It's always a special occasion when Sparks singer Russell Mael and his keyboardist brother, Ron Mael, play a show in their hometown of Los Angeles. The duo, who are scheduled to perform consecutive nights downtown at the Palace Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 14 and 15, are basking in the unexpected popular and critical success of their 2017 album, Hippopotamus, which reached No. 7 in the U.K. albums chart and landed in the Top 40 in several other countries.
In recent years, the Mael brothers have gone out of their way to book their local concerts in historic, architecturally elegant venues such as the Theatre at Ace Hotel, where Sparks were backed by a full orchestra for two nights in 2015, and El Rey Theatre, where the pair presented some of the new songs from Hippopotamus at three performances in October 2017.
“Especially in Los Angeles, we try to play places that are interesting,” Ron Mael, 73, says in a phone interview from “a secret location” in the hills of West L.A. “It's gotten better recently, especially downtown,” he adds about the revival of nightlife in this city. “We try to avoid obvious, sterile places.”
“The set is going to be different to a large extent,” Russell Mael, 70, says by phone in a conference call from his home in “the lower hills” of the Westside. He estimates that the Palace Theatre set lists will be about 50 percent different from the performances last year at El Rey Theatre, with a different mix of old songs and selections from Hippopotamus.
Unlike so many other bands who peak early and then spend the rest of their lives reliving the same old hits, Sparks have had several distinct phases in their 50-year career and continue to evolve in unpredictable ways. After forming as Halfnelson in 1968 and issuing an eponymous album in 1971, the pair recast themselves as Sparks in 1972 and began releasing a series of records that stood out in distinct contrast to the sensitive singer-songwriter narcissism and undisciplined hippie jam-band ethos of the era. Russell's ethereal, rapid-fire falsetto vocals and Ron's absurdly witty lyrics and sophisticated glam-pop arrangements were a defiant exception to the often-macho conformity of the Freedom Rock generation and paved the way for such groups as Queen and Cheap Trick.
But by the late 1970s, Sparks had largely abandoned the guitar-band format and morphed into a more electronic-minded synth-pop project over the course of two records produced by disco kingpin Giorgio Moroder. During the 1980s, the Mael brothers found a new audience when they began to get heavy airplay on KROQ with such zippy new wave–style anthems as “Tips for Teens,” “Angst in My Pants,” “I Predict” and “Cool Places.” The yearning, gauzy electronic-dance song “When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?” popped up on numerous international charts in 1994.
“It was a strange period in the '80s,” Ron recalls.
“It's a curious thing,” Russell agrees. “KROQ adopted the band in the '80s. Five or six of the albums at the time were heavily played. Our biggest following is in Europe and Japan but the '80s period wasn't as visible over there. It's a strange case where certain of our albums have more resonance in different parts of the word. There is a real interesting variety of people coming to Sparks, initiated from different periods. … What we're doing now sounds like a band without a history that goes back to the '70s.”
“We've been lucky to be playing a lot of festivals,” Ron says about Sparks' recent tours following the success of Hippopotamus. To festivalgoers who aren't familiar with Sparks' back catalog, “All the songs are this one nebulous period,” Ron says. “We really like playing festivals — it's a challenge.”
By the time of 2002's Lil' Beethoven, Sparks had mutated into a more piano-based, classical music–style duo as they asked such daft rhetorical musical questions as “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” and “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” Sparks' sarcastic humor continued apace even as their musical styles expanded on such larks as “Lighten Up, Morrissey” and “I Can't Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song,” from 2008's Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
The brothers digressed in 2009 with The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, an elaborate pop opera that contrasted American and European cultural attitudes via a fictional trip to Hollywood by the Swedish film director. Sparks received another jolt to their career when they joined forces with Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand as the supergroup FFS and released a self-titled album in 2015.
Russell and Ron returned to their more typically atypical sound as Sparks on Hippopotamus, which featured such smart and jaunty piano-based tunes as “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” and the dreamy electro-pop opus “Unaware.” The record also was distinguished by such pointed fables as “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?” and “Life With the Macbeths,” which repurposed Shakespearean tragedy as a tacky television series.
