It’s safe to say that in today’s major-label climate, a band like Sparks just wouldn’t exist.
Brothers Russell and Ron Mael (a.k.a. Sparks) were glam before glam was even thought of (nearly 40 years ago). When the style finally came into favor in the late ’70s, the Maels were already ironically turning it on its ear, deconstructing its pop elements and infusing them with classical song structures and time signatures, all while staging theatrical live shows—and somehow winning the favor of Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and rock god Todd Rundgren along the way. When Sparks decided the “band” format had run its course (as early as the mid-’80s), they traded in their drummer and bassist for synths and electronic toys, and, with the help of Giorgio Moroder, took the dance-pop world by storm.
Meanwhile, in mid-’80s Liverpool, a young buck with an equally vibrant flair for the theatrical took notice of Sparks’ moves. He turned into Pop Levi, a hippie-glam-lovin’ indie-rock star, and, like Sparks, has made making and appearing in films and videos as much a part of his art as his abstract, lyrical pop. This past January, we got Pop on the horn with Russell Mael; they chatted about Sparks’ ridiculously prolific career, and how the band has managed to keep it going strong 40 years later.
Pop Levi: I was excited to talk to you because about three weeks ago, the head of my label just coincidentally turned me onto what's become my favorite song of yours, "No. 1 Song In Heaven," and I got into the video on YouTube—and I just started watching loads of your videos. My favorite is the video which you allegedly made for 50 pence on [British TV show] TV-am, “Change.” I wanted to know, at the time did you have any inkling that that would emerge to be as proper a video, at least in terms of what would come to be known as the internet, as any of the other videos you've made?
Russell Mael: No, not at all. We just did it because we didn't have a record label that saw the need to invest in doing a video at the time, so it was just done out of desperation that we were put on a television show with unequal footing with everybody else, where everybody else had something tangible to show of a performance to show of their latest song and we didn't have one. So we just said, 'Well, we'll create our own video just for that television show right on the spot.’
That's amazing, because 24 years later, I'm watching it and it's a genuine video in every way possible. It's brilliant.
[laughs] Yeah, that's funny. Well, we never thought any more or less of it at the time. It was done out of desperation, as a lot of our stuff is.
How old were you the first time you performed with your brother, Ron, and when did you first realize there was that chemistry between you that would end up doing things like that?
We were doing stuff together when we both went to UCLA, so that was in our late teens.
This was in the ’60s in L.A.?
Yeah, well, late ’60s.
Do you have a favorite musical memory of Los Angeles in the ’60s? Who blew your mind the most of anybody that you saw?
Well, we'd go to see lots of English bands that would come to L.A.… people like The Who and The Stones. We saw The Beatles, even, on two occasions.
Wow, where did you see The Beatles?
We had a kind mother that drove her little boys to the Hollywood Bowl to see them.
And how soon after those days did you begin putting your own records out? How did the Halfnelson sessions begin [Sparks’ first incarnation]?
We were just in a group together at the time when we were both at UCLA and then we joined up another guy—a guitarist—that also had similar sensibility to us named Earle Mankey, and we would record all the time. He was good at the technical side of stuff and wanted to experiment—you know, slowing down tapes and speeding up tapes and playing things backwards and all that stuff—but on a really primitive two-track recorder. And we would bounce things back and forth between two recorders; he was real creative in that sort of way. So it was just the three of us.
That's interesting because the first recordings I made were on a Fostex four-track from the mid-’80s, and I was immediately into playing things backwards and taking them out and splicing bits and getting all sorts of things out of that. I'm into that kind of D.I.Y approach.
Yeah, it forces you to do things that are interesting just because of the limitations that you have, so we kind of had a real primitive set-up. It gave a real atmosphere to what we were doing. We made tapes and every record company turned down what we were doing and finally we gave one to Todd Rundgren. He was the only person that responded to what we were doing and he signed the band to his label and produced our first album.
Was that still under the name Halfnelson?
Yeah, that was still Halfnelson. It's the same album that was then repackaged as Sparks.
When was the last time you listened to that record?
Not that long ago, because this past summer, we performed all 21 of our albums in concert, so we were actually forced to go back and listen to everything that we've ever done.
