Sparks Legacy; A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

Northern Transmissions interview with Sparks' Russell Mael
Sparks photo by Anna Webber

Most bands do not have the means or ability to maintain any real longevity in today’s musical landscape. There are countless examples of a group or artist that flashes brightly and then burns out just a quick. Most bands though aren’t Sparks. Brothers Russell and Ron Mael have been writing and performing together since the late 1960s and throughout their storied career have maintained a dynamic freshness that would be enviable to any artist. Today they release their 24th studio album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, and it is as compelling, complex and inventive as anything they have previously crafted. After 24 albums the charismatic duo, moustachioed keyboard wizard Ron and angel voiced Russell, don’t have to prove anything to anyone but their love of creating and writing keeps them consistently wanting to push themselves as artists, as a band and to contribute to the world of pop music in their own distinct way.

“That is kind of the mission now,” Russell says when we reach him at his home in Los Angeles. “It’s all self motivating. We want to push things forward as much as we can in the context of pop music and when you’ve done 24 albums it becomes a bigger challenge to frame it in a compelling and provocative way. We are constantly competing with ourselves within the givens of the group, my singing and Ron’s songwriting and keyboard playing and want to find new ways to frame and contextualize these givens each time we make a record.” A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip does just that. If you didn’t know the band there is no way you would think it was made by two men in their seventies. It has a forceful energy that belies their years. Right off the top with “All That” the record brims with a buoyancy that any artist would kill to be able to put to tape. Russell and Ron work pretty independently with them producing their work and Russell doing all the engineering and mixing. As Russell explains the songs come very naturally between the two of them as they have honed the way they work throughout their years of writing and recording together. “The writing process comes about in a couple of different ways. There are times where Ron will bring a song here to the studio that is fully formed, already has a structure. The other way he comes to my place and we start from nothing, usually with him winging it on the keyboard. We enjoy the process of seeing where these bits can take us sonically. Sometimes it’s just a lyrical phrase we’ve come up with and work around that. The sound is usually not pre determined. There are these things that we hear that start to take us in some direction. Even if Ron has a primitive demo, sonically it changes a lot. It’s really fun working both ways. It can be daunting in the studio with nothing to start with but we find ways to make it hopefully fresh and unexpected.”

There is a joy in Russell’s voice when he talks about their process. After making music for so long there is an inkling that things become more rote and formulaic but Sparks are anything but those things. Tracks like “Lawnmower” and “Onomato Pia” are full of Sparks trademark wordplay and effervescent rhyming couplets. There is a joyous airiness in the production of the songs featured on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip that is positively captivating. “With “Lawnmower”, that existed as a song not unlike how it sounds on the album,” Russell explains, “While a song like “Sainthood Is Not In Your Future” was one that was semi formed in the studio and “Pacific Standard Time” evolved from the more music side of it. Creating it from the ground up from a keyboard line, that is a good example of us working from not much to start with.” Listening to t A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip you can hear how much fun the brothers seem to be having putting these songs together. While they are having a good time, they are also acutely aware of not wanting to come off preachy at all. Songs like “IPhone” detail the demise of contemporary social interactions and “Don’t Fuck Up My World” is a very relevant tome on the harm we collectively have caused the planet. “It’s interesting because we didn’t want these songs to come off like a couple grumpy guys telling you young people you got it all wrong,” Russell says with a laugh, when speaking about “IPhone”. “I think what made the song special and more appealing to both of us wasn’t just commenting on peoples lack of attention span or lack of interaction but having it framed through various periods of history. There’s Adam and Eve trying to interact and being distracted and Lincoln being interrupted giving his important speech and Mrs. Jobs frustrated her husband not being able to speak because he is so distracted by his phone idea.” It certainly is a fun way to frame this idea and it definitely doesn’t come off as a couple of curmudgeonly men shaking their fists at the sky. With “Don’t Fuck Up Our World”, Russell has found though that the song has become even more relevant now than when they finished recording it. “Sadly it has taken on a new relevance now. Who knew we could even do even worse,” he says with a wry chuckle. “Sadly a lot of the lyrics in a few of the songs in particular were really prescient on Ron’s part. Like “I’m Toast” and “Existential Threat” and now we have an even bigger threat looming. It’s funny to think that at the the time these things we were writing about seem almost petty thoughts in comparison to what is happening now but as we see, unfortunately things could get even worse but we don’t want to have the album be a total downer in it’s forecasting of things. We really wanted those songs to be balanced by some of the lighter ones like “Lawnmower”.”

