By Steven Rosen
The choice by Sparks to make the first Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, N.C., the second stop of their Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth tour was typical of their career — simultaneously incongruous yet perfect for their eccentric musical vision.
Sparks is Ron and Russell Mael, the Angelino brothers who for five decades have recorded as an exuberant pop group and art-rock conceptualists. With a new boxed-set retrospective just out — New Music for Amnesiacs, containing four discs and a 64-page booklet — Sparks is devoting 2013 to extensively canvassing the U.S. (and abroad). First came the earlier Two Hands One Mouth tour and now the Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth jaunt. The Maels are not using supporting players; a concert is “just” Russell singing and Ron playing electric keyboard. Revenge continues through Nov. 11.
“I’d probably say it’s our biggest tour,” Russell, 65, says of the two, during a phone interview. “Earlier in the year we played cities not on this tour, with the exception of New York and Los Angeles. So if you add those to this, it’s probably the biggest tour Sparks has done in America and Canada ever.”
The electronic-music-themed Mountain Oasis, which ran Oct. 25-27, is a new festival produced by Knoxville-based AC Entertainment (Bonnaroo) on the same weekend that it previously presented Moogfest in Asheville. (The Bob Moog Foundation’s Moogfest, focusing on the juncture of music, technology and art, is continuing without AC’s involvement and is set for April 23-27 next year.)
Mountain Oasis seemed an odd stop for the seemingly minimalist Revenge tour.
So why were the Maels there? Because Sparks has always been hard to pigeonhole. Though a quintessential L.A. band, reflecting the city’s sly manipulation of pop culture to artistic (and commercial) ends, the Maels briefly became superstars in glam-era Britain with the operatic “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” Upon returning to the U.S., they have recorded cult-beloved favorites with dance music (“The No. 1 Song in Heaven”), power pop and New Wave (“I Predict” and “Cool Places”).
“Usually our instruments have an electric plug, so maybe that’s it,” Ron, 68, surmises about the Mountain Oasis booking. “We’re always trying to put ourselves in different contexts, and during the late 1970s we worked with Giorgio Moroder (on “#1 Song”), and that part is called electronic music.
“But what we do is have our own sensibility and we channel that through different styles in order to keep ourselves and other people interested,” he continues. “So strictly speaking, it isn’t electronic music. But in terms of being modern and counter to radio music in either pop or rock, then we’re ‘electronic’ in our mental aspect to it. But you won’t be hearing a Moog in our concert.
The Revenge tour, by the way, is not meant to be quiet music. “We’ve given specific orders to our sound guy to get really loud so it has the same effect on our audience that a band would have,” Ron adds. “We don’t want it to be reflective or mellow. We like aggression.”
There always has been an element of art-damage weirdness to Sparks, what with teen-idol Russell’s flowing locks and Ron’s severe, tight hair and narrow mustache. But there also has always been a desire to be rockers — they appeared on American Bandstand six times because Dick Clark loved them.
Recently, they’ve ventured into more thematic work – including a 2009 musical commissioned by Swedish radio, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, that may be turned into a film by Canadian director Guy Maddin. Sparks is probably the only band that could write a musical about super-serious film director Bergman and record a tune with a title like “Angst in My Pants.”
The Maels honed their musical sensibilities as UCLA students in the late-1960s, both studying film, with Ron also studying theater and Russell graphic arts. In 1968, they formed a very quirky, eccentric band named Halfnelson. With Russell’s swooping vocals and Ron’s deadpan stage presence while playing keyboards, their approach was a little too conceptualist for the times. But one fan was Todd Rundgren, who got Halfnelson signed to Bearsville Records. Their first album came out in 1971…and went nowhere.
Bearsville was an odd choice for the ebulliently arty Maels — even if it did have pop virtuoso Rundgren. Based near Woodstock, N.Y., a haven of rootsy hippie sincerity, it was the boutique label of the famous manager Albert Grossman, and had such artists as Paul Butterfield, Jesse Winchester and Bobby Charles.
“Though seemingly at odds with the (artists) he managed like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and John Lee Hooker, Albert was a fan of what we were doing musically,” Russell says, in a follow-up E-mail to the phone interview. “He wanted the Halfnelson album to succeed commercially and after the initial lack of sales, he thought that changing the band’s name to something less obtuse than a wrestling hold would solve the problem. He thought we were amusing people and reminded him of the Marx Brothers. He suggested calling ourselves the Sparks Brothers. We hated that but met him half(way) with Sparks.”
Sparks, still a five-man band, released A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing in 1973, but the sales spike didn’t occur. At that point, the Maels took off for England and better luck with Island Records (and all that has come since).
This tour, like the New Music for Amnesiacs set, is an overview of Sparks’ career to this point. (The brothers have released 22 studio albums so far.) “We wanted to keep it pretty broad and varied and represent our different albums, but also play ones we thought weren’t obvious choices,” Russell says. “Maybe some more obscure songs that could be interesting in this context. On our last tour we did a song called “Sherlock Holmes” from one of our albums in the 1980s. People asked is that a new song. That’s really cool – a nice reaction.”
The booklet accompanying New Music, besides presenting a veritable museum exhibit of visual material related to Sparks’ history, contains a pretty weighty testimonial from loyal fan Morrissey. In part, he writes, “Some mothers never let their sons go, and all of the Maels songs are about the discipline of make-believe enforced by taboos placed on the flesh.”
Huh? It almost makes one want to say, “Lighten up, Morrissey,” And, in fact, Sparks did say that – it was the title of a song on their 2008 album Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
“When we read sentences like that, we say, ‘I kind of don’t get it but it’s Morrissey, so it’s cool,” Ron says. “It’s really flattering to us that he does in some way admire what we’re doing because he’s an artist working now who we’ve always respected musically and lyrically. For him not to just throw in a blurb about what we’re doing but to put some effort into it was very flattering for us.”
(As it happens, Morrissey has written a completely different foreword to an upcoming Sparks project, a book of their lyrics.)
The booklet also reprints a quote that Rundgren gave to the Words & Music publication in 1973, predicting that Sparks will never break up. He’s been right so far – it’s been a lifelong collaboration.
“We’ve come close from time to time,” Ron says. “But our roles within what we do are so opposite – a vocalist and a keyboard player. We’re not competing for the same turf within a band. Even though we’re different in most ways, we do share the same kind of vision of what Sparks should be doing.”
(A different version of this story appeared at http://www.blurtonline.com. Steven Rosen blogs at http://www.stevenrosenwriter.com and tweets at @srosenone. Photo is of Russell, left, and Ron Mael of Sparks.)