SPARKS were literally my favorite band when I was growing up in a small state on the east coast of America called Delaware. I was first introduced to their music in 1982, after hearing their single “I Predict” from the “Angst In My Pants” album. Their sound was unique and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. While my friends at school were marveling at Judas Priest’s heavy metal image and my guitar playing buddies were struggling with licks from Scorpions, I started collecting Sparks vinyl and was busy being consistently intrigued by Ron and Russell Mael’s catchy songwriting and incredible lyrics. Soon after, I remember finding a second hand vinyl copy of their 1974 masterpiece “Kimono My House” and being floored by the weird sounds. My first listen was so intense and personal, I had to put on a pair of headphones so that I could crank the volume and keep my family’s discerning ears away from my “discovery.” Sparks was my kind of band and I practiced my guitar along with the album in my room wondering what it would be like to play in a band like this. It was hard to believe they were American, the same country that Steely Dan and Toto were from. It’s also safe to say that the Mael brothers being from Los Angeles influenced my decision to move there myself after finishing school to pursue my own musical career.
I first met Ron and Russell via producer Tony Visconti who worked with my band Mother Superior on our latest “13 Violets” CD. Tony had a birthday dinner in L.A. and invited us and upon arrival I was definitely unprepared to sit next to my heroes who were also asked to come and celebrate. Tony had produced their all-time classic “Indiscreet” album in 1975 and that night, I got to tell the brothers how great I thought their music was and how much it meant to me through the years. At the end of the night we took photographs together and I was happy to learn they were nice guys who appreciated fans like me. We kept in touch by email and last year I invited them to a show Mother Superior were doing with Daniel Lanois at the Roxy Theatre here in Los Angeles. I was delighted when Russell showed up with Sparks drummer Tammy Glover and the next day they told us that they really enjoyed the show. We met for coffee soon afterwards and talked for hours about music. We were like old friends with similar musical tastes and interests.
A few months ago, I went a Sparks show that they performed in support of their latest great album, “Lil’ Beethoven” here in Hollywood. Afterwards, I emailed Russell to congratulate him on an awesome performance and he soon replied and informed me of Sparks next plan. They were going to perform at Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London and play both their “Kimono My House” album and “Lil’ Beethoven” in their entirety back to back. They were going to embellish the band with a bassist and an additional guitarist for the “Kimono” set (no computers were to be used and as pioneers of electronic music, that was rare for Sparks). Imagine my surprise when he asked if, by any chance, do I know the guitar parts on the album. DO I?!?
After intense preparation and rehearsals, the concert was flawlessly and almost effortlessly performed on June 12 to a very excited and enthused audience of Sparks fanatics who had waited many years to see and hear the band return to the classic era of their music. The six piece band consisted of Ron, Russell, Tammy, guitarist Dean Menta (formerly of Faith No More), Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald and myself doing the wailing bluesy guitar solos. The hit singles “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (#2 on the UK charts in 1974), “Amateur Hour” and “Talent Is An Asset” were played note perfect and many of the other songs from the album had never been performed live before. Several surprises and highlights included Russell adding the castanets to “Hasta Manana Monsieur,” Tammy banging a gong at the conclusion of “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” and the audience rising to their feet in astonishment as we concluded the set with the two b-sides from the “Kimono”-era, “Barbecutie” and “Lost And Found.” It was a total success and we pulled it off with smiles on our faces.
Working with the Maels has been a chance of a lifetime for me. I will always be grateful to have been able to share their pleasure of doing this special show. Hanging out with them, I learned a lot about the brothers history. For instance, who knew that Ron writes a lot of their songs on guitar as well as his more well known keyboard? We also talked a lot about the brothers growing up in the Los Angeles music scene and how they were privileged to see so many great concerts: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, a triple bill of the Rolling Stones, Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders in Long Beach, T. Rex at the Whisky, Led Zeppelin’s first tour, The Move, Humble Pie, Free, Jeff Beck Group, the legendary TAMI show and many others. During rehearsals in Putney (just outside of London), I had the chance to sit down and ask them all of the questions I’ve always wanted to know about them and their long and always progressing career.
