Arts

Russell Mael of iconic pop duo Sparks on being masters of their own universe

More than four decades after they first amazed and perplexed music fans, pop-rock duo Sparks have once again returned to the top end of the charts. Russell Mael talks to Andrew Arthur about their formative years in LA, their new career writing screenplays and how to remain individual

Ron and Russell Mael of iconic pop duo Sparks
Andrew Arthur

WHEN US pop-rock duo Sparks announced an open call for support slots on their recent British tour, they were greeted by a jamboree of applications from magicians, jugglers and even classically-trained actors.

"If there are any snake charmers reading this before one of the shows, you have priority, get in line!" an excited Russell Mael laughs down the phone from LA.

The 69-year-old and his older brother Ron, 72, have been steadily working their way through a mountain of entries. It is fair to say their appeal has attracted a broad cross section of applicants.

"We thought we'd get a little bunch of responses but there's been like 500," he says.

"There's been bands, jugglers, comedians and even Shakespearean actors. It's been across the board.

"It's good that there are so many people out there that are wanting to be on that stage with us."

It is not hard to imagine entertainers clambering over themselves to open for the eccentric US duo.

Why wouldn't they? Sparks are currently experiencing a commercial and critical renaissance five decades into their career.

Their 23rd album, Hippopotamus, reached the top 10 in September 2017, their first appearance there for over 40 years.

The record was met with near universal acclaim from critics and appeared in many music websites and magazines' albums of the year list.

Russell admits the pair were even conflicted by some of Hippopotamus' glowing reviews which described the album's sound as a return to the conventional Sparks sound "whatever that is".

But on the whole, it's an achievement Russell says he and Ron are both flattered and satisfied by. The pair started out as graphic design and film-making students at UCLA in the 1960s, forming Sparks in the early 1970s.

"We were fortunate that we stumbled into things and they worked for us," he remembers.

Outside of an appearance in their formative years modelling clothes in a mail-order catalogue – "The photos might be in a box in the attic somewhere, but hopefully nobody will be seeing those!" exclaims a horrified Russell – the brothers never actively sought out the limelight.

While they played in bands during their university days, they always saw music as merely a hobby. That was until a successful tour of England with their original group saw them invited back to record an album with British musicians.

"We were really naive and green at the time. You never really thought that this could be something we would still be doing and we'd have 23 albums and I'd be talking to you about this stuff today."

"We're proud things worked out in the right direction and we didn't have to rethink our life goals," he says.

Sparks first flamboyantly leaped into the wider public's radar in 1974 with an unforgettable performance of their breakthrough hit This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us on Top Of The Pops.

Viewers were left transfixed by the unique combination of Russell's acrobatic movement and androgynous image and Ron's unrelenting, wide-eyed glares down the camera from behind his keyboard and toothbrush moustache.

The band's cult status on this side of the Atlantic was confirmed with a string of top 20 hits from their gold-selling album Kimono My House and its follow up Propaganda.

They captured the imagination of a young Stephen Morrissey from Manchester, who wrote into the NME to profess his love for Sparks and would also go on to appear on Top Of The Pops with The Smiths a decade later.

At a time in pop music when heavily stylised bands like The Bay City Rollers and The Osmonds were increasingly marketed by their management to appeal to target audiences, Sparks stuck out like a sore thumb.

Russell says the quirky individuality he and his brother projected was never devised as a selling point and explains why fans have stuck with them.

"It was always supposed to have been an us vs them affair. Pop music at its best is when there is a rebellious stance.

"We don't consciously set out to do that. It's just something inherent in the way we are.

"We've had a lot of people come up to us through the years and say they appreciated how our music spoke to them, that they could be different and that was cool."

Russell describes himself and Ron as "restless people" who are always seeking to change their sound and artistic direction. Indeed, the only thing that has remained a constant is Ron's moustache and slicked-back jet-black hair.

After their glam rock beginnings, the brothers Mael had totally changed course by the end of the 1970s by embracing electronic music.

They teamed up with pioneering disco producer and Donna Summer hit-maker Giorgio Moroder to record some of their most popular songs. Beat The Clock and Number One Song In Heaven were both Top 20 hits.

And their recent projects have strayed from convention too, including their collaboration with indie band Franz Ferdinand, FFS, and the screenplay of an upcoming film which almost starred a pretty big pop superstar.

Star Wars actor Adam Driver will play the lead part in Annette: Rihanna was at one point set to make a cameo appearance before the deal fell through.

Returning to the audition tapes in LA, Russell signs off with a statement that probably best sums up the brothers' enduring appeal.

"Sparks is in its own universe and you don't have to play by the rules. You can be individual and do something unique and it can still be relevant."

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