Fun Fun Fun Fest Interview: Sparks

A two-man show promises to get bigger and better

Fun Fun Fun Fest Interview: Sparks

Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell Mael launched the pioneering Sparks in 1971 with an impish, sometimes bizarre sense of humor and an arty power pop sound defiantly outside the norms of early Seventies rock.

Over the ensuing four decades, the band – the size of which varied, but always revolved around singer Russell and his keyboardist/songwriting brother – moved through iterations of glam, New Wave, synth pop, and art rock, often years before the rock world did the same. You can hear the band develop what would later be called New Wave as early as 1974’s Propaganda and invent the idiom of Erasure and its fellow travelers on late-Seventies Giorgio Moroder collaborations No. 1 in Heaven and Terminal Jive.

Sparks’ most recent work – the cheeky, classically-inclined pop of Lil Beethoven (2002) and Hello Young Lovers (2006), plus the expansive conceptual theater piece The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009) – continues pushing the envelope into realms that the rest of the musical universe hasn’t quite caught up with yet.

The band scored hits and huge audiences in Europe with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us,” “Amateur Hour,” “The Number One Song in Heaven,” and “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’,” but never quite hit the big time in its own country. The closest Sparks ever came was frothy Top 50 single “Cool Places,” which featured Russell duetting with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin.

That hasn’t stopped the Maels from bringing the Two Hands One Mouth tour to America, stopping at Fun Fun Fun Fest on Saturday (Yellow stage, 7:30pm) for a rare Texas performance. The band’s also prepping the 4-CD collection New Music For Amnesiacs: The Ultimate Collection. Russell Mael was reached by phone at his home in L.A.

Austin Chronicle: Have y’all ever played Austin before?

Russell Mael: I think the only time we did something was.... There was one period where we did a show with the Go-Go’s, and it might have been in Austin. But we’ve certainly never done a stand-alone – well, this is not a stand-alone show, part of a festival – but, yeah, that was the only other time, I believe.

AC: Two Hands One Mouth is pretty stripped down – just the two of you. Do you find it a challenge to present that kind of show to a festival audience?

RM: We’ve played several festivals now. We played Coachella this year and Fuji Rock in Japan, and it’s gone down really well. We like putting ourselves and putting our audience in situations where things are hopefully not fitting in with everything else that’s surrounding it. To fit in seems like it’s the absolute kiss of death to us. That’s what’s going on now, is everybody fitting in nicely, you know? And it makes for a homogenous sort of predictability and a blandness to things.

When something does pop out and goes against the grain, I think it’s an asset. It’s a positive thing. And sure, you’ll have people that maybe won’t understand it because it’s not fitting in with what’s expected of a festival situation, but we win converts to the Sparks cause by doing things that are really special and unique.

Worrying about things like whether or not it fits in with a festival crowd: that’s not the responsibility of the band. We present what we think is interesting, and whoever wants to come for the ride with us, we’re welcoming them with open arms.

AC: Is it easier to come up with a set-list in America where you don’t have to rely so much on the hits, which you’ve had to do in Europe?

RM: I suppose in a certain sense it is. We’ve also found out that in this format we can present songs that aren’t necessarily the better-known songs. We can kinda dig into the more catalog songs of ours that people maybe aren’t as familiar with. And doing them in this format, we find that people are coming away saying, “Ooh, what’s that song? Is that a new song?” The presentation of how we do it in this form is so different that it sounds fresh. It’s a completely different arrangement.

I think that it’s working well, that we can do the more known songs, but then we’ve been trying to push things and do songs that maybe aren’t the predictable ones. Especially on this leg of the tour. This is the Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth, so it’s the second and final phase of touring this kind of configuration. To make things even more difficult for ourselves, we decided we’d do 15 or 16 songs that we didn’t do on the first go-round of the Two Hands One Mouth tour.

AC: And of course when you’ve got 40 years’ worth of catalog, it’s easy to...

RM: Well, there’s a lot to choose from. It’s not so easy, but there’s a lot of choices. The process is a lot of trial and error and just seeing what works. And a lot of it is on Ron’s shoulders because he has to replace an entire band or an entire orchestra or an entire whatever with one keyboard. We wanted it to still have all of the energy and excitement and power of Sparks recordings, but we had to figure out a way of doing that with just the two of us. We think it’s been successful so far.

AC: I was looking at some of the performances on YouTube and it works. It’s not just some sort of mellow An Evening With Sparks.

RM: No, no. We had some people say, “Oh, so it’s an acoustic concert,” and we said, “No, it’s not acoustic. Ron’s very much plugged in to the AC power.” And you know, it’s loud, and it’s dynamic and all of that sort of thing. And the singing, too. It’s more exposed in this format, so it also has to be strong and dynamic. And it’s worked out well, because I think people also are now able to better focus on hearing things that sometimes get buried in our recordings. Like the lyrics of the songs are now thrust to the forefront, so that you, the listener, can really hear that, because they’re right out front now. It helps point out more of Ron’s songwriting talents and it brings to the forefront other elements that we think make it interesting.

AC: What were the toughest songs to rearrange? I’m looking at one set-list and “No. 1 in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock” seem like they’d be challenging.

RM: Those are two we’ve done a little more electronic-y than the other songs, and those ones have a sort of a different quality to them, so yeah, it’s just finding ways to do them. Those two rely on a lot of electronics, so they’re a different case than probably the rest of the set, which is less relying on electronic arrangements. They all present their own little challenges in a certain way, and we just dug in, and spent a lot of time rehearsing, and arranging, and rearranging, until we were happy with the way things came out in this format.

AC: You’ve got the box set coming out and you’ve been doing Two Hands One Mouth for a while...

RM: A year ago in October we did the first European part, so it’s been a year. This portion in America is mainly cities we didn’t do on the first go-round, with the exception of New York and Los Angeles, which we’re playing again. It’s mostly dates more towards the East Coast, except for Texas, obviously. And then we’re going back to Europe to do some cities that we hadn’t done on the first go-round.

AC: Are you enjoying this trip through your past, or are you ready to get back to making new music?

RM: Well, we actually are making new music. I mean, we’re excited to move on. This phase of the tour ends in the middle of December in Europe, so we’re excited to move on. We’re well into a new sort of conceptual narrative piece that’s gonna be our thrust for next year. Without giving too many specifics, it’s a narrative, and we’re gonna be touring with it, too, at some point, probably later in the year. Plus it’s a big undertaking and it’s something that we’re really excited about, and it’s definitely moving on from this era.

AC: I was going to ask if the next project was as ambitious as The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and it sounds like it is.

RM: Yeah, it is. It really is. That actually is a lot of the impetus for wanting to try another project, not like that, but in the idea that it’s conceptual and a narrative, because that was so exciting for us, that project. That project – it’s still ongoing. We now have plans for it to be a feature film. Ron and I went to the Cannes Film Festival this year, and attracted a bunch of production companies that are now on board in pre-production for it, with Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director, directing it.

So at some point, hopefully during the first half of next year, it’ll be shot. In other words, that’s an ongoing thing that’s been happening that the public isn’t seeing the results of it just yet. But they will. The idea of doing something kind of big and conceptual is really appealing to us, so this next album and project is gonna be bigger and better.

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Sparks, Fun Fun Fun Fest 2013, Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Go-Go’s, Jane Wiedlin, Guy Maddin, Giorgio Moroder

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