JIM: Let’s start by talking about the Pheasantry Club, which we walked by yesterday (it is now a pizza restaurant) and you guys told me that it was your first gig in London in 1973. What was the vibe like with the original band and the early shows?
RUSSELL: Our record company at the time (Bearsville) sent us to London because nothing was happening in the States with those first two albums, the Todd Rundgren produced Halfnelson (Sparks original band name) stuff. This is the original band, the two Mankey brothers (Earle and Jim), Harley Feinstein and us. The record label thought we had more of a British sensibility and maybe something could be generated with the band in the UK. So they sent us here for a month and we had a residency at the Marquee club for four straight weeks, playing there once a week. They also got us on this TV show called “The Old Grey Whistle Test” and there was a real reaction. All these people started coming to see us play. And at the same time we were playing the Pheasantry as well.
JIM: Were both of the Bearsville albums out by then?
RUSSELL: Yes, the “Woofer” album (“A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing,” 1973) and the “Sparks” album (1972) which was the same as the original “Halfnelson” album, were both out. And at one of the Marquee gigs, Queen supported us and we can remember them pulling up in their van in blue jeans and lugging their gear in and then putting on their white angel Queen outfits! So as a result of that TV show, people came to see us play and that was the one little thing that kicked off the whole thing. Then after that four week period that we stayed in London, we had the offer for the two of us to come back to England by Island Records. They liked the songwriting and the singing and the general image. But they weren’t sure if they wanted to undertake bringing an American band over here to reside permanently. They decided to just bring over the nucleus of the songwriting and singing and they told us if we were willing to relocate and get a band together over here, they would sign us.
JIM: Did the other members originally want to come along?
RUSSELL: Unfortunately, yes.
RON: It was the closest time to Sparks being a real democracy and we were really close friends, too. We had gone to school together in university. So aside from just the whole musical decision, it was a tough personal decision because we were kind of having to screw three of our friends by doing this. But it was a once in a lifetime situation for us to be able to kind of be a British band which is what we always pretended that we were anyway. So we just decided to do it and picked up and went.
JIM: Well, it turned out to be a good decision because from that point on you could just do whatever you two wanted to do…
RON: Well, yeah but we were lucky because the first thing that got released in Britain after that was “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (1974) and sometimes you think, “What if that first thing hadn’t happened?” You don’t even want to consider the other side of what could’ve happened.
JIM: Not to talk too much about that time and the early days too much but there was a pre-Bearsville demo LP (1968/1969 privately pressed album that was given to record labels and eventually Todd Rundgren, who got them signed to Bearsville) and I was wondering what kind of tape machine those songs were recorded on?
RUSSELL: It was a reel-to-reel tape recorder that Earle Mankey had. He was actually really good at home recording. Originally, we were just a trio, Earle and the two of us. We just recorded in his apartment. He had one of those old Magnavox tape recorders, or something like that. He was just really into fooling around with recording. He was into playing the tape backwards and doing things that were, at that time, bold. He would speed up his guitar solos or have the tape run at half speed then play it back fast. We were just experimenting with sounds.
JIM: Did you guys always know that music was what you wanted to do as your career?
RUSSELL: Well, the thing is it wasn’t even thought out that much. And like Ron said earlier, what if it hadn’t worked when we came to England? We would’ve had to start thinking what else we would want to do. But we just got lucky that “This Town” was this really massive hit and that afforded us the luxury to stay here and do three albums and tour a lot. At first with Earle, we were all students and just doing music because it was fun but you never think of things as careers. It just kind of worked out and now here we are in Putney!
JIM: Well, obviously you guys are huge music fans, what with all of the shows that you’ve told me about that you got to see when you were teenagers.
