May 14th, 2008 | Interviews

Alice Rutherford

Sparks have just finished their 21st album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep. For the rest of this month and the first part of June, they will be playing one complete album (plus select b-sides) per night until they have played every album they have. They will premier Exotic Creatures on the final night. Singer Russell Mael speaks after rehearsing Halfnelson.

What deli was the first-ever Sparks show in and what did the customers think?
Russell Mael (vocals): It was actually in Westwood—a deli-slash-pizza place—actually a Shakey’s Pizza! I don’t remember the details but we were all UCLA students. I imagine we had the Westwood area covered when it came to places to play. It reminds me of Flight of the Conchords—we’d gotten booked into a pizza parlor! Everybody said turn it down. That was always that case—‘Turn it down!’ Because we thought volume would add to the excitement level.
It usually does.
It depends if there’s some musical support to it.
Were you really pretending to be English or did people just assume?
We never pretended, but we played the Whisky early on—before a record deal or anything—and they even put it on the marquee. ‘FROM ENGLAND—SPARKS!’ They didn’t even know. At the time, we didn’t object because we were Anglophiles—from our standpoint, we took it as a compliment.
Were you a quarterback at Palisades High?
Yeah—I walked away because I was too small to do it in college. I just couldn’t have competed on that level. I was varsity—I wasn’t first string, but I played quite a lot. In high school you could get away with being small if you were agile and quick and nimble. If I’d tried in college, I could barely see over the linemen’s heads. I really loved it. Both of us were really athletic. Ron was on the football team, too—though I have to admit, he was on the B-team. He didn’t make it to varsity, unfortunately. He was a lineman—he got a less glamorous job.
Did that repeat itself in the band?
Maybe not from his perspective—he thinks he’s got the glamorous position!
How did your football career get you ready for Sparks?
There are similarities—you’re going out on Friday night and performing in a certain way for a lot of people. It’s the same kind of rush—just throwing yourself out there and doing it in front of an audience. There are real comparisons. When you go on stage, it’s kind of like a sports match, too—you hype yourself up. And if anyone hopped on stage, I could floor them—they wouldn’t expect it from me!
How did you rehearse 240 songs? How do you make sure you don’t forget Halfnelson by the time you get to Hello Young Lovers?
It’s really crazy. Today we just did Halfnelson and Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing—we’re going back and trying to do at least two albums a day, but that’s hard. If you stop and deliberate on anything, it slips away. Everybody’s really dedicated to the cause, but it’s frightening—today was the first day we faced the challenge of going back to album number one after album twenty-one, and we got through both semi-unscathed. So it’s gonna work.
And this is all from memory? You and Ron don’t read music, right?
I don’t and Ron reads a little bit. Everybody at this point has got scraps of paper—250 scraps of paper. One per song. Even today, our guitar player was like ‘What’s that note say?’ You write little notes and can’t figure out what they’re referring to. It’s kind of haphapzard.
You’re both self-taught musicians?
Ron took piano lessons from like six to nine. They were pretty intense—for whatever reason, he stopped and didn’t pick it up again. But obviously he retained some of the stuff. He has a bit of training—I don’t. You don’t even think where things come from or how you do it—I think part of Sparks is the naivete of how we approach the thing.
Can you still be naïve after 21 albums?
In a certain way—not afraid to just try things. The mindset of a lot of bands is that things have to work in the live context—it has to fit in that way. We don’t ever worry—we don’t think about playing the stuff as a band. We just kind of record things. Of course, after the fact and thinking about doing the new album live—afterwards, we worry about it a lot! But the thing is the making the record as interesting and striking as it can be, and to not worry about it being a band. It’s limiting if you only think of what the band is capable of playing.
Now that you’re going back to learn every album for a live set, have you found anywhere you outsmarted yourselves?
The only instances where that happens is with some of the stuff that’s more electronic—where it’s computer-based and really rigidly sequenced, and a guy can’t sit down—or he can but it has a different flavor. We’re keeping those songs faithful to the way they were, so certain elements are augmented by the computer stuff. We prefer to keep each album kind of faithful to the original.
You said before you aren’t interested in revealing your own personalities in your music—what goes into the songs instead?
Speaking for Ron since he’s doing the majority of the lyrics—they’re more about situations. We’re writing stories in a way, and maybe if you sat down on a psychologist’s couch he’d say, ‘There’s actually a lot of you in that.’ By the manner they’re written or the subjects, they do tell you about us in a way—us choosing to write about ‘X’ does reveal something without saying ‘I broke up with my girl and now I’m feeling a heavy heart.’ You can learn about a person’s mind by the stories that person is telling. It’s not as literal as referring to your recent break-up—that’s a fine subject, but probably for someone else. If you think it’s important to hear somebody telling you about that, that’s fine. But we think songwriting can be about other things.
What’s your own favorite break-up record?
I don’t know if I think in those terms—like a record helping you out in that kind of way? Maybe it’s just the process of burying youself in your work and that can help you take your mind off whatever it might be—something that’s not living up to your expectations. Both of us are really deep into what we do. That can be a buffer from having to deal with reality!
Were there any ideas you abandoned because you knew you couldn’t get away with them?
There are songs we did do that we were disappointed were taken in different ways that prevented them from bring heard. Like ‘Dick Around’—when we do it live, no one in the public ever had a problem. But on the radio in England…We thought that song was really special—it had a whole structure that wasn’t conventional, and those things are very interesting to us, and the roadblock wasn’t anything musical. It was someone telling you that you can’t say ‘dick’ on the radio. But it’s ‘dick around’—there’s a difference. The last thing on Ron’s mind is ‘I can’t say that,’ so it’s really disappointing when something is censored for idiotic reasons. You just give up on humanity—not even humanity, but radio-station humanity. The public never has a problem with it.
You weren’t a little proud to be banned by the BBC?
It would have been better if it had been banned and got to number one despite that!
What did you learn from dubbing a song over a porno and submitting it as your video?
People at record companies don’t necessarily have a sense of humor. They’re not as enlightened as you’d think.
Did they keep the tape?
Somewhere deep down in the vaults at Atlantic is a porno tape with our song on it.
The rarest Sparks release ever?
If you unearth that—that’s the holy grail!
What will the final Sparks album be like?
We always really go at each album—like we’re doing now—to make it our ultimate statement we could make. You think ‘I don’t have anything left to say after this! I’ve given you everything!’ And then somehow with time, you can still dredge up more. I think with the last three things we’ve done—Little Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep—we feel totally spent. It’s a year out of your life minimum—Hello was two years. We spend a lot longer on recordings than other artists, and whether good or bad that’s how it is, and after that process, you think ‘I can’t do it anymore!’ So the ultimate album—I don’t even know!
What’s the first day of recording like?
It’s bizarre. There’s nothing there. We record all the stuff in a computer program, so you sit there and it’s almost sad—no tracks on the screen. And knowing how much has to be there before you can say it’s finished—after a year, there’s four billion tracks there. It’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re starting again—is there another way to do this?’
Why don’t you subcontract Sparks?
If we could trust somebody—both us would love that!