Sparks on their upcoming dates: "There'll be no props - just pure showmanship"

a press shot of sparks

Since exploding into 1974’s glam zeitgeist with the hit single This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, Ron and Russell Mael have maintained a tireless forward momentum across rock’s most ingenious and instantly recognisable albums. Their latest, Hippopotamus, is also one of their best.

Can we expect all the usual audiovisual bells and whistles on this tour?

Russell Mael: This time we have a really exciting band playing with us, so there won’t be extraneous props in the show. We’re going to try to get away with pure showmanship.

How do you go about maintaining prime vocal condition?

Russell: You must take care of yourself for the people coming to your shows. You cannot allow yourself to aim for vocals that are less than perfect or less than the way people know they should sound. It’s my obligation that songs from Kimono My House [1974] sound as they should, and we’re proud that we still do everything in its original key.

It’s sometimes easier to find parallels with what you do in the art world than in the rock milieu. Your instantly recognisable public image is reminiscent of Gilbert and George.

Russell: Yeah. I appreciate the analogy. You can’t separate their persona from the actual work they do, and it’s similar with Ron and me.

Ron: That lack of separation from the way they present themselves and their work has a similarity. You can’t cut yourself off from the image they present and what they’re doing. When we started, we thought image and visuals enhanced rather than detracted from the music. We’d studied visual arts at university; we didn’t study music. I studied graphic design, and Russell cinema.

Your use of repetition sometimes transcends traditional pop hooks – Hippopotamus is almost a sonic equivalent to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe screen-prints.

Ron: That’s an interesting observation. We became aware of that repetition around the time of Lil Beethoven [2002]. We were listening to a lot of hip-hop, and minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and realised that at a certain point, when it’s obvious it’s repetition, repetition ceases being boring and starts making an emphatic statement.

Everything about Sparks is a challenge: there are always more lyrics than fit comfortably; songs are invariably written in a key that takes Russell to the top of his range; suddenly Ron’s playing piano with a pair of six-foot false arms; or you’re playing twenty-one albums across twenty-one successive nights. These are challenges more readily associated with competitive sport than with pop music.

Russell: With my role and duties it’s almost like a sport. You have to train for it and there’s a focus and discipline that’s similar to athletics.

Ron: [Laughing] When very young, before becoming a band, we both competed in sports. While half the appeal was the enjoyment of doing the sport, the other half was the attention you were getting, so that still figures in what we’re doing. We’re competitive people generally: competing against our past and trying to move beyond the lethargy in much of what’s being done around us, so there’s an element of sport in all we do.

What’s your most essential backstage rider requirement?

Russell: We’ve ordered an industrial-sized bottle of hand sanitiser. In order to be able to touch anything on the rider food-wise, you’ve got to have your bottle of hand sanitiser or you’re in deep trouble.

The tour concludes in London on September 28.

Sparks - Hippopotamus album review