“Pushing the Limits of and three or four-minute Pop Songs”
Despite teaming up with Franz Ferdinand to form FFS, Sparks is still going strong with their 25th album Hippopotamus hitting the stands
Article by Andrew Steel
Cult bands and artists are almost always a breed unto their own. Often met with critical acclaim and limited commercial success, they can often wither away in the annals of musical history or persevere through the years to ultimately amass a devoted following that, as they are namechecked by the next big thing 30-odd years later, swells up to numbers more associated with breaking acts. In a sense, it is a re-emergence into popular culture; the artist can often find themselves amidst some form of renaissance.
LA’s Sparks – brothers Ron and Russell Mael – never really nailed success in their home country, with no Top #40 singles to their name on the Billboard Hot 100. In Britain however, they amassed a string of hits from the early seventies through the early nineties, their eclectically weird art-pop compositions making fleeting visits to the upper echelons of the charts (the ubiquitous piano-glam stomp of This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us being the most successful, reaching #2). Their status as underground auteurs of boundary-pushing conceptual pop narratives was abruptly thrown back into the limelight three years ago however, when they teamed with Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand to form the dance-rock supergroup FFS. A Top #20 album and extensive major festival tour followed, to acclaim.
“The FFS thing really kind of rekindled our excitement of working and pushing the limits of and three or four-minute pop songs,” Ron acknowledges when Riddle speaks to him across the phone, his delivery both languid Californian and Oxford professor. Sparks have a new record – their 25th in all – entitled Hippopotamus, out in September. It sees a return for the group to more conventional song structures in a sense, after the lengthy conceptual narratives spun by 2009’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and the older Mael sibling – as famous for his moustache as he is for tinkling the ivories – is looking forward to its release.
“It’s all done,” he answers succinctly when asked how near the album is to completion. “We completed it around October after spending most of last year working on it. From the standpoint of the recording and the mixing and the mastering, it’s ready to go. We produced it in LA – Russell has a studio there – and the length of time between completion and the release date was partly so we could have everything full prepared from the promotional campaign.”
Said campaign is already in full swing; the band already have two singles out ahead of the autumn in the form of the exquisitely surrealist wordplay of the title track, and What the Hell is It This Time?, a number that takes aim at religion as an excuse for actions, and sees the lyrics spontaneously appear around the brothers in the video. Such a topic is timely in a world barbed with tenuous political issues and the infantile nature of America’s current presidency, but Ron states none of the record’s content is specifically inspired by national and international events unfolding around him.
“There are things that can inspire you in a lyrical way, certainly,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t really work that way. Things just kind of pop into my head, when I’m lucky, y’know. The process of finding those ideas can be rather gruelling. You’re kind of waiting for that bolt of lightning to strike, and that can be a little frustrating. Lyrically, it’s more waiting for the muse to appear, and she doesn’t always appear that often.”
He pauses to mull over his words. “Sometimes both the lyrical and musical ideas will come together – you can just happen upon a phrase that works for you at the right moment. In terms of this record, it’s very much that; it’s not inspired by any kind of one thing, where I feel that I’ve had to immediately sit down at the computer and write in reaction to that. It’s definitely something more abstract that I can’t pinpoint exactly.”
Faith in the new material, regardless of origin, is unshakeable however; after debuting four songs at the BBC 6Music Festival in Glasgow earlier this year, the brothers were taken aback by the reception the new material received. “There was a little bit of anxiety, but they carried over great in a live context. Even songs such as Hippopotamus, that don’t necessarily sound like conventional live tracks on record, they got a good reaction from the audience. It’s really encouraging for material like that.” Do the pair know what tracks will feature on the world tour? “We’d like to do most of it. We’re going to look through the record before and during to work out which we think will work best – but we’d definitely like to play most of it.”
And where will they be hoping to take in over the next year or so on the road? A bemused tone enters Ron’s voice. “We’d very much like to play in South and Central America, and China and Asia. We’d weirdly never played in Italy before FFS, and that went really well – so we’d like to go back there too.” Are festivals on the agenda? “We definitely want to do them. We really have the confidence that we can work at Coachella and Glastonbury now. We like the challenge they present, playing for the uncommitted; you have to win them over.” There’s excitement at the idea that, almost fifty years into their career, the Mael siblings are still up for a challenge. But then, Sparks have always thrived best with the odds of mass popularity stacked against them – and once more, they look set to deliver the goods how you least expect it.
Hippopotamus is released on September 8th 2017, through BMG Records.
Their UK tour kicks off September 18th at the Waterfront in Norwich / http://allsparks.com/