In many respects the ICA provides the perfect backdrop for the album launch party of ‘Hippopotamus’, Sparks’ 23rd album.
The LA based brothers Ron and Russell Mael have long reached beyond the simple rock and roll format to realize their art. In addition, their Anglophile and Francophile leanings have given them a wider audience and a durability that has seen off most of their contemporaries.
Their new album ‘Hippopotamus’ leans on all their unique aspects. It’s fresh, surprising and eclectic, but still very accessible.
Sparks have come a long way since being described by Bob Harris as: “A cross between The Mothers of Invention and the Monkees”, but that uncomprehending comparison did have a germ of truth.
The Mael brothers Ron and Russell have always boldly stood outside of rock’s mainstream while carving their own niche. ‘Hippopotamus’ forges a new link in the sometimes uneasy relationship between music and art.
The album has already been showered by critical acclaim in advance of today’s official launch. It’s bold, innovative, catchy, quirky and confirms the Mael Brothers as wordsmiths, though not necessarily in the usual accepted meaning of the term.
They switch languages. They use the power of repetition with quirky lyrics, over a shifting musical back drop that draws on a melange of rock, classical, electro, operatic, funk, spoken word and dance influences. And they use some highly original phrasing as part of imaginative filmic narratives that tread a thin line between being perceptive, witty and nonsensical.
In the question and answer session that follows both the video premier of ‘Hippopotamus’ and a film of the full band at the BBC 6 Music Festival, in Glasgow last March, Ron Mael talks about the making of the title track: “We work back from the title. There is no deep message….it’s all on the surface.”
Having heard the album, he is being slightly disingenuous, as ‘Hippopotamus’ is very much the sum of intricate parts.
Indeed, as Russell tells us, “We come up with the music first, and work back and fool around in the studio. ‘Hippopotamus’ was the first musical idea we had and we looked for a theme to match the eccentricity of the song. We started with the sound thing and worked back from the title, lyrically. The lyrics always attempt to match the ambience and feel of the song. And the variety in our music matches the character and mood of the song with the lyrics.”
That being the case there’s a weighty creative process at play, which Russell later confirms, when he speaks about working with video director Joseph Wallace on ‘Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)’.
“The video captures the thematic quality and the tone of the song. It’s a fine line – a specific angle. We saw Joseph’s work and we got in touch. He also saw the same tone as we did in the song and captured it in the video.”
Tonight the duo are in conversation with BBC 6′s Matt Everritt, who over the course of the next half hour does his best to get to the heart of the duo’s creative process.
It’s not an easy task when you’re talking to a musically speaking, hermetic duo who often obfuscate their creativity with a mix of deadpan humour, gentle irony and an apparent bafflement as to why people connect with their music.
Their sense of wonder goes right back to the start of their UK career when Muff Winwood at Island records – who is a VIP guest tonight with producer Tony Visconti – took a chance on them.
Russell: “It’s been bizarre for us. We came over here and thought we were doing exactly the same as we had for the first two albums in LA. Muff Winwood and the record company must have seen something in us, as we had no material at the time.
We were trying to emulate some British bands before we got here. We did a brief UK tour and the reaction was stronger here than back home. We can’t explain the different success, maybe it’s British intelligence? (laughs). We just nod, but we don’t have a clue really” (laughs).
The fact that Sparks inhabit their own universe is probably the key to their uniqueness, as evidenced by Russell’s comment that: “You feel very alone in a bubble while doing the process. It’s like being shut off and to be focussed in a universe we created, but the consistency from the first album to now is still intact.”
‘Hippopotamus’ revels in a musical variety that Ron explains thus:” It’s having no musical boundaries in your music. We always loved pop music just as much as other genres and had great respect for it. But we push the boundaries of what a 3 or 4 minute song can be. There has to be a certain accessibility, but we like to be able to see what you can do with a fun, formulaic format and get way with murder” (laughs).
In connection with the new ‘Hippopotamus’ album, Russell Mael talks about the album as being part of: “New ways to challenge ourselves and in the process challenge fans of Sparks. We hope the new CD would be as valid as anything we’ve done and would represent our body of work to the point that you don’t need to hear the other 22 albums.”
Going back to the creative process Ron adds: “In the past we would be in the studio and we’d have one eye on the keyboards and one eye on the clock on the wall. But there’s the freedom now of owning our own studio, and we’re experienced in writing and recording and we can even write in the studio.”
Russell adds:” We also picked up good tips from the producers we worked with….we learnt some tricks”.
Sparks – ‘Hippopotamus’ is released by BMG on Friday September 8th.
Review & photos by Pete Feenstra
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