Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, have been charting their own peculiar course through pop music since first launching their style of extravagant, overarching rock in 1971. Since then, the Mael brothers have shifted in and out of a number of sounds and scenes, staying one step ahead of everyone else, be it '70s UK glam rock or '80s electro-pop, before developing their own signature form of cabaret glam pop throughout the '90s and into the aughts. Sparks' 2012-2013 "Two Hands, One Mouth" tour saw the band challenging itself with a string of career-spanning shows comprised solely of Ron's keyboard playing and Russell's agile falsetto, upping the creative ante of the 21-night "Sparks Spectacular" in 2008. Russell took a bit of downtime amidst planning a new Sparks album and rehearsals for "The Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth," which debuts in Atlanta on Wednesday, October 23, to explain the challenges of this tour, reflect on the band's decade-old Lil' Beethoven LP, and discuss the band's open-ended future.
"Two Hands, One Mouth" is like no other tour Sparks has attempted before. Did it turn out as expected?
It actually turned out much better than expected because, in a certain way, it was a pretty bold decision on our part to do a tour in this format - something we've never done before - where we were kind of placing ourselves out there with just the core unit of what Sparks has been - or the essence of what Sparks has been - with Ron's compositions and his lyrical slant, and my vocals and his keyboards as well. We took away a lot of the elements from the recorded versions that can be really rich. At the same time we wanted to make sure it didn't come across as a sensitive singer-songwriter either. That was the most repellant idea in our heads, if that's how it was perceived.
We wanted to find a way to retain all of the urgency and aggression and hopefully grandeur that Sparks has in the music but to do it with with just the two of us. in that way, I think we were able to achieve that. Ironically, only having the two people on stage, we've had a lot of comments about how theatrical it's been. It's been ironic that this is the first time we didn't have projections or any kind of stage sets. What seems to be happening is our personalities and the personalities of the music all seem to be shoved to the forefront, and people are really responding to that. It's been really well received. That's the real motivation for the second leg of of this - the Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth.
Are there any differences in the original incarnation and this Revenge?
A majority of the songs this time weren't included in the first go-around. We're kind of gluttons for punishment in that sense, even though it's kind of a moot point for places like Atlanta where we didn't make it on the first leg. We're changing the entire show, so there's a whole new version.
We're doing about 15 or 16 songs that we didn't do for the first round. Atlanta will be the maiden voyage, so to speak.
Some songs, such as "Beat the Clock" and "No. 1 Song in Heaven," appear in a much more grandiose form, even though they're being played with only a synth and vocals. Was it a challenge to reinvent in such a radically different way?
It's actually pretty hard. The burden is more on Ron's shoulders, because I get to sing the melody of the songs which is something that needs to be retained. His parts are much more different and/or he stacks up 20 different keyboard parts at once. So he finds a way to distil that onto the new format. There's a lot of trial and error to come up with a new rendition that also really works.
We did a song for the first part of the tour called "Sherlock Holmes," which is kind of a more obscure song for us. People really came away enjoying it, even if they had only been hearing it for the first time. They thought it was a new song or something. It was just an entirely new arrangement. It really highlights the songwriting, and the lyrics too since there's nothing for me to hide behind - everything is exposed.
Had you wanted to do a more minimal performance like this for a while?
Not really, no. We just like new challenges that challenge both us and the audience - Sparks fans that have stayed with us. We did all 20 of our albums in 21 nights, from the first song to the last. There were over 270 songs. This is the counter to that idea - reviewing your past but doing it in a different way. While that was the most comprehensive way possible to overview our career, this is just me and Ron hand-picking the songs from our catalog that are deserving and have some unique quality to be presented in this format.
So almost 300 songs to Sparks' name. Do you guys pretty much write and record constantly?
Yeah, we're doing it right now. It's kind of schizophrenic - we're rehearsing for this tour and working on a new project. We're working non-stop [laughs]. The public doesn't see the work that goes into it, but then when it comes out they say, "Oh hey, they have something new." They don't see the year or two buildup before we're actually happy and ready to release something.