RON: Yeah, we always bought tons of singles, especially, and that was our biggest musical education. We just loved pop music. There was never really an original plan for either of us to go into music careers, it was just that we were interested in it and we just gradually gravitated towards it. At first it was just something to do while we were in college. Then one thing led to another and we were making tapes with Earle and Todd Rundgren was the first one that became interested in what we were doing. We thought that if somebody wants to sign us then maybe it’s something more than a hobby.
JIM: Russell, you just recently worked with Earle again on Kristian Hoffman’s last album.
RUSSELL: Yeah, that was the first time I’d seen Earle in a while. Kristian asked if I’d sing on a song called “Devil May Care” and Earle has a studio somewhere around Thousand Oaks, California and we recorded it there. I hadn’t seen him for a long time and it was weird but very nice to see him again and to get to work with him.
JIM: What’s the story behind the obscure Sparks b-side “The Wedding Of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael” (from 1975 and not yet available on CD)?
RUSSELL: One thing about that one is that is has Mary Hopkin’s voice on it. She had the hit “Those Were The Days” (on the Beatles’ Apple label, produced by Paul McCartney) and she was married at the time to our producer Tony Visconti. The art of the b-side doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately, but at that time we wanted to do songs as b-sides that could just be one-offs and not worry about the implications of it being right for an album or not. Just kind of have fun and experiment.
JIM: Oh, so that’s her saying “I do” and taking wedding vowels with you?
RUSSELL: Yeah, Ron came up with the idea of me getting married to Jacqueline Kennedy and we enlisted Tony’s wife Mary to do the voice. We recorded that at Tony’s house in the Shepherd’s Bush area. He was another American working in England like us. He had been here a lot longer than we had obviously.
JIM: Oh yeah, I really didn’t think about that. When you guys recorded “Indiscreet” (1975) with him, you were still living in England.
RUSSELL: Yeah and he was too so there was a bond and we could kind of tell American ex-patriot stories.
RON: He had actually been here a lot longer than us. I think it was like twelve years or something.
JIM: Tony has a funny accent. Kind of Brooklyn and kind of English too.
RON AND RUSSELL: Yeah!
JIM: I’ve heard rumors about some demos you guys did in 1976 with Mick Ronson. Do they really exist?
RON: Yeah. We went to New York and we had all the songs for the “Big Beat” album (1976) and we went into a rehearsal hall and did them with Mick Ronson. They actually sound better than what the final album sounded like. There was a possibility of him actually joining the band and touring with us but it didn’t work out for whatever reason. But the demos sounded amazing. Rupert Holmes produced that album and it was such a funny thing because he’s 180 degrees away from the sort of producer that should be producing that kind of sound. It was just a screwy situation.
JIM: Was Rupert around for the demo sessions?
RON: I think he might have been, I’m trying to remember. We still have the cassettes of the really rough demos of Mick Ronson playing a lot of the songs and they sound really great because he plays with a lot of abandon.
RUSSELL: Somehow we’ll dig you out a cassette. There’s one lying around somewhere.
JIM: I’d love to hear that! Well, since this is an interview for France, I thought maybe you could tell me about the production work the two of you did for Bijou and other artists from France that you’ve produced in the past.
RUSSELL: We were spending a lot of time in France at that time (1979) and we were really good friends with a journalist named John William Thoury. He was also Bijou’s manager and he was a big Sparks fan. He asked if we would like to produce Bijou. The band came to L.A. and there were three French guys sitting at Larrabee Studios in West Hollywood and we did that album with them (“Pas Dormir,” 1979). They worked a lot with Serge Gainsbourg as well because he was a fan of theirs. He actually came on stage with them at some of their concerts in France. There has always been our attachment with France. We worked with another artist and she’s actually Belgian but she was a huge singer in France named Lio. We did English language adaptations of her French hits. We worked with the guys in Telex who were her producers, Marc Moulin and Dan Lacksman. We worked with Lio in Brussels and Ron wrote the English lyrics for her. They wanted to try to launch her music in the States and in the English speaking part of Canada. She was already successful in Montreal and places like that. So we worked with her on her pronunciation of the English lyrics for the album that was already big in France at Telex’s studio in Brussels (“Suite Sixtine,” 1982). We also worked with Les Rita Mitsouko on two songs that Ron wrote, “Singing In The Shower” and “Live In Las Vegas” from their album “Marc & Robert” (1988). And I sang in French on a song called…”
RON: Hip Kit?
