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Review: 1 Nov. 2002 The Guardian
THE GUARDIAN
Home entertainment

Sparks

Interview by Will Hodgkinson
Friday November 1, 2002


"This is our selection," says Ron Mael, the pencil-moustachioed half of Sparks, gesturing to an empty CD rack. "This is what we were listening to when we made the record."

He's referring to Lil' Beethoven, Ron and Russell Mael's 19th album, which sounds, quite frankly, like nothing else at all. The brothers have written pop songs about banal things - being put on hold, why ugly guys get beautiful girls - and turned them into Wagnerian, hysterical epics that elevate their subjects into something way beyond their actual importance. Strings and choruses take the place of guitars, drums and all the other elements that usually give rock music its power. "We made the album in a vacuum," explains Russell. "We keep buying new albums so we kinda know that most of the stuff coming out is tried and tested - within the first four bars you can tell where it's coming from. 'Ah-ha, it's singer- songwriter, ah-ha, it's indie.' So we spent a year in the studio, figuring out a way of making pop songs without using any of the usual pop conventions."

Sparks' classical flourishes might suggest the work of highly trained musicians turning their hands to pop music, but the opposite is the case. Ron only started listening to classical music after people kept telling him that Sparks sounded as if they were influenced by it ("I like Strauss's operas because it's all women's voices; I like opera that's hysterical"), while Russell only ever hears classical if Ron plays it to him. The brothers, who still live in their hometown of LA, received their musical education through rock'n'roll.

"Our father bought us Hound Dog by Elvis and Long Tall Sally by Little Richard, so those were the first records we owned," says Ron. "I don't know what his inspiration was for doing that...They weren't the kind of records you usually bought as educational tools for your child."

The Maels were teenagers during LA's musical golden period, where bands like the Doors, Love, the Standells and the Leaves played at the Whisky-a-Go-Go on Sunset Strip and the Beach Boys would play at the Teenage Fair, an afternoon event where bands performed in one tent and an exhibition for a new line of hipster jeans filled another. Folk music was also big at the time, but it held little sway with the brothers.

"We detested folk music because it was cerebral and sedate and we had no time for that," says Ron. "But the Byrds were OK because they electrified it and they had English hairstyles."

As soon as the brothers started fending for themselves, they developed an anglophile obsession that is still with them. They recently bought a nine-DVD box set featuring all of the 60s bands' performances on the Ed Sullivan show, and they can't find anything to match it. "Sullivan goes, 'Heeere they are, the Rolling Stones!' and there's Brian Jones looking so cool playing the sitar," says Russell, getting excited at the thought of it. "Then you see Brian Wilson in his last performance before his nervous breakdown, and James Brown, the Temptations..."

The Maels love the rash of teenage bands that sprang up across the States in the mid-60s, copying the Rolling Stones in the hope of getting girlfriends. "We've got the Nuggets box sets of CDs, which have got all those great bands like the Seeds and the Music Machine, who usually only ever had one hit. We were at the Q awards when the DJ played Liar Liar by the Castaways. We stared at each other and said: 'Here are a bunch of teenagers making such a good song.' "

While Russell gets depressed by the fact that his car stereo is always tuned to the oldies station, he does admit a fondness for Eminem. "The Eminem Show is the only new album I really like," he says. "It's rich and dense, and it sounds modern, whereas most bands these days try to sound like the Stooges or the New York Dolls. It's certainly its own thing."

The Maels also like Morrissey. Now holed up in an LA mansion, Morrissey regularly sends them arch handwritten faxes and occasionally drops by the studio. "He [Ron] played him our new album and he liked it," says Russell. "He's one of the few musicians we have contact with, and we admire what he's done. He's succeeded in creating his own persona without having to copy anyone, and he's stuck with it."

They're also friends and fans of Les Rita Mitsouko, the French husband and wife pop duo who shocked France with their wild living and porn star past. "We wrote a couple of songs for them and they're amazing personalities," says Ron. "One time we were with Katrina when someone came up and asked her for an autograph. She punched them. They're loose cannons, and despite our differences in lifestyles, we get along with them. It takes a lot of guts to tell them not to smoke in the studio, but we think they're great."

Review: Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Sparks still fly for duo
By David Smyth
GIG REVIEW: Sparks at the Royal Festival Hall, 19/10/02

With Queen already established in the West End, and efforts by Madness and Rod Stewart soon to come, it is surely only a matter of time before someone comes up with a musical based on the songs of Sparks. The music of the electro-pop duo from Los Angeles is loaded with camp theatrics and catchy tunes, and there's a back catalogue of 19 mad, hilarious albums to choose from.

On the other hand, no one could stage their songs better than brothers Ron and Russell Mael themselves. For this one-off show, they performed a track-by-track rendition of new album Lil' Beethoven (following Brian Wilson's faithful live version of Pet Sounds and David Bowie's of Low and Heathen at the same venue this year) and kept things interesting for those unfamiliar with the new songs by using frequently hilarious costumes and visuals.

While Russell did most of the singing in his high-pitched American drawl, keyboard wizard Ron was the stooge of the songs. With his pencil moustache, slick hair and thick glasses, he looks, as he always did, like a man you would do anything to avoid sitting next to on the bus. He willingly allowed himself to look even more ridiculous in the first half, playing the piano with hugely elongated plastic arms for the corny How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall? (answer: "Practice, man, practice!"). He also mimed riding a horse with inimitable style for the operatic nonsense of Ride 'Em Cowboy, and strolled unembarrassed around the stage with a beautiful girl on his arm for the bitter rock song, Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls.

It was a fun set but their new cod-classical sound was also, as one unfortunate fan at the front proved, impossible to dance to. The audience was predictably much warmer towards a second-half greatest-hits show, which included overblown, outrageous favourites such as When I Kiss You and This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us. Here, Ron took up his rightful place, stiff and scary behind the keyboard, and Sparks played the part of a proper band once again."

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