling. A lot of the ones we had maybe less love for are kind of good in retrospect. It would have been sad to go back and realize they weren’t very good.
Russell: Fortunately that wasn’t the case.
Ron: But we are prejudiced.
Russell: We’re actually better than we thought.
So you’re not nervous.
Ron: We’re still nervous. It’s awesome.
Awesome in the sense that building a pyramid is awesome?
Ron: On all kinds of levels. It’s like going back to school. We haven’t even heard most of the songs for 20 or 30 years, and most of them we never played live anyway, so part of the process was figuring out how to do that. We couldn’t cut any corners—we’re doing everything, including a lot of b-sides as well. We’re figuring out how to be true to the original records and doing it live. It’s a good concert experience.
Are you offering any kind of Sparks Value Pack for the entire run?
Russell: The golden ticket! For that you also get—we’re gonna record one song and give a CD of this one song to the people that choose to dedicate an entire month of their lives to Sparks. That warrants receiving a song that no one else will get.
Ron: And there’s gonna be at least one book or maybe two about the whole experience afterward, and we’re thinking if we can get up the energy, we’ll try to keep a journal.
Why no hometown show in Los Angeles?
Ron: We have a larger following in London. It’s so expensive to put this on that the only viable way was to do it in London.
Will you be including any Sparks alumni in the live bands?
Russell: Each of the bands had a certain character to them—someone even suggested it’d be great if we had each of those bands. In a conceptual way, that’s good. In a practical way, I don’t know if it would work. It’s a real test to find people—the fans who are going to spend a month of their lives with us, and then for the band, musicians who want to stick it out for three-and-a-half months of preparation, which is unheard of. When you prepare for tour, you have maybe 20 songs, and this is 240. And you might say, ‘Oh, that’s not so hard,’ but when you think of songs on the albums that fade out and you have to have an ending for that song now. To figure things like that out times 240 is so time-consuming. Just the sheer volume you have to digest.
Are you dreaming Sparks songs yet?
Russell: I’m singing songs when I wake up—I swear. And it’s not a happy dream. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even shut them off!’
Can you think of an equivalent to the total creative energy invested in the Sparks discography? Half a cathedral or the Pennsylvania tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh?
Ron: It could never be done by a visual artist, really—we don’t feel like we’re doing imitation, and we don’t see them as finished, necessarily. When we play live, we’re kind of inventing them again. You hear of classical musicians that do a composer’s complete piano works—that kind of thing. But this is kind of trickier. I don’t know for a fact because I’ve never done that, but it seems like more things are involved.
Russell: We’d be allowed to read music, but we don’t read music.
Will you be correcting anything when you play the albums live?
Ron: There are things we’d like to do that for—a couple lyrics here and there—but that would be kind of cheating the process. The things we’d like to change the most would ruin the whole affair.
Russell: Because somebody might like that album!
Ron: There are maybe a couple of tunes that don’t feel as relevant to the current psyche as they did at the time. But in general, I’m kind of surprised—it’s lucky because it could have been more depressing than it is now.
It’s depressing now?
Ron: Daunting, not depressing! But we’re not fazed by it. You just have to sort of plow ahead and those shows will be there and we’ll be doing it! There isn’t even real fear about it—that implies we could back out, and we can’t.
After four decades, what have you learned about the nature of timelessness in pop music?
Russell: Sparks was timeless even when we did it originally. It wasn’t of an era—it wasn’t some trend happening then. Even songs like ‘This Town,’ which is probably our most known song in Europe—that’s not a typical pop song. It didn’t fit in at the time, but it’s really striking—powerful lyrically with structure not typical of a pop song and kind of this faux-classical feel to it. You can kind of say that in a general way, maybe that made stuff timeless. We wanted to fit in as much as the next guy because when you’re in a band, you like as many people to see you or hear you as possible, but part of the reason it’s sort of timeless is it hasn’t really ever fit in, even though it’s connected with the public in the world at various times. I think the people that really like Sparks the most feel they’re part of a little club that’s sort of outsiders. They understand what we’re up to and they don’t want it to fit in with the rest of the pop world. They want it to be their own secret band they don’t have to share.
