Friday, March 24, 2006

"Hello young lovers" an interview with THE SPARKS

On Thursday, the 23rd March I talked to Ron and Russell Mael better known as The Sparks. I was in Dublin and they were in L.A. – but separated somehow, therefore they set up a conference call and rang NEAR FM at 6p.m. on the dot.

TJ: “Hello young lovers” is the title of your new album?


TJ: Isn´t it??

Ron and Russell: “Yes, it is (laughter)

Ron: What a sharp question

TJ: You thought I address you as “hello young lovers”, weren´t you? (laughs). Your new album sounded quite different to your big hit, well, I am from Germany, just to say that, so the biggest hit I ever heard from you is: “When do I get to sing ´my way´” which was a few years ago and now I have your latest single “Perfume” in front of me and that sounds very different. In fact, you always have been quite different. How come?

Ron: I suppose if you are coming from the perspective of knowing “When do I get to sing my way” so well then probably “Hello young lovers” is even more of a shift in direction than someone who is been coming from , kind of following every little nuance what Sparks has been up to and with a song like “When do I …” it was a really precisely crafted song with a really great chorus that kicks in and in a certain way really traditiona,l even though I think it is a really great song and the lyrics are also really special to that song, but where “Hello young lovers” really differs from that is that it is the 20th album and we wanted to try to come up with a way of not working in the traditional ways in which he have worked in the past and not kind of rehashing a certain convention that are being around in pop music for so long and we try to kind of challenge ourselfs with something really different structurally, lyrically and instrumentation wise as well to just see how far we can kind of push things but then still be accessible as well.

TJ: You have just completed a little tour in the UK. How was the new album perceived over there?

Ron: It was really fantastic. The reception was just really amazing everywhere we went. We are doing the first half of the show just the new album in its entirety from the first song to the last and we´re doing it with a really stylised projection presentation which is really visual and theatrical but it is also demanding in a certain way on an audience especially that isn´t familiar yet with the new album as the album has just come out. It was a challenge in a certain way but audiences just everywhere were so enthusiastic and receptive to something that was this special and we´re really encouraged because it keeps our faith in the public that they really do exactly want to hear something that’s kind of …

TJ: … different. You have been around since the mid 70s really, isn´t it? “This town is not big enough for the two of us” – when was that?

Ron and Russell: Ehm, that was 1974.

TJ: 1974 – my god, I was seven back then

Russell: So were we

TJ: (laughs) alright. You are around for quite a while. I was talking to Karl Bartos a few weeks ago, you know him from Kraftwerk, and he was telling me that in Germany the whole musc has changed and I was talking to him about him living in the UK and he said that this really is his country and that people are more aware of his music than anywhere else. Now you, according to your biography, basically also tried your luck in England and that´s where your first success was. Is that true or is that just something that somebody wrote about you?

Russell: That´s true. We had had two albums done in the States and nothing had happened and then we got an offer to come to England from our English record company “Island” and it had always been our dream because we always idolised English bands and not American bands at all. The reception to what we were doing was incredible. There is just something about the English except of kind of having a real strong identity with pop music, it is kind of their number one industry, and there is kinda not a whole lot of other things to do so England is kind of been strong to us through the years even though others country have gone for one song or another but our consistency has been strong there. The English were kind of accepting what we were doing.

TJ: But your are also touring in the States nowadays. So you are well known in your own, huge country. Is the audience different?

Ron: No, we are finding that everywhere we go the audiences now have become really consistent. We just got back from playing two nights in Moscow in Russia and we had that same question on our own minds “would the audience be different?” They are even towards Sparks and the audience was absolutely amazing and so we´re finding that everywhere we go pop audiences, at least for Sparks, from our experience are really consistent everywhere. And really well versed in most of the albums that we have and the reaction everywhere you go is pretty similar. We´re told the same thing in Japan, “well, don´t expect them to be, well, they´ll like you but don´t expect them to be overly responsive and vocal in there reception to you” and when we got there it was just as wild as any other country we played at.

TJ: I´ve heard that actually quite often. I´ve been checking one of those old videos from KISS, you know the hard rock band KISS with the make up on and all that …

Ron: Yeah

TJ: They have been told the same thing and then when they played Tokyo, Tokyo decided that now is the time to celebrate Rock and Roll. Apart from the asian looking population you couldn´t see them differ from any other country.

