Sparks talk new album, ever-growing fanbase: “Our audiences are pretty accepting of eccentricities”

Sparks previewed their new studio album, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,” in a suitably Sparks way: a music video for the title track starring actress Cate Blanchett dancing her heart out while wearing a striking yellow suit, while the band — brothers Ron and Russell Mael — nonchalantly go about their business in the background.

Lyrically, the adventurous song is also very characteristic of the Los Angeles band’s approach, mixing a deadpan delivery with some subtle commentary. On the chorus, the titular phrase is repeated four times, with various words — “yeah,” “sad,” “wow,” “bad” — affixed to the end. Elsewhere, the song notes that “so many people are crying in their latte” and explains the behavior by hinting at mundanity. “Every day was the same (so many people)/Tried to figure their game (so many people.)” At the end of the day, however, we’re never quite sure why anybody is crying in their latte — or why everyone is so distressed.

Mystery is certainly part of Sparks’ beauty. But it’s only one reason why the duo remains so beloved more than 50 years after releasing their 1972 self-titled debut album. (“The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” is Sparks’ 25th studio album, or 26th if you count the band’s 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, released as FFS.) 

The Maels’ songs are witty and unexpected — such as the new album’s “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight,” which imagines the legendary painting fed up with museum life (and with keeping up appearances) and deciding to “take her credit card and rack up miles,” or the staid couple of “Take Me For a Ride” letting loose on date night by raising a ruckus.

“We like having situations in the lyrics of our songs.”

Musically, Sparks are also singular. At their core, Ron’s virtuoso keyboards buoy Russell’s bold and operatic vocals, although the Sparks sound then morphs and evolves depending on styles and eras. With its futuristic programming and adventurous synth textures, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” is yet another stellar entry into Sparks’ oeuvre, highlighted by the percolating electro-pop of “Veronica Lake” and the guitar-heavy synth-rocker “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is.”

Coming on the heels of Edgar Wright’s thorough, career-spanning 2021 documentary “The Sparks Brothers” and the band’s award-winning movie musical “Annette,” Sparks are also riding an incredible wave of momentum and popularity.

On a recent afternoon, Ron and Russell Mael Zoomed with Salon to discuss the impact of the documentary, as well as “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” and the importance of visuals to Sparks’ existence.

SparksSparks (Big Hassle)

You’ve been so prolific in the last few years. When did inspiration for this particular set of songs first arise for you both?

Ron Mael: We had been working on a movie project and so there was some time in between and we were inspired to get back to writing three- and four-minute songs. And so it came together fairly quickly for us. It was about a year’s worth of time, both in the writing and the recording. 

How did doing the movie influence the way you were approaching this music, even subtly?

Russell Mael: I’m sure that everything works with everything else. And so maybe subliminally things creep in them. There’s one song in particular, “Take Me For A Ride,” that is really orchestral in its approach and sounds more cinematic even down to the instrumentation. 

But then in the movie “Annette” that we did — and then even in what we’re writing now for our next movie musical — we are all over the map, even musically in those projects. Sometimes pieces that were in “Annette” that don’t necessarily sound cinematic in a traditional way, like a movie score. They sound almost [like] pieces that are coming from a pop sensibility, but then imposing the narrative of the story within the lyrics and the dialogue. 

Everything with us now is this hybrid where everything feeds off each other. In the movies maybe some of Sparks slips [in] — and then in Sparks, some of the movies slips into that.

Ron Mael: Working on a movie musical feels very natural. Not that it’s easy, but it feels like a natural step for us, because the incorporation of vocals into a musical setting — even though with a movie musical, it’s a long narrative affair and multiple singers, speakers, voices — still doesn’t feel like it’s this completely separate endeavor for us. The incorporation of vocals feels like, even in a movie musical, a natural continuation of what we do ordinarily as Sparks.

