If anyone could give the homogenized world of modern pop a good swift kick in the pants, it would be Sparks. Brothers Russell and Ron Mael formed Sparks back in 1971 (originally they were called Halfnelson) when music was raw and imaginative. The inception of their vision has seen may transformations, from the more traditional band format who swept the European music scene with 1974’s incredible Kimono In My House to the trailblazing duo who gave a new face to electronic music with Number 1 in Heaven. Forever chic and always in the mix of brilliance, Sparks has been going strong for well over three decades and they don’t plan on stopping here. Their newest record, Hello Young Lovers, is a sublime companion piece to their critically acclaimed record Lil’ Beethoven, featuring lush orchestral textures brimming over their singular lyrical style. Poignant and witty, Sparks will settle for no less than making music that please not only themselves but their always growing number of loyal fans.
Sparks will be unleashing Hello Young Lovers live at the Avalon in Hollywood on the 20th and lead singer Russell promises an eclectic presentation of visual and melodic delectability for all who attend.
Russell sat down with Entertainment Today to tell us about Hello Young Lovers, why new music sucks and to let the world know how totally cool Giorgio Moroder is.
Will it be difficult to perform the songs from Hello Young Lovers live?
We have a six member group now. We have musicians that are not only musically great, but also personality wise, fit into the whole presentation. We do Hello Young Lovers in its entirety during the first half of the show. Ron only has only two hands to play, so when there’s 45 string parts, some of that is augmented by computers.
Do you enjoy playing live?
It’s exciting. About six weeks ago we finished a big European tour, played lots of dates in the UK and finally played Russia. We played in Moscow a couple of nights. The reception has been amazing, it keeps us really excited and we feel we’re doing the right thing. We present the new album in its entirety because it really feels it’s of one piece, even though there’s no linear thread that goes through it lyrically, but it stands up like a piece. There’s always a hesitation doing that sort of thing for an audience, when some of the audience may not have heard the whole album, you’re asking a lot of them to stay with you and to go along with your thought process. We have a really elaborate visual presentation; it’s kind of the visual equivalent of what the music means to us. Then in the second half of the show we do selections from the other nineteen albums.
How do you narrow down the play list with so much material?
It is hard. When there are nineteen other albums and when you’ve already played for an hour, to keep it from turning into a Grateful Dead concert, we have to prune out but vary it. This time we’re doing a lot of really old ones from the 70s that we haven’t really done before and some of the 80s songs we’re known for. The positive thing that we found is that most of it works together and doesn’t sound dated. It all kind of works and people are surprised that it sounds timeless and not of another era.
You’re music really is timeless.
We’re proud that people who listen to the second half of the show and are kind of new to Sparks are surprised to hear that the other stuff sounds modern. Some of the songs are 32 years old and I doubt a lot of people would be able to tell which the newer ones are and which are the older ones.
How long did Hello Young Lovers take to record?
We spent almost two years on it. I have a studio in my place and my brother and I just take a lot of time to do an album that was kind of keeping in line with the thought process of our last album, Lil’ Beethoven, where you’re not relying on pop conventions that are just kind of tired. It’s just bland and a rehashing of the past, so we’re always finding a way, especially with this album and the one before it that strip away the elements. When you have 20 albums, for yourself and fans you want to do something that’s really striking.
How do you feel about the state of popular music?
Everything seems to be pretty timid. We try to make really good recordings and then later after the fact, we figure out how to do it live. A lot of bands don’t work that way, their traditional bands and that’s all well and good but you’ve heard a lot of that before. The faces change but the stance seems kind of stale. In our own way we’re trying to desperately fight that, by doing an album like Hello Young Lovers. We’re trying to set an example of at least one way of working differently.
Who influences you?
Way back when we were anglophiles and liked a lot of bands we saw when we were young, like the early Who and The Kinks before they became stadium rock. We really liked the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys music is lyrically, musically and harmonically really deceptively sophisticated. Later on, the stuff became more complex and you just don’t see that kind of spirit of wanting to wow people with something fresh.
How did you hook up with your drummer, Tammy Glover?
She was introduced to us by a mutual friend. We were looking for a drummer about ten years ago; she’s been with us for that long. To find a drummer that fits in sensibility wise and is really strong and visually she’s really striking is really difficult. Tammy is amazing. She’s puzzled as to why there aren’t more women drumming, she’s been an exception to the rule. She’s been perfect with the band, kind of a fixture within it.
When you made Number 1 in Heaven, what was working with Giorgio Moroder like?
He was really amazing. At that point in our career, we’d been working in a more traditional format, the music wasn’t traditional but working with a five piece band was. We’d done maybe three or four albums with Island and had good success in England but we reached a point where we wanted to make a break from what were doing. We really liked what we heard Giorgio was doing, particularly with I Feel Love by Donna Summer. I thought that was an amazing combination of a cold, icy electronic background with a singer who had more warmth to her. It was soulful in its own way. A lot of critics in the UK questioned what we were doing and now so many bands cite that album and critics forgot what they had said at the time about it. Now they say it’s kind of a blueprint for the duo approach to pop music.
Do you have a favorite Sparks record?
Did you ever imagine your music would be so timeless?
You’re just excited you have a record and everything is wonderful and you never think of influencing anyone. We’ve just now been made aware of it. Like Franz Ferdinand, who we might be working with at some point and Morrissey and then electronic bands like Sparks for different reasons. About four months ago Justin Hawkins of The Darkness covered This Town Isn’t Big Enough for Both Us and it would seem he wouldn’t have been a big fan of Sparks. It’s a really disparate group of bands and it’s kind of bizarre and all over the map but it’s also encouraging that people can find what we’re doing appealing.
What’s next for Sparks?
This album really took a lot out of us. We were isolated in a room, just the two of us and then we brought in other people. From the beginning it was a lot of trial and error and is like solitary confinement in a way. Now we’re playing live and it’s kind of a perk to get the fan’s feedback and their reactions. We really don’t know what the next thing is. We’ll undertake some big project that may not be necessarily another Sparks album, but we haven’t formulated what that means! We’re looking for something big and maybe meaningful. We’ll make it meaningful whatever it is!