Russell: There is so many different national differences but when it comes to popular music it seems that there is a pretty consistent reaction to what´s being done. We just played in Russia and we had the same thing. We were warned that maybe the Russian people, not having a strong familiarity with what we´re doing or whatever it was, that the raction wouldn´t be great but it was exactly the same as anywhere else that we played.

TJ: Let´s just imagine: If this would all end today and nobody would be interested in the Sparks anymore and all that. I mean, you have achieved so much but at the end of the day you are artists and it doesn’t really wear off. You always will do something artistically. If you couldn’t do your music is there anything you would like to do?

Ron: Well, I don’t know so much about not doing music but maybe it would be channeling the music in other kind of ways. We are really interested in doing a movie musical, so, we are just interested in what you said being creative and artistic in some kind of form, so if it wasn’t doing Sparks then I am sure we would be channeling it in some other way, wether it would be in film or making our own film or writing for theatrical performances that sort of thing. I don’t think you lose that kind of ambition and start becoming a shoe salesmen all of a sudden.

TJ: When you do electronic music it is all about melody. Being a musician myself I see it as being a craft but some people tend to think that you´re just a knob-twister and that everybody who does something electronically can´t play at all. Does that bother you that people put people into a niche and has it happened that people genuinely think that you are just knob twisters and that you are just one of those bands that does noise?

Ron: I think if someone just bothers to listen to the new album they can see what the real story is. There is a lot of musical ability and capability in that album …

Russell: The reason why we did this new album is really as a reaction against all those people that were kind of making electronic sound like one long song and, you know, we loved those kind of thing with all the dance music and that kind of thing but when an area becomes so clicheted then it is time to move on. We wanted to get a 180 degrees away from electronic music because there are so many people that aren´t very good at it but doing in that it kind of gave the whole thing a bad name and we wanted to do something that nobody else could do and try to do something that is musically more adventurious. When we were doing electronic music, even though we were able to do a lot of different styles, and because we really loved that kind of sound but there are limitations as far as uniformity of sound goes and so it was time for us to move on.

TJ: You are a very established act so I guess you have way more freedom than a new band would have but have you ever been put under pressure from the record company? Did they expect you to sound like you sounded when you sold a lot of records? You know, when I was talking to Karl Bartos he told me that after the smash hit with “The model”, they wanted them to always sound like that …

Ron: We never had anyone really tell us what to do and in addition to the comment that you made prior to that: New bands have a 100% freedom to do whatever they wanna do, too. The sad thing is that they choose not to in most cases or they´re incapable of trying stuff that is really bold so I don’t really agree that a younger band has restrictions placed on them because when you´re first starting out that is the time when you should be doing your most adventurous stuff. I think that everybody in pop music in a certain way is given that freedom. And Karl Bartos to whom you obviously talked to, well, they didn’t follow anyones advice anyway.

TJ: Yeah, I have to say, you know, I´ve been living here in Ireland for 5 ½ years but I grew up with Kraftwerk music and when I talked to Karl I found him to be a very nice guy and what he said made perfect sense. It is just that nowadays when you talk to younger people it seems that they have never listened to “real” music. When Techno started in the late 80s, early 90s it all became just one beat …

Ron: Yes, I totally agree with you that everything now is based on just what sort of came before and not even like 10 years before or 20 years before but it is being based on what has come six months before and now everyone says “We´re the new Arcade Fire, we´re the new Strokes …” and you kind of think: “Oh my god”. New people are just kind of wanting to emulate …

TJ: … this years trend …

Ron: … there isn´t a real basis musically for peoples work and having a real background in music because in the end, I think the people that do have that do pop out from the crowd if they use it wisely.

TJ: You started at a time where there wasn’t much around in opposition to nowadays. There are just so many musicians, no, hang on, I doubt it: artists maybe but not musicians … music is a craft. Do you think that this perhaps is the reason why you kept going for so long?

Ron: Well, I think that is the reason why our stuff, or maybe why he had 20 albums because the stuff is, well, there is something special on it and that people do recognise that and even though we havent had the massive successes like U2 but then I think that Sparks is doing music that is maybe more prococative in a certain way than those types of bands that have had huger success because they tend to get lazy and they use their real fire to continually challenge themselfes in what they are doing because there is no need to. They are so secure in a certain way. I think that is probably part of the reason why we´ve continued to last but not only last but do music on our 20th album that is probably more provocative and more special than anything we´ve done.

