Sparks: 'We want each new album to be musically and lyrically provocative'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 15 May 2020
We caught up with Russell Mael ahead of the release of the band's 24th album to chat about their creative process, new audiences and upcoming projects
Is it possible to remain interesting, innovative and adventurous for fifty years? To answer that question, you only have to look to brothers Ron and Russell Mael who, as Sparks, have epitomised those qualities in their consistently extraordinary musical output. From the release of their hit single 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us' from their breakthrough third album Kimono My House in 1974, to critically-acclaimed 2017 record Hippopotamus, the pair have never wavered in their attempts to stay exciting and ahead of the curve with each new project. With 23 albums behind them, album number 24 A Steady Drip, Drip Drip continues this upward trajectory as another superb and forward-thinking piece of work from the idiosyncratic twosome.
'If there is such a thing for Sparks as a mission statement,' Russell Mael explains over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, 'it's more general in that we want each new album to be musically and lyrically provocative. We want to really go at it as though this might be the first album that anyone will ever hear of Sparks.'
A Steady Drip, Drip Drip certainly meets that criteria, as a bold, clever and utterly infectious record, with all the usual trademark Sparks humour, wordplay and storytelling prowess. 'We don't have a board meeting where we sit out and say those things out loud,' Mael continues, 'but it's in the back of both of our minds that what we're doing has to be special. We want to prove that as a band that has 24 albums like we do now, that the music that we're doing doesn't sound as though it's from a band with 24 albums.'
As we chat over the phone about the album and its inception, it's impossible to ignore the context in which it will be released, with many countries around the world still on lockdown and facing the brutal and ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, the Mael brothers are safe and healthy in LA, and grateful that the album can come out, despite the circumstances.
'Both Ron and I didn't want this to become this all encompassing thing.' Mael says when asked how the pair have been coping with self-isolation. 'It's bad enough but you can also make it worse if you kind of just dwell on it so much that it becomes paralysing. So both of us really wanted to keep productive. We're trying to write stuff and we're making some videos and we're lucky in a certain respect that all three projects that we've been working on for the past couple of years have all managed to finish just ahead of this, barely.'
As well as A Steady Drip, Drip Drip, the duo have been involved with two other major projects: a Sparks-written musical feature film called Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and the currently-untitled Sparks documentary directed by Edgar Wright. Both had luckily finished shooting and are now in the editing stages, with finishing touches being added as we speak. As a band that has been going for so long and continually working on new projects, it's inevitable that they will pick up new audiences and new fans with each release. So what's it like being able to connect with new swathes of people with every project?
'Oh yeah, it's always a thrill!' Mael says enthusiastically. 'And that's why we approach things the way we do; we're still excited about the whole process and about what we're doing, and I think that comes across in the music. We have a really devoted core of fans that really have been so supportive of Sparks from the beginning, especially in the UK. So we don't ever want to disappoint any of them. We always want to be doing stuff, at least in our minds, that is fresh and at that point, you hope that new people that haven't yet discovered Sparks will maybe be enticed to want to discover the rest of the other 23 albums that they might not have heard.'
The response thus far to the first few singles from A Steady Drip, Drip Drip indicates that they will undoubtedly be picking up new fans but as Mael notes, he's always a bit nervous about sending that first taste of a new album out into the world.
'The decision making process is something that has proved difficult for this album, because to take any one of those songs on its own, I don't think any one is necessarily representative of the whole album. The album has a lot of scope and is really varied musically and lyrically, so to take the stab before anyone's heard the whole album that this song or that song is going to be the one that encapsulates what it represents, well I don't think that there is one. That's the only hesitation you have at releasing anything before the whole album is out, because it's having to make those decisions on what initial exposure of the album people will have.'
Regardless of this hesitation, the four singles – 'Please Don't Fuck up My World', 'Self-Effacing', 'I'm Toast' and 'One For the Ages' – each offer something wholly unique, beautifully absurd and typically Sparks, without losing any sense of personality. The album on the whole features the intricacies and individual qualities that are very characteristic of Sparks, but in the context in which it was written, it's impossible to ignore the underlying political elements.
'In general we don't like mixing the two,' Mael says of Sparks' intertwining of music and politics. 'We feel that you kind of learn about our political views and our stance on things in a more general way by what we choose to write about and just our whole personalities. With A Steady Drip, Drip Drip, some of the subjects that are written about on the album have come to be even more prescient in a certain way than we had hoped for when they were written.
'I mean, there's the song 'Existential Threat' and obviously at the time it was written, there were existential threats. But now they've become even more acute. So that song in particular has taken on a new resonance, and I think even songs like 'Please Don't Fuck up My World' have become maybe more relevant now than it had been even at the time that it was written. Even though we don't normally like to be as specific as having something overtly political, I think that even on this record, things have sort of come to the surface in a more abstract way. And for us, that's the best way for things to be; where it's not heavy handed and as specific as having something overtly political.'
For many artists, releasing any material in our current state of lockdown is unthinkable, and as a result, a significant portion of releases have been postponed. But for Sparks, releasing A Steady Drip, Drip Drip in our current political and social climate is not only important, but vital as a potential antidote for fans to everything happening around them. It's not merely entertainment, but therapy for some.
'That's the one constant that will continue through all of this mess that's going on; that the music can continue to exist. And like you said, it can be therapeutic because people have even more time to be reflective about what's going on, and more time on their hands just to be able to actually listen to things really carefully. So we hope that this album will help people in a small way, in terms of helping to have a diversion that's hopefully an inspiration to get through all of this mess. We're happy that it could come out now because there were some decisions about things being delayed until a later period. But we were really firm on wanting to have the album come out now. It seems better, from a completely unselfish way, to have it come out now; to be a thing that people can share at this really weird period.'
It's a lovely and positive sentiment at a time when everyone could use a bit of optimism, but Mael is also hopeful that the band will be able to connect with fans in person when the scheduled tour dates arrive in October. When exactly live gigs will return is an unfortunate question mark for many acts at the moment, but Mael is confident that they will return to the UK in any case, sooner or later. In the meantime, they've got plenty to look forward to with the release of the album, Annette and the Sparks documentary.
'The Annette movie is something really unique and special for us, as we were able to create not only the story for it, but also the music.' Mael says. 'And then to have fortunately been able to have Adam Driver really wanting to do this role is kind of a dream to us. He's done an amazing job on it, he's really pushed himself to a whole other area and it's a really edgy character that he plays in this.
'It's been an amazing experience that we would like to do again in the future. That's the main thing; we're trying to come up with ideas for some other future movie musicals. It takes a lot out of you, it's a long process and we were really lucky that this project got off the ground and with such spectacular actors. We can't wait for it to come out and for people to be able to see what this is all about. And the Edgar Wright documentary too is going to be really special. He's just about finished it, and he now has a three hour version of it. Edgar has said that three hours can barely tell the whole story of Sparks so he's working on having a slightly shorter edit of it as well so that all the non-diehards don't get bored! But we're looking forward to everybody getting to see that too because he's such a great director and his sensibility really shines through in this project.'
A band with a history as colourful, genre-defying and intriguing as Sparks will forever be amongst those few acts able to provide that much-needed sense of escapism at just the right moment in time. As well as giving us two things to look forward to in the form of two very different film projects, the release of A Steady Drip, Drip Drip during a global pandemic is quintessential Sparks; offering a distraction while also reminding us with their art, music and storytelling that when this is all over, please, don't let them fuck up our world.
A Steady Drip, Drip Drip is out now on BMG.