What was your favorite album to replay live?
A lot of them were really fun to rediscover. That album was really fun just because it was done so long ago and we hadn't really gone back and listened to it… So it was kind of fun to do albums like that where we wanted to be really faithful to them when we did these 21 nights in London. So an album like that that was not a “live” kind of band sound was really interesting for us to try and recreate, because we didn't want to update it—we wanted to be faithful to the original recordings.
Is it true that Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, turned you onto Todd Rundgren, or is it the other way around?
No, we approached Todd on our own and then Albert Grossman was the head of Todd's label. So once Todd consented to sign the band, he probably ran it past Albert Grossman, too. Then once we were with the label, we met Albert Grossman at that point, who liked the band a lot. But it was kind of done via Todd.
I'm a fan of Albert Grossman.
Yeah, we were really happy that he could find something special in what we were doing, and we were obviously so different from anything else that he had been working with. To have been able to appreciate Bob Dylan but then to also appreciate Sparks in its infancy is a pretty big stretch, so we have to hand it to someone like him for being supportive of what we were doing.
I wanted to know about your move from L.A. to London in '73 because about four years ago, I moved from Liverpool to L.A. in a kind of reverse move, which I would imagine would not be dissimilar in an opposite way. What was the biggest influence that England had on you and Sparks' music?
We had played once with that original band for one tour and the reaction to what we were doing was so much greater [in the U.K.] than it was here in L.A. We had been given this offer to go back to England and actually relocate Ron and myself and to reform our band and to try and make a go of it in England, and we signed with Island Records at the time.
Was that with Chris Blackwell?
Yeah, Chris Blackwell actually was responsible for us being there, so for us it was a real dream come true because we were such Anglophiles. We felt like we were not really a part of the L.A. scene even though we were born in L.A.
A move can really inspire things.
Yeah, you've got to make it work in some kind of way, and that's probably your feeling as well. You don't want to be here as a tourist; you want to do what you do.
And where did you live?
We lived in sort of the Kensington area of London.
Did the label put you up well?
Yeah, they were supportive of us because they really thought there was something there, so that made it a better experience for us because things had changed so much with relationships with labels in general now. Having that kind of support where a company would say, 'Come to England and we have confidence in what you're doing,' that kind of thing is rarer and rarer now. We have to hand it to Chris Blackwell for seeing something again in what we were doing and seeing it through and helping to ensure that it would work.
I read that in 1980 you again relocated for a year to France, and I want to know what you were doing there.
We had a song that was a really big hit there so it was fortuitous for us not only to have a big hit there, but we also liked France a lot. It wasn't like it was a torturous situation to have to be obligated to stay there. The record was so successful we ended up doing TV shows and promotional things for almost an entire year.
I have a few questions about filmmaking, what you know about it, and your own films and films you've been in. Because, last year I was in this documentary made in this style called “soul film,” which is all shot point-and-shoot cameras and phones. We showed it at a silent movie theater here. I wanted to know, what your experience when you made Roller Coaster?
That thing is not something we're amazingly proud of—the film has sort of been haunting us forever. They were hoping it would be the next Jaws. It was the same company that put out Jaws so they were hoping they had another massive hit on their hands. It was successful, but not nearly the type of film Jaws was.
I haven't seen it actually.
It's got a lot of big stars: Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and George Segal. It was just something we were offered to be in. We really like films a lot so we're hoping to be able to do a movie-musical at some point of something we've been working on for a long time. We're hoping to somehow make it see the light of day at some point.
Are you quite involved in the direction of the subject matter or the way that you're videos are filmed?
Yeah, for the most part. We have real strong views on what the stuff should be like and so we've been fortunate to find directors that also like what we are doing and like our ideas, too. And, obviously, if somebody has really good input we listen to it as well, so it just really depends.
I was watching, like I said earlier on, the video for "No. 1 Song in Heaven" and I guess I'd like to know about your relationship to Giorgio Moroder and Telex, what you felt about that time, and how it affected you and Sparks and the general outlook on your music.