Ron: There’s two kinds of timeless. There’s timeless like Bruce Springsteen, where the songs sound like a part of history in a way—like a form that’s always been there. And our kind of timeless is just that we’ve been able to do it for a long time, and the sensibility is almost part of the longevity of what we do, and that’s continued despite stylistic changes. And also the sensibility is not something we applied to it—it was sort of there since the beginning without even thinking about it, and that’s one part of the process.
Do you think of yourselves as outsiders?
Ron: We’ve always straddled the commercial side and the outsider—for want of a better word—artistic side! We were always a little bit of those things—sometimes they negate one another. We had a problem in the ‘70s in England. We were taken as one thing once, and when the screaming started, we were taken as something else. Obviously, when you’re working you don’t think of this stuff. But when you look back, you do feel more comfortable in periods of commercial success—but you know there’s something more to what you’re doing than typical pop music.
What about the European model where musicians can get government grants? Or how visual artists can work the same way in America? What do you think about musicians in America having to make it totally on their own?
Ron: Obviously it makes it more difficult. But having to think a little how you’ll be accepted—maybe that’s helpful to what you’re doing. It makes it more difficult knowing you’ve got to fit in some way that’s commercial, but to have that a little in the back of your mind is a good thing. If you were given a grant and you could do anything you wanted working any kind of way, maybe there’d be so many possibilities—you would kind of have no guidelines about what to do. I’d love to have that situation—it’s kind of tragic, especially in the U.S., that there’s so little of that—but I think it kind of weeds out the people that don’t have the stamina to play within those rules. We’ve been lucky. We would never have 21 albums if we weren’t fortunate to have some things work really well commercially, so we have the luxury of being able to do what we’re doing. But I’m not so sure that not having any concern for commercial aspects is completely positive.
When was the last time you felt like giving up?
Ron: Yesterday? At times you’re so frustrated at the lack of commercial success at something you thought was good—both in a creative way and a commercial way—but then a week later, something happens or you move on to the next thing or kind of forget about it. There aren’t other things we can do. It kind of helps with there are no other possibilities. It makes you more accepting of bad situations you do go through.
How many people have you met in the music industry that were musicians themselves?
Russell: The whole thing about A&R people—it’s a nebulous job description! You don’t know where those people come from. It seems to us that the people that have some musical side to them are the ones we always got along with. Tony Visconti we worked with a lot—he’s both got the sensibility and is totally into pop music, but he’s a musician, too, and a really talented engineer. He’s got all the facets covered. It’s the people who see it as a business—kind of—but are kind of musical that we seem to get along with better.
How long until Sparks separates from the industry and becomes completely self-sufficient?
Russell: The new album is something akin to that. I’m not sure what the situation in the states is gonna be, but we’ll have distribution by Universal in England, and then having the label and all that is our own thing. In England especially you can compete against the big guys because the system is smaller and there’s BBC radio. Other stations, too, but you have the same access on the BBC as anybody else. In any case, we were offered a situation with the best of both worlds—you can guide your own destiny, but have distribution by a good distributor so you know it’ll be out and about. And we have an English manager.
It seems Sparks becomes more self-contained with every album.
Russell: The last few albums are exactly that. We are really self-contained—it’s the two of us working in a room. The new album took a year. We worked exactly one year in this room without any sort of outside stimuli. Our mindset has been that we want to make what we’re doing to be as extreme as possible—still being accessible, but to make it not conform. You know the pop music world just seems sort of bland—it feeds off itself. There isn’t enough kind of adventuresomeness with people, and with the last three albums, we wanted to make them as uncompromising as we can. But we always feel in the back of our heads that we’re a pop band. And the more albums you have, you want to not repeat yourselves as much as possible. If not, it’s a real slog. We just find new ways to impress ourselves. Ninety percent of pop songs, in the first couple seconds you can kind of tell where it’s coming from and where it’s gonna be, and for us that’s really sad. What you really like about pop music—it’s kind of about shocking you. Not in a spitting-on-the-ground way, but jolting people in some kind of way. And when pop music becomes really safe, then it’s not what it originally set out to be achieving—something that would jolt other people. Now there are few things that do that.
What do you think of the idea that the TV commercial is the new hit single?
