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Interview: Sparks


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Brothers Ron and Russell Mael are used to the word 'eccentric' being used to describe the weird and wonderful pop songs they produce.

Today's pop music landscape seems to be built on formula with the same songs being rewritten over and over again: songs about unrequited love, or break ups, or some sort. Very little deviation or invention. Going by the charts, these seem to be the only songs that sell, too.

Pop oddballs Sparks don't fit into this landscape, but they never have over a career spanning nearly 50 years, and 24 albums. Most famous for their number two 1974 chart hit 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' and most recently for the supergroup they formed with Franz Ferdinand, FFS, they are a band that have always changed and never delivered music based on other people's expectations.

Still they must be doing something right.

“I don’t know, that’s a real mystery to us," Russell, the vocalist of the duo, says about the common topics of pop songwriting.

"As an artist you have a blank canvas, you can do anything at all that you wanna do and to us it seems like, you know, there’s people that prefer to have a lot of bands that are sort of the status quo, they like to sort of fit in with that movement and what we sort of relish is that you don’t have to fit in, and that’s been something that we’ve always been proud of."

"We’ve had our own little universe and the rules of our universe apply just to us and we’re puzzled by [musicians not stepping out the box]. Why are the same themes in pop music being done over and over? You know you can have the same themes, like a song that deals with a relationship for instance, but there are ways to do it in a non-cliche way and in a way that’s fresh, and it seems like that’s also your job as a song-writer and musician to come up with fresh ways of saying things.”

In the way that he speaks with such passion about songwriting and the creative process, it becomes clear that constantly pushing boundaries is something important to both him and his brother.

He continues, “The whole creative process has always been a mystery to us and I think it’s just something that’s inherent in your genes that you write the way you do, you come up with the ideas that you do and from our perspective, pop music in a general sense, you can sort of push the boundary both musically and lyrically of what the conventions normally are. I think that being different and doing some of the subjects and the themes in our songs in a different way, and then sometimes provocative in... not a political way but provocative against the grain of what traditional pop songs generally deal with in their lyrics, I think that’s something that we relish.”

Hippopotamus, Sparks' latest project, is released on 8th September. The already released title track is another confounding work. Russell explains the ideas behind the weird and wacky song.

"The one so far released to the public is called ‘Hippopotamus’. So that song is about a guy that has a swimming pool in his backyard and he wakes up to find these elements one by one appearing in his pool and he can’t seem to figure out why that is. Paintings, a ’58 Volkswagen microbus, a giraffe, all these things just start appearing so it’s kinda like a mini little abstract story with no kind of real redemption and there’s no sort of pay-off, just a unique event that’s happened to this guy."

Continuing on the theme of their album, another song comes to mind: 'What the hell is it this time?"

"Then another one called ‘What the hell is it this time?’ which is gonna be the first proper single from the album. It’s a song about an over-worked God, and he is being besieged by all of the people down below, each one coming to him with their prayers that he’ll listen to them and he’s saying like ‘man, I’m really overworked up here, and if your problem isn’t really exceptional and important you better take it to a saint. You’re taking it to the top man and it better be awfully important if you’re gonna bug me about your problem.’ So that’s ‘What the hell is it this time?’”

With a gigantic catalogue of music that spans over so many years, any other artist would probably start to find it a little difficult to keep coming up with fresh ideas for the next album, and the next, and the next. But for Sparks, this seems an easy challenge; "it's our passion" Russell gives as one main factor.

They appreciate the challenge of not recycling everything they've done in the past.

For young music fans today, the top layer of available music is saturated with the likes of Little Mix and Ed Sheeran - the cheesy pop, samey, play-it-safe type artists. For those craving a contrast, coming across the likes of Sparks requires digging a little deeper, be it through the playlists of Spotify or the record collections of their parents. 

"It is happening," though, says Russell - and most recently through festivals.

"Just a couple of weeks back at 6 Music Festival in Glasgow, there were a lot of obviously Sparks fans there but there were a lot of people, because there was a festival and they were also there to see the other acts, we found that there was a lot of new young fans coming."

“One up side of the internet is that people are able to discover things. In the past when we were first starting there were limited ways of discovering a new band and now obviously everything has completely changed and for the better in that respect. You can go, if you have the thirst, to go and discover new things."

Being different from the rest - sticking out - is what keeps the band relevant to a cross-generation audience, and it appears to show. The new fans they make from the millennial group aren't just passing listeners.

“We’re always really pleasantly surprised, really happy, when we get letters and stuff from people who are like you know, 18 year olds and 17 year olds saying you know, ‘I just heard this song and I’ve gone back and discovered that you have this huge catalogue, you’re my favourite band’ and all this. That for us is really exciting. What we’re doing not only now but also the past stuff also has a relevance to new and young fans.”

Hippopotamus is out 8th September 2017 on BMG, pre-order here.

UK tour dates - tickets here.

18/09 - The Waterfront, Norwich
19/09 - Boiler Shop, Newcastle
20/09 - Queens Hall, Edinburgh [SOLD OUT]
22/09 - O2 Ritz, Manchester
23/09 - Rock City, Nottingham
24/09 - HMV Institue, Birmingham
26/09 - O2 Academy, Bristol
27/09 - O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
28/09 - O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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