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Interview: Russell Mael of Sparks

26 May 2023

Photo by Munachi Osegbu

More than fifty years on from their debut album, quirky pop rock duo Sparks prove they’re still going strong with their 26th studio album, The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte (set for release on May 26 via Island Records). The band’s distinctively esoteric sound remains intact on these new songs, with skewed (but often good natured) lyrics set to impossibly catchy electronic-based instrumentation. During a video call from his Los Angeles home, vocalist Russell Mael gives insights into how he and his songwriter/keyboardist brother Ron Mael continue to create such unpredictable and mesmerizing music.

How did you know it was the right time to do another album now?

RUSSELL MAEL: We like to work, so there’s not really a time that we say, “We’re going to take off the next two years and not do anything.” We don’t know what else we would be doing.

You’ve been through many album release dates before, but how do you feel as you’re approaching this particular one?

RUSSELL MAEL: There’s a really good atmosphere and feeling surrounding Sparks now in general, so there’s a really good anticipation, I think, for this album. We’ve put everything we had into it knowing that Sparks’ visibility is higher right now for a number of reasons: the documentary [2021’s The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright] and the movie that we wrote [the musical Annette, also in 2021, starring Adam Driver], and the last couple of albums having a higher visibility. So things are looking really good in Sparks’ world, and we are really anticipating the release of this album a lot because we’re really proud of it. We think it’s something special. We try really hard to do stuff that isn’t rehashing our old work. It becomes more of a challenge, the more albums you have, to find ways within the givens that you have. There’s always going to be my singing, there’s going to be Ron’s music, his writing sensibility, his lyrical slant. But it’s your job to find new ways to put those things in a hopefully fresh context. As an artist, it’s your obligation, really, to do that. A lot of what we do is pretty idiosyncratic, but we’re happy there’s this universe that we’ve created through the 26 albums that has a certain consistency to it, even though the specifics change along the way.

Photo by Munachi Osegbu

Did you have any particular themes you were hoping to get across this time?

RUSSELL MAEL: A lot of the album has these almost like short stories, lyrically, where you enter the song in the middle of some kind of action. Like the first song, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,” where it’s a situation where a girl is literally at a café crying in her latte, and then another girl comes in, takes the same seat that that first girl had, and she too is crying. So there’s these small situations that are like little vignettes. Those are what we enjoy doing, where you have these small stories that can get blown up into becoming a bigger thing – some mundane story and it ends up being elevated into something bigger than what it originally was. I think that that’s something that happens often in our songs.

How do you take Ron’s lyrics and put your own stamp on them?

RUSSELL MAEL: I think we now have a certain unspoken thing where I understand what he lyrically writes and melodically writes, and it’s just intuitive, what it needs. And he knows that he’s writing it for my voice. So we know what it can and will probably sound like – we’ve done it for a long time, so we know what to expect.

What do you think it is about your music that has connected so strongly with listeners for this long?

RUSSELL MAEL: I think people sense that they’re part of some special club that is exclusive to them. The club is getting bigger and bigger, but it’s still seen as this little-known entity that is unique and special to the people that are aware of it. I think everybody enjoys that sensibility. We’re finding more and more young people understand that we’re writing music that isn’t middle of the road, that’s something unique, and that the sensibility we have speaks to them in a certain way. I think that that kind of sentiment has reached a lot of people. That’s what they enjoy about Sparks, and they anticipate in the new albums that we come out with.

What’s kept you loyal to this band, personally?

RUSSELL MAEL: We still have a real passion for pop music. It’s not a lesser form of music. I think pop music, when it’s done well, really is inspirational in a number of different ways. And so I think that we feel like you can still do things in the three and a half minute song structure, that you can still work within those parameters and try to come up with something unique and special that hasn’t been done. That challenge is always there, and it keeps us fresh.

A lot of brothers in bands end up fighting a lot – how have you two avoided that pitfall?

RUSSELL MAEL: It’s just that we both don’t step on each other’s toes. We have our own really defined roles within the band, so there’s no competition at all between the two of us. We both know our strengths and our weaknesses, and we rely on the other person to come through in the other areas where it’s not our forte. I think that has kept the stability in the band for this long.

How did you both know that you should be professional musicians in the first place?

RUSSELL MAEL: I don’t think we ever knew that this is what we should be doing. We just kind of stumbled into it. We were in bands, and then we made a tape with a friend of ours for our first album [1971’s Halfnelson, reissued the following year under the title Sparks]. Things just kind of escalated. It was never a conscious career decision, saying, “This is what we have to be doing.” We just enjoy doing it, and one thing after another worked out well, and here we are.

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