(Editor/writer’s note June 25, 2021: I wrote this interview with Ron Mael of Sparks year for Rock’s Back Pages, when it looked like 2020 was going to be the duo’s long-awaited “breakout” year. COVID-19 interfered with those plans, but so far it seems like 2021 might actually be the year that the Mael brothers and their fans have long awaited. — SR)
BY STEVEN ROSEN / MAY 15, 2020
When 2020 was still new, it looked to be The Year of Sparks, the beloved cult rock/pop band of brothers — Ron and Russell Mael — that have released 23 studio albums and numerous compilations since 1971. This year could still turn out that way, but COVID-19 has interfered.
The new studio album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip was scheduled early on for May 15 release (digital at first; physical copies July 3), and Sparks began offering previews online. New songs like “One for the Ages,” “I’m Toast,” “Self-Effacing,” “Lawnmower” and “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” showed Sparks still capable of their artful, quirky yet accessible pop songs enlivened by Russell’s theatrically expressive vocals and Ron’s expert keyboard work and lyrics emphasizing humorously sophisticated wordplay or just plainly spoken poignant truth.
That record is still coming out. But the Mael brothers also had announced a European tour with their supporting musicians for October — a prelude to a 2021 world tour. They also revealed that the long in-the-works movie for which they wrote the mostly-sung screenplay — Annette, by French auteurist director Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard — was finished and ready for theatrical release. Further, they said, British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) feature-length documentary chronicling Sparks’ long career was quickly approaching completion.
What a year to look forward to! But then, the pandemic arrived in Europe and the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world). Public entertainment, such as movie theaters and concerts, pretty much was halted everywhere. The Cannes Film Festival, where Annette was scheduled to appear, was an early casualty.
During a recent telephone interview with Ron, ensconced in his L.A. home, he worried about whether the October tour could happen. And he displayed great anxiety about what the future might hold for Sparks if concerts return at some point with strict social distancing procedures in place. Sparks concerts have played a key role in giving the duo a raison d’etre for continuing. The shows are joyful celebratory events, a chance for close bonding among those devoted to Sparks’ unconventional musical aesthetic. Audiences also boisterously enjoy the brothers’ visual presentation, with the animated, exuberant Russell playing off the studiousness with which Ron plays keyboards, his Charlie Chaplin-ish mustache a longstanding trademark. When (and if) Ron breaks character and dances, everyone goes wild.
That friendly, lively rapport now is at risk. “I try not to dwell on it too much, but it’s so depressing,” Ron says. “It isn’t just a small thing for us. There are bands that don’t enjoy live concerts, but we love doing that. An album is almost an excuse for us to play live. In classical music there is shared experience, but it’s not quite as outwardly passionate as a rock concert or festival. There’s just no substitute for that.”
After the Mael brothers started the band Halfnelson in L.A., producer Todd Rundgren took the five-member group to Albert Grossman’s Woodstock N.Y.-based Bearsville label. When a first album flopped, Grossman — tickled by the brothers’ humor and concerned that Halfnelson wasn’t a good name — suggested Sparks Brothers because it rhymed with Marx Brothers. They compromised on just Sparks. The first album was reissued credited to Sparks and a second album debuted in 1973. Still nothing.
The Mael brothers relocated to England hooked up with Island Records in time for the glam revolution and its love of music with the kind of arty, hip knowingness reflected in the title of that second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing.
Their 1974 British hit (and their first masterpiece) “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” still sounds miraculous today, an operatic pop song with a jittery melodramatic melody, a veritable sound collage of special effects, authoritative rock-guitar licks and Russell’s acrobatic voice reaching high notes worthy of Maria Callas. Their accompanying album, Kimono My House, also was huge. After some further British success, Sparks moved back to L.A. The Mael brothers have continued to compose and record such much-admired songs, to an international following, as 1979’s “The Number One Song in Heaven,” 1980’s “When I’m With You,” 1994’s “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,’ ” and 2017’s “Hippopotamus.” There have been some detours — Annette and the Swedish public radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman — but general they’ve stalwartly produced pop.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, their first studio album since 2017’s Hippopotamus, opens with what may be a surprise to some fans — a heartfelt and straightforwardly emotional composition, “All That.” With a lovely Beatlesque melody and arrangement, driven by acoustic guitar strumming, handclaps and choral vocal effects, Russell sings, “All that we’ve done/we’ve lost/we’ve won/all that, all that and more.”
I asked Ron if this was a statement of purpose for the brothers, a vow of togetherness, considering he and Russell have been together as Sparks for almost 50 years. “I saw it less as an autobiographical thing,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of songs that are love songs, so I felt the challenge of trying to come up with something sincere but not achingly saccharin. I never thought about it as being anything about our working relationship. The two of us are not very sentimental when it comes to (that). We never speak about those things. Neither of us are introspective in those kinds of ways.”
