Back in the Seventies, Sparks were the epitome of alternative, offbeat pop music. Supported by some remarkable, marginally unhinged performances on Top Of The Pops, a string of hits saw them beat a path into the UK chart, from their 1972 Number 2 smash This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both Of Us through to 1979’s Beat The Clock.
Sparks even sang about being Number 1 in Heaven at the peak of their powers - and their position in the British nation’s hearts was underlined when 'This Town' was voted by BBC Radio 2 listeners as one of the nation’s all-time favourite Number 2 singles as recently as 2013. Where did it finish in the list? Number 22, of course…
Hailing from Los Angeles, the iconic pop outfit – comprising brothers Ron and Russell Mael – are back again. This time with Hippopotomus, their 23rd studio album, signed to BMG and on course this week to score their highest UK album chart position for 40 years.
It is a remarkable resurgence for the duo, who recorded the album in 10 months last year and have received a swathe of plaudits from media in the past few days – many acclaiming it their best albums since the halcyon days of 1974’s Kimono My House and Propaganda.
To celebrate their triumphant return, OfficialCharts.com spoke to their iconic, charismatic frontman Russell Mael and talked about the new record, their forthcoming live shows and their place in British music history.
How does it feel, after all these years, to have an album which has been so warmly received?
"It's amazing. And regardless of the charts, which obviously are out of hands, we can't control, we're happy with the really positive reception that the album has gotten critically. The reviews are beyond our wildest dreams and people have been saying really positive things. It's really satisfying that its reaching in that way. Whatever happens with the charts will be frosting on the cake for us."
Can you put your finger on why this album seems to be connecting in a way that previously albums perhaps haven't? Is there anything different you've done?
"It's baffling in a certain way because, for us, when we start out to do a new album, we obviously try to do something really strong and go into it with the assumption that maybe, even at this point in our career having had 23 albums, there is going to be somebody that hasn’t heard of Sparks; when we do a new album we have got to make something which is as striking to those people as anything we’ve ever done - so that, for someone who has no knowledge of the band, the album has to represent what Sparks is. So we approach the album in that way.
"But to receive the kind of critical reception that it has, we don't exacly know the reason why. We obviously put a lot of time into recording and writing the album, we spent 10 months doing it last year from January to October. So we're happy its getting that reaction, but we don't quite have the answer to that question."
Can you tell us a little bit about how you work creatively, both working together as brothers and pulling everything together in the studio?
"It's sort of a combination of those things. I have a studio in my home, so Ron is always there working every day. Ron is the songwriter and he either comes in with a fully formed song and we set out to record it or we work on something on a sonic level, where we do something instrumental in the studio that hasn't been pre-written and then set about writing a melody and then the lyrics; the lyrics always come last in the process. And, apart from singing everything, I engineer and mix the music, so we each have our own roles within the recording process."
And what about the Hippopotamus album specifically?
"There isn’t an overall concept to this album. There are 15 songs on the Hippopotamus album, which is more than on any other album of ours, but we felt that all of them played some role. We toyed with taking off one or two, but it didn't have the same kind of richness because we felt each of the songs have their own kind of tone and style. We didn't know exactly where we were heading with it, but we wanted to do something which was hopefully really musically striking and lyrically very striking as well."
The Hippopotamus image and artwork is extremely striking. What came first, the song Hippopotamus, the album title, the visual?
"First there was the song, the music to the song - it was quite an unconventional song, it's not like anything else we've ever done - and then Ron came up with that title and thought through with that kind of lyrical idea too.
"And when we came to the artwork, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do this time and we thought that that image was such a striking image, a hippopotamus in a swimming pool, so we create that, we shot that in Los Angeles. We wanted to present that idea in a visual way.
"We felt it was so striking as an image on its own that, with the blessing of BMG, it would be really great to not have any typography on the cover at all, because the images really stands on its own."
The road to music success is littered with brothers who have fallen out over the years, from Ray & Dave Davies, to Noel & Liam Gallagher. What's your secret?
"We both kind of approach Sparks as a mission of sorts, we are a little disillusioned with the general the landscape and climate of pop music and the only way to combat that feeling is to try to do something yourself which you think is really special and pushing things within the context of what pop music can be. So we both share that same vision, which has given us the kind of stability to press on over the years.
"Neither of our roles overlap at all. Ron has the songwriting and keyboard playing and I'm the lead singer and do the engineering and studio thing and we have our unique roles, so neither of us want to do the others roles. For us its worked out really well because we don't have that conflict of who's the frontman and who's not."
UK and Europe has always taken you to its heart. Why do you think that is?
"We honestly don't know the answer. We had done two albums in America before we moved to the UK and we thought the Kimono My House album (which really broke through) was really same sensibility as those first two albums, which had zero visibility in the States.
"We really don't know why that is; is there something within our personalities and the eccentric nature of some of our music which had some kind of appeal here? It's been a mystery to us, in a good way obviously, because Britain has always been so supportive for Sparks, which is why its always really great to come back here to that audience."
You will be taking this album out on the road this autumn too – do you prefer things live or in the studio these days?
"Both are really exciting and so completely different that you can't really compare. But now that the album is all finished we're really excited to be able get out and perform those songs. We're doing a lot of the album live too, at least eight of the songs from the new album.
"We’re were so proud of the album and we think that if a band bothers to do a new album they should present those songs live, so a lot of the show will be those songs. And we have a really exciting youngish band now, so it's really great."
Looking back, how do you feel about those iconic Seventies hits that you had today?
"As a general rule we like keeping our sights looking forward, but when we look back to those songs, when we do them in a live context, what we're proud of is that songs like This Town... or Number 1 Song in Heaven they sound really timeless. That's why we can play songs that we did so long ago and they don't sound nostalgic at all, those songs fit in well within the live set with a brand new song. If someone hears them in that context, especially if didn't know the band well, I don't know if they would know actually be able to detect which are the old ones and which are the new ones.
"That's something that we're really proud of, that we have created these songs that do have a certain timelessness, that they seemed out of the time period back then and out of their time period now too."
As recently as 2013, BBC Radio 2 listeners voted This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us as one of their favourite Number 2 singles of all time. Do you remember when you almost topped the UK chart all those years ago?
"Obviously we were so excited that the song did that well, so it was fantastic. The odd part was that it was beaten out by The Rubettes. One of those songs and those groups that meant you kind of thought, well, okay, you know.... Our only vengeance is to now, 23 albums later, still be vital. I don't know if anybody knows where the Rubettes are? [laughs]"