The Seminal Sparks on Brother Feuds and Being Morrissey's Favorite Band (Q&A)

Four decades after "Kimono My House," Ron and Russell Mael are still impossible to peg, but may hold a place as the most consistently witty band in the history of rock 'n' roll.
Courtesy of Republic Media

In the early 1970s, it was hard to know how to pigeonhole Sparks. Was Kimono My House glam-rock, or Gilbert & Sullivan-pop? Four-plus decades later, brothers Ron and Russell Mael are still as impossible to peg as ever, aside from possibly holding a place as the most consistently witty band in the history of rock 'n' roll. Anything seemed possible when the stylistically and lyrically audacious Kimono came out in '74, and the possibilities are expanding just a little further now, with a symphonic rendering of the landmark album at L.A.'s Theatre at the Ace this weekend.

The duo premiered the orchestral Kimono in London in December, with this two-night stand being the only other shows scheduled. (Night one Saturday is sold out, but very limited tickets remain available for Sunday.) The Maels won't linger on the nostalgia too long, since, as they reveal in this interview, their horizon includes a bold full collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and two planned movie musicals with major arthouse filmmakers. But for this weekend, downtown L.A. is just barely big enough for the both of them and the 38 string and horn players and percussions they're bringing along.

No one who's ever heard Kimono My House associates it with lush symphonic orchestration. So how'd this come about?

Ron: In general we don't like to play up the past too much. But the chance to work with an orchestra live was something we couldn't really pass up. There was an agent who was trying to find an angle for us to do a 40th anniversary thing with Kimono My House, and knowing we weren't gonna do it if we were just gonna be playing it as a band, he kind of organized the whole thing. And then the second half of the show we do a selection of songs, with the orchestra, from throughout the years. In London, most of the audience knew that album pretty well, but they were really accepting of us doing it this way. The producer of that album, Muff Winwood, came to the show and was really gracious and said, "God, it sounds so natural doing those songs in an orchestral way."

Russell: We didn't want it to be the orchestra used in a sweetening way, with strings just augmenting a rock band. We wanted the orchestra to serve as the replacement for a band. There's no band. Ron's playing keyboards, but that's the only concession. The first half of the show, a lot of it is the grand piano, and the second half, he plays more electronic keyboard with the orchestra. Wherever you would have the aggression of guitar and drums and bass, we would find a way with the arranger to do that where the strings are actually being really aggressive and propelling the thing, and to not worry about it being note for note exactly like the same arrangements from the album version, but to do it in a modern-classical way. We were hoping before we did it in London that the hardcore would be accepting of hearing little quirks and dissonance in the score. But I think everybody really liked it, because it sounds just as aggressive as the original album, in a different kind of way. It isn't just a recreation of that album in a sterile way. It's making use of the fact that we've got a 38-piece orchestra -- let's put them to work!

But otherwise, you aren't fans of the trend of doing classic albums in their entirety?

Ron: Well, we got that out of our system when we did a 21-nights thing in London [in 2008], where we played all of our albums in their entirety, five nights a week, starting with our first album all the way through to the latest.

Russ: We thought that was the ultimate statement a band. A lot of people do an album or two albums. We'll raise you and do 21 albums -- how about that? We think that'll be a record that no one will ever, ever beat, first by the fact of having 21 albums as a starting point, and then the amount of work that went into doing it. We prepared for four months to be able to learn over 250 songs. It was a pretty daunting challenge, so we think we'll hold the record forever.

It was Morrissey who first talked you into playing Kimono My House in its entirety -- without the orchestra -- when he got you to play at the Meltdown Festival he curated 10 years ago. He's been such a vocal champion of Sparks, and has such a fanatical following. Do you ever get fans of his who come to your shows, thinking, "I don't know who they are, but if Morrissey says so…"

Russell: He came to the last show we did in L.A. at the Fonda Theatre, so there were two shows going on: Sparks on the stage and Morrissey in the audience. We like him. There's some kinship, not so much musically, even, but in how you're creating your own world with your music and especially lyrics. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth is another kind of unlikely fan. He came to this last show of Kimono with the orchestra in London. And then he came to the previous show, and we said, "We'll put you to work, too," so he played on one song.

Who do you see comprising your audience at your live shows now? In the 1980s, you became KROQ favorites, and seeing you then, it seemed like there had been a complete turnover of your audience from the '70s.

Russell: It's now caught up where people that are Sparks fans have gone and investigated the whole repertoire of albums, where that wasn't always the case. The visibility has been really fractured, where it really gets popular with a specific album or a time, like in the '80s with KROQ. We had a following in that period, here especially on the west coast and some of the east coast as well, where if we'd do a song like "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" off of Kimono, they said, "What is this? We've never heard of this thing." But they knew "Angst in My Pants" and "Eaten by the Monster of Love." So we stayed away from the '70s stuff during that time. Then in the '90s we had this really big hit in Germany called "When Do I Get to Sing My Way," and it really appealed to a really young audience, who definitely weren't aware of the '70s and had no clue about the '80s Sparks period either. But we're finding now there are younger people coming who've been made aware of us through different means that go back and find the history, and they respond to an album like Kimono, even if they obviously weren't there the first go-round. I think it's mainly because the music doesn't always sound like it's of an era. A song like "This Town" doesn't sound particularly of the '70s but it doesn't sound like it's now, either. It just sounds like it's in its own little world.

How aware were you of not fitting in, circa 1974, and did that bother you at all or did you revel in it?

Russell: We fit in only because there was a period when we were really part of the scene in England with Roxy Music and Bowie, because of the success of the record. But a lot of people say "So you were part of glam" -- we never felt we were glam. It just happened to have a sensibility that kind of fit with the zeitgeist, and somehow it reached a British audience for some odd reason.

