Interviews

Sparks: “You never know when you’re foretelling the future in a song” – Interview



Ron Mael on the brothers’ new album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, keeping sane in lockdown and the absolute necessity of music

Sparks

Sparks: Ron and Russell Mael (Photo: Anna Webber)

When you have been part of a band for half a century, it must be hard to keep your dialogue fresh for interviews. But then this is no ordinary band, and Sparks are famous for their lyrical wit and insight. A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is the 24th album from brothers Ron and Russell Mael, and it finds them on top form. We are fortunate to have an audience with the former, who has joined us from his home in Los Angeles.

How is Ron coping with the lockdown and its ensuing isolation? “Under the circumstances, I’m OK,” he says, with a hint of weariness. “Well you know the first couple of weeks were spent not knowing how to deal with this, and all systems shut down. Since then I’ve tried to be a little bit more productive. Russell has a studio in his place, but I’ve been avoiding working there and doing as much as I can here. It’s not ideal but you can’t just stop everything. I’m trying to remain active.”

The music of A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is remarkably positive – yet that is countered by lyrical barbs packed with warnings about how we treat the world today, not to mention uncanny references to our current predicament. Was that intentional? “Yeah, I suppose so. Every album that you do is in some way a positive statement, because you’re actively doing something rather than reacting to things around you. The biggest negative statement you can make is not to do anything, so we try to put as much into every album as we can. In as far as it’s a banal word, it’s a passion.”

He too is fully aware of the pandemic parallels in the brothers’ writing. “Lyrically there are a couple of things that crept in even before the virus – songs like Please Don’t Fuck Up My World, and The Existential Threat, taking a certain view of what was going on. The sad thing is those songs – even something like I’m Toast – have a certain morbid tone now with how things have gone.”

“The biggest negative statement you can make is not to do anything”

One of the most striking statements is iPhone. In it Russell repeatedly hammers home a plea to ‘put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me’. It feels like a personal address across a restaurant table to the listener, at which point Ron laughs. “That was a really difficult song lyrically to write. I didn’t want to come off as a bitter, anti-technological person. I might have hints of bitterness but technology is how we’re able to do all of our music nowadays. It was important to try to frame the sentiments of that song as a kind of isolation of always being locked into your iPhone screen, but the challenge was to do it in a way that was fantastical in a certain sense, where the iPhone had always existed through history through Adam and Eve, through Abraham Lincoln and on to Steve Jobs’ family. That was a way to make it less direct.” The irony being that Adam and Eve took a bite from an Apple. “There you go,” laughs Ron. “It’s product placement, I guess.”

So many of the songs from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip could have entire articles devoted to them. Stravinsky’s Only Hit is another – and the band’s Twitter account, producing a picture of Ron with the score of the composer’s Rite Of Spring, suggested he had been writing it since 2000. He laughs, denying the possibility. “There are two ways the songs come up. One is that I’m able to write a song and take it to Russell’s studio and we figure out ways to arrange and record it, and maybe alter certain sections. That song was written all in the studio, it wasn’t a song I would have been able to write just sitting down to write it. It all came together musically and the title just seemed to appear from the nature of the music. I wouldn’t say that it’s anything approaching Stravinsky, but there is the idea that it’s aggressive but not, if you see what I mean, and experimental in a certain sense. In a loose way the music is tied in with Stravinsky.”

It is tempting to draw a parallel between the composer’s mustachioed features and Ron’s own. “Well I’ve heard that a couple of times and I try to take it as a compliment. But wait a minute, what about Brad Pitt, you know?! In any case, if there were any genetic thing that linked us I would be extremely happy. The strange thing is that Stravinsky and Schoenberg both moved to an area in west Los Angeles which is really near where Russell and I live. Maybe there was something in the air when my mother conceived me.”

He has encountered the composer previously. “I am aware of quite a bit of his music and its jagged nature, and like him I’m always trying to do something different in a general sense. Working with computers and all, it alters your brain so that music tends to come out more in a grid, equal and sequential. I’m always trying to fight that by trying to think of ways outside of strict 4/4. It’s really difficult with pop music because you don’t want to also do things that sound like you’re being intentionally musical in a bad sense. The jaggedness of that song and the rhythmic irregularities, I’m really proud of that because it sounds natural. It isn’t adding bars of 5/4 for the sake of sounding like you know what that is. It ‘s difficult to mask that and have it there without a neon sign blaring out that says ‘this is not strict 4/4 all the time’.”

The creative process within Sparks remains largely the same, and Ron reveals how the duo keep their writing fresh. “The process is pretty much the same as we’ve worked in the last few albums. We were working on a film musical for quite a while with Leos Carax, and we really felt excited to get back to working within song structures. The process itself was similar to the way we’ve done the last few albums where either the songs were written separate from the studio or were written going in with no preconceptions. Both of us were fortunate because we’re not jaded with what pop music can be. We really have a passion to try to push things as far as we can, and also not to put down the quality of what we’ve done.”

