wenty albums and nearly forty years into their career, Sparks are better than their peers to such an unfair extent that you get a faint whiff of Faustian Pact. They’re like eighty years old or something, and they’re still making ludicrously ambitious, critically acclaimed albums while their distant rivals can only gnash their teeth and say “why didn’t I think to write a seven minute classical-opus-with occasional-GWAR-like-shredding about the guilty pleasure derived from abandoning your responsibilities to sit in front of talk shows fiddling with your balls?”
Of course, it’s not enough for the Maels to achieve this and then sit back basking in the glow of success, they have to take an ostentatious live presentation of the album out on tour, taunting comparative failures in venues the world over with their superior ability to wring high drama out of the most unlikely subject matter. And possibly promoting the forthcoming “Dick Around” single as well. They recently took this show to the town of Fareham in the south of England, lodged somewhere between a place called “Bird Land” and the noted center of culture and international commerce “Portsmouth.” I caught up with Ronald and Russell there, where they graciously spat answers to a series of questions into an Olympus dictaphone.
I gather you’re releasing “Dick Around” as a single on Gut Records in the UK on the 25th of September. It seems to espouse a fairly misanthropic worldview, what with all this talk of losing everything and spending your time doing nothing instead—would you say it’s quite a negative song?
Ron: (mildly irritated) Not really. I mean, if you’re really negative you just don’t even bother making music.
Well, I recall you saying in one interview that the protagonist kind of perversely enjoyed that he’d sunk to this level of sloth.
Ron: It isn’t so much that, it’s that he kind of feels guilty that doing nothing is so enjoyable to him, after all the time of being an over-achiever and a super worker. He had high standards, and he expected to be depressed by the situation but he’s actually not.
So you wouldn’t say your music has a misanthropic quality in general, or is it mostly a humorous device? It seems like there’s often a conflict between the subject matter and the upbeat way it’s presented.
Ron: I guess that conflict is more what interests me. It’s really easy to be negative and dour and misanthropic, but it’s very one-dimensional, and in a way it’s kind of like a pose. We don’t want things to be easy to figure out to a point where people can easily say “they have that kind of view about things”; we want something more ambiguous that’ll work on different levels.
What was the rationale behind having massed ranks of cat-people in the video to “Dick Around”?
Russ: They made their first appearance live during the song “Here Kitty,” and we just liked the idea of having an entire audience of cats. We also wanted a live performance aspect, just to get that element of the song across, so the ol’ “cats in the audience” video seemed the obvious choice.
Why did you have two different versions of “Baby, Baby, Can I Invade Your Country”, one with the chat-up line style verses and the other with the US national anthem?
Ron: I really liked the words to the original version, but they just didn’t seem to fit rhythmically. We wanted to come up with something that did, and we ended up using the national anthem. I guess that did make it more obviously political in tone, but it was mostly just that the original lyrics seemed like they were fighting against the background too much.
Would either of you say that your favourite Beatle is actually Ringo, or…?
Russ: He’s not one of my favourite Beatles, I’d say he’s about number four. I like the Beatles, but he’s number four.
I guess he’s used to that by now. Who are your favourite Beatles?
You did a cover of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” around the time of Indiscreet, were they quite a big thing for you early on?
Ron: I actually really liked the Stones and the Who more because they were so much more exciting. You couldn’t deny the Beatles’ songs and the quality of the singing, but as far as attitude went I thought they were a little bit tame.
When you were starting out, did you contrive these two different personas as a presentational device to an extent, or are you naturally just very different people? Were any coins flipped?
Russ: No, we’re actually pretty different.
So it was more just a natural extension of your personalities?
Russ: Yeah, he was just more comfortable being That Thing, and I’m more comfortable running around all over the place.
You did swap, didn’t you? You did some photos of Russell with the Ron Moustache.
Russ: We did at one point, but I looked so ridiculous with a moustache that we stopped pretty quickly.
They were a bit disconcerting. Do you have any set plans for the future? Presumably you’re going to keep touring Hello Young Lovers for a while.
Russ: Yeah, we’re doing a bunch more festivals then we’re playing eight shows in the UK at the end of September, try to keep the single visible when it comes out.
Are you going to make another album after that?
Ron: We’re trying to decide whether we need to do something beyond an album this time around.
I was instructed to try to persuade you to do a musical.
Ron: Yeah, that’s kind of where our thoughts are. We’re not sure if it’d be a film musical or a stage thing, but there is a big visual element to our show so it seems like the natural thing to do as the next project.