TJ: So, you reckon, you will keep going for another 10, 15 years?

Ron: (laughs) hopefully not.

TJ: Are you planning on retirering?

Ron: You know, being in pop music, you don´t think in terms of retireing. The whole thing about being in pop music is that you kind of don’t play by the normal rules that are out there and things like retirement and all of that don´t really register on our wavelength because those terms don’t mean anything.

TJ: When you said that you have never really had that massive successes, I sometmes think it depends how people measure it. I mean, your records are available in 20 odd countries. I would call that “moderately” successful.

Ron: yeah

TJ: It seems if you never had a number one it then you are not successful nowadays.
Ron: Yes, it is all relative and I think I was speaking more about commercial success but, yes, it is all relative and can all be dfined in different ways.

TJ: If somebody starts out today – is there any advise you could give to a young musician?

Russell: It seems like if somebody really has to ask then I think it is gonna be a problem for them. The thing is that it has got to be so much a part of their psyche and their drive has got ta be from themselves so if they need any kind of advise than they are already in trouble because there is so many kind of problems that come along the way and if the outside world is at all something you are considering in a strong way then I think it is a bad idea to be doing it at all. It just has to come from within you and if the drive is so strong then no matter what anybody says or recommends or what the reaction to your music is that you kind of persist. If you have to ask maybe you should persue something else.

TJ: Thank you very much, bye bye

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Human League, Tears for fears, A-ha ...

Some of the electropop bands of the 1980s are re-united, some always stayed together. A-ha played Dublins Point Theatre in 2002, Tears for Fears played Dublins Vicar Street in 2005 and the Human League played just a year later.

They all looked healthy, mature and knew how to communicate with an audience. I guess they all know now that those who attend the concerts are the real fans, those who made them want to do what they do – play and perform for the fans.

Admiration has come full circle

(Pic: Philip Oakey, The Human League)

* read about them at


When Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode in 1981, DM struggled for a while only to overtake Clarke´s projects saleswise. But that doesn’t mean that Vince wasn’t succesful at all. On the contrary, teaming up with Alison Moyet, the very unlike pair created a lasting legacy as YAZOO (YAZ in the US) and “Don’t go” is perhaps the most played 80´s dance song ever. Yazoo released two albums before they parted. After a brief encounter with Irish singer Fergal Sharkey, with whom Vince formed THE ASSEMBLY in order to release a once-off single “Never, Never”, Vince Clarke asked vocalists to come forward for auditions for another venture.

Andy Bell came forward and got the gig – Erasure was born. That was back in 1986 and ever since the duo released smash hits and great, timeless tunes and there is no end in sight.

Read about their 2005 show on and listen to:

Erasure – Hits
Erasure – Nightbird

Duran Duran

The Book of British Hit singles and albums has unveiled their annual list of the “Top 100 most successful acts of all time” in December 2005 and Double Duran rank at # 55 (Erasure at # 67 respectively).

Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and the three Taylors (and they aren´t relatives at all) John, Andy and Roger became known as the “Fab 5” and are a household name all over the world.

Their career was somewhat shortlived when one considers that they first hit it big in 1981 with their “Girls on Film” video and single release and followed it up with a string of hits and arena shows and tours, producing classic material like “Hungry like the wolf”, “Wild Boys”, “Is there something I should know?”, “Save a prayer” and the 1985 James Bond movie hit “A view to a kill”.

Then it was all over – Duran Duran were no more.

The 1985 album “Arcadia – So Red The Rose” which consisted of LeBon, Roger Taylor, Nick Rhodes and a number of big industry names as special contributors like Sting or Roger Waters, is an exceptionally great album and produced the hit: “Election day”. To this day it remains one of my favourite albums and on a whole I´d say that Nick Rhodes was a real inspiration on me as a keyboarder. Around the same time John and Andy hooked up with the Ex – “Chic” Drummer Tony Thompson and vocalist Robert Palmer to produce the even more successful “Power Station”.

It all eventually died down and Duran Duran carried on without Andy Taylor and Roger Taylor and although “Big thing” produced another two hit singles they never reached their original strength.

1993s “Ordinary World” became a surprise hit and their biggest hit to date but the follow up album “Thank you” didn’t sell well.

More albums followed without much impact and then the word got out that the Fab 5 meet up again and re-unite.