RUSSELL: Yeah, “Hip Kit.” We maintained a relationship with them and they’re really cool friends of ours.
JIM: What is Les Rita Mitsouko doing now?
RUSSELL: They’re still doing music. I heard that they have a brand new album that’s supposedly recorded with an orchestra.
RON: Oh, really?
RUSSELL: Yeah, somebody wrote that on our website. I think they’re one of those bands that will always be an institution in France because they’re really well known and people respect them as personalities because they’re real characters. The song “Singing In The Shower” was a big hit and we did a video with them.
RON: They were amazing characters. We actually met them in Los Angeles because they did a show there and in the review of the show in the L.A. Times it mentioned that they were Sparks fans and we hardly ever go to shows but…
RUSSELL: Yeah, that is how we first met them.
RON: We decided to go to their show in Los Angeles and we met them backstage.
RUSSELL: They actually mentioned that the reason they were called Rita Mitsouko is because they liked our album title “Kimono My House,” which is sort of fake Japanese imagery and Rita Mitsouko is another fake Japanese hybrid name.
JIM: Does it ever freak you guys out that people get so into Sparks? When anyone discovers Sparks music it’s hard to not let it totally affect you. Everybody seems to get a lot out of your music.
RUSSELL: It’s interesting, especially who those people are. There’s Rita Mitsouko who are inspired to name their band after a Sparks album and there’s someone like Bjork saying that “Kimono” was the first album that she ever listened to. She said her father had that album and really liked it. It’s kind of neat, the diversity of the people who pick up on it. It’s all over the map. People like Orbital, we just did a track with them, who are from the electronic world and then there’s bands like Faith No More who are from a whole other world. Now there’s Franz Ferdinand. There are lots of different types of bands responding to different periods of our music. It’s inspiring.
JIM: Who was Adrian Munsey?
RUSSELL: He was a real eccentric character who was on Virgin Records and I don’t know what he had done prior to when we worked with him (Sparks produced one single by this artist in 1979). I think he may have been a school teacher or something but I don’t really remember the history of that guy. He was not a musician. He was more like an English gentleman with a suit and tie. I don’t know why Virgin had signed the guy. Maybe he did sort of offbeat poetry or something. At the time we had the “No. 1 In Heaven” album with Virgin and they thought that maybe we could produce him and have Adrian doing some conceptual thing underneath our music track and it would be kind of interesting. He had the concept, I think he wanted to have sheep bleeding on his record, so he went out in a field and recorded sheep sounds and we took them and we added music to it but I can’t even remember the piece of music because it’s been such a long time since I’ve heard it.
JIM: It’s an instrumental.
RON: It’s called “C’est Sheep.”
JIM: That’s the best part, the title!
RON: (Laughs) Yeah!
JIM: That’s an obscure track and I’ve never read anything about it.
RON: We also produced a girl at the time for Virgin, Noel, and I think that’s how the whole Adrian Munsey thing came about.
JIM: Was producing something you were really pursuing at the time?
RUSSELL: I think that it was just that we had a really good relationship with Virgin and they were a really good company. They liked our “No. 1 In Heaven” album and really good things were happening. Noel was actually an L.A. singer that we found and we brought her to Virgin and they gave here a deal via us to produce her. It was a label that was just into projects. It wasn’t that we were into producing as a career move, it was just being active and having fun things to do.
