Sparks: Creating mischief again with their latest album

James McNair asks the enigmatic Mael brothers exactly who they think they are

Published: 22 February 2006

Were they not famous, you'd hardly guess they were siblings. This is my first thought upon meeting the veteran pop mavericks Sparks at a London hotel. Ron Mael (bow tie, glasses, pencil moustache) resembles a dandified boffin, but Russell Mael could be a hairdresser whose locks have seen one tint too many.

They may look unalike, but they operate with that odd, unspoken synchronicity typical of brothers who are also workmates. Despite their jet lag, they are also warm and attentive.

We're here to talk about their 20th album, Hello Young Lovers, but first Sparks want to tell me about a recent encounter with one half of a more dysfunctional sibling duo, namely Oasis's Liam Gallagher. "He approached Russell at the Q Awards," says Ron. "It was lovely because, for a variety of reasons, we probably wouldn't have approached him."

"Yeah, he was charming and he told me that 'This Town ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us' was important to him when he was growing up," chips in Russell. "I suppose you could imagine him singing it in a Manchester pub at closing time."

The mention of "This Town..." is apposite. In 1974, at the height of glam rock, it was this tune - replete with gunshot and creepy-sounding keyboards - that saw Sparks embraced here, after a brilliant Top of the Pops performance in which Ron came on like a comically sinister Charlie Chaplin. Since then, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness have covered "This Town...", but it has also remained a fixture of the Mael brothers' live set.

"If it was the only thing we'd ever been known for, we might feel resentful," says Ron. "But outside of Britain, 'Beat the Clock' and 'When I'm with You' were huge hits, too. There's something about the chords and feel of 'This Town...' that still make it fun to play, though. And Russell still sings it in the original key, which is impressive."

Former child models, the Maels grew up in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Ron studied cinema and graphic arts, while his kid brother Russell studied theatre arts and film-making. By the time their first band, Halfnelson, had morphed into Sparks, they were already myth-making. In early interviews, the Maels even claimed that their mother was Doris Day.

Ron's hobbies - photographing the interiors of Indian restaurants, travelling with a portable potato patch - have only fortified the Sparks enigma, and in interviews, the Maels are still politely inscrutable. Today, I learn that their parents took them to see the Harlem Globetrotters, that they both love the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that Ron has a near-pathological dislike of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Personal detail-wise, that's my lot.

Russell says that Hello Young Lovers picks up where the previous Sparks album, Little Beethoven, left off. "We wanted to continue being innovative and provocative, and maybe take things up a notch in terms of eccentricity. It's a reaction against what we're hearing in pop music right now," he explains. "There are a lot of young bands who are good at being provocative in a visual sense, but sonically, we're just not hearing it."

The Mael brothers' own sense of sonic mischief is well to the fore on the new album's opening track, "Dick Around". Partly operatic pastiche à la Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", it also takes in baroque strings and a thrash metal section before its six minutes and 35 seconds have elapsed. The song's protagonist fears that he's frittering his life away. Ever the post-modern humorists, Sparks themselves spent three months dicking around with the arrangement.

"Yes, there is a certain irony there," agrees Ron, flashing another skeleton-like smile, "but we eventually breathed new life into the song. It wasn't just about finishing it; it was about making something special."

Hello Young Lovers polarised the critics. Some thought Sparks too clever-clever, but to these ears, they are just clever. The way that the song "Perfume" crams 30 girls' names and 30 brands of scent into its 10 short verses is masterly; as is the way Russell imbues his vocal on "Waterproof" (about someone indifferent to life's travails) with insouciance. We talk about "Perfume", all agreeing that a chance whiff of perfume can be a potent reminder of the lover on whose body we first encountered it. True to form, no details of Ron's or Russell's lovers and their scents are forthcoming.

We're on safer ground discussing "No Such Thing as Aliens", an emphatic dismissal of the USA's preoccupation with UFOs. "Americans love conspiracy theories," says Ron, "so the idea that alien visits might be covered up is highly attractive to them. It's also tied in with that strong religious sense; the idea that there's something out there that's either dangerous or a saviour." But wouldn't the existence of aliens be something of a setback for the right-wing creationists? "I suppose so. But religion in the US is so wacky that the existence of aliens would be tame in comparison."

Now in their fourth decade as Sparks, the Maels can count Morrissey, Björk and Franz Ferdinand among those who cite them as an influence. A mooted collaboration with Franz Ferdinand has yet to happen, but discussions are ongoing, and the Maels' stock remains high. How, I wonder, do they deal with fans approaching them on the street? "With hostility!" says Ron. "No, it's just part of the job. One of the advantages of living in LA is that we're less known there, even though we're Angelinos. When fans do approach us, it's very relaxed. We haven't had to call the LAPD or anything. Well, not that often, anyway..."

'Hello Young Lovers' is out on Gut

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