Brothers Ron and Russell Mael talk about a new documentary that explores the ups, downs and moments of pure genius in their musical story
During an extraordinary 53-year musical career, success has sometimes eluded Ron and Russell Mael, but in 2021, Sparks are on top of the world. Their last two albums have been released to wide acclaim, and they’ve just collaborated with French director Leos Carax on Annette, a wonderfully eccentric rock opera starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard that went down a bomb at Cannes. And now comes The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s loving and humorous documentary account of the Maels’ career and lives.
In it, everyone from Beck and Neil Gaiman to Flea, Björk, Nick Heyward, Thurston Moore, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Mike Myers, Andy Bell, Vince Clarke, Jonathan Ross and Jason Schwartzman line up to acclaim Sparks’ genius and the wide-ranging influence they’ve had. It’s a sweet vindication for a band that’s never been afraid to buck trends, ignore commercial realities and do things their own way.
When I speak to them via Zoom from Los Angeles, the Mael brothers, now in their 70s, are dapper, affable, ever ready to laugh at themselves and others, and their appearance has not changed all that much since their 1970s heyday. Was it odd, I wonder, seeing their lives summed up in Wright’s documentary?
“We’d been hesitant about stuff like this in the past,” Russell explains, “because we always felt that our music speaks louder than us talking about it ever could. But when Edgar proposed this project to us, most of our hesitations fell away, and when we saw the finished product we were really happy: he did an amazing job, and I think it’s in keeping with our sensibility.”
Born and raised in sunny California, Ron and Russell toiled on the fringes of the LA music scene for several years before achieving early success in Britain.As a consequence, they were often confused for an English band, and I myself long suspected they were German. Ron nods sympathetically.
“When we first started in Los Angeles,” he says, “we thought of ourselves in our own delusional way as being a British band, even though we’d never been to England at that point, so musically it’s kind of sometimes hard to place where we’re from. And then the singing is so stylised that sometimes it’s hard to even recognise what language Russell is singing in: generally, it’s English.”
Ron is the elder, the stony-faced keyboard player (and songwriter), Russell the mercurial and musically gifted frontman: they’ve stuck together through thick and thin, the bond strengthened by the loss of their father (Meyer Mael, a graphic designer and painter) when they were kids.
“He had a presence in our household,” Russell recalls, “and was always bringing home interesting records, and they would just be playing in the background so in a certain way he also introduced us to music. Yeah, so perhaps we bonded more — we certainly bonded with our mother once our father had died.”
In the documentary, the brothers tell a lovely story about how their mother, Miriam, drove them out to Las Vegas to see their beloved Beatles. “If you saw the car you’d realise how special that trip was,” Ron says, “you know some 38 horsepower Fiat 600 going through the desert. I don’t even see how that was possible, but you know she really encouraged us to open up and see things and she knew how fanatic we were about British bands, and particularly the Beatles, so we saw them both at the Hollywood Bowl and also in Vegas.” Were they any good?
“Yeah, you know not bad,” Russell jokes, “from what we could hear over all the screaming. The shows were only 25 minutes long, they ran on and just didn’t stop and then took off and that was it, but at that time, 25 minutes was enough.”
Ron studied cinema and graphic arts at college, while Russell studied theatre and film-making, but by the late 1960s music had taken over. Inspired by the witty stylings of English groups like Pink Floyd, The Who and the Kinks, they set up a band, with the catchy name of Urban Renewal Project, in 1967. In the documentary, Russell talks amusingly about how he aimed for Mick Jagger and Roger Daltry in his early performances, but missed by a thousand miles.
“I think we’ve always been a bit delusional,” he says, “and at the start we really did feel we were a cool, British-style band, but it was apparently not connecting in that way, and was always seen as something more esoteric and odd.
“But then in failing to emulate British bands, a style emerged that became what we are.”
That highly distinctive and original style came about in part because in their early days Sparks, as they would eventually call themselves, existed in a creative bubble. “When we first started,” Ron says, “it was just Russell and myself and a guitar player, Earle Mankey, and unlike virtually any other band in Los Angeles, we began by recording rather than playing live, and so we had no feedback at all on what we were doing and we didn’t realise how unusual it was.
“There weren’t other people not applauding, or booing, so we thought what we were doing was something amazing, and I think that was a real advantage to us because we kind of developed musically at a very early stage without worrying about what other people were thinking.
“We made demos of those early songs that we recorded in our guitarist’s bedroom with just a reel-to-reel tape, and we sent those to at least 20 different record companies at the time thinking, oh the offers are just going to be flowing in. The only person that did respond was Todd Rundgren, and we’re forever indebted to him.”
Vexing melange of art rock
Singer/songwriter Rundgren produced their first album, Sparks, but it did not make the splash they’d hoped, and early gigs in rural dive bars were challenging. “We were so naïve,” Russell remembers. “You know, like thinking that playing one gig out in the middle of nowhere in Texas was going to be a good thing, and not realising that we were going to have objects thrown at us.”
America, unfortunately, had no idea what to do with Sparks, and their cunning, vexing melange of art rock, pop and knowing humour. But 1970s Britain did. They moved to London in 1973, signed a contract with Island Records and a year later released the album Kimono My House. In April of 1974, a single taken from it, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, reached No 2 in the British charts. Suddenly Ron and Russell were teen idols.
“It was so strange,” Russell says, “There was nothing radically different about what we were doing musically or image-wise, and yet in LA there’d been total indifference, so to come to London and then have this 180 degree turn in the reception to our music was really baffling.”
Ron remembers that, at early gigs in London, “the audience was just split right down the middle. There were all these screaming teen idol fans, and then there were the artsy people who were coming for something else, and both of those camps I think really resented the other. It was a really unique situation.”
When Sparks first appeared on Top of the Pops, there was as much comment about Ron’s stillness and scowling stare as there was about Russell’s high notes and general histrionics: the dissonance between the brothers’ stage personas was compelling.
“I’m basically a stoic person anyway,” Ron says, “so I just decided to maybe emphasise that, and I was surprised as anybody that it was gaining as much attention as all the jumping about.
“I don’t know if you would call it contrived, it was more just a device for me to fit within a band.” When mid-70s Sparks refused to just continue doing what they were doing, fans and record companies got frustrated. But ever since, through various musical and thematic changes, Ron and Russell have refused to sit still and cash in on whatever was commercially working.
They moved back to America in the mid-1970s, and had chart success in 1979 with a synth album they recorded with Giorgio Moroder that was way ahead of its time. But they moved on from that too, and have constantly changed and developed in the decades since.
“Yeah, we’ve been offered lots of advice over the years,” Ron says, “about not moving on from something that is successful, but it’s just in our nature to need to feel that what we’re doing is exciting to us. And so you know we’re willing to take that risk, I think it’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve been able to survive this long.
“Who knows what the situation might have been if we would have followed that advice, maybe there would have been a massive commercial success at one point, but we prefer it this way, where we’re uncompromising in what we’re doing. I mean we’re not masochists, we don’t want to commit commercial suicide, but we need to be always moving into areas that we feel a little uncomfortable in — that’s a really important thing for us.”
‘The Sparks Brothers’ opened in cinemas yesterday, the musical ‘Annette’ is out later this year