Sparks Interviewed: Stripping Down And Something Swedish

Over four decades, Sparks have emerged as one of the most innovative, iconic and beloved bands, thrilling generations of music fans. Now they are embarking on something totally new...
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Over four decades, Sparks have emerged as one of the most innovative, iconic and beloved bands, thrilling generation after generation of music fans. So obviously I mainly talked to them about movies. There has always been a cinematic quality to them, from their appearance in disaster epic Rollercoaster, to their recent musical fantasy The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman. Now they are embarking on something they have never tried before. Just the two of them, Ron and Russell Mael alone on stage in a tour entitled Two Hands One Mouth. I talked to Ron about manga, Lee Marvin and strange airport meats.

Where are you?

We are in the Helsinki airport right now.

I imagine that Helsinki airport is really exciting and futuristic. Is it?

Yeah, you can buy little cans of reindeer meat.

So all your travel gifts are sorted then?

Exactly, reindeer meat for all my loved ones at home.

It’s entirely live so we feel very naked and bare out there. But it’s also very exciting

So it’s just the two of you touring and performing. Have you ever been in that position before?

Oh no, this is the first time that we’ve ever tried this. We’ve sort of tried every other combination. We’ve worked with bands at different times, we’ve worked with just computers. But this time it’s just the two of us. It’s entirely live so we feel very naked and bare out there. But it’s also very exciting.

Even when you first started out in LA it was never just you two?

When first started out as Halfnelson it was Russell and myself and Earle Mankey, but it was only for recording, we never played live as just the three of us. So when we did play live, we had five pieces, a complete band, bass, drums and guitar. So this is the very first time over all the years that we’ve ever performed this way.

Was it a little scary to do that?

Very. There was also a lot of preparation involved because to figure out keyboard parts that would work in this kind of situation – I’m used to playing with a band. But this way the keyboard part has to fill in a lot, to compensate for not having a band or having an electronic rhythm section on your computer.

I’m always excited to talk to people who grew up where you did because I have a fascination with old LA. People from there always seem blasé about the people they lived next to, like Jimmy Stewart or Vampira?

When I was growing up, the first job I had was working as a driver for Lee Marvin’s children.

That’s incredible.

That was an early job of mine. Being a sort of driver, but using my own car to drive Lee Marvin’s two children to private school. It was exciting for me, even though it was a tedious job and not in the slightest bit well paid. But just the idea of driving Lee Marvin’s children, that was exciting for someone who grew up adoring every Hollywood star.

Did you have a favourite?

I have always been a huge movie buff. So I liked people like Steve McQueen, and Orson Welles. When I started to go to university I really started to get heavily into watching foreign films, so that became important.

Being cinema buffs it’s a dream of ours to have a movie musical made of a work that we have written

Films seem to have punctuated your whole career. What’s happening with the film you were going to make? At one point Tim Burton was attached…

Back in the very early nineties we had been working on a movie musical based on a Japanese manga called Mai The Psychic Girl. Tim Burton really liked the whole approach and the music. So, he was going to do it as a live action film and then the thing kind of fell through. About three years ago he contacted us again, he was really interested and we brought him the music we had written almost 20 years ago and he still really liked it. So that thing is still alive in some way. We are also trying to pursue a way to have The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman made into a film with Guy Maddin directing. The world of movie financing is a difficult one for everybody but especially for a movie that’s kind of more unusual – but we’re still pushing on that and pursuing ways of getting the financing because we think it would be amazing. Being cinema buffs it’s a dream of ours to have a movie musical made of a work that we have written.

What attracted you to that particular project?

We were approached by Swedish Radio, as a part of a series of theatrical music projects that they were sponsoring. The one stipulation was that it had to be based on something that was in some way connected with Sweden and both of us knew a lot about the films of Ingmar Bergman, so we chose that as the subject matter. It’s a fantasy of an imaginary time where he’s come to Hollywood and he’s being seduced by the Hollywood powers  - they would help him make a film in exchange for being a part of the Hollywood system. In a way, making a pact with the devil. So it isn’t based on a true experience but its based on our understanding of the mentality of both Bergman and Hollywood studio executives that we’ve met.

Because you were in Rollercoaster…

Yeah, yeah. I try to avoid that topic, but it’s strange…

It’s pretty amazing. It’s such a thrilling cinematic moment when you’re watching a film like that and suddenly Sparks pops up.

Yeah it was one of the… I can’t remember what the system is but they made three films with vibrating floors in the theatre, just a little bass rumble. It was the time of disaster movies in the 70s. And this was a disaster movie.

Obviously your career didn’t start in the UK but it’s one of the first places that people really started to love Sparks. You’ve always been an anglophile, is that correct?

Yeah, when we first started, even growing up in Los Angeles, we never really liked American bands. It was the always the British bands that we liked. Early Who and The Kinks and those sort of things. So, everybody else was liking Eagles kind of music. We didn’t like that at all. The only American band that we liked was The Beach Boys. Outside of that it was all British bands that we liked. Especially the flashier British bands. So our early stuff was a slightly failed attempt to be a British band even though we were living in Los Angeles, but it kind of mutated into something… else.

We’ve kind of simultaneously been working on a new project along the lines of The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman

When you revisited and played all of your albums back to back (2008’s Sparks Spectacular in London) you must have come across songs that you has completely forgotten about or songs that you didn’t even particularly like the first time around, were there surprises like that?

We were doing songs that we had never played before and some things that we had forgotten. We had such a good band that we were able to play things that didn’t stack up as well against some of our better known albums. So when we played them, in that context, it was kind of a leveller. Some of the ones like Big Beat actually sounded really good to us. That was kind of an inspiring thing.

What are you planning to do next?

We’ve kind of simultaneously been working on a new project along the lines of The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, where it isn’t just a collection of songs. It’s more of a narrative in a way, but with music that is broad, but in our style. We can’t escape that, one way or another, everything turns out that way.

Can you give us any clues as to the subject matter?

I’d rather not say now in case we decide to scrap the whole thing. At this point it’s about a third of the way through and it seems like it’s going to be something to hang onto. But I probably shouldn’t give details yet in case it becomes an ill-fated excursion. Also, we don’t want anyone stealing the idea.

That was my plan. Thank you for talking to me.

OK, well I’ll get back to my reindeer meat

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