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Sparks: People think we're weird. We’ve never felt that

Sparks are both more acclaimed and more popular than they’ve ever been. They explain how they've done it all while "not fitting in with the general drift".

Sparks: Russell and Ron Mael

Sparks: Russell and Ron Mael. Photo: Munachi Osegbu

Sparks have never done anything the easy, obvious, or conventional way. And now, 50-plus years into a career that’s unsurpassed in variety and oddity, they’ve pulled off another triumphant curveball. The Maels – singer Russell (singular style, fantastic hair) and older brother Ron (keyboard player, principal songwriter, striking moustache) – are in the middle of an extraordinary, extremely late late-career renaissance. With two nights upcoming at the Royal Albert Hall plus a slot at Glastonbury; rock, pop, film and telly stars lining up to praise them; Hollywood royalty starring in their music videos; and a César award in their back pocket for the film musical Annette, the septuagenarian pair are both more acclaimed and more popular than they’ve ever been.

Long “your favourite band’s favourite band”, the Maels’ recent career supernova has been fuelled in large part by Edgar Wright’s charming and surprisingly moving documentary, The Sparks Brothers. It exposed a huge new audience to the band’s relentless creativity.

Being in Sparks has changed “in a bunch of different ways” since the film, Ron says. Aside from playing the biggest venues of their career on their upcoming tour, they’d no idea the depth or breadth of love there was out there for them. Surprise super fans from Wright’s “excellent Rolodex” included author Neil Gaiman, Austin Powers star Mike Myers and Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea. “He was so eloquent about expressing what he felt about our band,” Ron says of the bassist, “it brought tears to our eyes.”

A less energetic duo might react by recycling some of the 76 singles they already had (including epic hits This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us and No.1 Song in Heaven) and go on the nostalgia circuit. Not Sparks.

“At this point, we really feel more urgent than ever,” says Russell. “We’re even more motivated to prove a point: that you don’t have to fall into the trap of relying on your past. What you’re doing now has got to be compelling and modern and forward-thinking and all that kind of stuff. And if it isn’t, then there’s no reason to even be doing it.”

And so, The Big Issue finds ourselves on the line to Los Angeles, where Russell and Ron are in their respective art-bedecked living rooms, to talk about The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte – their brand new album of mind-fizzing outsider pop. “We really have confidence in this album being as strong as anything that we’ve ever done,” says Ron.

Fans have already had a few hints at the variety of the record. There’s brand new rock-forward single Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is; Veronica Lake, a tribute to the actress and femme fatale with the peek-a-boo hair; and the album’s pounding title track – which went viral thanks to a captivatingly eccentric performance by a yellow-suited Cate Blanchett.

Sparks
Sparks. Photo: Munachi Osegbu

The video collaboration with the Australian actor started backstage at the Césars in 2022, says Russell. “There’s a knock on the door and in comes a woman looking an awful lot like Cate Blanchett,” he recalls. “Then she said ‘Hi, I’m Cate’. I thought, ‘Oh my god, it is Cate Blanchett! Maybe she’s in the wrong dressing room or something’. But she just came to introduce herself and said that she was a fan of the band. It was pretty mind blowing to both of us.”

They all swapped numbers, and the incident was added to the long list of weird and wonderful encounters that make up life in Sparks. But when the new single came around, they thought back. “When it came time to do a video… we said – ‘Cate Blanchett?’” Russell continues. “And it was like, ‘haha, yeah, right’. But I sent her a note and the song, and she said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this. I love this song.’”

At the hastily-arranged L.A. shoot, the band simply told Blanchett, “do whatever you want to do”. The result is the best bit of full-tilt music video dancing since Christopher Walken revealed his musical theatre chops for Fatboy Slim. “That’s what she felt about this song,” says Russell. “She said when she first heard it she was crying and laughing simultaneously. That’s a really good reaction to us because the song elicits different kinds of emotions, I think. She really connected with that. And that little persona that she adopted in her dance was something completely unexpected, but very welcome.”

“It turned out, she’s actually just a human being,” Ron continues. “Which sounds like: well, that should be what everybody is. But they aren’t. Certain celebrity types are harder to connect with, but with her, there was some kind of immediate connection.

“I mean, obviously, she’s got his amazing presence. So you’re kind of sitting there staring at her. But at the same time, she is so warm as a person and genuinely interested and excited about everything we’re doing. So it was intimidating on one hand, but then on the other hand, because of her personality, very comfortable at the same time.”

Now is a great time to be Sparks, then. But it’s not always been so easy. In Wright’s documentary, Christi Haydon, who was the drummer in Sparks at that time, is moved to tears talking about how, when the band fell out of favour, they just kept working regardless, turning up every day and treating Sparks as a full-time job. Todd Rundgren (the pioneering musician and producer who Ron and Russell have credited with launching their career) added he was comforted that “something this weird can survive”.

Why did they keep going? “I mean, on a very basic level, we didn’t have a whole lot of other options of career choices,” Ron deadpans. “So, you know, just in a practical sense, this is what we do. But, we’ve always felt – through those times, and then times when things seem to be going better – just a passion for what we’re doing. We always feel that what we’re doing is something both musically strong, and unlike a lot of other things that are going on at the time.

“Not fitting in with the general drift sometimes can cause perception problems, because people think that you’re weird or whatever. We’ve never felt that. We feel that our music and our presentation is interesting, but it’s not trying to be quirky or oddball and all.”

Their work ethic inexorable, they’re still recording challenging new sounds every day, sitting side by side in their home studio. Before The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, Russell joked that “with advances in medical technology” there could be 200 more Sparks albums to come. One down, is he still hopeful we’ll get the other 199? He grins, “Maybe so, yeah.”

The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte by Sparks is out on May 26 (Island).

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