INTERVIEW: Sparks | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“Vibrant, forward thinking, lyrically uncompromising, three to four-minute pop songs that are provocative both musically and structurally”. When Russell Mael – one half of art-rock legends Sparks together with brother Ron –  describes their new album, Hippopotamus, you’d be forgiven for momentarily forgetting this is a band twenty three studio albums into a forty-odd-year career. More impressive is that he’s not kidding either: from the title track’s jerky, Jethro Tull-esque structure and playful lyrics to What The Hell Is It This Time?, which unapologetically deconstructs relationships and the id under the watchful eyes of God (and, um, the family dog), Sparks remain a surprising, shocking proposition.

Certainly, their new material finds the Maels pushing the band’s artistic ethos to its very perimeters. Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) blends their trademark hyper-active delivery with Play-era Moby arrangements and is about the best thing you are likely to hear all year. As Russell explains, “there are certain givens like Ron’s lyrical style or my singing style, but then you have to find ways of shaping it in a new way and I think that is something we always set out to do [on this record].”

The new songs are unmistakeably Sparks but have a full band dynamic to them. Edith Piaf… in particular blends a house piano motif (and complimentary guitar riff) with a descending chord progression and upbeat chorus to make a great late summer song, despite its slightly morbid, “it’s best to die young”, central refrain. But then that sense of wilful obstinence and contradictory nature in the face of the musical norm has served the band well so far. “There is a band context without being traditional. Most of the writing is done by Ron, he has a real passion for pop writing […] and throwing out things that are not cutting it!” This almost militant quality control, Russell went on, means, “we are a band that doesn’t have the baggage of the past and are current too. We are visual personality-wise and the lyrical slant of the material lends itself to that theatrical side regardless of any external elements.”

Recorded in Los Angeles, Hippopotamus will, Russell promises, “take the pop form, shake it up, and create an album that is adventurous, fresh and idiosyncratically Sparks”. Smart, consistently evolving and wilfully pretentious (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), and internationally acclaimed as pop pioneers, Sparks’ music has always been innovative and instantly identifiable (the press release for Hippopotamus came in the form of a comic strip) throughout a series of changes stylistically. After their initial flurry of success in the mid-seventies they continued to move forward, musically working with Tony Visconti on a more disco influenced vibe before moving back to America and taking on a transitional west coast sound, before the band reinvented themselves once again as a new wave/synth pop version of Sparks (which in recent years has become the basis of what we have come to know and love about the band.)

The band’s last album, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, may have been eight years ago but that’s not to say they have been resting on their laurels waiting for the next record deal to come along (BMG since you ask, and a generous one by all accounts). A short-lived supergroup with Franz Ferdinand, FFS, was perhaps ill-advised for this writer in hindsight, but the duo’s ongoing cinematic project, Annette, is a different kettle of fish altogether. As Russell explains, “the narrative format is different [for Sparks] and we are conscious of it being more liberating, more musical. Having a big director and actors mean it is a real team effort.” Indeed, the band have written both the script and the score, while acclaimed French director Leos Carax has nabbed Adam Driver for the male lead, so expect something ahead of the curve and to the far left of the field. Indeed, look out for one of the album tracks on Hippopotamus titled When You’re A French Director, which features Carax himself.

After a rapturously received show in Glasgow for Radio 6 Live in March which saw the usually stoic Ron’s now traditional centre stage dance (that theatrical side) during The Number One Song In Heaven, Sparks, it seems, were officially back. “Glasgow was the first thing we did together as a [touring] band, we’ve always had a soft spot for the UK, who initially embraced Sparks. We lived in London so we fulfilled our dream of being a British band, and are Anglophiles musically. Ron’s earliest listening influences were The Kinks, The Move and above all the early Who…”,

Known for their progressive styles and visual representations, I asked Russell what we can expect from the UK leg of an extensive world tour to promote the album, which stops off at the Boiler Shop in Newcastle on Tuesday 19th September.  “We’ll be presenting a lot of the new album and we are proud to be able to present that but people want to hear those [older] songs as well.” Regardless, a unique opportunity to catch some bona fide legends in an intimate local setting.

Before my time was up, I asked Russell about the pressures of both scripting and scoring a film, whilst also writing and promoting a new album: surely, it must be draining? “You have to fight and challenge yourself to keep moving forward.” With that, Russell is gone, presumably to plan the next Sparks instalment of immaculately crafted pop oddities: whether that be another album or something more abstract. it seems the band are keen to keep the momentum going.

Hippopotamus is released on Friday 8th September on BMG. Sparks play the Boiler Shop, Newcastle on Tuesday 19th September.

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