2004 release “Astronaut” who saw the original line up in well over 20 years is a smasher simply because this line up is able to create magic.

Their reunion tour was a never ending one and we can expect more from them in the future.

Depeche Mode

It is the year 2006 and Depeche Mode are currently on a massive world tour promoting their latest hit album: „Playing the angel“ – and it is not a comeback tour, they are there since 81 and they never died or fell victim to other shortlived trends. In a very real way the are the true survivors and winners when it comes to all that’s left from the mighty 80s.

And even this statement doesn’t do them justice because there music isn´t stuck in the 80s, they evolved and moved on and they deserve to be called true heroes.

It wasn’t always easy for Depeche Mode – when songwriter and Depeche Mode founder Vince Clarke left the band, literally the minute success came, in the next Depeche album without Vince didn’t chart as high as they had hoped for and Depeche was on the edge of becoming a pale memory of musicians. Fortunately DM found there strength and Martin Gore turned out to be an equally talented songwriter and they did well in bringing a trained musician, Alan Wilder, to the group before taking over the world.

Wilder left the band in the early/mid 90s but “Ultra”, the album that came after Wilders departure, became an instant hit album and remains one of the strongest albums they´ve ever made.

DM brought us so many great tunes that I would love to see them around forever. Read more under

Sampling and looping

The first electronic revolution didn´t happen when Kraftwerk emerged, it happened earlier when every guitarist around the globe was able to switch from acoustic to electric guitar. The sound became rougher, distortion was born and soon “Wah Wah” and other effects were added and the guitar became the leading instrument in rock. It took a good few years before electronic instruments became affordable and “the cheap option” always was CASIO™. There quality surely wasn’t as good as Roland™s or Korg™s but it did the job. I remember purchasing the Casio SK-I sampling keyboard in 1987 and all you could record was half a sentence in a dreadful quality BUT you could the take this partial sentence or sound or whatever and you could play in in different keys and octaves and sometimes the sounds became so weird that in the end it became an art form to sample effects and squeeze them into a song. After all bands like Depeche Mode were basically making a truckload od money from using sample sounds in their music. Later I bought a Casio DG – 20 a guitar without strings and via MIDI, which revolutionised the whole musicworld in 1982 by enabling instruments to communicate with each other and to start and stop in a synchronised manner, there didn’t seem to be any boundaries to creativity. The problem was always to record it properly and get rid of the sometimes horrible hiss that came along with the cheap in-build microphones. The fact remains that only a song that had a great melody to it became timeless and a classic and Depeche Mode often perform an acoustic version of an otherwise electronic song during their shows and it works because the songs have a memorable melody to it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kraftwerk 2004 Worldtour Images


(check the full Karl Bartos Interview on: or

They say you have to start somewhere - and although, historically, Kraftwerk weren´t the only musicians committed to electronic music before the world took notice, they are the most influential band of all time and it is a fair assessment to say that without them there would be no Techno, no House or any of these styles and certainly there wouldn´t be all that came after them: Depeche Mode, Erasure, Human League and so on.

Despite the reputation that electropop suffers from e.g. "they are all bloody knob-twisters..." - all Kraftwerk members (or Ex-Members for that matter) are well trained musicians.

Their catalogue/legacy includes tunes like: „The Model“, „The Robots“, „Autobahn“, „Boing Boom Tchak“ or „Radioactivity“ and „Tour de France“.

Albums you might want to listen to are:

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express
Kraftwerk – Autobahn
Kraftwerk – Computerworld
Kraftwerk – Electric Cafe
Electric Music – Esperanto
Karl Bartos – Communication

DVD: “Minimum – Maximum” – funnily enough you will notice to hear their influence on a lot of productions. Trust me on this one

Music non stop

"Jeder kann Musik machen" (Everybody can make music) was a statement made by no other than KRAFTWERK founder Ralf Hütter during their 1991 "The Mix" tour - and he probably has said this somewhen before.

Electronic instruments are indeed easier to "play" than conventional instruments - having said that, in my experience, being a musician for 26 years myself, you won´t get away with it unless you have a thorough knowledge and understanding of how to create music.

Of course there are examples of crappy "electro-poppers" out there but there is also a lot of quality in the works of Moby, Lamb or Faithless for instance. It is the idea of this blog to "examine" the evolution of electronic music while investigating bands and trends of the past, present and the future ...