You mentioned “Take Me For a Ride” — I like that song especially because it feels like a mini-movie. There’s a story happening; there’s a narrative. And a lot of songs on this record in particular have that characteristic. That’s one of my favorite parts about the record.

Russell Mael: A lot of times we like having situations in the lyrics of our songs. Even if the theme might have some traditional elements to it, [we might be] taking a traditional theme — love or whatever — but saying it in some other way where it doesn’t have to be clichéd or hackneyed.

You could even say to a certain extent that “Take Me For A Ride” is a love song in a way. It’s this couple — but they get together on this crazy ride that they take once a week to take them out of their mundane life, doing almost a Bonnie and Clyde thing or something on the weekend to spice things up. In a way, you could say it’s a love song too — but a love song coming from hopefully a completely fresh angle.

How much significance does it have for you both that this album is on Island Records, which is obviously a label that meant so much to you as well in the ’70s?

Russell Mael: It’s a pretty unique situation and story — well, first of all, that a group has even [25 studio] albums, but that Island Records was so instrumental in launching Sparks to an international audience. They signed the band in late ’73, ’74, and had us come to England and do what turned out to be the “Kimono My House” album [released in 1974]. And there was such an immediate and strong reaction for the band and that album, and especially the song, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” was a really big hit. We did four albums for Island in the ’70s at that time. And then there was never any falling out or anything. You always try to rejig things to try to find fresh ways of working. And so we parted company then.

“Each album is less going through the motions and reflective of the past, and more something that is a part of the future.”

But the amazing thing is that at this point in our career, Island Records now was given an opportunity to hear the new album and they responded to the music that Sparks is doing in 2023 — and [weren’t responding] to the fact that, “Oh, isn’t it a great story. We had Sparks way back when. Just as a lark, let’s sign Sparks.” They don’t work that way. They obviously want to be passionate about the album they’re promoting.

For us, that was the most satisfying thing — that after 48 years or whatever it is, that now Island Records says, “God, Sparks is still doing really contemporary and provocative music” like we did for them in the ’70s. And so they wanted to sign the band again. We were really excited about the prospect.

It is nice to have someone look at your career and say, “It’s not nostalgia, you’re not resting on any laurels” and recognizing that you’re still moving forward and making good music and making good art that resonates.

Ron Mael: We really take pride in that. We realize that, not to sound arrogant about it, but we’re in a fairly unique position as far as bands that have been around as long as we have. We do feel that each album is less going through the motions and reflective of the past, and more something that is a part of the future. Island saw that in this album, and we’re really pleased about that.

Edgar Wright’s documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” also really did a good job of showing each distinctive Sparks era and each distinctive album as well. My impression is that documentary helped your fanbase grow and maybe evolve and change. Have you experienced that since the documentary was released?

Ron Mael: Absolutely, yeah.

Russell Mael: Yeah. It’s been, I mean, a day and night situation almost. After the documentary came out, it snowballed. The last tour we did, we were playing to bigger audiences and then more sold-out venues as well. Even on social media, there’s been a new following of people that weren’t aware of the band at all. 

It took someone like Edgar Wright to put his passion for music in general, but specifically his passion for Sparks music, [and him] saying, “Dammit, Sparks need to be heard and seen by a bigger audience,” because he feels that we deserve it and deserve to be on the musical map in a bigger way. He couldn’t figure out why Sparks hasn’t been a household name to more people — and he wanted to try, in his way, to do something about what he considered a thing that shouldn’t be happening to the band.

He devoted three years of his life to making this movie and traveled with us all around the world on tours and did all the extensive interviews that are in the documentary — the different people, talking heads, [that] he has speaking about their appreciation for the band and what Sparks means to them. And [it’s] not just musicians, but he was able to get authors and actors and TV directors and producers. So it’s this wide range. 

