As they release their 24th LP, Ron Mael speaks exclusively with the Rock & Roll Globe about how he and brother Russell are keeping from going COVID crazy
Ron and Russell Mael – Sparks – are sheltered-in-place in California, as many of us are wherever we are.
Like us, they’re frustrated. But they do have this album coming out on May 15, their 24th, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, and a European run of tour dates (still slated, as of now) in October.
Ron, the keyboardist-main songwriter, is 74; Russell trails him by three years. Do the musical math and you’ll realize they’ve been in the odd rock ‘n’ roll game for roughly a half century. And, by “odd,” I mean they’ve most often been the square peg in the round hole.
Last month, I spent some time on the phone chatting up all things, old and new, with Ron.
You and Russell live pretty close to each other and when you’re working see each other all the time. With this self-isolation, is this the longest time in your life you and your brother been apart ever?
Ron Mael: Yeah, but we don’t really hang out when we’re not working, so it’s been a pretty long time that we haven’t been working together. I’m trying to make use of the time because, whatever the use for it, we can always use material. Even in a self-preservation way it’s helpful for me to be doing something, even if it doesn’t amount to anything.
I know you had no US tour planned before COVID-19 hit, but do have some European dates. Are they still on?
It’s still on for October. Nobody knows what’s happening but we do have dates booked for the UK, Europe and Scandanavia and we were planning on playing New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City as well, but obviously like everybody else we’re just waiting and seeing. We’re hopeful that we can do them.
Sparks is always you and Russell, of course, but many other players have come into the mix over the years. How many are there now in the live band?
There are five other guys in the band – two guitars [Evan Weiss and Eli Pearl], bass [Patrick Kelly], drums [Steve Nistor] and another keyboard [Alex Casnoff]. When we play live, that’s the basic lineup. On this record, when we were recording, I tried to sketch out general ideas for the other instruments and then we brought in the guys on the songs that were more of a traditional “band” format.
I know there’s an untitled Sparks documentary directed by Edgar Wright of Baby Driver fame in the works and a Sparks-written musical feature film called Annette, somewhere in the mix. What’s that status?
The film is finished and was actually going to be premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, but there isn’t going to be a Cannes Film Festival this year. There will be a virtual one. We had our tuxedos already chosen. The film is done, but they’re in the dark as far as where the premiere would be. The next festivals are at the end of August and the beginning of September in Toronto, but nobody knows if those are going to happen. The only good news in all of that is the film is finished. It’s starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and it’s something we’re proud of; it’s so disappointing it couldn’t be shown right now and also at Cannes because [director] Leos Carax, is such an icon, especially in France and that would have been the ideal place to premiere.
VIDEO: Leos Carax’s Annette was voted No. 1 most anticipated foreign film of 2020 by InCinema
Without going too deep into it, can you give me a synopsis?
In a general sense, it’s about a standup comedian who’s a rough character – that’s Adam Driver – and he meets, falls in love with and has an affair with Marion Cotillard’s character, who’s a world-renowned opera singer. Then they have a child and the child has special gifts you’ll see at some point.
You did the script?
We actually came out with the story about eight years ago and then it was going to be the next Sparks album. We wanted to do a live narrative piece and so we wrote the story and all the music and singing. Then, we were at the Cannes Film Festival trying to push for this other film/musical project we had written, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and unfortunately at that time we couldn’t get a backer.
VIDEO: Sparks “The Seduction of Igmar Bergman”
But we met Leos Carax and he really responded favorably to this [idea]. We got back to L.A. We had never really thought of the project as a film project. We sent it to him and he responded really favorably to it. It’s an interesting piece, almost wall-to-wall singing. There are a couple of dialogue sections, but very few. It’s hard to compare to any other musical. We wanted to make sure the style of the singing wasn’t really Broadway, that it was being one either in a pop sense or a kind of stylistic, naturalistic kind of way. We talked for a little bit with Adam Driver a few years ago about that and he understood completely. So, when you see him singing it doesn’t seem like “Whoa!” It seems just his natural tone in a musical context.
Do you and Russell appear in it?
We actually have parts. We didn’t plan on it but Leos wanted us to have these cameos so we’re in it three or four time in various costumes.
Are you recognizable?
Not so much, although there’s one where we’re fairly recognizable.
You’ve shifted styles and genres constantly over the course of your career and, specifically now, on Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.
On some albums, we wanted to have a unifying stylistic thought behind it, something like Little Beethoven, where we went in with a concept and even if it drifted off the concept, that was the idea before we went in. But with this album it really was anything goes, so we would have the song and then we have the confidence now we have so many tools we can work with, we can develop the song fully in whatever style it needs to be done in. So, we’re not afraid. If a song is too one thing or another thing, we can develop it the way it needs to be developed through what we’ve picked up over time.
I think your fan base is pretty accepting of that and even expects it, to a degree.
Yeah, we’re really lucky that way, because they do expect it and they aren’t thrown by surprises or maybe lack of cohesiveness stylistically. That is something they relish about what we do. We’re really lucky that the people that are Sparks fans are understanding of that and it also helps us when we’re recording because we never kind of second guess ourselves. We know there will be at least some people that will be there for us [no matter] what we’re doing.
I discovered you on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1974. I’d never seen anything like it. But I know, of course, different generations of fans have different entry points. And I know some fans have gone in and out over the years. I confess I have.
