It’s a rare—and perhaps foolhardy—songwriter who’d attempt to weave lyrics about a tragic hero from Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus) and a woman with an abacus “who looks Chinese” into a rhyme about a hippopotamus in a backyard pool.
But then, Sparks have always been a rare band. Los Angeles-based brothers Ron and Russell Mael are like wonderfully oddball characters from a Wes Anderson movie. Over the years, the adjective attempts to quantify the art-pop quirkiness—zany, eccentric, absurdist—have sometimes been accurate, but always limiting. Forty-five years into their improbable career as pop auteurs, there’s really nothing they can’t write a song about, and the jaunty “Hippopotamus,” the title track from their 23rd studio album, is a perfect pop single.
Over the years, Sparks have been categorized as new-wave, power pop, art rock and chamber pop—all apt descriptors. Whether in a brothers-only touring incarnation or with a full band, they excel at esoteric, taut vignettes, singalong pop gems for creative nerds. The bright, bouncy, barely controlled mania of many songs in Sparks’ repertoire ended up in 1980s movies like Valley Girl. Indeed, with a propulsive, synth-driven drum sound and Russell’s melodramatic voice and layers of backing vocals, keyboards and delightful trills, Sparks’ music is campy-cinematic, drum-tight and joyous. Sparks’ oeuvre is so specific—take songs like “I Married a Martian” and “Angst in My Pants,” for instance—that, to the brothers’ disappointment, other artists perhaps fear to cover them.
On a recent, steamy August day in New York, Ron, 72, was wearing a black turtleneck. Younger brother Russell, 68, was clad in a butter-yellow jacket and red glasses. They’d just finished a live session in the Paste Studio and would fly to Europe the following day to promote Hippopotamus, which comes out Friday. Sparks are revered in Europe—the pair even moved to England in 1973 for a spell—their music has proved ageless over the decades. Some might say it’s anachronistic, but the enthusiasm, and pure joy evinced musically on Hippopotamus is, as one song suggests, “Giddy Giddy.”
Sung by Russell in his distinctive falsetto, the lyrics to “Giddy Giddy” were penned by his keyboard-playing brother. It’s a dynamic that has evolved over time. “I just thought his lyrics are better than mine,” Russell said of Ron. “It was kinda nothing more than that. I’m the band’s engineer and mixer and lead vocalist and background vocalist.”
The Maels’ distinct roles and personas have cohered into a singular vision—even if, on the cover of 1981’s Whomp that Sucker, Russell is lying face down in a boxing ring with his scrawny brother standing over him victoriously. Everything the Maels do as Sparks is as one—detail-oriented, hyper-literate without being condescending. Even if a listener misses some of the wordplay or cultural references, the songs still shine. Far-reaching fans include Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand (they two bands collaborated on 2015’s stunning FFS project) and, most recently actor Adam Driver, who will star in a movie musical the band’s been doggedly developing with individualistic French director Leos Carax, in his English-language debut.
Hippopotamus, Sparks’ first proper release since 2008’s Exotic Creatures of the Deep, is in part a “reaction” to having worked for the last four years on the movie, Annette, which is scheduled to start shooting next year. “We were so focused on this long narrative thing, that at one point we thought [the songs and story] was going to be our next Sparks album,” says Russell. “But we met Leos at Cannes, and he’d used one of our songs in his last movie, Holy Motors. We sent him music and he said, ‘I want to direct this thing, it’s amazing.’ As a result, we were locked in that world for a while. We didn’t say it out loud, but felt it would be liberating to do Sparks songs again.”
Adds Ron, “We were also inspired by doing the collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, working again in a band situation with discrete songs. We enjoyed that so much, we thought we’d try to see if we could come up with an album on our own, not where it was slumming by doing pop songs. So we were pleased when we started writing, that it seemed genuine.”
“Slumming” is not in Sparks’ varied repertoire, which included an album per year between 1971’s self-titled debut (produced by Todd Rundgren) an 1984’s Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat. Their 1979 album No. 1 in Heaven, recorded with disco producer Giorgio Moroder, inspired generations of electronic musicians, including Joy Division. On Hippopotamus, 15 overtly clever but not twee songs include “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “I Wish You Were Fun” and “So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play.” It’s a classic entry in the enduring Sparks canon. One of the album’s first singles, “Missionary Position,” starts with a poignant piano and strumming guitar before launching into speedy, tambourine-accented, toe-tapping grandiosity. “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” befitting the titular French chanteuse, moves in a more orchestral direction, the chanted “live fast and die young / too late for that” providing a hook that’s deadpan delight. In the song, “a person regrets that they don’t have the regrets that Edith Piaf has, that their life is kinda empty and they wish they had debauchery or depressing but interesting things that had happened to them,” explains Ron.
“A person?” While a common presumption is that songs across all genres are often autobiographical, that’s never been the case with Sparks. “I’m not writing really specifically for Russell, it’s more thinking of the situation of the song,” says Ron. “It’s kind of acting all the time; it’s taking the role of the person in the song. Some of the songs, not on this album, I guess, but some are from a female perspective, I’m pretty sure. At some point.”
If hardcore fans hunger for personal details of the Maels’ lives, political sensibilities—and even loves—there’s nothing specific to be gleaned from the lyrics. (For the record, they were raised on the West Side of Los Angeles, played beach volleyball as teens, saw the Beatles twice and still reside close to where they grew up). Ron explains that his lyrics are “personal in another kind of way. But writing things that were baring the soul in a more EDM way would come off really horrible,” he says, chuckling. “It’s better to be oblique about things.”
Russell furthers the band’s m.o. “I think you learn about the person, both of us even, through what the songs are, as opposed to…. The fact that there’s a song called “Hippopotamus” and it’s about a guy who finds a hippopotamus in his swimming pool and there’s a book by Anonymous and there’s Titus Andronicus… I think that tells you more about the person who created it, by the fact that they would do something like that. We think it’s more like a short story. You learn about the person that way,” he believes. “There’s this thing, where you put your heart on your sleeve, that makes you a legitimate artist if you do that. But when you channel what you’re doing via a creative angle of a story, that that’s baring your soul in a different kind of way.”
There’s no “remove,” in Sparks’ approach, according to Ron. “We don’t feel like we’re distancing ourselves in any kind of way; I just don’t know what we’d say if we were doing those kind of [first-person songs]. Not that many people, to me, are interesting when they [are personal]. I think Morrissey is interesting when he is… it’s hard to know even in his situation is really him, but just assuming it is, I think what he does is really interesting. I don’t even know where to start as far as just saying something so direct.”
Often the band is just plain funny, never sliding into silly. Their collaborative album with Franz Ferdinand includes a bouncy tune called “Collaborations Don’t Work.” The surreal story of Hippopotamus’s title track fears that Titus Andronicus, “wearing a snorkel in my pool,” might drown: “Now he’s gone under, … worry not / Excellent swimmer, excellent swimmer, looking much trimmer than I thought.”
As the song closes, “the person,” says, “isn’t that grand’ like it’s been this big show for somebody.” And indeed, Sparks are a grand show. Whoever that “person”/song protagonist is doesn’t matter. The genius of Sparks is in creating songs that revel in clever, joyous escapism.
“People ask, ‘don’t you have the urge to write an anti-Donald Trump song?’ says Russell. “We think it’s too easy. What we’re doing is an antidote, that’s more how we see it. People who are Sparks fans like to see that there’s something to rally behind, but not in an overtly political way.”