RON: The whole producing thing was hard. At least from my perspective, it’s hard dealing with the personalities and a lot of times the whole psychological aspect of it is kind of difficult. I’m kind of ambivalent about producing people. The whole thing with Bijou and Noel was hard. Even the collaboration with Rita Mitsouko started as “let’s sit down and come up with a track together” and I’ve never really been good at sitting down and co-writing with somebody. In the end, we sent them a couple of songs and they liked them and that turned out to be the writing collaboration and it worked out okay that way. Obviously we went into the studio together and had Russell sing with them and me playing keyboards, but the actual writing and producing collaborations are a little more difficult. There’s a certain temperament that you have to have and it’s difficult to have sometimes.
JIM: I guess it’s hard especially when you are an artist yourself and you’re trying to do your own thing and also trying to help somebody else do their thing.
RON: Yeah. Sometimes you hate to impose your own sensibility on other people. We you’re working with somebody and they have their own musical vision, you have to respect that because that’s what they want to do as a musician. And if your musical area is somewhere different from that, it makes you wonder sometimes what you can even add to that or what you can bring out of that person. That’s why somebody like Tony Visconti is so amazing because he can work with so many different kinds of people and is able to add to what they do in so many different ways. It’s a real talent to do that kind of thing.
(At this point, Russell gets a cell phone call and leaves the room)
JIM: Ron, did you ever meet Paul McCartney before or after he imitated you in his “Coming Up” video (1980) and was seeing that completely surreal for you?
RON: No, I’ve never met him but that was really strange for me. The oddest thing was going into a dry cleaners the day after they showed the “Coming Up” video on “Saturday Night Live” and the guy who was working there said, “hey, I saw you on television last night” and I was like, “oh, yeah”. It was really flattering because it was McCartney and also because of the other people who he had chosen to pay homage to in the video. It was pretty amazing.
JIM: I bet! Over the years, have you met any of the other Beatles? I know Ringo introduced you on a TV show in the 70s with Keith Moon too.
RON: Yeah, I think that was the only Beatle that we ever really met. We never met McCartney or John Lennon. Ringo and Keith Moon, that was unbelievable. It doesn’t get much more dangerous than that!
JIM: OK, while Russell isn’t here, I’ll ask you this and then I’ll ask him when he comes back. What is your favorite Sparks album, your least favorite Sparks album and what do you think is the most underrated or overlooked Sparks album?
RON: Well, my least favorite one is “Terminal Jive” (1980). It came after the “No. 1 In Heaven” album and I really liked that one because it was the first time we worked in a pure electronic way and it was produced by Giorgio Moroder. It was our first time working without a band and neither Giorgio, Russell or myself knew what the final outcome was going to be like. It was one of those albums where the result was a surprise to everybody and it was really inspiring. But for the follow up, which was “Terminal Jive”, Giorgio farmed it out to another producer to do a lot of the work and a lot of the songs and playing were generic and less stylized and it seemed like it didn’t have any real personality to it. That’s definitely my least favorite album of all our albums.
JIM: Great album cover though!
RON: I’ll take the cover! It’s so hard to choose my favorite one. I mean, everybody always says the latest one is their favorite, but “Lil’ Beethoven” is really something special for us. For our nineteenth album, we did something musically special after having done so many other things. It was very important for us.
JIM: To me, “Lil’ Beethoven” is reminiscent of “No. 1 In Heaven” because it’s something completely different again.
RON: Yeah, you can’t really plan that too much. It holds together like one whole album and not separate pieces put together. I think I’m proudest of that album just because we were able to do something challenging after having done so many other albums. To me, that’s some kind of achievement. And the “Indiscreet” album isn’t really overlooked or underrated, but of the three Island ones, some people said it was self-indulgent. We were just trying to expand on what we could do with the band and elaborate. So I think that album gets overlooked amongst “Kimono My House” and “Propaganda.” It’s not really obscure for people that know about Sparks, but I think it should get more credit.