Ron: We kind of had two different audiences at the time. There were people that were appreciating it in a more musical, intellectual kind of way. And then there were screaming girls at the same time. Both of those camps would come to the concerts, and it was a strange combination. In some ways I think the fanatical side of it turned off some of the people that were thinking of it in more musical terms, thinking, "Well, if it's getting this kind of teenybop acceptance, it can't possibly be musically valid." But things have sort of shifted over time.

And you completely upended expectations, in-between the glam era and post-new wave era, by making a proto-electronica album with Giorgio Moroder that threw everyone for a loop.

Ron: We really liked "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer, and we were looking for a context to put ourselves in that was different than working in a band. And we contacted him and he really wanted to work with band people at that time. The audience was really accepting of that -- I mean, we had three hit singles from the No. 1 in Heaven album in '79 -- but we were getting a really severe, abusive critical reception, because they thought we were traitors to the whole band thing and were going disco.

Russell: The history has been completely rewritten about that album, critically, which is really ironic. Now that album critically is seen as "Well, that was the bible of the whole synth duo thing." Since that time, it's been proven that that can work, with everybody that followed after that, with Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Depeche Mode -- where it became okay to not have a traditional band format, and you could have danceable rhythms, but "danceable" wasn't pejorative anymore. Obviously now, 35 years after that, with EDM and beyond, it can't get more cool -- cool in maybe a corny sense.

Ron: In the end we're usually vindicated.

Russell: The "hot young DJ" Giorgio Moroder now even is using one of the songs in his set.

And you've always been one of the few acts who have Noel Coward come up as a point of comparison in your reviews more than anything contemporary. There's a strong show-tune influence in your music, but it's hard to find an exact antecedent in rock & roll for what you were doing in the early '70s. Some of the Kinks' wittier songs come to mind.

Ron: Well, people like Ray Davies, and also Pete Townsend, with the early Who things, before they became more important. I really liked those little vignettes of guys getting tattoos, and "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand," just a song about a girl with a shaky hand and what she could do to a man with that shaky hand. I really liked that kind of rock writing. But in general I like stuff more like Cole Porter, where there was a real craft and a precision about the writing, and things could be humorous, yet it'd always seem like there was an undercurrent of seriousness about what they were writing. I tried not to ever be lazy about it. Every song to me is precious, so to just write lyrics by rote and say "It's a good song, just write something because nobody will be listening to it," I can't work in that kind of way. Sometimes people think that it's too clever, but I'd rather have it be viewed that way than just as kind of this wallpaper of stuff coming out of a singer's mouth.

When you had those screaming girls come around, did you look into the audience and see them tilting their heads, like, "What's he singing, again?"

Russell: It really was a strange cross-section, especially in England at that time, where it was screaming girls when we were doing songs from Kimono like "Talent is an Asset," about Albert Einstein. You'd see girls screaming over Albert Einstein -- "Ahhhh!"

Is a new album in the works?

Russell: Without getting overly specific on the details, we've done an album I think is really special: a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand. It's the two bands actually playing together for an entire album. We can't think of too many precedents for that. You can think of obviously two singers joining together, but this is actually two whole bands together.

The other thing we've been doing is two movie musical movie projects. One has already been out there as an album of ours called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which we premiered in a sort of live staging at the L.A. Film Festival three years ago. It's to be directed by Guy Maddin who is an amazing director, and we just thought his sensibility would work with this story, which is: What if Ingmar Bergman had been lured to Hollywood with the idea of being able to take advantage of the money that's available to him here to further his art, but then he got locked into Hollywood in his own worst nightmare? Then there's a second project we've worked on -- a full movie musical with the French director Leos Carax, whose last film was Holy Motors. These two projects are sort of running their simultaneous course; this project with Leos Carax is moving along the fast track quicker than the Bergman project has. These won't be done in a Broadway, razzmatazz kind of way. They're both all music, where sometimes the story is being progressed through dialogue that's done in a hyper-stylized, sung/spoken way. They're both pretty uncompromising, but at the same time we think they're really accessible. Going back to Kimono, especially with the song "This Town," it was its uniqueness that appealed to a lot of people.

And we have a bit of history with both these directors. Guy Maddin has a brand new film that just premiered at Sundance called The Forbidden Room, and it's not a musical, but it does have a musical sequence that he asked us to do something for, so we did a song called "The Final Derriere." And in Leos Carax's last film, Holy Motors, he used one of Sparks' songs from our Indiscreet album.

How have you survived for four and a half decades as one of the most volatile things in rock & roll -- a brother act? We all know about the fraternal feuds that broke up the Kinks, Oasis, now the Black Crowes. What makes you the exception?

Russell: You left the Everly Brothers off your list -- the Hatred Brothers.

Ron: One key is that our roles are so separate and defined, we're not stepping on the other guy's territory. There aren't issues over "Oh, I want to sing this song." Because I know I would destroy any song I sang on.

Russell: And he's a better songwriter. Also, with some of the other people you mentioned, you get so commercially successful that you aren't hungry anymore. We're in a situation where we had a lot of commercial success but still aren't a household name for everybody. So I think there's this united sort of goal to keep hammering away on what we think are really special projects musically, and we won't rest until everybody is aware of it. To be excited about doing pretty cutting-edge movie musicals is not the traditional career arc of other '70s bands. So coming up with new challenges is something we both see the same way. We both have our own role within the group and don't overlap, so each person gets to be doing his own thing 100 percent.

Ron: He's right.

Russell: See?

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