Sparks’ Ron & Russell Mael talk new documentary, Edgar Wright & more in BV interview
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been making wonderfully quirky pop as Sparks for 50 years. Their music has been imbued with a cinematic feel from the start, but nobody had made a movie about them until now. Edgar Wright, the filmmaker who gave us Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and other films with great soundtracks, has directed The Sparks Brothers, which just had its world premiere at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival and will be out properly later this year. Three years in the making, it's a true love letter to the Maels and the unusual and wonderful music they've created as Sparks over the last 50 years.
We got a little facetime via Zoom with Ron and Russell over the weekend to talk about the documentary, working with Edgar, the music that influenced them and their influence on other musicians, their long and amazing career and more. We also talk a little bit about the other Sparks movie due this year -- Annette, the musical which Sparks wrote that stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and was directed by Holy Motors' Leo Carax. Read our conversation below.
So Edgar Wright said that when he first approached you, you had said that there were other people who had wanted to do a documentary in the years before, but it hadn't happened. So my question is why now? Why Edgar?
Russell Mael: Yeah, well, we had had reservations about doing a documentary because we've always felt that our strength lies in our music and the image you have of the band via the album covers and the idea and image you have of the band via television shows and videos. And that distilling it into an account where it's us speaking about what it is we do, as opposed to the person, the viewer, just having what we do speaks louder than us being able to verbalize and it would be more interesting. But when Edgar approached us to do this, we're big fans of his films and we thought, well, if there's ever going to be a documentary of Sparks, we felt that Edgar's sensibility from what we gleaned from him as a filmmaker, we thought that he would be the right person. There's a sensibility through his films where music plays a large part in a lot of the films. And he brought such a passion about Sparks to us when he first spoke to us about the idea of doing a documentary and then he continued on with that passion for almost three years of work. And so we knew he was the right guy and would give the right sensibility to telling the whole account of Sparks.
Ron Mael: We're really appreciative. Also, just because this is his first documentary and to have us as being the subject matter of the first documentary by Edgar Wright and also he's the kind of director that is working on 22 things at the same time. So, we're just so happy that he wanted to do it. And the final result is kind of even way beyond what we expected because you're kind of standing there naked when somebody is making a documentary about you, but it turned out just incredible from our perspective.
When I meet other Sparks fans, it's almost like we feel like we're in a secret club. Do you feel that from the fan's perspective that usually they feel like, "Hey, we get it"?
Russell: No, absolutely. We definitely sense that. And we really appreciate that. And sometimes there's things when the band has a period of commercial success, it's almost mixed feelings for us because we know a lot of Sparks fans, they want to keep the cult small. They want to keep it to themselves and the idea that it's personal and all the, "None of you know about it," is kind of one of the selling points about it, that that's what makes it so special. So the idea of doing a documentary, the hope is that more people obviously that aren't familiar with the band will now maybe be curious enough to investigate more. And I think Edgar did a great job in that I think it will appeal to Sparks fans, but I think to people that have no knowledge of us will also enjoy this and hopefully be enticed to check out more.
Ron: The one thing that we did at the very beginning is we were hoping that it would be an Edgar Wright film, and not strip away all his idiosyncratic ways. We wanted that kind of Edgar Wright, over the top, sort of...
And it is definitely an Edgar Wright film.
Ron: Yeah, so that..,because we didn't want it to be just a dry documentary. "Born in blah blah blah." He was able to make a real film that also happens to be a documentary about us.
Were you surprised with all the people he got to talk about you on camera? You've influenced so many people in so many different areas of art. Did you expect so many?
Ron: Well, we obviously have been aware of our influence on other musicians, but so much of the time they haven't been forthcoming in admitting that influence. Edgar was able to find really incredible musicians from all different genres to speak openly about what they felt about Sparks. But then kind of even more surprising to us were people outside of the area of music like Neil Gaiman or Mike Myers or those kinds of people. He's got a longer list of people that he knows than we do. So that was a help. But just the breadth of people that were kind enough to speak about Sparks, it was a real shock to us.
