Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“Jacques Tati wanted us to be characters in a movie”
On a warm September night, just minutes away from bustling Soho, the prestigious ICA is hosting a launch party for the release of Sparks’ latest album, Hippopotamus, which has just rocketed into the Top 10 in the UK. The room, dotted with palm trees, is bathed in a cool blue light that evokes the feel of a swimming pool and echoes the image on the new album’s cover. In one corner, two puppets representing band members Ron and Russell Mael stand under a gaslight in an old Paris street. It’s a set from their darkly haunting stop-motion video for “Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)”, their next single.
Guests are piling in for tonight’s Q and A session – fans, music journalists and musical luminaries including Muff Winwood and Tony Visconti, both of whom produced classic albums for the band in the 1970s. All have come to celebrate a band whose sharp humour, skewed pop sensibilities and eclectic career have made them beloved popstars and honorary Brits, despite them hailing from Los Angeles.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael started their musical career as Halfnelson in 1968. With disappointing sales, their label suggested a name change. Russel explains: “Albert Grossman [who ran the Bearsville label] was disappointed that the album didn’t have a wider commercial impact. He thought maybe the name Halfnelson was too obscure – that that was the only thing holding us back – it wasn’t the music.” Albert told Russel and Ron that they reminded him of the Marx Brothers. “So, he said: why don’t you be the Sparks Brothers? We thought that was a terrible name so we said we’d meet him half way, as he was an important person, and we took Sparks.”
In 1973, with commercial success still eluding them, the band moved to Island Records, who sent them off to the UK, believing that their brand of eccentricity might appeal to the Brits. It was a smart move. Sparks played The Old Grey Whistle Test and a run of gigs at Soho’s famous Marquee club, where one night, incredibly, one of rock’s soon-to-be legendary bands – Queen – opened for them. “They all lugged their gear wearing blue jeans, and then they went on stage in their white angel costumes.” The two bands never spoke, though rumours still circulate on the internet that Brian May was once offered the chance to join Sparks.
Their TV appearances and live appearances in the UK paid off handsomely, with their next album, Kimono My House, spawning their most famous and highest charting single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”, an operatic glam-pop oddity which nevertheless got to number two in the UK charts, as well as hitting the Top 20 across Europe. Sparks had finally found a home for their unique brand of crazy and Brits took hyperactive Russell and deadpan Ron to their hearts. Subsequent albums Propaganda and Indiscreet cemented their popularity. An album recorded with Giorgio Moroder in 1979 ushered a change of direction musically. Moroder’s distinctive electronic sound propelled them back into the Top 20, with “The Number One Song in Heaven”. “Prior to that, Giorgio had worked with solo singers like Donna Summer – so we were coming from a completely different mindset.”
Sparks’ success was in no small part due to a musical, lyrical and visual style, artful and ironic, that appealed to a British audience on the cusp of what would become New Wave. They brought a cinematic flair to their album covers, too, which perfectly reflected their counter-cultural leanings: Propaganda saw them bound and gagged in the back of a speed boat racing across a vast expanse of water, while Indiscreet had them surviving a plane crash with uncommon style. And on Hippopotamus, once again, the scene looks like a still from a lost Surrealist film: Ron And Russell, dressed in bathrobes, look on in bemusement as a hippo invades their swimming pool. “We’re always hesitant to name an album after a track because it tends to point too much attention to that particular track. But in this case, it just seemed an arresting word, and the cover is literally translating what this song is about in a visual context. We’re very happy about the renaissance of vinyl and the chance to have prominent artwork, aside from the audio aspect. An image really matters now, and we were also able to return to those early Island albums where there’s no typeface on the front.”
It’s no coincidence that Sparks’ visual flair seems to evoke the cinema, as their career has so many links to motion pictures. A little-known fact about the brothers is that early in their career someone at Island records put them in touch with legendary director Jacques Tati, who was planning his follow up to Playtime. “They hooked us up with him and we met in Paris. He wanted us to be characters in a movie for which he had written a rough screenplay.” The film in question, Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company, never got made due to Tati’s declining health. But that didn’t end the Maels’ cinema career. When Kiss dropped out of 70s horror flick Rollercoaster, Sparks stepped in, featuring in the opening concert sequence playing two songs. More recently, Sparks have regained their cinematic mojo, working with cult director Guy Maddin, providing the music for one of his films and collaborating on a radio play/film proposal, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.
Sadly, it proved too expensive to produce, but the brothers are working on a new film project, with Adam Driver and Michelle Williams already attached and cult director Leos Carrax at the helm: Annette, a musical drama written by Sparks, could well prove to be the perfect merging of the brothers’ musical and cinematic ambitions. They met Carrax at the Cannes Film Festival, after he’d included one of their tracks in his previous feature, Holy Motors. “He’s a very interesting director,” explains Ron, “so when we returned to LA, Russell said why don’t we just send him this project which we’d finished recording, and see what he says. The intention wasn’t that it would be a film project but a live theatre thing. He apparently had been looking for a musical project, but wasn’t able to find anything, and he really responded to this thing strongly. We were shocked and happy.”
Annette is currently in pre-production, but in the meantime Sparks are busy touring Europe, Japan and the US to promote Hippopotamus. Even this sounds like a walk in the park compared to their ambitious 21-night London residency in 2008 when they played every album they ever recorded, live and in full. “We rehearsed for four months! People don’t have 21 albums normally… but to say you’re going to do all the songs!”