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Interview: Ron Mael of Sparks

Sparks main photo
15 May 2020

Photo by Anna Webber

Electropop pioneers Sparks are releasing their 24th studio album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, on May 15. It’s the latest installment in an astonishing career stretching back to their first albums in the early 1970s. By the end of that decade, they had established a loyal cult following – and influenced scores of future bands – with hits like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974) and “The Number One Song in Heaven” (1979). Sparks songs became legendary for their complex synthesizer melodies (courtesy of keyboardist Ron Mael, who is also the band’s main songwriter) and his brother Russell Mael’s instantly recognizable tenor (often singing some of the most quirky and intelligent lyrics found in modern music). In the 1980s, Sparks hit the charts again, with “I Predict” (1980) and “Cool Places” (1983), a duet with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos. The Mael brothers have continued their success through recent years, with their 2017 album, Hippopotamus, reaching the Top 10 in the U.K. charts. Across the decades, they’ve become revered around the world for their shows – and, assuming the pandemic doesn’t interfere, they will undertake a European tour in the fall (see dates listed below). Calling from his home in Los Angeles, Ron Mael discusses the new album, and also looks back across the band’s entire remarkable career.

So many bands are deciding not to put out albums now. What made you decide to go ahead with your release plans despite the pandemic?

RON MAEL: The physical album got delayed until early July, but we wanted to have the digital album released on time on May 15th. It feels like too much of a financial decision when you delay even the streaming version of the album to coincide with the physical one. So we wanted it to come out when it was originally supposed to come. I think now, it’s kind of pretentious to say that people need music or any kind of artistic content, but we really feel that now would be a good time and just delaying the release of it would not really be something we would want to do.

In a way, it’s a good time to release something because people might have more time to focus on listening to it now.

RON MAEL: Exactly, yeah. There are less distractions – other than just a very large distraction – so it is a time when maybe people can focus on something, where they might not have been able to before.

As you release work into the world, what are you thinking? Do you ever get nervous about it?

RON MAEL: Well, we really feel strongly about it, so it isn’t really nervousness because we know that we put everything that we can into the records and everything beyond that is out of our control. So we hope things go in a certain way, but you never know. There were times early in our career where it was a do-or-die situation. But now, we feel, at least on a certain level, that we hope for the best but if it doesn’t crack through in an enormous way, there still enough people that are following us strongly that we can always count on that.

That’s a good position to be in – it gives you artistic freedom.

RON MAEL: That’s true, because you’re not thinking of, “What are they going to think about this?” Or, “What can I do to get beyond a certain group of people?” You just do what you think is the best from a musical standpoint. That’s always been the way that we’ve been able to have things work commercially where we didn’t really even think about those outside pressures.

So you never feel pressure to live up to people’s high expectations?

RON MAEL: I feel pressure, in a way, not to let down both the people that expect a certain level of quality from what we’re doing, and also, I feel a pressure that I don’t want to do something substandard at this time. You hate to talk about legacy, but you want to maintain a level of quality that people see in what you’re doing.

The fact that this is your 24th album is really remarkable when most men don’t even make it to three albums.

RON MAEL: It’s odd because when we did our first album, we had never planned to become musicians. And so when we did that first album with Todd Rundgren, we were so thrilled to have an album that if that would have been the only thing that ever saw the light of day, I would have been perfectly happy. So it’s kind of surreal to be thinking now that 24 albums later, we’re still doing this.

Sparks cover art

What is it about your band that’s enabled did you have that kind of career?

RON MAEL: There’s a sensibility to what we do – and that can work against you, in a way, if people think that it’s not a mainstream kind of sensibility. But I think that that’s worked to our advantage, to help us have longevity, because we always feel that we’re true to a certain thing and that what we’re doing is a cause. Sometimes you need an enemy to really spur you on, and the thing that we are always fighting against is blandness and the acceptable that is out there sometimes. So we’re always pushing ourselves in that way, and I think there are enough people that see that we’re true to a certain thing. It’s inspiring now because there are new people, because of [our] online presence, that are discovering what we do, and it’s this onslaught of 24 albums coming at them at once. So that’s worked to our advantage, as well.

How do you continue to stay inspired with your songwriting?

RON MAEL: At this point, it’s trying to come up with things that interest me, really. I know that if something is exciting to me at the stage of writing it, then probably in the recording it can be made even more interesting. That kind of feeling is something that you hope other people will have when they hear it. You know that you can’t fool people if you’re not even passionate about what you’re doing, really trying to come up with things that I think are interesting and worthy in some kind of way. I usually don’t spend very long on each song. If the thing isn’t heading somewhere pretty soon, I lose interest and move on to something else. I’ve never had a song where I’ve been working on it for days or weeks. It always usually comes together pretty quickly or it doesn’t come together at all.

The lyrics you write are so different from everyone else’s. How did you learn to write like that?

RON MAEL: I always liked vignettes, where things could almost feel like a short story. I never really liked lyrics that were general. I always really like specific things in the lyrics. Even though it’s a different kind of thing than what we’re doing, just the craftsmanship of people like Cole Porter and George Gershwin and all. The attention to detail and the specifics. And also the idea of [taking] a common situation and expressing it in an uncommon way. I’m always trying to find that.

What made you decide to become a musician in the first place?

RON MAEL: I never really aimed to be a musician. I was studying graphic design at UCLA, and Russell was studying cinema [also] at UCLA. But we always had little bands. It was just for fun. Then we joined forces and became one band, but there was never an intention to become a musician, ever. It was always just that that would be something to do for kicks. So we made one demo and sent it to Todd Rundgren, who really liked it – after nineteen other people from different record companies didn’t respond. Then we recorded the first album, and all of a sudden, our ideas of what we should be doing from now on changed. But I never had set out to be a musician. I always liked listening to music. I love listening to the radio. But as far as being a musician, that was never a dream. It’s really odd. I’m waiting for the moment when I’ve got to do something legitimate! Hopefully it won’t come too soon.

It seems like many bands with brothers in them tend to have a lot of fighting, but you’ve never seemed to have that problem.

RON MAEL: You talk about the longevity – part is that is due, in our case, to us being brothers because we can work without having to express anything. We can read each other’s minds, in a way. Know what we should do in the studio on anything. I think part of the difference, maybe, is our roles don’t really overlap in the band. Russell is the lead singer and he does most of the engineering now. And I write the songs and play the keyboards. So we’re not competing for each other’s turf. We also have a shared sensibility. Even if we can’t really express what that is, we know what Sparks should be all about and can prune out things that aren’t right for us.

You still have a European tour scheduled in the fall, so it’s good that that hasn’t been postponed.

RON MAEL: We’re hopeful for then, but it’s so hard to know right now. We’re hoping also to be able to play around that time both in New York and in LA. We’ll see. We really feel that the new album is an album that can really succeed in a live way. We’re excited to be able to present the songs live.

October 2020 European tour dates:

11 – Norway, Oslo, Rockefeller Music Hall
12 – Sweden, Stockholm, Cirkus
14 – Denmark, Copenhagen, The Koncerthuset
15 – Germany, Berlin, Metropol
17 – Netherlands, Amsterdam, Paradiso
18 – Belgium, Brussels, AB Flex
20 – France, Paris, Casino de Paris
21 – UK, London, Roundhouse
23 – UK, Manchester, Albert Hall
24 – UK, Glasgow, The Barrowland Ballroom
26 – UK, Belfast, Limelight Club
27 – IRE, Dublin, Vicar Street

 

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