It's funny because everybody has their own entrance-way into Sparks. Mine personally was the film Rollercoaster which you perform in. [Sparks were cast after KISS dropped out of the film.] I was a kid at that point. Did you get to hang out with the cast? George Segal was a prodigious banjo player. Maybe you could have got him on a record.
Ron: Oh, damn. No. We dropped his name and Richard Widmark and all of the other people in the film as being our co-stars in Rollercoaster. (Laughs.) But no, we didn't. All those people stayed far away from anything that had to do with a band.
I want to ask about your bond as brothers and the effect that's had on your career and music. As shown in the film, your father who introduced you to music and films died at such an early age. Ron, you're protecting your younger brother...
Ron: It's hard to analyze those things. That could have had something to do with it, because at that point, our family became closer and I think there's other factors. And just on a very personal thing like that, our roles within Sparks are so separate that there's never kind of a jealousy factor. I'm not the lead singer and I'm absolutely fine with that. And so I think that it might not be the central reason that we've been able to kind of continue fairly peacefully over the years, but it is definitely a factor. And then, I don't know, we both see music the same way, at least music that Sparks should be making. And it's kind of unspoken. We kind of know where we want to go, even if we can't verbally say where that is, so it makes it a lot easier when we're working. We don't have to kind of justify things all the time.
I found it interesting that with all the ex band members interviewed for this film, there doesn't seem to be ill will held against you. They all seem to just accept that you had to do what you had to do for the band.
Russell: We were really happy that that came across and that that was the way it is, because we've had a lot of band members through the years just because of the circumstances. We've had a long career. So bands tend not to stick together that well. Obviously we have the core with Ron and myself, but it was really moving for both of us to see some of the band members speaking, them being kind of sad about them having to... kind of that we moved on and they were kind of sad about that. And it's really moving now to even hear them speaking in those terms that there wasn't ill will, they were just more sad that their journey with us kind of ended at that particular point. I think it does add to the whole story, hearing these past members as well as some present members speaking in those kinds of terms. It was really nice.
How do you look back at your career? Do you look back and say, "Well, we did it our way. And then it's just ups and downs and this and that," I mean, it's such an unusual career, a singular career.
Ron: Well, I mean, it even started off strange for a beginning band because our first music was made in a recording way with Russell and I and Earle Mankey. Most bands start off playing live and they get an immediate reaction to what they're doing, but we never had that. We would sit in a room and if it kind of tickled us, then we knew we were doing the right thing. We never have kind of avoided commercial success, it just, I mean... partially a thing that we don't have the ability to kind of instantly come up with something that can be widely seen as commercial. But we've been really fortunate because we've been able to do what we do. And there have been those moments where things have been pretty massive commercially. And they're also very strange because they've been that way in different countries and in different decades. We've had things that have been popular only in France or only in Germany. And there are moments where we kind of try to analyze why that is, but we don't know.
Russell: Ironically too, even though we're not chasing hit records, we kind of feel in a certain way that everything we do, those are what hit songs should be. So it's that the rest of the pop music world or more so even the people that... however it's determined that certain songs have more visibility than others, those are what's wrong. That we think a song like "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" was a big hit, but it was pretty eccentric as a song. We didn't create that song to be a hit. In our minds, that kind of music, that is what people should be listening to. So everything we do, even the very first album that we did with Earle Mankey, the Halfnelson album, Earl and Ron and I, we thought, I mean, these sound like hit songs to us. So it's a different perspective on what hit music should be. So, like Ron said, we've never kind of been chasing hit songs, but from our perspective, what we're doing, those are what hit music should be.
In the documentary you said that in the '60s growing up you were listening to Californian music. But your pre-Halfnelson group, Urban Renewal Project, on the song "Computer Girl," it almost sounds like a Zombies song, it's so steeped in British Invasion.
