Interview: Sparks – 'The rules only apply within your universe and it may or may not jive with the outside world'
Art pop duo Sparks release latest album, Hippopotamus, in September
While the recent 6 Music Festival in Glasgow provided a concentrated opportunity to dive into a world of new music, it was the veteran acts on the bill which seemed to generate the most excitement. The enigmatic fraternal duo Sparks closed their set with a trio of peerless euphoric pop classics – 'Number One Song in Heaven', 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us' and 'Amateur Hour' – from their 70s salad days but the new material they debuted from their forthcoming album, Hippopotamus, promised a fresh serving of their quirky pop aesthetic, not least the title track with its heroic rhyming couplets about a Volkswagen microbus, Titus Andronicus and a woman with an abacus, which rather put Oasis's 'supersonic/gin and tonic' into perspective.
For frontman Russell Mael, he of the operatic falsetto and Dorian Gray looks, it is practically an obligation to explore territory that other bands simply don't reach for.
'You're given this canvas to say or do whatever you want,' he says, 'so to us the stranger thing is that there isn't that hunger from a lot of artists to explore subject matter that hasn't been touched on in pop songs. It's a real challenge because everybody's already heard 60 or 70 years of the basic themes of popular music so you want to say it in a different way.'
Phlegmatic older brother Ron is generally the one who pens the lyrics. Has Russell ever rebelled and refused to sing what he is given? 'Sometimes it's hard because the words don't necessarily roll off the tongue as easily as you'd hope, but I always embrace the unexpected in the lyrics and not moan or whine about the difficulty of having to sing something that is not just some "moon in June" sort of lyric.'
It's hard to appreciate now just how much of a technicolour splash Sparks made when they first emerged from La La Land in the early 1970s, releasing classic albums such as Kimono My House and Propaganda along the way. Inevitably in a career which spans more than 40 years, there have been commercially fallow periods but, in recent times, they found kindred spirits in Franz Ferdinand, another group who embrace the oddness while ensuring they deliver a stonking good tune, and together they ramped up the leftfield hooks in the glorious FFS, touring the world and rekindling their love of the three-minute pop song.
In all those years though, the Maels have successfully preserved their pop mystique, living private lives in LA – or so we are told …
'We like to know what's going on in the outside world,' Russell acknowledges, 'but also we do like working in this vacuum where you create your own universe and the rules only apply within your universe and it may or may not jive with the outside world. We always assume it's this private club where you need to know the secret handshake to get in and I think that's what a lot of Sparks fans like about the band.'
Sparks tour the UK Wed 20-Wed 27 Sep; Hippopotamus is out on Fri 8 Sep via BMG.