Sparks' Russell Mael on new album Hippopotamus

We speak to Russell Mael of Sparks after an eight year hiatus, about writing musicals, film projects, collaborating with Franz Ferdinand, and their 23rd album, Hippopotamus

Feature by Graeme Campbell | 04 Sep 2017

Just how do you sum up Sparks, exactly? If you’re a fan, they’re the ultimate cult band – a madcap sonic circus where weirdo pop meets avant new wave – while those who “don’t get it” simply don’t get it. For 50 years, the Mael brothers have skirted commercial success, instead opting to embrace their reputation as one of music’s greatest outliers. What the Hell is it This Time? reads the title of track six on Sparks’ latest LP, Hippopotamus, in a meta nod to their own penchant for wacky reinvention.

Hippopotamus arrives at a strange juncture in Sparks’ career. After an eight year semi hiatus, Ron and Russell find themselves back on the lips of younger audiences: their rediscovered vogue owed in no small part to 2015’s titanic FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand. “Nothing changed musically for us as a result of that project,” Russell Mael tells The Skinny from his home in Los Angeles. “That album (FFS) was done at RAK Studios in London, which is huge, and it was recorded in about two weeks. Hippopotamus finds us back at home where we spent ten months recording."

If there was a suspicion that Sparks might be tempted to parlay the success of FFS into a new image and accessible sound, it quickly dissipated upon the release of Hippopotamus: the new album's titular track, and batshit lead single that would reference everything from Shakespeare to Hieronymus Bosch. "The song is one of those instances of taking an uncompromising stance on what a pop song can be,” he says. “It’s not typical pop fare... being about a guy who, to his surprise, finds any number of disparate objects in his swimming pool, from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, to a woman with an abacus.”

Lyrically, such Dada projections are perhaps an acquired taste, but technically, Sparks have never been anything less than redoubtable. Arguably the kings of the complicated pop song, Hippopotamus comes loaded with strange key changes and dissonant rhythms: it’s challenging, but also rewarding – the type of music that possesses the power to surprise six months down the line. Early reviews indicate it could be their best solo album in years, with some comparing it favorably to 1975's Indiscreet.

“We never have a routine when we start to record a new album other than the fact that both Ron and I are the givens,” says Mael. “We like to approach things with a clean slate every time we set out to record. And after the two narrative film projects we were really excited to get back to the other discipline of doing three and four minute songs... but on Sparks' terms of trying to be forward thinking and uncompromising in their content.” When we ask if there’s a secret to keeping their relationship fresh after this time, the vocalist is nonplussed. “We approach each album as though it’s our first one and attack it with the same enthusiasm, spirit, naivety, and lack of restrictions. With 23 albums, we always have to challenge both ourselves and hopefully our audience.”

For some bands, “challenging” might mean working with a new producer or uprooting to a new studio. For Sparks, it's something far grander. Eight years might seem like a long hiatus on first thought, but in between forming art rock supergroups, the pair have not one, but two films in the pipeline. “We created a musical called Annette about four years ago. We wrote the story and also all of the music and lyrics. We then approached French director Leos Carax to direct the film. (Carax used our song How Are You Getting Home? in his last film, Holy Motors).

"He loved the story and music and decided this would be his next film." Mael continues, "He has since attached actor Adam Driver to be the male lead and Michelle Williams to be the female lead. The film should start principle photography at some point later in the year. Our other narrative project, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which was our last album in 2009, will also be turned into a feature film that Ron and I will be directing.”

Hippopotamus, like most Sparks records, is manna from heaven for a music reviewer: it’s funny, outrageous, weird, complicated, dark, silly... name an adjective and you’ll probably be able to apply it somewhere. Even better is the fact it sounds huge, which is mainly owed to the baroque instrumentation. For Mael, this is all down to advances in technology. “We wanted to combine the more rock elements of the arrangement with big orchestrations and also electronics. And lots of layered vocals. The technology has allowed us to take the time to do whatever we want without the constraints of being in a commercial studio and constantly looking at the clock.”

Adapting these songs to the live environment isn’t the most straightforward of tasks, but for a band with almost half a century on the clock, it’s one to embrace rather than shirk. In 2013, Sparks embarked on the Two Hands, One Mouth tour, opting to perform alone, reducing each song to just keyboard and vocals. After that came the Kimono My House anniversary shows, which saw them perform classic hits like This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us while flanked by a 38-piece orchestra. What can fans expect from the Hippopotamus tour, then?

“After the amazing reaction at the 6 Music Festival in Glasgow, we’re really eager to start the tour,” Mael excitedly answers. “The line-up will be the same as the Glasgow show, with the exception of one of the guitarists, Michael Shuman, who also plays in Queens of the Stone Age. They will be touring [their new album] at the same time as us. [Shuman's] other bandmates, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford, from Mini Mansions will again be with us as will Steven Nistor on drums and Evan Weiss and Taylor Locke on guitars.”

Between the new album, tour and film projects, it will come as no surprise that Mael is coy when asked about a potential FFS follow-up. (And even if Sparks had the time, Franz Ferdinand are hard at work readying their next album, new members in tow). Perhaps then, it’s best remembered as a one off – a project that proved, ironically, that collaborations do in fact work. “Right at the moment we have our hands full,” he says, hesitantly.

With our time winding up, Mael confirms that the hippo you see on the artwork for Hippopotamus was in fact a real hippo – how they managed to coax the African mammal into a Los Angeles swimming pool is a secret he wouldn’t reveal. Some things in life are best left not to be understood – Sparks themselves being the prime example. How do you sum up a band like Sparks, then? The answer is you don’t.

Hippopotamus is released on 8 Sep via BMG
Sparks play Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 20 Sep