The album does not come off as a downer at all. In fact it is the opposite. Even compared within Sparks repertoire of albums, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is bursting with wonder. This feeling is something that Russell hopes people come away with after listening to the album. Especially now that the band can’t tour, which is something both brothers look forward to the most with any album cycle. They do have a few shows scheduled in October prior to a more large scale world tour in 2021 and they hope that all these shows can still happen. “We are really hoping we can still do too the tour. Now with the spirit of things so low having the reaction to the record be so positive, we didn’t want to delay the album. We really hope that it will help people. Hopefully we can do our small part to help raise peoples spirits in our own small way,” Russell says with his characteristic modesty.

It is so lovely that Sparks have remained so humble throughout the years as they have earned their place as one of the more iconic bands of all time. Besides the brilliance of A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, Sparks have also written a full length feature film entitled Annette that finished filming last year with acclaimed French director Leos Carax behind the camera. “It’s pretty phenomenal,” explains Russell, “We are so happy that after eight years of working on it that it is all finished. We had created what we thought was going to Sparks next album eight years ago. We thought it was something that we could tour with and thought it would feasible to do it. Being a narrative project with a story and only a few actors but then we met with Carax in Cannes, He had used one of Sparks song in his film “Holy Motors” and when we got back home, we thought we should send this thing that is really complete to Leos and get his thoughts on it. Surprisingly for us he thought it was great and asked if he could be considered to direct it and he really threw himself into it. Eight years later, the film was shot last year with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.” It’s easy to get excited about the project listening to Russell talk about it. He seems to still be somewhat bewildered it all came together but his enthusiasm for what transpired is absolutely infectious. “It is phenomenal stylistically,” he says with excitement. “To have these actors and this great director embrace what we’ve done, the songs and the story as well. It’s wonderful that it was able to get to this stage.” There were certain challenges about approaching songwriting in this new narrative way that the band really enjoyed. “It’s really different way to work,” explains Russell. “With a Sparks album you can think of things as these three to four minute long isolated, self contained units. Not something with a complete theme that needs to overarch after the fact because you need it to be this an complete body of work. With the movie you have to have those considerations and there’s a continuity that goes from beginning to end and having actors and their characters all singing their dialogue through the whole movie. Having to deliver that throughout the whole piece. We really enjoyed that process and it almost liberated the way we worked on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. One way of working helped to liberate the other way. It was almost like we were able to approach the record in a more carefree way. Like we felt more free to throw in everything and the kitchen sink into it,” he says before he stops and laughs, “Not that we wouldn’t have done that anyway. It seems to be just the way we work.”

It’s so wonderful to hear how the brothers are feeling still energized by the process of songwriting, recording and playing live for their fans. The next couple years should help solidify that standing not only for them, their fans but for people who have yet to hear the band. There’s this fantastic new album, the feature film and also an upcoming Edgar Wright shot documentary about the history of the band that is of equal excitement to Russell. “We have had other people in the past approach us to discuss doing a documentary about Sparks but we always felt that we would rather not have a documentary about Sparks then have one that wasn’t in keeping with the sensibility of the band. Then Edgar approached us and we thought this was really cool. We loved his sensibility and he also has this passion for Sparks. It was so nice for this film director that we really admired and he felt that same way about our music. It took him about fifteen seconds to convince us,” Russell says with a laugh. “We are now two years later and there is an almost completely finished three hour edit that Edgar is weighing on cutting down perhaps as there maybe should be a shorter version for a more general population for a film about a band they are not aware of,” he says laughing again. “We haven’t seen the final thing yet but are really excited about it. Edgar has this thesis for the film and it is to him that what Sparks are doing now is equally as compelling an any other time in our history. He really wants to show that the band is modern and relevant and part of the unique thing about Sparks is that the old songs and the new songs melt all together and not in a dated way.” Hearing Russell speak about this undertaking, you can hear he is genuinely touched that his bands music has resonated with so many people around the world. “He rounded up about ninety different musicians, actors and writers that all have, surprisingly to us, have a connection and a love of Sparks. It really is heartwarming.”

24 records in and Sparks legacy just now seems to be taking shape. Their body of work is untouchable, their enthusiasm for what they do and have accomplished never waning. It’s an extremely rare thing to speak with someone in the music industry at the Mael Brothers level and find them not at all cynical about what they do and that shows in their art. A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is a masterclass in pop music songwriting and production. An joy from the first note to the last and hopefully because of this, their past work and their upcoming foray into feature films, their legacy will be cemented and we will all see Sparks as one of the most important bands of all time.

interview by Adam Fink