I'd like to get your thoughts on Lil' Beethoven, which is now a decade old. It's a later landmark Sparks record, and really cemented this current stage or sound of Sparks' evolution.
I agree, it was a really special record for us where we had an album of material that we were ready to record. But it was just another set of songs. We just said, "We're going through the motions and need to do something exciting and unique." So we scrapped that batch of songs and ended up making what would become Lil' Beethoven.
We wondered what we could do on a record that kept all the elements of pop music that make it exciting but do away with a lot of the conventions of pop music, like taking away the typical format of drum-bass-guitar and replaced with elements of thick and aggressive vocals and orchestral instruments but making those things the power of the band and the recording. The structures are less defined too, to actually fit the song or idea.
We like that album a lot. It's very special to us and hard to believe it's already 10 years old [laughs]. Time really flies when you're having a good time [laughs].
How do you choose characters or icons that you fixate on, like Beethoven, Sid Vicious, Frank Sinatra, or Ingmar Bergman?
A lot of them are cinematic references - we're really big fans of movies. And then a lot of them are just pop culture icons in some sort of way. We like having subject matter and elements in the lyrics that aren't traditional subjects. Or if something is traditional, then we like to present it not in some hackneyed or cliched way.
We feel like with lyrics, you're given a blank palette to do anything, so for us we just like to make those vocals something really special. Sometimes the least intimate or known characters just pop into the lyrics.
Giorgio Moroder, who you produced a few of your albums, has had a sort of resurgence recently, following an appearance on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories album. Would you ever see a Sparks-Moroder collaboration in the future?. Would you ever see a Sparks-Moroder collaboration in the future?
We really like Giorgio a lot and stay in touch with him often in L.A. We're still really good friends with him. We're happy for him that there's this resurgence for his name associated with Daft Punk, but it's hard to know if we'd do something as specific as that genre. For us, it's a little bit looking backwards to think about it in that way. We're a little bit weary to think that way.
The album we did with him was much like our Lil' Beethoven album, where at the time it was uncharted territory and it was a process that neither Giorgio or ourselves knew was headed but it was very special for him to work for the first time in a band, and the first time for us to work without a band but with the electronics of the studio behind us. Despite that being such a milestone album, whether we'd work with him again is hard to say. We do obviously love Giorgio though.
Do you ever look back on electro-pop or glam or any of these genres you helped develop, or is it always looking forward?
In a certain way we think it's kind of amazing that we have been - unwittingly involved - with so many of these genres. Nothing is ever calculated. So with the glam thing, we never considered ourselves part of glam, but we were just two Americans who were fortunate enough to move to London when we were doing a similar type of thing in L.A., but no one was terming us as glam. We were suddenly fitting in with Roxy Music and T.Rex or Roy Wood and Gary Glitter. We just thought it was ironic that here we were doing an extension of what we've always been doing, then were just in with another scene going on.
And the thing with Giorgio Moroder, we just really wanted to experiment with something no one else was doing. So we abandoned the guitar and the traditional band format and all of a sudden it's a new genre - electro-or whatever you want to call it, where now two people can be a band and it doesn't have to be guitar/drum/bass. At the time, you dont' think it's going to be something new, you're just trying to do something that's unique and exciting and ambitious. It's always in retrospect that people interpret what that was. Fortunately, we've been associated with these different interesting movements.
So what's next for Sparks?
Well, we are working on a new project and without being too specific about it, it's going to be a story-driven musical project. It'll be a concept album; something we feel is really bold and special. It's something also we've planned with being able to tour it live hopefully shortly after this current tour. We're hoping to tour it around next year as another complete transformation of Sparks. It's cool [laughs].
Sparks "The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth" tour debuts Wed., Oct. 23, at Variety Playhouse.$25. 8 p.m. 1099 Euclid Ave. 404-524-7354.
Is this some sort of joke?
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