Taking a break from recording Sparks’ latest album and preparations for their 2008 residency at Islington Academy which will see the legendary pop brothers play all 21 of their albums over 21 nights, Russell Mael, the hyperactive frontman, advises aspirant rockers through stumbling, healthy dictatorships and skinny jeans.
Bafflement and naivety
The strange thing is I’ve kind of learnt nothing from all the time spent doing what we are doing. When somebody asks advice on how to get where we are, I can’t answer it. We’re getting to be 21 albums into the process and it is a complete bafflement and mystery as to how it all works. We’ve been stumbling along from the beginning. At first, it’s like a hobby and you simply enjoy doing it and you’re naïve about everything. The place we’re at now, we’re still just as naïve about everything as we were in the beginning but I think that is an asset because it keeps us fresh in what we are doing musically. We always approach everything from a naïve standpoint: each album we do, we approach it as if it’s the first thing we’ve ever done.
…it is a complete bafflement and mystery as to how it all works
Complacency is easy, music shouldn’t be
We’ve got to make a statement with our albums. We can’t rely on the fact that you have this beautiful long history and fans and that will be enough to survive. That works for some other bands – but we’re still not a household name. We don’t have that safety net to rely on of having sold 475 billion records. I think that’s a blessing and a curse. It means we don’t sit back and relax and make some crappy record. Our music is progressing all the time as a result of not having a safety net. It’s a lot easier to become complacent but music should be a challenge.
A band is more than just making music
It’s a lifestyle that you, kind of unwittingly, get yourself into. And there’s no looking back. When you’re younger you don’t think a band could actually be an existence and here we are, almost 40 years later, thinking, “What would we do?” And we can’t think of anything, except perhaps lying in a gutter, which I think I may have been rather good at! It becomes all encompassing. There are no ‘off’ days when you’re not in that world, and you actually don’t want it to be any other way. It is incredibly stressful being locked in studio with your brother on the point of killing each other, it becomes incredibly pressured but that is what keeps all the intensity of what we do surfaced. For better or worse, there is no other alternative.
Make a fool of yourself – you may be making history
We listen to contemporary music in the hope that it’ll push us to do better. But now, it seems to play it safe, it’s predictable and we hate predictability. Rock and pop has been based around something like anarchy, bold statements and rebellion. But bands seem now to want to fit in – rough around the edges in a very fashionable way. It’s disheartening for us that more people aren’t saying “I’m not gonna play by those rules.” Traditionally, bands that have been the greatest, the most fun, are the ones that navigate their own course. It’s a lot harder and lonelier to take a risk. But by making a fool of yourself, you may also be making something quite historical and special.
Dictatorships aren’t always bad
Ron and I have such a clear vision of what Sparks should be, what a band should be. It’s that thing of having a kind of purity about your music and we become very precious about it. And we want that purity to be conveyed by the people who play with us. You can read that as: purity equals dictatorship, or a lack of democracy but it has a purpose. Early on, there was more democracy among the people we played with. But as time has gone on we’ve become more insular about what we want.
…purity equals dictatorship, or a lack of democracy
Always substance over style
Our look is something that was never calculated. We just did what was comfortable. It’s something we stumbled on and that just became what it was. Band appearances nowadays are such an instantly recognised commodity: you can figure out where the person is coming from and you can pretty much guess what type of music they will play. I like it when things are vague and have a nuance. Something that both of Ron and I like is when you can’t figure out what the mindset is of an artist or where he is coming from. There’s so many prototypes – like skinny jeans and Converse and indie. It’s too easy. You begin to pray that the look won’t be consistent with the sound and when it is, you get kind of bored and hopeless.
It’s a strange time for music
It’s all so fractured. Even record companies don’t know how things are going to exist. It’s kind of like the blind leading the blind. It’s a very peculiar time to be entering the music industry. Once you make the decision to love making music, all the peripherals about ‘how will I get my music out there’ kind of become secondary. With the advent of MySpace and Facebook, there’s more opportunity than ever for music to be heard. Which has two sides – you can argue that it’s good there is so much diversity; everybody can be in a band and post their songs online. But on the other side, 200 million other people have access to posting their songs on the web so it levels the field again and there’s always the question will anyone rise above that?
Look forward – it’s the only way to progress
We haven’t really listened to 80% of our albums since we made them and rehearsing for Islington is probably the first time we have ever listened to some of our songs. You can reminisce too much – you go over how things were, what made that work. You become paralysed but times keep changing. The only way to stay fresh is to almost have blinders on. And not be looking at what you did in the past. We’re proud of the past, but we’re not wallowing in it because that’s where you can run into trouble by dwelling on trying to recreate something even though the parameters have changed and it’s not possible.