Even though this town is now big enough for the both of them, they still refuse to take the easy option. Michael Wylie-Harris hears from Sparks
by Michael Wylie-Harris, first published in LondonTourdates #042 ,13th March 2009
So then… Were Sparks the first ever ‘nu rave’ band? We think so.
Sure, Kraftwerk were messing about with electronics in Dusseldorf around the same time in the mid-70s, true, and synths weren’t exactly the newest tool in the box; but when Ron and Russell Mael reinvented Sparks as an electro-pop duo in the early 70s, one of the first ever true cross-over bands was born.
Since then they’ve straddled a genre or two, and though many people will remember them as ‘that weird Hitler bloke’ from Top Of The Pops (circa ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’), their influence on pop music – whether it be mixing electro with pop and rock or challenging the conventions of the traditional band line-up - cannot be denied.
“In ‘79 when we did No. 1 In Heaven the idea of two people being a band was a kind of a foreign concept, because a band was always seen as being five people on a stage,” says Sparks singer and official ‘more normal one’ Russell Mael, down the phone from LA.
“So for us at that time the studio was kind of our band and we were doing electronic-based music and kind of not worrying about how to recreate that live and that was kind of a unique concept at the time.
“We were in a band that was bringing a rock sensibility to electronic music for the first time, and people would just make comments like ‘how can you be a band, there’s only two people?’, and we just thought ‘why do you need to worry about stuff like that?’ We worried later about how to recreate it live on stage. Nowadays stuff like that doesn’t matter because of technology, but at that time it was a pretty unique approach.”
In the late seventies the practicalities of Sparks’ innovative two-man approach were an issue. So much so that the band couldn’t tour because they couldn’t figure out a way to recreate live what they had done in the studio. It meant that No. 1 In Heaven, one of their most successful records with three hit singles on it, never really got played live – and Sparks were limited to TV appearances.
So last year, when the band announced their 21-date residency at Islington Academy – playing each of their albums on consecutive nights – some of their old material had never been heard live before.
Conceived partly as a publicity stunt to showcase their most recent record, the critically-acclaimed Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, and partly just because no one had ever done it before, the run of gigs was a feat of memory if nothing else.
“It’s something that probably no other band will do for various reasons,” says Mael. “Firstly because you have to have 21 albums to begin with, and secondly just having the stamina to want to re-learn over 250 songs and have a band that wants to stick with it for four months of rehearsal. That’s not gonna happen very often.
“It takes a certain kind of musician to want to get behind the whole concept because you have to really say ‘I’m gonna immerse myself in this’. It’s not really a traditional way of planning for a tour because usually when you go on tour you do one album – 20 songs or whatever – and you kind of can improve and refine them while you’re on the road playing, but the way this was you were never given the luxury to kind of say ‘let’s just see how this goes on this night and then we’ll reassess’ because the albums were a one time only performance.
“So we were saying you have to get it right the first time and that’s pretty demanding for any musician to do and then just the whole process of rehearsing was very demanding too - you know, you get round to album number six and you just go ‘oh my God, I forgot album number four already’.”
Having used the 21-date residency as a vehicle to promote Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, Sparks are now returning to London to play the album again alongside two of their most celebrated records, 1974’s Kimono My House and 1979’s No. 1 In Heaven. Released in 2008 to critical acclaim, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep is the third in a series of the band’s most recent releases - including 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven and 2006’s Hello Young Lovers – which mark a return to form for the band.
“We see these last three albums of ours as kind of being all of a certain mindset,” says Mael. “They all have a similar attitude and approach which we think is kind of consistent.
“It was never intended that way but we approached the three with a similar kind of spirit and philosophy to try and eliminate certain elements of our past and certain elements of pop music in a way as to try and find new methods of just exploring what we can do just to keep things fresh. So I think in that way Exotic Creatures was a culmination of those three albums.”
The constant re-invention and moving between musical genres has been a continuous theme of Sparks over the years. Mael tells me he finds it difficult to accept other musicians who say that inspiration comes easily, believing that new ideas only truly arrive when an artist sits down and works.
The devoted work ethic of Sparks is obvious, and while the 21 shows in 2008 provided the band with a chance to revisit old material and reflect on their body of work, it also reaffirmed in them the importance of continuing to push boundaries.
“You have to put yourselves in a more uncomfortable position where you don’t know what the end results are going to be, and then maybe you’ll fall flat on your face but at least it’s going to be something hopefully different and special that you come up with.
“There were maybe moments in our career where we didn’t take that philosophy to as extreme a position as we could have but now we kind of see things in a different way and we don’t want to play things safe at all because it’s not fun for us and it’s not interesting for listeners either. We are just trying to make it as extreme as it can be both lyrically and musically now.
“When you’ve been around as long as we have, if you don’t keep pushing boundaries it becomes like a routine that you’re doing so you have to fight desperately hard not fall into that. Of course you have certain givens that you can’t shake.
You could get rid of me as the lead singer or get rid of Ron out of the band, but assuming that I’ll still be the singer and Ron will still be the writer and the lyricist, then working with those givens you try and find the freshest thing that you can.”
Sparks play HMV Forum (0844 847 2405) on 20-21 March.