The cult pop band you should see tonight

Tonight at le National, an extremely rare visit from Sparks.

Sparks (600x450)


For over 40 years, brothers Ron and Russel Mael—otherwise known as the L.A.-based musical group Sparks—have been winning over critics and amassing a dedicated cult of fans with their unique brand of weird pop.

Originally coming up in the California rock club scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, they first achieved chart success in England on the strength of their glam rock sound. While that may have been the closest they came to the mainstream, it didn’t hinder their creative output or enthusiasm for experimentation. Decades before Daft Punk dabbled in disco, Sparks dropped an entire album’s worth of Giorgio Moroder-produced synth gems in the form of 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven, before moving on to other genres, such as new wave and chamber pop.

While some of their tunes have aged better than others, which is fair to say when you have 22 records and close to 300 songs under your belt, the group has neither slowed down nor deviated from its commitment to creating incredibly witty and intelligent music. At various junctures in their career, Sparks has recorded and toured as a full band, yet the heart of the group has always been the creative partnership between the brothers, who continue to release original albums and tour at a rate that would be considered impressive for a band half their age.

Their current tour is dubbed The Revenge of Two Hands, One Mouth, a sequel to a well-received European jaunt carried out last year that saw them reducing their back catalogue to its core elements: the formidable keyboard prowess of principal songwriter Ron and the flamboyant showmanship and stratospheric vocals of Russell. Having caught their set earlier this year at the Coachella Festival, I can attest to the continued vitality of their performance. While I was expecting a greatest hits set, I got a creative take on old and new songs, with the distinctive personalities of both brothers played up to the hilt.

Michael Sallot: Was it nerve-wracking to tour for the first time without a full band?

Russell Mael: It was an exciting challenge for us, and nerve-wracking, to undertake this format of touring. As we always like to take advantage of all the possibilities in the recording studio, this is the opposite extreme. To see if we can retain all the power and character of our recordings but only with the two of us. We are very satisfied with the results.

MS: What was the impetus behind performing your songs in this fashion?

RS: Always wanting to find new challenges for our music. To see if the heart of Sparks, Ron’s songwriting talents, his lyrics, my vocals, and our personalities could be highlighted in this duo format.

MS: How did you decide what you wanted to perform on this outing?

RS: It was a case of trial and error. To see which songs worked and to also pick songs that weren’t the most obvious known songs. We tried to pick some obscure songs that we feel hadn’t gotten their just due on their particular albums. And for the Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth tour, we’re performing 16 songs that hadn’t previously been done on the last tour. Yet another case of being gluttons for punishment as far as the workload.

MS: Do you think you could have the kind of career you have had if you were just starting out today?

RS: No. Everything has changed and for the worse in so many aspects of the music scene. A song like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” would absolutely not be a hit the way it was in the U.K. and Europe in the current musical climate. There’s a lack of tolerance for working outside the norms of what pop music is considered. The whole scene is extremely conservative and backward looking.

MS: When you are working on new music or film-related projects, where do you draw your inspiration from? Is there anything that you’ve come across in the current pop-culture landscape that you find exciting?

RS: We draw our inspiration from the dearth of excitement on the pop-culture landscape. That’s what motivates us to try what we feel are exciting, bold and adventuresome new conceptual projects.

MS: What’s next for Sparks?

RS: An exciting, bold and adventuresome new conceptual project! It’s a narrative piece that will surface next year and will be accompanied by a live touring performance version of the conceptual piece. We’re excited about it! ■

Sparks perform at le National (1220 St-Catherine E.) tonight, Friday Nov. 1, 8:30 p.m., $30

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