Written for Epigram
“I’m fortunate because I started off trying to look like an old banker, so I didn’t change quite as much as Russell did through the years in clothes and hairstyles” says Sparks keyboardist Ron Mael, chatting to me on the brink of a summer of festival slots, a new LP, and an autumn tour. Although over the years, frontman Russell Mael has traded in his mop of curls for a straight, side-swept fringe, the brothers’ music has lost none of the erudite eccentricity that has enthralled fans for almost five decades.
Hippopotamus, their 23rd studio album and first in eight years, will be on record shop shelves on September 8th. Four tracks were unveiled at a Glasgow gig in March, as part of the BBC 6 Music Festival – and despite “some mild concerns about whether people would be willing to accept the new material, they went over really well. It was really fun playing ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ because it has a special atmosphere to it.”
What do you get when you mix a hippo, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and a Volkswagen Microbus? The album’s first single, ‘Hippopotamus’. Lyrically, it’s a cornucopia of seemingly random images – “it just kind of popped into my head. It came at the time of the writing of the music. I’m always grateful when that happens because having to wait for the lyrics to come is sometimes really frustrating. I came up with words that had sound relation to ‘hippopotamus’ and things that seemed to fit the theme of the song. The song itself is quite unconventional, so we needed lyrics that were unconventional as well.”
Although Hippopotamus is the Mael brothers’ first studio album in eight years under the guise of Sparks, they’ve hardly been on sabbatical – they’ve put out a live album, performed Kimono My House with a full orchestra in celebration of its 40th anniversary, and formed the supergroup FFS with Franz Ferdinand. From the perspective of a fan who wasn’t even born until the year their seventeenth album, Plagiarism, was released, this has been a great era to get into Sparks – and it seems that Ron would agree: “it’s cool that [the Kimono My House anniversary gig] was your first Sparks show. That was a special event for us because those kinds of things are kind of difficult to do. It was really a thrill for us to be able to do [Kimono My House] and other material with an orchestra, and to have the arrangements not just sweetening the songs, but being progressive as well.”
Despite titling a track ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’, FFS more than proved that collaborations do work – not only was the eponymous FFS album fantastic in its own right, but Sparks fans might owe getting to hear a new, more conventional album (by the Maels’ standards, anyway) to the project. “I think the idea of doing an album of songs was inspired by doing the FFS project because we felt that there was still more that we could explore within three or four-minute song structures. In a way, the typical song is a restriction but it’s also exciting to see what you can get away with in that amount of time and having to have some sense of accessibility to what you’re doing. Doing the FFS album really fuelled our desire to get back to doing songs again as opposed to the sort of projects we’d been doing – long narrative stuff, and instrumentally not really having a ‘band’ sound.”
The world Hippopotamus will be released into is certainly quite different to the one that the band’s debut, Halfnelson, was. But even when The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman came out in 2009, social media didn’t dominate the world in nearly the same way it does today. The band recently got fans to send in clips of themselves reciting lines from ‘Hippopotamus’ to create a spoken word version of the song. Although “sometimes we have our misgivings about [social media etc], it’s really incredible in terms of having a community. Despite any of the negative stuff about people wasting their time and everything, there are really good things about it. Even from a technical perspective, there are things that we do now that we couldn’t do in the past in terms of recording. For example, the drums on the new album were done by a drummer in Detroit.”
So, what’s the secret of keeping going from the early seventies and A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing to today’s world of dog memes and Twitter? “It’s so hard to know. When we did our first album, we considered that a success – and if nothing else happened after that, we were happy just to do an album. It’s kind of surreal at this point to still be doing music and to still have some connection with some people. It’s hard to describe: Russell and I have a real drive just to be doing something and to try and push ourselves all the time. If we felt, ever, that we were just going through the motions, we wouldn’t want to embarrass ourselves. We feel that we’ve established, for some people, a certain kind of legacy – we don’t want to taint that.”