Few bands stick around long enough to release their 20th album; even fewer can count Todd Rundgren, Tony Visconti and Giorgio Moroder among the producers who have collaborated with them over the years. And although they have operated largely under the American radar — however justly or unjustly — since their inception, the one thing that has secured an influential place for Sparks in the cult history of modern pop music has been the group's unwavering penchant for inspired weirdness, whether in the studio or in live performance.
Founded in L.A. at the height of the '60s club scene (where The Byrds, The Doors and Arthur Lee's Love had all made their mark), Sparks started out as a proto-glam prog-rock hybrid named Halfnelson, with Russell Mael on lead vocals and his brother Ron on electric piano. The five-piece combo's odd pastiche of tongue-in-chic art-rock psychedelia and pre-Queen bombast (with Russell sounding at times like a young Freddie Mercury long before “Killer Queen” hit the airwaves) eventually caught the attention of Todd Rundgren, who signed them to his Bearsville label in 1970 and produced their debut album — briefly titled Halfnelson and soon reissued as Sparks (Bearsville, 1971).
“Todd really liked what we were doing,” Russell Mael recalls today, “and he didn't want to tamper with what we had. He was an engineer and a musician, obviously, but he was a guy who also understood our sensibility. With that first album, he thought we had come up with something that was really unique — kind of in its own little world — and he didn't want to mess with that.”
Apparently much of the stateside record-buying public wouldn't mess with it either, but that didn't faze the Mael brothers. They had grown up in California as huge fans of the British Invasion, and in 1973, after a brief tour of England in support of Sparks' second album, they relocated to London to begin work on their breakthrough Kimono My House (Island, 1974). The nutty leadoff single “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” actually reached Number 2 in the UK, and with several subsequent appearances on the BBC's Top of the Pops, Sparks were a certified hit in England.
“We got lumped in with the whole glam thing,” Russell says, “with bands like Roxy Music, T.Rex and Sweet, but it was a really healthy competitive scene. In a positive way, we were treated as one of them, and for us that was the ultimate compliment because we felt so much of a kinship with British music.”
Two successful albums with Tony Visconti (who had produced David Bowie and T.Rex) followed, but by the end of the '70s, Sparks were looking for a new sound. “We wanted to get rid of the trappings of the band format,” Russell explains, “to strip it down and start working exclusively with electronics, so that the studio would then be the band.” Enter disco producer Giorgio Moroder, whose iconoclastic work on Donna Summer's “I Feel Love” had been an inspiration.
“Giorgio brought his knowledge of Moog synthesizers and the technology of electronic music,” Russell says, “which was really foreign to us at that time.” The move ended up defining the brothers' future direction; after two albums with Moroder — the second of which, Terminal Jive (Virgin, 1980), generated a huge club hit in France — Sparks made a series of band-based synth-pop dance records (including In Outer Space [Atlantic, 1983], with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's stepping out on the American hit “Cool Places”) before reverting back to a two-man self-contained studio production unit, which they remain to this day.
Over the years, Ron Mael has played numerous synths, keyboards and computer-based instruments — Moog's Polymoog, Roland's JP-4 and JP-8, the Wurlitzer electric piano and the Fairlight CMI, to name a few — but his workhorse favorites have been the Yamaha CS-80 (produced in the late '70s) and the sleeker S80 (introduced in 1999). Sparks' latest album, Hello Young Lovers (In the Red, 2006), was tracked with MOTU Digital Performer, which the Maels use to stack literally dozens of vocals, synth and percussion parts for a lush, orchestral and pristinely mixed slab of pure anti-pop. And with such wryly rendered songs as the operatic “Dick Around” and the catchy “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country,” Sparks fans will be pleased to learn that the band has lost none of its comedic charm.
“When we were working on the album, there were probably times when we had maybe 80 voices going on,” Russell says. “It gives the music a certain quality — the more that's there, the more you think it's sounding big and full. And then once it sounds that way, we'd say, ‘Okay, now let's double that!’ [Laughs.] You can always add more, and we tend to err on the side of overkill. I think that ties into our humor, which is another element of our music where people have really embraced us.”
Check outwww.allsparks.comfor news and updates from the wacky universe of Sparks.