Like you mentioned, the thing that we thought was so positive about it too is that he treated all of the eras of the band equally. For him there isn’t one golden era. There are eras where you could say commercially things weren’t happening as well, but creatively things were still happening in those periods. Edgar wanted to get across that through thick and thin, our vision of doing what you think is right creatively has to supersede any other economic considerations or commercial considerations. In the end, the important thing is being true to your creative vision. 

A lot of young people — and a lot of old people, but a lot of new young people also — they took that message and really related that to themselves too. The film’s theme, in a certain way, became more of this universal message for people that have hesitations about what they’re doing in their lives, and in their creative lives as well.

“The people that are following Sparks now, they’re catching up on everything, on all 26 albums.”

In any case, getting back to the main point, what you brought up was that it’s really helped bring in a new audience — and brought back into the fold a lot of people that were peripheral Sparks folks that like one period, and then they just didn’t continue following the band. But then having this movie, they said, “Oh wow, I don’t know why I dropped out for so long, but I’m back and then I’m back in a bigger way now. And I see that that one period was just a part of this whole story.” It’s really been so helpful for the band.

Ron Mael: It’s also really inspiring to us that it’s international. That film had an even bigger impact in Japan than in most places. It’s not done in the Japanese language, but the feel of the documentary touched people there.

We’re doing a tour soon and we’re playing in larger places than we’ve ever played there — partly because of “Annette,” because [director] Leos Carax, aside from France, Japan is where he is the best known. But [it’s] also because of the documentary. It really means a lot to us where your music, but through the documentary, is reaching people in the same way that it’s reaching people where they’re an English-speaking audience.

Did the documentary change your perspective on anything in your career?

Ron Mael: Edgar has a big Rolodex. When somebody like Neil Gaiman — who we really admired in the past, but never met — has been following you for so long, you try to pretend as an artist that you’re not moved at all by other people’s opinions of you, but you have to be, in a certain sense. 

The fact that all these people from all different fields were following what we were doing, it probably would’ve been paralyzing if we would’ve known at the time. But it really meant a lot to us. 

And then also, we had experienced the same thing [the time] we had 21 nights where we played all of our albums consecutively one night after another in the UK in 2008. We experienced that with the documentary, where a lot of periods don’t stand out as much for us — or maybe for other people as well — because there wasn’t a commercial thing that made it stand out. 

To see all the periods from a purely musical standpoint — and the fact that somebody like Flea [in the documentary] could choose a song from an album that was ignored in a way — it is really an equalizer. Sometimes you think, “Well, I wish I could recreate that one period.” But we realize that we put effort into every single album and there is some strength in everything that we’ve done.

At this point, how do you choose a setlist? Because like you said, every fan has a different era they like; you have a couple songs where you can’t get out of the room without playing those. You have so much material. How at this point do you do that?

Russell Mael: Yeah, it’s hard because if there’s 26 albums, say, and then a set for us has turned out to be roughly around 22 songs — if you do the math, four albums aren’t even going to get one song in the set, just because it’s impossible. So it gets harder and harder. 

But it’s actually more fun, in a way, now to pick the set. On the last tour, we did a lot of songs that weren’t necessarily the obvious ones. Kind of what Ron was saying about being a leveler of everything — now if we do something from a more obscure album, the people that are following Sparks now, they’re catching up on everything, on all 26 albums. And so now doing some song that’s from a less-known album — and even a track maybe within that album that’s not that expected — it was well-received on the last tour. 

“We’re really lucky because our audiences are pretty accepting of eccentricities.”

There’s a few songs that are going to be on this next tour that are from albums that we haven’t done and songs that the only time we’ve ever performed them was on that 21 nights. Maybe one time we did the song. So for most of the new-old songs that we’ll be doing, it’s at best the second time ever that they’ve ever been done. [Editor’s note: Sparks kicked off a UK tour on May 23 and the setlist indeed contained several rarities.]

I don’t envy you. That seems like such an arduous task. That’s amazing.