The funny, charming “Self-Effacing” seems more conventionally Sparks-like. It appears a subtle self-referential put-on. After all, how can someone who publicly declares himself or herself “self-effacing” — in a song, no less — actually be so? It’s a contradiction, right?
“You’re right,” Ron at first concedes. “If you were truly self-effacing, you wouldn’t be writing a 4-minute song about it.” But then he begs to politely differ. “But I also just like the idea, with so many songs in pop and rock being so macho and self-assured, of somebody stating so strongly that they’re not that. In general, and I’m sure there are exceptions, we try to be as sincere as possible about things, but because of the way things are phrased, they can come out as, ‘What are you guys really getting at?’ Sometimes we’re not really trying to get to something; things really can be taken at face value.”
Ron and Russell long have harbored hopes of being involved with movies. In the 1970s, the late French director Jacques Tati, a comedy master, wanted them to appear in his Confusion project as American television executives set loose on a television station in rural France. But the film never happened.
Thus, they are particularly proud that a film they wrote some eight years ago, Annette, has been completed. And during the process they seem to have maintained a good relationship with director Carax, whose past films include the critically acclaimed Holy Motors and Pola X. The director actually put in a guest appearance on Sparks’ Hippopotamus album, singing “When You’re a French Director.”
Ron hopes, given the Cannes cancellation, Annette can premiere at another prestige festival later this year, if such festivals can resume. “It’s a story about a standup comedian, a real shock guy played by Adam (Driver), and an opera singer played by Marion (Cotillard), and they have kind of an affair that is unlikely because of the discrepancy between their manners,” he says. “And they have — I can’t go into too many details — a child who has some special talents, and the child’s name is Annette.” (Set in Los Angeles, the movie mostly was filmed on sets in Brussels, with some scenes shot it Germany and L.A.)
“It’s 95 percent sung,” Ron explains. “We actually wanted it all to be sung, but Leos felt some of the scenes could use normal dialogue even if just as a breather. But we’re really proud it’s basically sung from beginning to end.”
Of that music, he says that there are “a lot of pieces you wouldn’t necessarily call pop songs, although there are some of those in it, but it’s more geared to that (pop) stylistically. The only pieces that aren’t occur because Marion is supposed to be an opera singer in the film, so when she’s on stage she’s performing our style of opera in front of audiences.”
Driver, of course, received acclaim last year for singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” as part of his Academy Award-nominated performance in Marriage Story. So he’s going from Sondheim to Sparks. “A lot of times you almost forget he’s singing — it just sounds like Adam Driver acting, but within a musical context,” Ron says. “People really will be surprised. It’s one thing to sing one song, but to do it for 2 hours and 20 minutes, that’s different.”
Meanwhile, there is now a completed three-hour edit of the Sparks documentary that Edgar Wright has been working on. He wanted Ron and Russell to come to London and see it in a theater for the first showing, but they had to cancel once the pandemic struck. “He really likes it, but the plan is to also have a theatrical release,” Ron says. “So he’s trying to figure out how to get down to a two-hour version. We’d prefer to see it for the first time in a theater setting, rather than getting a link to watch it on computer. But if this goes on too much longer, we might have to do it that way.” (They have seen individual sections of the film.)
The Mael brothers think Wright is the right person to make a Sparks documentary. “We’ve had offers in the past to have documentaries done about Sparks and we always turned them down,” Ron says. “But when Edgar approached us we said yes immediately because of our respect for him as a director. He really understood what we’re all about and also has the energy and maybe even the discretion to try to maintain a certain amount of mystique about the band.”
Wright’s plan is to give equal weight to all phases of Sparks’ career. That fits Ron’s vision. “We didn’t want it to just be a nostalgic look,” he says. To highlight the present, Wright accompanied Sparks last year to shows in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Mexico City. “He feels what we’re doing now is as strong as anything we’ve ever done, so he wanted to make sure there is a balance to the whole thing,” Ron says.
Still, Sparks do have a long, colorful career that the film will explore. “He has very capable people working for him and they’re able to get footage we wouldn’t have been able to,” Ron says. “It’s a treat for us in a way. Some of it is slightly embarrassing but also kind of cool, old cooking shows in England in the 70s and all.”
Ron sees A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip as continuation — an advancement, actually — of Sparks’ vision of popular music as capable of having a commercially conventional structure, a fun danceable Big Beat (to quote a previous album’s title), and also be taken seriously for its unpretentious but not accidental artfulness.
Sparks records have been guided by that unifying belief since 1971, and there’s no planned change now even if Ron is 74, Russell is 71 and they’ve just written a movie musical of sorts.
“We think we can be as meaningful in pop music as in any other genre,” Ron says. “That’s why when we’re working on film and go back to working on an album, it’s always exciting for us to see how far we can continue to take that. That’s our first love — pop music. We like seeing what can be done with it that remains within the general area of pop music but is something very, very special. We’re always pleased whenever people notice that at least we’re trying.”
(Photo of new record album from Allsparks.com website)