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

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