Sparks' Russell Mael on Playing Without a Band and the Weirdos Who Dress Up Like His Brother
Sparks began in early '70s Los Angeles, but found a more receptive audience for their early identity as a highly idiosyncratic and bombastic rock group on the fringe of glam rock in Europe. Led by the Mael Brothers, Russell and Ron, who lead respective personae as the flamboyant frontman and stoic keyboardist, Sparks now boast 22 studio albums spanning an eclectic career of more than 40 years.
The Mael Brothers premiered their most recent conceptual tour, lasciviously entitled Two Hands One Mouth, in Europe late last year. We caught up with Russell Mael after a rehearsal for its American debut, and the band's two shows at the Chapel this week (April 9 and 10). The show presents the group in a distilled form, literally thrusting Ron and Russell center stage to represent their typically highly-produced songs without a band or prerecorded material. We spoke with Mael about how this format exposes the duo, its sexual overtones, and the Ron Mael impersonators peppering Sparks audiences around the world.
I understand you were just rehearsing. What's that like with just the two of you?
It's always been given that when we play live, it's with a band. We wanted to try something challenging, and thought we would take on this concept. It's a lot more responsibility for both of us, because when you're in a band, you rely on other people musically, and you can sort of shut down your brain, which is a bad thing. In this format, there's a lot of concentrating required, because there's no other support. Ron is the band, in essence. In the same sort of way, my singing is not hidden underneath anything. We've already done 20 shows in Europe and Japan, but it's something we want to keep fresh and keep rehearsing.
A lot of people note that it's a bold concept that exposes both of you. When you first came up with the idea, did you feel trepidation?
Yeah, we did. We didn't want it to be seen or interpreted as an acoustic performance or a singer-songwriter format, where it's a tamed-down version. We wanted to find a way to do this where it had all of the dynamics and power of a band performance and not just the two of us. Even now, when we mention to a friend who hasn't seen the show that it's called Two Hands One Mouth, one comment we get is "Oh, are you using backing tracks, or is there a computer?" We want it to have its own power, drive, and aggression, and I think we've done it. It's a different form of power.
Obviously, the Two Hands One Mouth format focuses listeners on your lyrics. Does part of you seek some lyrical vindication, as if lyrics you wrote in the past weren't appreciated enough?
As a by-product, I wouldn't object! Our production has been very elaborate and the voice was very stylized. Sometimes the lyrics do get shoved back because they're buried in elaborate production and fullness. This format does place more emphasis on the lyrical side of the material.
You've taken the show through Europe and Japan now. Can you contrast the audience or reception of this show in those two very different places?
Surprisingly, the reaction is very similar. We've been encouraged by the fact that there isn't much of a regional difference. We started the tour in Lithuania and then went to Latvia. In places like that, there's an audience for Sparks with the same values as in Japan. For us, that's very surprising, but in a good way. There's an aesthetic that people who come to see us expect. There are similar types of people into Sparks everywhere, people dressing like Ron everywhere. That kind of sensibility seeps through and breaks down international barriers.
Is it a trend amongst Sparks' concert attendees to ape your more iconic outfits?
Sometimes! Ron is more easily ape-able. You see guys in the audience who emulate him in their own manner or have a similar kind of look. It's easier for a guy than a girl, although we have had some women with slicked back hair and fake mustaches.
I'm happy to know that Sparks impersonators are out there! In another interview, you spoke about changing certain arrangements for this format. Does that process of revisiting the intricacies of your older songs teach you something new about them?
It really does. Ron's parts on the original recordings are simpler and could accommodate the more beefy stuff like guitars and drums. So, when it's just him, it forces his parts to become more melodic. Not only melodic, but also to provide some sort of rhythmic element. It forces his parts to be complete. In a certain way, that's how the song was meant to be. It's complete by itself.
Sparks is known for finding a more receptive audience in Europe than in the U.S., where you're from, early in your career. Do you think that barrier is completely broken down by this point?
I don't think that barrier is there so much. The various audiences in different countries respond so similarly now that I think here will be the same. One thing early in our career was that there were more regional differences, because certain songs were more commercially successful in certain countries. Like, in England, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us" or "No. 1 in Heaven" were hits. In France, we had songs like "Singing in the Shower" and "When I'm With You" that were like signature songs in the country. In Germany, it was "When Do I Get to Sing My Way." We thought that people in those specific countries would only respond to those particular points in the set, but that turned out not to be true. The Internet has made everything more accessible and I think that people are able now to fill in the gaps of our career. In that regard, the States will be similar to other countries as far as the reception.
You're 22 studio albums into Sparks' discography and this is the first time you're releasing an official live album. Why now? Is there a reason you avoided them in the past?
The tour in Europe in October was so well-received. It's hard to describe the kind of warmth that we felt everywhere. As we progressed along the tour, it wasn't an issue of a duo vs. a band format. It was accepted that this is what Sparks is. We were so emotionally moved by the response that for the first time we thought it would be interesting to release a live version of what we've done.
If the Two Hands One Mouth -- you know, the more I say "Two Hands One Mouth," the dirtier it sounds.
Yeah we've gotten that. We actually end the show with a song called "Two Hands One Mouth" and when I do the song with those lyrics, it sounds even more lewd and it gets a strong reaction, so you're actually right.
If the Two Hands One Mouth format is the distilled essence of Sparks' storied and diverse career, what do you plan on following it up with?
We're working on another conceptual project. The last album we did was called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and it was motivated by Swedish National Radio asking us to do a radio musical drama. Doing something so expansive with an actual storyline was very satisfying. As a result of that, we were motivated to do another conceptual thing. Without giving too much away, it's an unorthodox musical done in the way that we think is compelling and unique, as Sparks would do.