Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks discuss new album ‘Hippopotamus’ and how their musical ‘Annette’ is colliding with ‘Star Wars’
More than 45 years into their musical partnership, the siblings Ron and Russell Mael attempt to wrangle new creatures each time they commit to a new Sparks project.
In their underground hit, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” vocalist Russell bellowed about “the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers.” In “Here in Heaven” they describe an afterlife with “many, many sheep — and the people only sleep.”
Some mysterious thing even hijacks “Strange Animal,” a work in which the titular creature sneaks into the recording studio to critique the song at hand.
This time the pair named their new record after an even-toed ungulate: “Hippopotamus.”
Featuring shimmering, taut ditties about ambivalent gods, tried-and-true sexual positions, the French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s eloquence and Scandinavian design, the record, which arrived this month, teems with contemporary tones and textures designed to invade listeners’ heads.
It was borne of a desire to return to concisely structured pop.
“Well, we can’t say they’re traditional songs, but they have a general format of being traditional songs,” Russell says on the phone from London, where he, Ron and their L.A.-based band are in the midst of a European tour.
But, then, little about the group is traditional.
Responsible for left-field hits including “The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” “Beat the Clock” and “Angst in My Pants” the Maels have written songs about topics including a tryst with Madonna, the “Your call is very important to us, please hold” lady and a meat-loving man in love with a Morrissey-loving vegetarian.
Their long-form radio drama, “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman,” imagined a never-taken trip to Hollywood by the Swedish director.
The Maels, who were raised in Pacific Palisades and attended UCLA, are in the midst of another reinvention, no small feat given their glam-fueled beginnings, post-punk and synth reconfiguring and countless divergent avenues in a continually surprising career.
Their movie musical, “Annette,” directed by the French auteur Leos Carax, is set to begin shooting next year. The production of Sparks’ original screenplay and music will star Adam Driver and Michelle Williams.
The elevator pitch, according to Ron? “Neurotic comedian marries beautiful opera singer — and tragedy ensues.”
The musical is a continuation of the band’s mission, which Russell, 68, describes as “to try and not just rely on our past, but really do whatever we can to be provocative and vital in this day and age. To be adventurous and not become lazy.”
The hope, he adds, is that each new project serves as “the calling card for Sparks. We try to do that both lyrically and melodically -- try and do something that sounds, to us at least, modern.”
One of the Maels’ most recent musical projects was a collaboration with members of the Scottish post-punk band Franz Ferdinand, FFS. As FFS, the group issued an album in 2015.
Recorded in what Ron, 72, calls “a very expensive studio in London with a lot of other people staring at you and risking making a fool of yourself if something doesn’t work,” the nature of the FFS collaboration didn’t afford much spontaneity.
“Hippopotamus” was recorded mostly in Russell’s Los Angeles home studio, which allowed for a more relaxed vibe.
In such a climate arrived songs such as “Missionary Position,” a witty rock song about sexual conservatism that, says Ron, who writes the music and lyrics, “popped into my head kind of fully formed.”
The idea, he says, involves someone celebrating “a sexual position — but doing it in a conservative kind of way, where they’re championing the tried-and-true as opposed to being experimental.”
Another song, “Scandinavian Design,” couples verses sung from the perspective of a lonely design freak who’s cut his holdings down to a few choice pieces. Russell sings of an obsession that begets the feeling that “time and space are intertwined / I can see this defined.”
His lover? She doesn’t come around much, but the narrator’s not too worried. She “has a job to do as some guy’s concubine / Chandeliers, bric-a-brac/ I know that she’ll be back.”
Like most Sparks songs, its lyrics thrive on narrative drive — an approach that they tapped when working on “Annette.”
The Maels met director Carax at the Cannes Film Festival in the early ’00s, after he’d used the Sparks song “How Are You Getting Home?” in his film “Holy Motors.” During their conversation he told the brothers that, despite his best efforts, he had been struggling to find a musical to adapt for the screen.
When the Maels returned to LA, they sent him the treatment and music for “Annette.”
Carax told them he wanted to direct it, which left the Maels gobsmacked, even more so after they discovered a shared sensibility with the director “about what the musical should be, and about the idea of sincerity in musicals.”
The team has been laying the foundation for four years, and as script and music were finalized, Driver expressed interest in the lead. Soon Carax and Sparks converged with Driver to audition some of the songs.
Up until then, Russell was utilizing his operatic style to sing the lead characters’ parts. “It was really exciting to hear Adam’s take on those vocals that we had been living with for four years — and to finally hear somebody outside of Sparks doing the songs,” Russell says.
Driver, he adds, stayed clear of the “show-tuney sort of thing” that the artists and director were working to avoid. “It’s a really different kind of musical. I think it’s something that’s going to be really special.”
Williams committed to her role earlier this year, but the filming hit a scheduling roadblock: a certain blockbuster franchise and its demands on Driver, one of its leads.
“His career, as you know, has gotten insane,” Ron explains with typical dry humor, “so we’re having to compete with ‘Star Wars’ for the schedule.”
It’s a wonderful problem to have.
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