Ron has spoken previously of his disconnect with modern music, and that feeling has not yet changed, despite close encounters with recent songs. “People sometimes think we’re totally sealed off from everything but it’s not the case. I do listen to a lot of things, and especially at this time I like listening to internet radio where you can hear music from a lot of different countries with different styles. There’s really nothing in a pop music way that really excites me at the moment, but we do keep in touch with more than that from the standpoints of the sonics, to make sure what we’re doing fits in with the way other things sound. Stylistically it’s hard to draw inspiration from other things.”

In the week prior to our interview, pop music lost a visionary figure in Kraftwerk founding member Florian Schneider, a close contemporary of Sparks. Did the two know each other? “Not really,” says Ron, “but we always had such great affection for what Kraftwerk represented. It really is a true case of a band that have a true sensibility that is followed very strictly, and never watered down at all. They are one of the few groups that throughout time I have had great admiration for. The influences are extraordinary in reaching out to all kinds of pop music, hip hop and all. I remember driving in Los Angeles on the freeway and hearing Autobahn. It was such a perfect experience, because obviously we’re 6,000 miles away from it but it was the perfect soundtrack for a drive. It was sad but I’m also pleased that there may be people who rediscover Kraftwerk’s music.”

“Music is being seen by so many people as something that is really an absolute necessity”

Does he think people misdiagnose their music – and Sparks – as not having as much passion as it really does? “Well if I say it, it could sound a little defensive, but I think it really is the case. Sometimes it seems like you’re distant from what the music is coming out with, but we’re intensely passionate about what we’re doing. The other thing is because there is humour in a lot of our songs, sometimes people just take a cursory glance at what we’re doing and think there is no depth of feeling beneath that. The intention is always to have another level beneath the humour that is full of emotion. You just have to get beneath the surface to find that.”

This reinforces the point that makes Sparks such an effective albums band, with several layers for the listener to uncover with more than one listen. “I appreciate that, because if you get something on the first listen, if you get it completely, then maybe that accessibility is a positive thing. Even though we might strive for that instant accessibility I think it’s more important if people can keep returning to a piece of music and find different or even completely new meanings from when they first listened. Also, things change over time, so something we did quite a while ago can take on a different context when you’re hearing it in a different decade.”

A prime example of this is one of the duo’s calling cards, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, which could now be interpreted as an observation on social distancing. “Yeah – and you never know when you’re foretelling the future in a song from decades ago.”

The new album is littered with references to new technology, with lines such as “Alexa, get me out of this place!” The image of Ron talking to Alexa is too good to resist, but is it reality? “Well, I have the usual assortment of iPhones and Macbooks,” he says, “but as far as going to the point of Alexa, it seems a little absurd talking to inanimate objects, you know? I stick to talking with things that are more real, real people. I understand the value of that because it is helpful and if someone is really busy, but it spooks me out talking to a little box.”

Given the energy in their songs, it is easy to forget that both Mael brothers are now in their 70s. “Ah, could be,” says Ron evasively. So what is their secret? “One thing is in a very basic way trying to stay as heathy as you can be and hoping to have good genes, but the other side is musically we’re really lucky that what we’re doing in pop music is exactly the kind of music we want to hear. We’re able to write music that doesn’t sound like it’s writing down to a younger audience, and it really is music that is sincere. The danger with being around as long as we have is that you lose touch with that youthful passion, and we still feel that. There is a certain element of self-delusion in that I guess, but we’re willing to accept it and do the music that we’re doing. It’s fortunate because we don’t want to be doing music that would be stereotypical around our age and the amount of albums we have done. This is not a pop-art project, this is really what we want to be doing.”

Are there more formats or musical directions they wish to explore? “Nobody knows what the future holds, but making albums is the core of what we’re about, and seeing how far we can push what it means to write a pop song at all. We’re lucky to be involved in other ways of making music, like the movie musical we wrote with Leos Carax. When you work with individual songs it’s like using different muscles. We don’t feel like we’re frustrated musically in the slightest, and we’re still able to channel the Sparks sensibility into projects like the film musical. Whether anybody notices that or not, it’s still there.”

Given the current state of world affairs with the pandemic, what are Ron’s wishes for the future? “Well I think that the one and only positive thing I can think of is that it seems like people have more of an appreciation for what music represents in general, and how profound and touching quality music is. I think the isolation, as bad as that is, and the situation around all of that, music represents something that can give so much strength to people, and not just a way that can be mindless and relaxing, but in a way of enervating you. Music is being seen by so many people as something that is really an absolute necessity; it isn’t just another means of entertainment.”

The album release is therefore of greater importance. “It sounds like we’re trying to come off as the good guys, but we really felt that even though the physical release of the album has been put back for manufacturing until July, we really wanted to keep the streaming and download releases at the same time. It felt like too much of a marketing decision otherwise, and we felt so passionate about this album that we wanted it to be coming out at the time it was originally scheduled.” The same goes for playing live. “The whole touring thing is so weird now, but whenever the first opportunity is, we will definitely be playing there.”

Sparks’ album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is out now through BMG. You can buy it here. Tour dates and further information can be found at allsparks.com


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