More than 50 years into a career that has seen them turn their Midas touch to everything from operatic glam-rock to poppers-boshing disco, from operas about Swedish director Ingmar Bergman to supergroups with Franz Ferdinand, cliché-resistant art-pop pioneers Sparks are in a unique position for a legacy band in that they’re still sounding as fresh as ever. This week, brothers Russell and Ron Mael are back with their 24th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ – a typically diverse collection of musically-rich, witty, off-kilter gems about lawnmowers, time-zones, and Igor Stravinsky.
With a musical starring Adam Driver (as a stand-up comedian married to a world famous soprano who gives birth to a daughter with a unique gift) and a documentary helmed by Edgar Wright on the horizon, Russell Mael caught up with NME for a quick quarantined chat.
Hello Russell. How’s lockdown going for you?
“It’s difficult, as I imagine it is with everybody. It’s a rough time, but the sky is blue today and the weather’s nice, so we try to grasp hold of anything that’s possible.”
What can you tell us about the thought process behind ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’?
“The only battle plan was to try to do something that would sounds as compelling and urgent and provocative as anything we’ve ever done, even to someone who had never heard Sparks before. We don’t want people saying, ‘Oh you should have heard the band during this period in the past’. We don’t want to sound like a band that has 24 albums – what we’re doing doesn’t sound like it’s a band that has that long a history. That it stands on its own today is the most important thing.”
One of the standout tracks is ‘iPhone’, a humorous electro number that contains the lyrical plea: “Put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me!’. Are you one of those bands that would like ban phones at gigs?
“Yeah! We understand and appreciate that people want to have a tangible memory, but it’s also distracting to other people in the audience and to the band when you see flashes going off in your eyes all the time! It’s more helpful to have a souvenir in your memory of what it was like, rather than having to have it permanently as a blurry iPhone version of what you remember the concert as. That song is one we really like, and it’s using the metaphor of the iPhone to covey the lack of communication that people have and the distractions of other things that are more important in their lives. So it’s posing a fantasy scenario of if Adam and Eve had iPhones at that time, what their relationship might have been like, and Abraham Lincoln giving his Gettsyburg Address to people on their iPhones: ‘Ahem! I have a very important thing to say but people aren’t listening to me!’”
Before the pandemic hit, 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for Sparks. You have the musical film Annette coming out, starring Adam Driver. What can you tell us about that?
“It’s an amazing experience. We wrote this story, did all of the music, and we thought it was going to be Sparks’ next album. Then we met Leos Carax, who used our song ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ in his movie Holy Motors at the Cannes film festival. We sent him everything, he liked and wanted to direct it. Here we are eight years later, having had the fortuitous thing of Adam Driver becoming aware of the project, loving it, and signing on to take the lead, along with Marion Cotillard. It was shot in Europe and finished last year, and it was amazing to hear Adam Driver doing the voice of this character that I had done for eight years on our recordings of it. He has a great voice and took it to the next level. It’s a really special movie.”
And then Shaun Of the Dead auteur and Sparks fan Edgar Wright has directed a documentary about you…
“That’s been fantastic for us. Edgar has a lot of musician, actor and writer friends that have happily come to bat and speak about their liking for Sparks. We’re keeping them secret, but I’ll throw out one name there that was unexpected to us – actor Michael Myers [aka Austin Powers]. To have him being a Sparks fan was really cool.”
Having always been outsiders, how do you feel about pop music at the moment?
“In music, there seems to be a myth that being authentic and genuine has to be confessional, and we think what Sparks is doing is 100 per cent authentic and genuine, and still dealing with people’s emotions – albeit via a different way of doing it, with situational lyrics that are almost little novellas. There’s still substance and depth, but we a have a different approach to what we think that lyrics to pop music can be. That distinction is valid, and we think Sparks is coming from a different realm than most pop at the moment – there’s not a lack of sincerity or emotion from our style of lyrics, but it’s being channelled in a different way.”
You teamed up with Franz Ferdinand in 2014 to form the band FFS, which was the perfect meeting of minds. Are there any new acts around at the moment you view as kindred spirits?
“Something I’ve liked recently is The Weeknd’s approach to what he’s doing now, where there’s been a consistency to the cover artwork and the videos – where there’s a thread through all the videos in his songs, and he’s a mythology around his whole character, where he’s a blood-stained face and you don’t exactly know from the outset why that’s the case and he goes on TV that way and it’s all a piece. I like when somebody is able to create their own universe, have a consistency to it and not break from character – that’s something that’s always been important to Sparks.”
Your last album, 2017’s ‘Hippopotamus’ saw you scoring your highest UK charting album since 1974, and there must have been ups and downs. In a career lasting half a century, have there ever been moments when you’ve come close to jacking it in?
“No. It’s a simple answer, but we’re both really focused and love what we’re doing. We absolutely think we’re doing something unique, and we’ve carved out our own little universe, and we want to see that universe expand. We’re proud of the position we’re in in pop music – we feel like we’re in a unique class.”
You’ve been entertaining us with various fun lockdown content, including ‘A day in the life of Russell, a self-isolating Spark’. You once said in an interview that you thought the worst thing would be somebody filming in your house. Has it finally taken Covid-19 to strip away some of Sparks’ treasured privacy?
“That damn Corona virus! There you go – we caved in over that! We’ve even done some upcoming isolation performance videos, with Ron, myself and four other members of the band that we’ve stitched together. It’s not our number one choice, but it’s the way it is.”
Sparks’ new album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ is out now digitally and released physically on July 3.