We had quite a few albums out when we lived in England. There were three albums and there were two albums before that and so we had five albums... let's see, actually one more... six albums at the time, and so we just always wanted to try to find new context to put into what we were doing. We thought that just working in the traditional band format, we'd kind of run the course of what we could do at that time. So we were really trying to figure out an angle on how to utilize Ron's songwriting and his lyrics with my voice, but to put it in a different context. We really thought "I Feel Love," the Donna Summer song, was just a really special song when we heard that. We were curious to see, you know, wondering what it would be like if we did a whole project where we were using a real electronic background, but coming from a band sensibility. So we contacted Giorgio Moroder and he was aware of stuff that we had done before because of the European success that we had. So he was also up for the challenge of working with the band, because he had never worked with a band before and even though then we were just two people, he was up for the challenge of working in a different way. So the three of us started that album not knowing exactly where it was gonna lead to, but we all kind of went at it with a naïve and fresh spirit. It really turned out to be something special because at that time there really weren't bands who were working in an electronic or more dancey kind of format. There was people like Kraftwerk and stuff, but that was less of a band kind of sensibility—it was really a different kind of approach. With that album, we didn't know what it was when we had finished, but as it turned out, it was really a successful album in England and really influential in a lot of ways because it opened up other bands' ideas of what you can do—you know, that a duo can now be a band now. A band didn't necessarily have to be five people with guitars, bass, and drums. You can be a band just by doing stuff in a studio with electronics. And also it kind of opened up a lot of ways of rethinking of what a band constituted.
Did you have any connection between electronic music and Japanese culture in any of your music? I'm really interested to know about Mai, the Psychic Girl.
That's a project that we had been working on for quite awhile. That was, and hopefully still will be at some point, a movie-musical. That was based on a Japanese manga series that was from the ’80s. It's a project that's been on-going since then and we're hoping at some point it'll see the light of day. But we really like a lot about Japan, and coincidentally the setting of that film happens to be a Japanese setting. We had worked on it with a screenwriter who co-wrote and co-produced Beetlejuice and then he brought the project to us and wanted us to see if we'd be interested in adapting it.
Did it have all-original music?
And you started in the late ’80s on the music?
Yeah, we did. It wasn't a musical project in its original format at all. This screenwriter had the idea that it could be made into a really modern forward-thinking musical. He was a fan of Sparks and so we worked on that project for a number of years. It's been through about 20 billion different permutations and different companies and different directors. It's still kind of lingering there and we're hoping it's gonna happen at some point.
How do Sparks decide on cover art?
Ron was in graphic-design training at UCLA and so he's a big fan of album artwork. We just think that album covers are really an important thing. Less and less so now, unfortunately, but throughout our career for us it's been an important thing because it really sets a tone and conveys another side. Hopefully it adds to what you've done musically and brings out another way for people to get an idea of an image and everything you're trying to convey. Unfortunately, with CDs, it shrinks down the size of the image so you can barely see anything, and now where CDs are becoming less relevant.
Yeah, we're looking at thumbnails now.
Do you put all your records out now on vinyl?
Most of them have been out on vinyl.
It's nice to have them on vinyl. I make sure they put my records out on vinyl to at least hold it like they used to. I don't know if that'll mean anything to my grandchildren, but they’re tangible things you can fall in love with.
I totally agree. There's a little bit of an upswing in vinyl again, which is a good sign. I don't know how big it will get but at least it's a good sign that some people are starting to buy turntables again and seeking out vinyl.
Do you have a favorite album cover of yours?
There's a lot of them that I like. I like Kimono My House just because it was sort of mysterious. It just has these two women dressed in traditional Japanese garb.
Yeah, I love it. I love the back of it as well.
Yeah, and the good thing, also, was that the label had confidence that it was just going to break through, and we said we didn't want to have any type on the front —not even saying who the band was. They went along with that, and now, to try and get things like that passed through any kind of committee, if you're with a major label or something, it's impossible. So, at that time, though, they could see that it was something that was really adding to the band's mystique and everything by just not making it so obvious and blatant and not having a title on the front cover and not having the name of the band on the front cover. We really have to hand it to them for allowing us to do things like that.
I'd like to know, what have you gained and what have you lost through a life in music?
I don't know; I think it's only gains. I can't think of anything that's been lost.
That's super-positive man—I like that.