Do you think in that case you’d keep leaning towards the orchestral arrangements and spoken-word stuff you’ve been moving towards on the past couple of albums?
Ron: We try to use a smorgasbord approach where you just draw on everything and use whatever element you think works for each situation. We’re not too dogmatic about what something should sound like—as long as it works, we’re fine with it.
Are you still planning to work with Franz Ferdinand?
Ron: We’re hoping still, yeah.
Your people still talking to their people?
Ron: Exactly yeah, and their peoples’ telephone is probably a bit more tied up at times, that’s the problem at the moment.
So you’re a fan of them? Are there many of this newer crop of Sparks influenced bands that you enjoy?
Ron: Yeah, I am. Usually when a band says they’re Sparks fans we go and check them out, because then we think we should be interested, in that respect. I’m not exactly too sure who I’ve seen lately though.
Becomes a bit of a blur?
Returning to Hello Young Lovers, I wanted to ask you about the thought process that went into “Metaphor”—is that song a kind of parody of pseudo-intellectualism as a seduction technique, or a genuine celebration of the power of metaphor, or some point in the middle?
Ron: In a sense it’s kind of extolling the virtues of something that isn’t obvious and probably really isn’t useful, but I always kinda like songs that say what chicks dig, and to make it something quite improbable and intellectual like a metaphor just seemed a good idea.
There’s a sense that on paper it ought to be ridiculous but when you hear it it somehow makes perfect sense.
Russ: Exactly, yeah.
Ron: Yeah, that’s hopefully what people take from it, but other people might not be as smart as you, so…(laughs heartily)
Do you feel like Hello Young Lovers is where you’ve been coming all along, a sort of logical extension of everything you’ve done to this point, or is it more this smorgasbord thing where you just do what you feel like at the time and you could move on to something completely different later on?
Russ: We just got bored of doing songs that were verses and choruses and bridges and all that sort of thing. We wanted to do something with bigger scope that wasn’t based on the same old predictability of what pop songs are supposed to be, so starting with Lil Beethoven and moving onto Hello Young Lovers we just wanted to find ways to make that scope a little bit broader.
With stuff like “Dick Around” there’s a real sense that you’re being pulled into the narrative by the frenetic musical arrangement. Would you say it’s a recurring thing with your work to try and invest unusual subjects with that kind of absurd drama?
Russ: A lot of the time it’s just taking a situation that might be quite mundane and deliberately blowing it out of proportion by the way you treat it musically. So you’ll get this small thing that you’ve blown up to a scale it maybe doesn’t strictly warrant, but it becomes important just because you’ve presented it that way.
What’s your favourite Sparks song? Is there a particular one you like to perform the most?
Russ: “Dick Around” is getting to be in the upper echelons now, I just like the scope of what it’s doing. But y’know, songs like “This Town”…
You’ve not got sick of that at any point?
Russ: No, it’s just got a significance, in terms of that time period and what it represents. Looking back in retrospect, it still doesn’t really fit in—Justin Hawkins came out with a version of it recently and it still sounded out of place.
It’s a pretty bizarre record to have made number 2 in the UK charts and been on Top of the Pops.
Russ: Yeah exactly, and we’re very proud to have came out with something like that in 1974 and that somebody comes along and does it in 2005 and it still sounds so off-kilter…
Ron: I guess “Dick Around” is one of my favorites. I like “The Rhythm Thief” a lot, it’s kind of hard to place. Those two in particular. I guess everyone always mentions their newer stuff a lot, but I genuinely feel that.
You’re sticking with this format of doing two sets, one withHello Young Lovers and one with older songs?
Russ: Yeah, we like to have the chance to perform the entire album with the visual accompaniment and then in the second set revisit some really old stuff, go back right to the start.
Ron: We’ve been playing a lot of festivals over the summer so we’ve not been able to do the full show, whereas now we’re able to get back to the full presentation with all the interaction with the screens.
Russ: We’re gonna rehearse some “new” old songs with the band for the September tour as well, so we’ll have a bigger pool of older stuff to draw from with the second set.
If you jacked it all in tomorrow in favour of meticulously overseeing a long-running television biopic of the Sparks story, who would you demand played the lead roles?
Russ: Tom Cruise is definitely me. That’s obvious.
Ron: Oh god, I dunno…I’ll take Jack Nicholson. You loved those two in…what was that movie they were in? Uh, that military movie. A Few Good Men.
They’ve got that pre-existing dynamic.
Russ: TOM CRUISE and JACK NICHOLSON as SPARKS.
By: Fergal O’Reilly
Published on: 2006-08-14