Sparks Keep Blazing With Madcap ‘Hippopotamus’

Sparks Keep Blazing With Madcap ‘Hippopotamus’

California legends Sparks are out with their latest record, Hippopotamus, this week and brothers Ron and Russell Mael do not disappoint when it comes to their characteristic brand of cathartic camp.

Sparks was formed in the early ’70s by the brothers Mael, a kind of cult band who melded intellectual lyrics with an over-the-top theatrical stage show. They went on to influence the likes of Nirvana, Morrissey and Björk, who specifically found something to latch onto in 1974′s standout Kimono My HouseThe band has been steadily releasing albums since their inception, including a musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009), and a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS (2015). And they don’t look to be letting up any time soon.

From songs about a fed-up creator (“What the Hell is it This Time”) to languid French songstresses with no regrets (“Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”) to the jarringly and deliciously strange title track, Hippopotamus won’t disappoint Sparks stalwarts and is sure to garner them more adherents to their oddball cult.

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You guys have been around since the ‘70s and have explored so much sonically, so I’m wondering: what can your fans expect from this record? A lot of the songs that I’ve heard thus far have been very Sparks.

Ron: There’s a certain sensibility that’s obviously carried through everything that we’ve done, and we’ve kind of veered off toward doing some musical projects that are more narrative and movie-oriented. We had done that project in collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and it kind of got us back into the groove, if you will, of working within three and four minute song structure, so we wanted to see if it was still possible for us to do that, in traditional Sparks style, an album of songs. Not a traditional album by any means, very different.

In a certain sense, it’s returned to the way that we worked before. With the people that have followed us through the years, and even with new people that have come on since the FFS thing, I mean people come to expect the unexpected within songs when we’re involved, so that’s kind of the challenge. In a general way, that’s kind of the bar that we set for ourselves. That songs are traditional in a certain way, as far as the form of the songs, but not traditional as far as the lyrics or musicality or any kind of weird detours that things might take.

Russell: This is our, depending on how you’re counting it, twenty-second or twenty-third album. So each time, we have to set to out to try to do something that is not only, hopefully, fresh and forward-thinking for ourselves, but also for our fans who relish that we do continue to surprise, despite having such a vast catalog of albums.

On that note, you have the song, ‘What the Hell is it This Time?’, and that could obviously be applied to so many things. For you, where did that phrase come from? Was it your fans wondering what you have in store for them? What’s going on in the world today? Tell me a little about that choice of words.

Ron: Obviously there are a lot of different meanings, things that you can tag that onto. You always kind of hate to explain songs, because people that are hearing the song and actually liking it for their own reasons, they hear your explanation and they think, ‘That’s not what I’m seeing in the song.’ And then they kind of get offended or feel that their intelligence has been questioned or something.

But, anyway, the song is basically about a supreme, a god that is really just pissed at the banal requests that he’s continuously been getting. He’s telling the people on Earth that he hopes that the level of the requests for assistance that he’s been getting from us Earthlings is more for important issues because he’s got so many other things to do. So each time somebody’s coming to him with a trivial request, he says, ‘What the hell is it this time?’ He’s just peeved.

But, obviously, when you hear a song, at least for me — even though we put a big stock in lyrics — I kind of zone out a lot of the times at other people’s lyrics and get a general drift of the thing. So I can see people kind of taking the title and kind of thinking of the song in a lot of different ways. I mean, the song, we think it’s really aggressive, so we wanted to kind of match the fury of just that phrase, ‘What the hell is it this time?’, with the music so it could be taken in other senses as well.

‘Hippopotamus’ is kind of like an ominous children’s song. Why did you guys decide that should be the title track of the record?

Russell: Well, it actually wasn’t intended initially to be the first song that was exposed to the public. There was a song on the album called ‘Hippopotamus,’ so we worked backward and thought, ‘We’re trying to think of a title for the album,’ and said, ‘Well, “Hippopotamus” is really striking and it’s not specific in any kind of way to what it’s getting at.’ So there was something intriguing about that being the title for the album after having recorded it as the song.

It does set a tone in a certain way. It’s not … I mean, your description, being a … What did you say? An ominous—

Children’s song.

Russell: Children’s song. One of the myriad of descriptions that you can call the song. It’s a valid description and we think it’s not a traditional kind of song and it’s both the structure and its lyrical content and its melody.

There used to be the time when you’d sit on the edge of your seat about who’s at number one this week. And now the whole landscape is kind of a lot more vague about what things are. The whole concept of an album, and we still like the concept of an album, it’s sort of all changed the whole ground rule. You get some comments saying, ‘That’s an odd choice for a single.’

But we don’t even look at things in those terms anymore. Is it a single or is it just a song that’s out there? So I think that terminology is now passé in a way. So, in any case, we were happy that that was the first piece of music that was exposed from the new album.

I’m also wondering — obviously you guys have had cultural figures in your music in the past — why did you decide to center a song on Edith Piaf? You don’t really hear people talking about Edith Piaf that much anymore.

Russell: Someone’s gotta do it.

Ron: At least maybe there’ll be a flurry of Googling Edith Piaf, though. The song had kind of a bittersweet quality to it. And, I don’t know, we’ve always been kind of attuned to French culture and we spend a lot of time there and we’re aware of the icons of French traditional music and she was one.

To be able to use the image of her music — where there’s so much of a life fully lived in what her songs are about — and then to have the singer of this song say that there’s nothing there and how envious he is of someone who lived such a full, and even tragic, life, death. That’s kind of the derivation of that image.

We like to reference people a lot of times because it just seems like so much of the lyrics or the titles of songs are just so generic. We can’t understand why people go to the trouble of recording and then the lyrics are kind of just flying through the air; it’s just something meaningless, but filling up something for the person to sing along the way. And obviously, if a title is generic, it’s relatable, I suppose, to some people. I mean, there are things that everybody shares, but I think that the task of an artist is to be able to write things that are addressing those issues that everybody experiences, but doing it in a way that’s a little more oblique than just ‘I love you’ or ‘I feel bad.’

Are there any modern lyricists or newer musicians who you admire?

Ron: Well, lyrically, yes. It’s hard … I don’t know, I like Morrisey’s lyrics; I think his lyrics are very specific and it’s also a very specific point of view. In general, the lyricists that I kind of gain inspiration from are people like Cole Porter, where there was a real effort made in his songs [to be both poignant and have] some humor.

We try to have things working on more than one level, where you can hear a song and it sounds like it’s humorous or light, but then there’s kind of another side to it as well. Most people probably wouldn’t get any of that, but we feel an obligation to put as much as we can into the lyrics as far as what meaning could be gathered.

So I heard that you’re working on a new movie called Annette. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Russell: Yeah, that’s right. We had written about four years ago a body of music and lyrics and a storyline, a narrative called Annette. We thought was going to be Sparks’ next album.

So we had done this whole project and there’s a French director named Leos Carax whose last film, Holy Motors, had used a Sparks song, ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ He really responded to the story and the music and he, after some reflection, said that he wanted to direct this to be his next film.

We were kind of floored by that. He doesn’t make that many films. He does a movie and they’re all really pretty special; he’s really respected as a director. Adam Driver will be one of the lead characters and Michelle Williams is going to be the other lead character. It’s awesome and it’s a pretty special story and we’re really happy that Leo has responded to this story.

Is there a one or two line description of the plot that you guys have out, or is that not public yet?

Ron: It’s about a comedian and an opera singer…

Russell: Who form a relationship.

Ron: That leads to a tragedy that has a miraculous outcome.

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