The Sparks brothers, interview: ‘I didn’t grasp the impact of the Hitler business’
After 53 years and 25 albums, veteran cult pop duo Sparks are having a bit of a moment. At the Cannes film festival earlier this month, their flamboyantly bonkers musical Annette received two awards, including Best Director award for Leos Carax and the Cannes Soundtrack award for Ron and Russell Mael themselves. The septuagenarian American siblings then flew to London for the UK launch of The Sparks Brothers, a star-studded documentary about their curious career by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead).
“The whole thing has been surreal,” says 75-year-old Ron Mael, the tall, skinny, moustache-wearing, keyboard-playing Spark.
“We thought we were old hands when it comes to press and photographers but boy, Cannes really goes for the overkill,” says 72-year-old Russell Mael, the shorter, mop-topped, singing Spark. “There’s, like, two or three hundred photographers, all wearing tuxedos, all shouting ‘A gauche! A gauche! A droit! A droit! Ici! Ici!’, so you’re spinning on the spot like little robots.” The brothers are beaming into my computer on a split-screen Zoom call from adjoining hotel suites in Marylebone, where they are enduring Covid travel quarantine. “Walking three minutes to the PCR testing station and back has been the highlight of our trip so far,” says Ron.
The suites share a balcony. “So this morning it was breakfast on Ron’s side of the balcony, and yesterday it was breakfast on my side,” notes Russell.
For some reason, it is no surprise to find Sparks locked down together. For over five decades of music making, they have seemed joined at the hip, sealed tight in their own hermetic art pop universe. When they shot to success in 1974, their odd couple dynamic already seemed fully formed: a sexy, hyperactive frontman with an operatic voice backed by a scowling beanpole with a moustache that went out of fashion around the fall of the Third Reich. Sparks’s 1974 debut on Top of the Pops performing gunshot glam-rock staccato classic This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us was watched by 15 million people, causing a sensation throughout the nation. An apocryphal story asserts that John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr and told him to turn on the TV, where Marc Bolan was playing a song with Adolf Hitler.
Let’s talk about the moustache. “It was really an act of desperation on my part to figure out what I could do on stage,” says Ron. “I’m not really a sequin jacket kind of guy. I thought maybe if you had somebody who was completely stoic amongst all this explosive action, that could be attention getting in its own way.” Ron had long sported a bushy moustache but shaved it to resemble silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. “I mean, it sounds strange now, but I just didn’t grasp the impact of the Hitler business. It didn’t really hit me until years later, when we were booked to do a big French television show and the presenter said, ‘I’m not having them on because of that moustache’. I thought maybe it was time to move on.”
Ron’s facial hair has gone through many styles over the years, recently shrinking to something that resembles a caterpillar crawling across his top lip. Contrary to his deadpan persona, however, he smiles constantly, bubbling with dry amusement at the absurdities of the world, which is what you might expect from his satirical songwriting. “I don’t go around scowling at people on the street but there is a level of concentration on stage, that’s just the way I need to be to do what we’re doing.”
For over five decades, the brothers have gone in and out style, yet always kept going full steam ahead, oblivious to commercial considerations. Their music has spanned new wave, heavy rock, electronica, neo classical and opera, always driven by Ron’s rhythmically intricate, archly humorous and audaciously inventive songs. Their 1979 Giorgio Moroder- produced disco smash Number One Song In Heaven set a template for 1980s synth pop duos, while a cross-generational collaboration with British indie rockers Franz Ferdinand put them back in the charts in 2015.
Both of Sparks’ most recent albums have gone top 10 on the back of huge critical acclaim. Among the line up of musicians singing Sparks praises in Wright’s wackily entertaining documentary are Beck, Bjork and members of The Sex Pistols, New Order, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sonic Youth. Taylor Swift super-producer Jack Antonoff is in awe of a band who are “more prolific than all of the artists we consider to be the greatest in the world”.
“We were pleased that Edgar got other people to talk about us, because we don’t really like to talk about ourselves,” notes Ron. Indeed, after watching Sparks’ rollercoaster career unfolding with zany animations and wacky video clips, the essential mystique of the duo remains intact. There are apparently no marriages or children on either side, though Russell has previously insisted “We’re not gay … as far as we know!” Indeed, a woman crosses the screen behind Russell whilst he is talking, which suggests he is not quarantining alone.
“We’ve always believed action speaks louder than words,” says Russell. “I think that’s helped maintain a certain aura about Sparks. People only really know us through our music.” When self-described Sparks fanboy Wright proposed making a documentary, the Maels were initially sceptical. “We thought, ‘Are we even interesting enough?’ We don’t have the stereotypical subject matter of music documentaries where drug addiction or some tragic event happens, and it forces them to reassess their lives and takes the music to a new place. We just keep ploughing on, and if we hit a roadblock, we figure a way to punch through it.”
Yet it is that very quality of sheer bloody-minded perseverance that ensures Wright’s clever retelling of Sparks rollercoaster career is ultimately so uplifting, as they get signed and dumped by a succession of record labels, watch surefire hits go down in flames and have long cherished movie projects with cinematic heroes including Jaques Tati and Tim Burton cancelled after years of work. “It really has been against the odds,” says Russell. “I can’t think of any other band that has such a long career with this kind of body of work. The Rolling Stones are still here and that’s great, but you always know what you’re going to get with the Stones. With Sparks, I don’t think anyone could have predicted an award-winning film at Cannes.”
What is striking is how well the brothers evidently get along. Yet nine months of separate lockdown in LA was the longest period the Mael brothers have ever spent apart, and even then they worked together via the internet almost every day.
“Our roles are really discrete within the band, so there isn’t competition,” suggests Ron, the primary songwriter. “Russell’s voice is the key to Sparks, because he can sing anything I give him, no matter how challenging, and that opens up all sorts of stylistic possibilities. We feel comfortable doing stupid things in the studio together, without fear of embarrassment or ridicule. I think both of us realise our strengths would be deeply diminished if we went our separate ways.”
“Anyway, it’s a bit late now,” says Russell. “We’re stuck on this balcony together.”
The Sparks Brothers opens in the UK Sundance Film Festival on July 29 with simultaneous screenings in multiple cinemas across the UK. It goes on general release on Friday.
Annette will be released in the UK on September 3.