“I thought it would be a challenge writing a song under the guise of Macbeth but as a reality TV show, but done in a high operatic tone so it wasn't just frivolous,” Ron says of the latter song. “With the acceptance of violence in society, it isn't too much of a stretch to see that violence presented in a TV show.”
“So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?” is an even more enigmatic track. “I like that expression, which was used in vaudeville,” Ron says about the song's title. “It's beyond a bad joke, a cliché vaudeville line used in the context of a relationship situation.”
Even when Ron writes about his personal life, he couches his lyrics in so much mystery and literary and musical allusions that it never feels like a typical love song or stark confessional.
“It's easy to be really direct about experiences, but it would sound incredibly banal coming from us,” Ron explains. “There's an incredible personal view in our songs. Maybe it isn't as direct as some people are able to do. One thing I take some pride in is it seems the general career arc of writers when they've been around for some time, the writing becomes more self-reflective. I'm pleased that I haven't gone in that direction. I'm not writing down what's expected of me but instead writing things that come naturally. There's an expectation of where you are and the mellowness of what you're doing — we kind of shun that.”
“To be able to surprise in this day and age is a challenge, and we're happy to be doing it,” Russell says. “There is a certain kind of status quo with pop music in a general way these days.”
Growing up in Pacific Palisades in the 1960s, the Mael brothers had a seemingly all-American childhood, going to the beach and playing sports. In contrast to Sparks' fey image, Russell was the quarterback of the Palisades High School football team.
“It's hard to believe I was once a football player, especially looking at my stature now,” Russell says. “We liked playing baseball and football. I was on the high school football team for three years. Ron played at Uni High” because Palisades High hadn't opened yet.
“It was a different kind of culture,” Ron recalls. “We were attuned to the beach culture. It was a kind of religion, going to the beach all day, surfing and playing volleyball. We were looking to England [for music], but equally there were bands here in Los Angeles reflecting our culture.”
“It was so contradictory being part of that beach culture, but we were also Anglophiles,” Russell says. “There was a conflict in us. We were born in Los Angeles, but we also gravitated toward the British scene. We stood out dress-wise, trying to emulate the British bands. It was all kind of a weird hodgepodge. Despite living in the Palisades, we weren't from a wealthy family.”
“We always bought the British versions of albums,” Ron says. “We'd go to the Whisky A Go Go and see The Move or Tyrannosaurus Rex when it was just a duo. It was a whole different world to us. Image wasn't a concern for the [local hippie] bands. We were supporting Little Feat and Johnny Winter early on but we had no connection to those bands musically. The Whisky, against any logic, would book us even when we weren't drawing. They would keep having us back.”
“We're from here; we feel a certain amount of comfort here,” Russell adds.
“We're the rare breed of native-born Angelenos,” Ron says. “I think it's a good fallback city. The weather is so special here; it really affects your mood — not that it's helped my mood but incrementally.”
Russell marvels about “the diversity of bands that we know are Sparks fans,” citing such unexpected acolytes as Faith No More as well as the legion of electronic musicians (Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Depeche Mode, New Order) who were heavily influenced by the Mael brothers' synth-pop period. “It's not all coming from one era,” he adds.
Sparks have already started working on their next album and will be the subject of a documentary film by director Edgar Wright. Because of the popularity of Hippopotamus, Russell says, “We know there will be a certain amount of anticipation this time. There's an extra bit of excitement from our end. … We're approaching the album with a spirit to continue with the eccentricity that we do and make it extreme and bold.”
“We've always had confidence in who we are,” Ron says, noting that he and Russell have turned down past attempts by other filmmakers to do a generic documentary film. “We're hoping that [Wright's documentary] becomes something that really represents us musically.”
“He's been such a great champion since the project started,” Russell says about Wright, who will film the Palace Theatre concerts. “We haven't seen a single frame of the footage yet, but, yeah, we trust him.”
Sparks perform at the Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway, downtown; Wed.-Thu., Nov. 14-15, 8 p.m.; $45 & $55. (213) 553-4567, https://www1.ticketmaster.com/sparks-los-angeles-california-11-14-2018/event/090054E9A12635DF.