Ron: Obviously the way a band can sustain itself had to be opened up to other possibilities. It was a stigma before to be in an ad, and now all that’s kind of gone. I hear some cherished songs—sacrosanct—used for baby’s diapers and all. Kind of necessary in a way, if you’re not going to have any other means of promoting your song. It’s just a fact of life. One thing we’re both a little conservative about is the idea that a song can be cherry-picked from an album. An album can be an amazing thing—bigger than the sum of its parts. Now with iTunes and iPods, people can kind of go through what you’ve done, and that sort of democracy is not something I’m liking too much. When we do record, we see it all as one thing, though we love singles as much as the next guy. But when someone can take track five out, the whole structure collapses.
Russell: Even now artwork isn’t really relevant, too. That’s troublesome. It’s the whole package! It’s part of the fun—opening up the package—and now more and more no one cares. Even the thing of CDs—that shrunken-down image is the first step in the image getting smaller and smaller, and now you buy it online and download lyrics or something. It’s part of the tactile thing. It’s like a book—you like to touch it and stuff, too. Something more than just the music.
You’ve talked before about modern pop being conservative music for conservative times.
Ron: It seems pop music is so out of the basic psyche of things. In our minds, politics is almost more of an adrenaline rush than pop music, to be honest. It’s hard to put them together—when ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was played when McCain won, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s… something.’ I’m really not sure how the back-and-forth political aspects work or what the effect is on pop music with the crossing of the two. It seems like sometimes the biggest pop stars are the politicians, and they look better than the pop stars!
That’s a little generous.
Russell: Well, at least Barack Obama.
Ron: I was being selective!
After four decades, what broad changes can you spot in popular music?
Ron: Sometimes it’s hard to know how much is you. You’ve heard so many records and experienced so much, maybe you’re dulled to the initial excitement of a record. But looking back—which always makes me kind of sad to say that!—when you heard a record and it just kind of made your hair stand on end—it kind of was such an important thing at that time! You couldn’t believe it! Both of us—our musical education, if there is such a thing, is from records.
How did that affect the way the band works?
Ron: We don’t feel like we’re slumming by doing pop music. It’s not like classical musicians who moved into that area. It sounds kind of banal but we’re genuine about what we’re doing.
Are you accused of not being genuine?
Russell: Sometimes if you have humor at all in music, if one doesn’t investigate what it is fully or get into the lyrics, you can think it’s kind of lighter weight. Not as meaty if it has humor to it! Where if it’s something about relationships only on one level where you know exactly what it is and it’s done seriously—‘Oh, that person has a lot of integrity!’ But if you have humor—it can’t possibly have depth to it because it has humor! You think sometimes people may like what we’re doing, but it’s ‘Oh, they’re FUN!’ To be honest, we hate when people just think it’s FUN. There are maybe some fun aspects to some of this stuff, but we see it as more to it. If you look at all the lyrics—even the lyrics that are fun—the fun-ness is coming in a way that is… I don’t know how to say it.
Russell: Serious fun! There’s a lot of thought in it.
Ron: And reconciling the thing of having this be our 21st album but still doing pop music—you can’t even analyze the ridiculousness of that! You just have to do it! We’re not really into doing soul-searching kind of music in that way. We think our music is revealing of our personalities but maybe not in a way other people have done albums—we’re not interested in that kind of exploration of our backgrounds. It’s really really difficult to do music in the general area we’re working—to be able to do it at this stage and not in a nostalgic kind of way. Particularly in England—we have a certain audience still there from the ’70s and we get offered package tours.
Ron: Shows of ’70s bands, and maybe we’re delusional but we never considered us a ‘70s band. Or an ’80s band—in L.A. we get offered ’80s things! We’re playing music for people that are maybe born in a different decade, but we feel there’s something about what we do that appeals to some of those people. The live shows—so many new people are coming to see what we’re doing now! That’s what’s really exciting, and that’s the reason we’re doing these twenty shows before the 21st—in an utterly pragmatic way, it’s a way for us to call attention to what we’re doing now. Not our audience so much but people like press and radio who are so blasé about what we do—‘Another Sparks album…’—so this is kind of an attention-getting device.
Was there a need to announce it?
Russell: We’re really proud of the new album and we think it’s really good, and we didn’t wanna run the risk of it trickling out and only a couple people hearing it. We really want people to hear what we’re doing now. And this was the best idea we came up with.
What was the second best?
Ron: Killing ourselves! Maybe looking back—‘They actually were underrated!’ And this is only slightly more of a pleasant experience.