Ron: Our main influence, despite liking The Beach Boys and surf music, was the British bands at the time. The Who and The Kinks and The Move. And the one element that really attracted us was that there wasn't any separation between the visuals and the music. And that was something that causes a few problems when we first started playing live in Los Angeles. Most of the bands in Los Angeles, they thought that in order to have complete artistic integrity, you had a kind of dress down and we kind of felt just the opposite. So we kind of thought in some distorted way that we were a British band. And it didn't turn out that what we were doing musically was exactly that, but that was our first major influence.
Russell: I just read in one of obituaries for Phil Spector, he talked about how he didn't like the Laurel Canyon scene. He was into something else. And the final thing of this obituary said, he had told somebody in the studio, "If you're going to be laid back, get the fuck out of this studio." So I thought that was pretty appropriate that, relevant to Sparks.
But the idea of Phil producing you guys...
Russell: We had discussions with two of the Ramones who we knew really well, Johnny and Joey, and it didn't sound like it was all a pleasure fest.
That story of Phil holding a gun on them, if that's true.
Russell: That's what Johnny told us, in fact. Yeah. I believe it was over a breakfast once Johnny said, " and then we recorded at his place and we said, 'Okay, I think we're going to go home now.' And he said, "No, you're not." And...
Yikes. Well, I'd like to talk about movies. You nearly made movies with Jacques Tati -- Ron, I could imagine you in Playtime -- and Tim Burton, neither of which happened for various reasons. But now you've got Annette which you made with director Leo Carax. Are we going to see that this year?
Ron: It's completed and it should be premiering sometime in the spring. We had done that project, [radio play musical] The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and we really enjoyed working in a narrative way like that where we weren't having to work within discrete individual songs. So we wanted to do that again, but with The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, there were too many characters. And so we thought we would try to come up with an idea that was fewer characters. So that was how Annette was formed. And so we wrote that and we had gone to the Cannes Film Festival about eight years ago to try to get somebody interested in The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and we ended up meeting Leos Carax who had used one of our songs in Holy Motors.
Right, "How Are You Getting Home?" from Indiscreet.
Ron: Yeah. And so when we got back to LA, Russell had the idea, "Why don't we just send him [Annette]?" And so we sent it to him and he said, "It's really interesting. Let me think about it," and he agreed to do it. So eight years later...but I think the time really worked out because they were able to attract Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. So the film was completed just before the pandemic. We're really fortunate that way, and it'll be seeing the light of day fairly soon.
Russell: We're just finishing producing the soundtrack albums for it as well. So, that's all in the pipeline getting ready.
Speaking of the pandemic, how is it going for you? Are you "podding" and working together?
Russell: Well, we've been working actually a part. With an abundance of caution, we're sort of still keeping our distance, but we're able to continue working because it's kind of been a more writing period where we don't necessarily have to be in the same room all the time. And Ron can write from his place and send files over. But soon we're going to start recording again for the next go around.
Finally, I'm wondering if someone came to you and said, "Do you have one Sparks album that just sums up Sparks?" "This would be it." Or is that impossible?
Russell: Well, I mean, I think it is really difficult even to say which one is your favorite one, even if it's not the one that summarizes everything that you should be doing. I mean, I think even the latest album kind of... If somebody doesn't have any knowledge of the band and they just want to dive into Sparks, I would be really happy if they heard the latest album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, because I think it really encapsulates really the whole spirit of the band. And I don't know if there are that many groups that have a long history like us where you'd be happy enough for someone to just hear your latest album. If it was the Rolling Stones, I don't know if Mick Jagger would say, "Check out our new album." There are other albums, obviously, that I really like and are varied. I like Lil' Beethoven, I think it's really special. And I like No. 1 in Heaven for what it did... it was pretty bold at that time, abandoning guitars and getting into electronics when that wasn't the perceived thing for a band to be doing. But I would be really proud if our latest album was what somebody's entry point into Sparks was.