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Sparks boys say call us exciting, not eccentric

February 12, 2009 |  6:07 pm
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A couple takes a scenic drive up Pacific Coast Highway, heading toward a romantic getaway, their passion for one another building as each mile passes. In most corners of the pop music world, you could guess exactly where such a scenario would lead.

But Sparks, the veteran L.A. duo with the passion for unpredictability, resides in its own wonderfully strange little universe. That scene, as it plays out on the new album “Exotic Creatures of the Deep,” Sparks’ 21st in its nearly 40-year career, culminates in possibly the least expected way.

Though Santa Barbara’s on our mind
Our love can’t wait ‘till after 9
So she says, ‘Can’t we let the monkey drive?’

So the ride continues, the amorous couple happily moving to the back seat as a chimp takes the wheel.

I think his license has expired
He seems to be a little wired
He has some trouble staying on our side

Silly? Sure. But underneath the humor that’s been the hallmark of the group anchored by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, there’s a point to be made about what pop music is all about. Or at least what these two idiosyncratic popmeisters believe it should be about.

“I’m kind of bored with what you hear in music now; just lyrically, no one seems to really care,” Russell Mael, 55, said this week, seated next to his older brother at a sidewalk café in West Hollywood, partway between Russell’s home in Coldwater Canyon and Ron’s in the Wilshire district. “Our perspective is that pop music isn’t supposed to be about the status quo. It’s supposed to be provocative, us against them, all that stuff... but it seems like everything from a lyrical standpoint is so tame and hackneyed.

“People have tended to marginalize us as being 'quirky',” added Ron, 60, his signature pencil-thin mustache, horn-rimmed glasses and slicked, black hair accentuating his angular face. “We understand that completely. From our perspective, and maybe there’s some self-delusion there, we see ourselves being what pop music should be about. People who are singing really mundane things to mundane music are really abusive of the privilege of being able to do pop music. There’s so much freedom there, apart from any of the rules. We can’t understand why what we do is thought to be so eccentric, when it’s just something we think is exciting.”

The “Exotic Creatures” album continues the intensely exploratory phase of a long career that took a sharp turn into the musical stratosphere with 2003’s “Lil’ Beethoven,” a work that has as much in common with minimalist contemporary composer Phillip Glass as with the work of such rock-era songwriting titans as Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards, all of whom the Mael brothers admire deeply.

They’ll play “Exotic Creatures” in its entirety for a Valentine’s Day show in UCLA’s Royce Hall, a performance that will carry special weight for these two Bruin alums. It’s full of the dense vocal and instrumental textures, the often repetitive lyrical and musical motifs as well as the large doses of humor that characterize “Lil’ Beethoven” and its 2006 follow-up, “Hello Young Lovers.”

Following the performance of the new album, the second half of the UCLA show will feature another full album, their 1974 high-water mark “Kimono My House,” one that helped set the stage for the grand-scale operatic rock of Queen and other followers.

If it sounds ambitious for a group to play two albums from start to finish in a single concert, for the Maels, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the feat they pulled off last summer in London. They played each of their 21 albums over 21 (non-consecutive) nights at the Royal Festival Hall, a gargantuan musical undertaking that required four months of rehearsals.

“It was really exciting just because so many people came to a lot of the shows,” Ron said. “That kind of fanaticism was both encouraging and kind of frightening in a way, that people could give up their lives for almost a month to come see what were basically rock shows."

“We’re proud that we got through it, because we think that no other band will ever do that,” Russell said. "Most people that have 21 albums maybe aren’t as hungry in a general way as we are. You really have to be driven in a certain way and I just can’t see Mick and Keith sitting there for four months saying, ‘What were the chords to “Satisfaction” again?’ It won’t happen... We're quite certain it will be a one and only.”

With a laugh, Ron added, “We’re not going to break it, that’s for sure."

They did the “21 Nights” program in England, rather than in the U.S., because of the special affinity European audiences have shown for the left-field music of these siblings from the Pacific Palisades who lived in London for several years.

“I’m encouraging of anything that doesn’t take the straight-and-narrow path,” Russell said in response to a question about “Strange Animal,” a song Ron wrote alone that paints an intriguing portrait of a Shane-like mystery man who takes up residence inside a song. “I’m always praying for something that will bowl you over… So much of the time you’re bored with what you hear in pop. "

Sparks is guilty of a lot of things—the Rolling Stone Record Guide famously dinged them “for being at least partially responsible for Queen”—but boring has never been one of them.

In the ‘70s they created a viable alternative to earnest singer-songwriter folk-rock and overblown progressive rock. Late in the same decade, they teamed with German producer Giorgio Moroder for a series of effervescent recordings (“The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” “Tips for Teens”) built on percolating synthesizers and sequencers in a style that’s still echoing today in dance and techno-pop music today.

Sparks' one and only Top 50 single came in 1984 with “Cool Places,” a new-wavish KROQ-friendly duet with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin. Since then, the Maels have kept releasing new albums every year or two, maintaining a small-but-devoted following that includes such peers as Paul McCartney and Morrissey to Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, who attended several of the “21 Nights” performances.

The former Smiths singer is name-checked in “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” on the new album, a number in which a hapless guy can’t compare in the eyes of his Morrissey-obsessed girlfriend.

“We played it for him very early on,” Russell said, “just to cut off at the pass him hearing about it from anybody who might misinterpret it as a slag. It’s just the opposite, of course--this guy is saying he can’t compete because Morrissey has all these principles and he sticks to them.”

If only Morrissey weren’t so Morrisseyesque
She might overlook all my flaws

Not that the Maels have ever been overly daunted by flaws. These are the same guys who once sang about their raison d’etre for soaking up the sun on the beach at Balboa Island: “I may be ugly as sin, but at least now I’m tan.”

"Maybe because of whatever our mentalities are," Ron said, "we can take typical pop music themes and address them honestly at this stage of our career.

"We see other artists that are at, say, our chronological stage and see what they’re doing in a general sense. But it always seems like it’s a refinement, a distillation, a slowing down, in a way that a person slows down," he added. "We kind of fight against that; we, if anything, try to overcompensate and we've become a little more hectic."

--Randy Lewis

BAND OF BROTHERS: Ron, left, and Russell Mael of Sparks have a new album, “Exotic Creatures of the Deep.” Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

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