Yeah, you never have to get old, in a certain way. You can be perpetually—at least in your own head—useful because of what you're doing. You're doing it, at least from our perspective… From our standpoint—I think my brother would say the same thing—we haven't lost anything by doing it. We think it's only been positive.
In the beginning did you find it hard for people to understand where you were coming from with the use of different musical and visual styles?
It's still that way. There's a real hardcore following for what we're doing, but it's still 21 albums into it and you still have some people not getting what you're doing and thinking it's kind of “on the fringe”-type of music and all. We don't see it in those terms, and there's always that thing going on where I don't think it'll ever end. You're always trying to convince people and you get skeptics along the way.
Do you have a favorite Sparks' a-side and b-side that you can recall? Let's say an a-side that you're most proud of and a b-side that you're just most happy with?
We did a song in the mid-’90s and it was a huge hit in Germany. It's called "When Do I Get to Sing My Way?" For us, it was really satisfying, because we had had big success in Europe—especially in England—in the ’70s, and in L.A. we had a huge amount of success in the ’80s, and they were mutually exclusive of each other. So in the ’90s, this was yet another decade on, we had this song that was this really huge hit and it really reached a new, young audience in Germany that was never aware of the band. We had kind of a cult following there but we never had a big hit song, so this was like a number one song there and it lasted for almost a year. So, for us, that was really satisfying after having the 17th album we had worked on, to be able to have really young kids coming out to see the band and almost reacting to the band in the same way we had this really youthful following when we first started in England, too. To see that kind of following happening 20 years later was something that was really satisfying.
What kind of music were those kids listening to? What were they linking you to?
Well, I don't know. That song has some danceable elements to it, but it's also really melodic, too. It has a really melodic, almost kind of a minor-key chorus to it and it's got a pretty poignant lyric to it, so I think it was just a combination of all those things. Plus, we had a video for it that was really successful with MTV and I think the video had a real appeal to young people. It was done by a director named Sophie Muller, who's an English director. She's done tons of really good videos. She wanted to work with us so I think that also just was a big factor in reaching this new audience who now thought that Sparks was this brand-new band—and in fact we had 17 albums out.
Do you listen to brand new bands now?
I try to listen to stuff. It's harder and harder to find...
What contemporary music is really blowing your mind?
It's hard to think of the last time something blew my mind [laughs]. Stuff just tends to sound very predictable… predictable or recycling of something that's been done before it, and it's unfortunate. Both of us try really hard to want to find something where we can go, “Oh my god—this is amazing,” but it's harder and harder to find stuff that you really get inspired by the same way you got inspired by stuff in earlier times when we were first starting out.
Do you have any plans for the next Sparks album? Do you know what it's going to be called?
No, we're still doing stuff with this album. We spent so much time this last year working on these 21 nights in London and all that kind of stuff, so we are still just doing more concerts based on this album. We're going to be playing Royce Hall at UCLA on Valentine's Day and we're going to be doing the new album in its entirety and then actually doing Kimono My House as the second half of the show. So that's a really big show for us here. We're going back to England to do the same thing there again in March.
Does it still give you a buzz going to England?
Yeah, it's always been good because it's the first place that ever accepted Sparks in a really big way and so now it's really amazing to go back this much later and still have this audience that's really fervent about what we do. We really are grateful that a lot of people have stuck with the band for a long time.
Pop Levi's Single Sided Sparks Mixtape
“Well, I always felt that I had quite a gift as a judge of human character...” One of the most crucial opening lines. And the extended vocals at the end—never heard anything quite like it.
2. “No. 1 Song in Heaven”
I got into this through the video—there are three Rons! Check it out. The song is some kind of electro-spirit dance-rock.
3. “Beat the Clock”
Very, very, very, very catchy. Love it like a child’s rhyme. I first heard this song on a covers compilation called Stars on 45, not by Sparks. And then I heard the original... both are gold.
4. “Get in the Swing”
This is truly weird. Genius. Makes me think of Kurt Weill, Snow White, Bandstand, and a kind of pop music that doesn’t really exist.
5. “Big Boy”
From the Big Beat LP—I love, love, love the drum sound on this... then the best guitar splattering ever!