Ron Mael discusses new Sparks album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ and reveals details of two upcoming movies involving the duo — an unusual musical and a long-awaited documentary

Posted on June 25, 2021

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(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 DeadBaby 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)

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Oscars Give Short Shrift to Foreign, Documentary Categories

STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /  FEB 29, 201231V

(Writer’s note — April 19, 2021: Some things have obviously changed since I wrote this story in 2012, but I still think the central premise that the Academy should do more to educate the public about the Oscar-nominated documentaries and “Best International Feature Film” would find a receptive audience. —SR)

Now that Sunday night’s Oscars are over, the Internet is full of catty stories and tweets parsing every last second of televised coverage, from Angelina Jolie’s exposed leg to Adam Sandler’s participation in a taped segment in which actors discussed why they love movies. (If he really loved movies, he’d stop making them, some have said.)

It’s both understandable and sad that the Oscars — and movie-award season in general — ends like this, with far more interest in the telecast’s trivia than in the movies that win awards. Arguably, the news value of this year’s show peaked before it even officially started, when Sacha Baron Cohen, in costume as “The Dictator” for an upcoming movie, spilled an urn of faux human ashes (ostensibly Kim Jong-il’s) on interviewer Ryan Seacrest.

It’s getting worse, too, now that the Internet and 200+-channel cable television have educated us ad nauseam to the nature and inner workings of the Oscar campaign season. We carefully learn how a film builds momentum by moving through all the secondary award ceremonies from critics groups and the Hollywood professional guilds and associations.

As a result, the Academy Awards themselves have become anticlimactic, which partially explains the media devotion to dissecting the telecast. And the attempts by the Motion Picture Academy to build false enthusiasm by allowing up to ten Best Picture nominees have been a disaster, since we all now know how to “read” the   nominations to distinguish the real ones (they also have Best Director nods) from the padding. Not all that long ago, few outside Hollywood insiders even knew there was a well-orchestrated “campaign season,” much less how to follow and handicap it.

Convention wisdom, and you hear a lot of it these days, would be to revive the Oscar telecast by de-emphasizing the importance of the awards, themselves. Reduce the number given out on TV, especially the more esoteric or niche ones, in favor of increasing the glitz, spectacle, star power and big production numbers. Do like the Grammys have done, where classical, jazz, folk, blues, opera, international and more are rarely ever presented on the show.

But I think the Academy should go the other way and try to increase public awareness of the importance of Oscar nominations. But maybe not for the Big Four categories – Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, which probably do suffer from overexposure by the time the telecast comes around (although The Artist, this year’s big winner, could use the help since many people have been scared off by the fact it’s a black-and-white silent film).

Click the jump for more on ways the Academy could draw more attention to deserving films such as A Separation, In Darkness, Footnote and Bullhead.  —-

In particular, there should be more attention given to two categories that get a short shrift on the telecast, yet for which Oscar nominations are vital – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary. It would even be a good idea for the Academy to launch a second telecast, on cable, devoted just to introducing these nominees to the public. (The awards could still be given on the main program, and Foreign and Documentary films could still be eligible for the major awards, too.)

Why? First of all, foreign-language films and documentaries are feature-length movies, just like The Artist (which actually was a French movie) or The Descendents. As such, they’re trying to get into theaters and be seen, just like those films. Further, as anyone who really likes movies can tell you, they are often the best feature-length movies out there because they explore subjects that Hollywood overlooks and take risks that scare Hollywood. 

Yet, because they rarely if ever have the studio marketing/distribution clout to get into wide national release, they struggle in the marketplace. They even struggle to attract the attention of those who are predisposed to like artier or so-called independent films. Occasionally, a political celebrity like Michael Moore or Al Gore can break through with a documentary, or a foreign-language film like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can combine enough action with artfulness to become a hit. But too often, they don’t get the attention they deserve. one of this year’s foreign-language nominees, Belgium’s tough, harrowing Bullhead, quietly opened at the Esquire last week and I wonder how many people know that much about it. Several of this year’s Best Documentary nominees — Hell and Back AgainIf a Tree FellParadise Lost 3 — tell riveting stories about the contemporary American experience but didn’t even get widespread theatrical distribution. The winner, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated, about a struggling Memphis high-school football team, will get a push because it won the Oscar. (The other nominee, Wim Wender’s 3-D look at an avant-garde German dance troupe, Pina, is currently at the Mariemont.)

Distributors often don’t try to really market a documentary or foreign-language film until after the Oscars are over – that’s how dependent they are on an award. So it’d be nice if a second, special Academy’s Oscar telecast gave them more time to introduce and explain themselves.

It could introduce the nominees in depth, show clips from them, offer interviews with the principals and – in the case of the foreign-language nominees – offer insight into the filmmaking industry in their home countries. As for star power, I would bet Hollywood’s top stars and directors would be willing to introduce the segments – heck, Terrence Malick and Woody Allen probably would show up for such a good cause.

Among other things, a show could explain the confusing process by which documentaries and foreign-language films become eligible for Oscar nominations. Maybe the more the public learns about that, the more it will suggest changes. (Why should only foreign-language films officially nominated by their countries be eligible, for instance?)

This is also important because these categories are exciting. The foreign-language one, in particular, is like a mini-United Nations. For those who follow these movies, one of the most meaningful moments at the Oscars occurred when A Separation, written and directed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, won for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s the first Iranian film to win in this category and opens Friday at the Esquire.

Framed as a thriller, this very contemporary movie about a marriage in trouble daringly, carefully asks questions about the role of women in a male-dominated, religious-dominated society. And Farhadi’s acceptance speech, while hard to understand since English isn’t his primary language, seemed to be a call for understanding, peace and cultural tolerance, as well as to ask that we all separate politics from the social/cultural realm. It seemed to be directed at Iranian authorities as much as anyone else, and the New York Times said the Iranian news agencies had trouble reporting it in a way that would curry its government’s favor. And indeed, the Iranian government has spun the win as a victory over Israel.

That’s because one of the other finalists, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, also a family drama, is an Israeli film. The Academy on Saturday sponsored an annual symposium for its foreign-film nominees, and it was something that Farhadi would dare appear at the event with Cedar. (He still had to be careful about seeming to be too friendly to him.) Further, one Jewish website (www.jta.org) reported that Farhadi backstage at the Oscars praised the director of another foreign-language nominee — Agnieszka Holland’s Polish drama In Darkness, about Jews hiding from Nazis in Lvov, Poland, during the Holocaust. If true that’s pretty gutsy for him, considering Iran’s political leadership denies the Holocaust happened.

This is exciting, relevant stuff — certainly more substantial than whatever a costumed Cohen does to Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. But why can’t the Academy do more to let the television-watching public in on the stories behind these films. And if that helps A SeparationIn Darkness, FootnoteBullhead or the fifth nominee, Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar (about an Algerian refugee in Montreal) attract a bigger audience as they start to “go wide” theatrically, we’re all better for it.

And, who knows, if it works for the Oscars, maybe the Grammys can follow suit and have a separate telecast for some of the musical categories it’s now abandoned on its main show.