Ron Mael: It’s actually fun, though, because [we’re able to take] a song that maybe doesn’t even sound like a naturally live song, and figure out how to do it. We’re really lucky because our audiences are pretty accepting of eccentricities. We’re really pleased that we can do things where it isn’t like everybody is filing out to buy a drink while we’re doing a certain song. People do really enjoy the fact that there’s such a combination of songs from all periods and styles within what we’re doing. We’re pretty kinetic live, but the songs don’t necessarily also have to be ones where you’re just powering it on. It can be something that actually takes some listening to as well.

Shows are a marathon, not a sprint, especially now. And the way you present shows is very much like a play to me, like when I saw you last year in Detroit. You have your rise up, and your coda and your denouement and everything like that.

Russell Mael: No, that’s a good analogy. Better than we could have said.

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What are you allowed to say about the other movie musical you have in development? You mentioned that earlier in the interview.

Russell Mael: Not much specifically plot-wise, but we got the bug about doing a big narrative project again after the “Annette” experience. And so it’s a film called “X Crucior.” In Focus Features’ press release, they billed it as an epic musical. We like that, and that can be interpreted however you want to interpret what epic and what musical means as well. All of the dialogue is [again] delivered via song. And the story is probably about as far away from “Annette” as you could get. It’s a different scope and scale too. So that’s suitably vague, I know.

Ron Mael: The one thing it shares with “Annette” is the fact that, stylistically, we didn’t feel that there needed to be a unity to the music. Obviously, there’s a thread because it’s a story; it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But as far as what each singing piece is, we didn’t feel that there needed to be smooth transitions necessarily. And that’s something that’s shared with “Annette.”

We have a preference to a more naturalistic approach to singing within a musical. Even though there are great things written for Broadway, we’re not greatly in love with that kind of singing — that kind of, maybe from our standpoint, [it’s] maybe a little overwrought. And even when things sound done in a more classical sense, we’re still coming at it as pop musicians. Some of that sensibility is going to remain there. 

We were really lucky with “Annette” because both Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard understood what we were trying to get at as far as the delivery. It worked out perfectly for that. And so we know what we’re looking for in a singing way for “X Crucior” as well.

“Hopefully what you’re doing visually is reflective of what the music is all about as well.”

SparksSparks (Big Hassle)

Is there anything else about the new record you want to add? Anything else we haven’t covered you want to point out?

Russell Mael: There’s a beautiful picture disc. [Laughs.] Those things become more and more important, like the artwork, because everything’s sadly been kind of dumbed-down online where there’s no sense of a package and holding a physical object. We wanted to make the most of having those physical objects. There’s I think three different formats of vinyl even. But the one that’s really cool is that there’s an actual picture disc version of the album. 

And you have to have a cassette, just because it’s cool and retro. But those things become more and more important to us anyway, the physical versions of the album. Streaming’s good in that you can access music like a library. But then the downside is there’s not the sense of it being an actual album with an A and a B side, two sides. 

Ron Mael: We always felt that the visual part and the live presentation and the artwork, it’s all one thing with what we’re doing musically. It isn’t that all of that is somehow diminishing you as a musician to be putting so much emphasis on visuals, because from the very beginning we always liked bands that had a visual sense. We really try, as much as we can, to take care with all of the things that maybe seem like a record company decision or somebody else’s decision, like with album artwork. To us all that is really important.

Every era has a visual aesthetic. Absolutely.

Ron Mael: No, exactly. And hopefully what you’re doing visually is reflective of what the music is all about as well.

Then one last question. Have you talked to Cate Blanchett about her potentially joining you on stage to reprise her dance?

Ron Mael: [Laughs.]

Russell Mael: [Smiling.] In our subtle way, we’ve spoken about it. The subject’s been broached. We’ll see. Obviously, there’s scheduling and things like, everybody’s in different parts of the world at different times. We hope it would happen, but we don’t want to promise anything. The song will be good with or without Cate. But with Cate would be pretty cool.

Ron Mael: [Laughs.] It would be better with Cate, have to admit.

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