(Russell returns and is asked the same question)
RUSSELL: My favorite, and Ron probably said the same thing, would have to be “Lil’ Beethoven” because I’m just proud of it and actually for a bunch of other reasons. Maybe because it’s come at this point in our career where there hasn’t been a recent hit single and we haven’t been that visible. In 1994 and 1995 when “Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins” was out and “When Do I Get To Sing My Way” was a really big hit in Germany, we were well known in Europe and there was a lot of activity. But since that point, a lot of people don’t know what we’ve been doing. To come back with an album like “Lil’ Beethoven,” which is kind of unexpected in its whole approach and having it be so critically well received, you have to be proud of it because you took a real gamble. Sometimes you think maybe you’re just going off the deep end and creating something that no one’s going to get into or it’s just the wrong move. But in the end it turned into something that you’re really proud of for taking a chance. The unfortunate thing was that it didn’t have a hit single and we made the same amount of effort. Maybe that answers the other question that I think it’s also the most overlooked album because despite its critical success, the masses aren’t aware of the album. And my least favorite is, and probably Ron said the same one again, “Terminal Jive.” Sorry it’s the same answer but “No. 1 In Heaven” with Giorgio was so focused and it turned out so special. To his credit we continued our relationship for six albums with his production company and that’s probably a longer relationship with any single entity that we ever worked with. But for the “Terminal Jive” album, he had one of his producer buddies, Harold Faltermeyer, get involved. I think Harold’s sensibility was not as eccentric and didn’t bring out the quirky elements that we have. Even if we are trying to do songs that are more accessible to people, I think they can be done in a way that the recordings are more unusual or special. Harold has a more commercial streak but the sound was not very cool. The irony of it is, that album has “When I’m With You” on it which was probably our biggest selling hit single of all-time so there was something to his quest of trying to find our most commercial thing. So we don’t really know if Ron just came up with a really good song and it would’ve worked with whoever produced it, or if Harold actually added something to it or which was the result of which. But whatever it was it was a really big hit single in certain parts of the world and especially in France. So even though that album I’m not too fond of, it had a song that became a household item in France for a long time. And that video too was very well known in France and we spent about a year in Paris and little old housewives were coming up to us and going, “ooh, it’s the puppet man!”
JIM: I think the “When Do I Get To Sing My Way” video is my favorite.
RUSSELL: I think that’s our favorite video too. We really like the director, Sophie Muller, she’s great. She did a great job of recreating that style of old movie trailers.
JIM: There’s a new live DVD coming out later this year (recorded and filmed live in Sweden) and I know there’s also a “Live In London” DVD available, but have you ever thought of doing a live album at any point?
RUSSELL: Well there was talk of releasing the “Live In London” concert from the “Balls” tour (2000) as a CD too but we thought if people already had the DVD it was kind of a cheat. But no, we’ve never actually recorded a live album. There’s nothing in the can.
JIM: Are you guys ready for ‘Sparks 20,’ the next album?
RUSSELL: We’re working on it. It’s coming along. After doing an album like “Lil’ Beethoven” that’s so eccentric and unique, we feel we have to keep upping the ante and have it be as striking as that was without repeating ourselves. We’re trying to find a balance and continue exploring that direction but also trying to find some new angles.
JIM: Since you now have your own studio, does it help you to be able to write and record and then just throw out what you don’t like? Do you throw out a lot of songs?
RUSSELL: In the past, Ron would mostly write stuff at his place and not even be around the studio and then bring it in and we’d start working it up. But since “Lil’ Beethoven” we’ve been trying to work more in a way of just going to our studio and Ron starts winging it and I sit at the console waiting for something to happen and then we start piecing stuff together. So working in that way, there’s a lot of stuff that gets scrapped along the way. Or songs that start off in one direction and end up in another direction. So there may be a version of the genesis of one song but it doesn’t even exist anymore like the way it originally sounded.