Sometimes, [our fan base] is almost geographical. In Britain, people think that we retired almost in the ‘80s as we were really active, but in the States. Part of it is our fault because we were really concentrating on the US. People sometimes drift in and out without them intentionally doing it. Sometimes, it’s the whole country that moved away from what we were doing. It’s bizarre to us when we talk to people and they have no awareness of a whole decade of something we’ve done. But it’s understandable too because we have gone and done different things stylistically. When we first did the [synth and disco-oriented] No. 1 in Heaven album [in 1979] critically, a lot of people felt we were being traitors to what a “rock band” should be and all, but we really felt strongly about doing that. You’re always running the risk of forcing people to come in and out when you step outside of something they’re familiar with.
Those were the days of Disco vs. Punk and you were working with Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer’s producer.
And it’s really strange because we never thought of it as being disco; to us it was electronic music. Over time, everything has gotten leveled off where everything is accepted in that way. We kind of feel vindicated in some sense, because a couple of times we’ve done [former Sex Pistols’ guitarist] Steve Jones radio show [in L.A.] and he’s such an incredible guy, but we never really suspected any of them would be listening to us and he really loved our music. It was jarring when we heard that. Even when you think maybe what you’re doing is not for a certain group [of people], it turns out in the end that it is.
I’ve got to say your 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand was a stroke of genius. The music and the double-entendre title, FFS. How did it happen?
Their drummer [Paul Thomson] was responsible for that.
How did you hook up?
We had met them around the time that “Take Me Out” first came out. They were touring, playing in L.A., so we met them at a hotel in Hollywood. We were just chatting and got along with them personally and loved that song and then it was the typical band thing – “We should do something together sometime …” but nobody’s ever really sincere about that. Then time passed and we were playing in San Francisco a few years later and Franz Ferdinand was there. We just happened to run into [singer-guitarist] Alex [Kapranos] on the street and he said, “Whatever happened to that project we were talking about?” From that point, it became more serious and said “We really should do something.” We did one song and it turned out really well, did another one and then we thought we should do an EP. And then it was a complete album and then it was like “This album is good; we should really do a tour.”
It wasn’t jumping in all the way from the very beginning. It was a really enjoyable process and a really unique situation. It wasn’t a case of it being Sparks and Franz Ferdinand or whichever one you want to put at the top of the bill; it really was a new band comprised of those two bands, so that was a unique thing. Everybody was willing to sacrifice some measure of control. Both bands are really strong in what they want to do – and also just personally strong to have a certain vision, but everyone was willing to give up some of that control. We hadn’t worked with a producer in a long time but they brought in John Congelton. He was incredible from a general production standpoint, but also in a psychological, counseling kind of way to keep two strong bands working together for one purpose.
VIDEO: Franz Ferdinand and Sparks “Collaborations Don’t Work” Live at Siene 2015
I loved the cheekiness of “Collaborations Don’t Work.” Would you do it again?
I can’t see us doing another album, because as much fun as it was to do it and as good as the album was, the effect of that collaboration might be diminished the second time around. We were really proud of that and being able to tour with them.
I want to ask you about the songwriting: Early on, the credits were pretty much all you and then since Heaven they’ve been co-writes. Is Russell doing more of the writing or is it just a more equitable way to split publishing money?
It’s more just a financial situation. It seemed unfair that Russell was “only” like a band member, as opposed to getting something more than that. So, we’re listed as co-songwriters, but by and large I write most of the material. Now, the way that we work, we work in the studio and come up some things as well, so he’s the engineer as well as the singer. That becomes a large part of the writing process in some of the songs. So, he is the co-writer in that sense.
Can you think of any rock band that’s used falsetto vocals as much as Sparks?
Probably not. The people that I think of using falsetto are more like Eddie Kendricks and the Temptations but then they also had the other singer David Ruffin. But those are kind of the people I think of more, in soul music more than in rock music. There’s such an emphasis on masculinity in rock music, I think maybe when bands are starting, they kind of have a fear of not singing in that low, strong way, but [the way] Russell is singing it, t’s based on the song. So, when early on, when we working on things, there were things done in a range slightly outside of his [normal] range and we were just too lazy or unknowledgeable about changing keys to switch them, o he sang it like that. And it sorta became the way he sings a lot of things.
You’ve long been known for witty, clever wordplay, in-jokes, puns, double-entendres, boasts that are really self-deprecating. Often there’s a playful kind of nastiness.
Well, I think part of it is just wanting to express things that in way that aren’t done in typical pop songs. There’s such a generic approach to most lyric writing, which drives me insane. So, I’m trying always to find ways to express things in ways that are unorthodox A lot of times people are afraid of using humor in a song because they think that it can undercut the depth of the emotion of the song. But to me, both of those things can be there at the same time. If somebody only sees the humorous part of it, that’s fine: I’m not trying to state how they enjoy the song. But hopefully there’s an undercurrent of feeling beneath the surface that’s also there. I enjoy trying to work on those two levels at the same time. The last thing we want to be doing are novelty songs – just funny.
The Cramps’ late singer Lux Interior once told me about his band and the the public perception of it. Some people got it; some didn’t. I loved ‘em. But he said if people perceived them as a joke, he felt sorry for them.
Yeah. I can really sympathize with that. It’s so dismissive. It’s much more interesting where somebody doesn’t quite know what it is. Yet, it can really work to your detriment because people, especially people in a radio or record company way, want to know exactly what you’re about. If there’s some kind of ambiguity as to what you’re all about, it can create uncertainty as far as knowing what to do with you. But we’re more than happy to take that risk.
I would think by now any record company you work with knows what they’re getting.
We’ve been fortunate of late because when people want to get involved with us, they do know what they’re in for. We’ve never really had restrictions on what we’re doing, which is amazing. Early on, we had more things, but now they know what Sparks in general is going to be doing so there’s nobody looking over our shoulders.
VIDEO: Sparks “Lawnmower”