A quick scan over the song titles on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, the new album from L.A. art-pop-glam-synth-rock vets Sparks, and you’d swear they’d written them this week, while looking out of their window. From “I’m Toast” and “Sainthood is Not in Your Future” to “The Existential Threat” and “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” — Sparks have provided us with the soundtrack to the pandemic and protests that we didn’t know we needed.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon at present; looking back at recent releases from Fiona Apple and X, music that was written and recorded before the world fell apart has taken on deeper meaning now.
“It’s odd because two or three of the songs had one meaning last year but this year have unfortunately taken on an extra level of meaning that wasn’t intended at the time,” says Ron Mael by phone. “Things like “Existential Threat” or “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” mean something in addition to what the intended meaning was from last year. It’s strange how that happens.”
It stands as testament to the quality of the songwriting — that people can relate to the lyrics. It just feels particularly profound right now, because of the stressful conditions we’re living under. “Sainthood is Not in Your Future,” for example, is actually a bitter breakup song.
“Those kinds of songs are always difficult for me to write just because you don’t want to come across as just cranky about things,” Mael says. “I think maybe having some humor within that kind of depressing situation helps round it off to be something left of just a bitter statement.”
Quirky, weirdly disconcerting humor has always been one of Sparks’ specialties. With his trademark moustache and deadpan frown, Ron Mael has long been one of rock & roll’s glorious oddballs, his younger brother Russell the flamboyant foil up front. The contrast between their two stage styles is part of the attraction, though that would mean nothing if not for the fact that they’ve now released 24 stunning studio albums.
1974’s Kimono My House and the “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” single is generally considered their masterpiece. Maybe. But they’ve barely put a foot wrong since. Most recently, 2017’s Hippopotamus is a stellar collection of brilliantly observant, dry and wry, pop songs. This latest album sounds very much like Sparks, but it also displays organic growth — impressive after 53 active years.
“I mean, it sounds pretentious to say it, but the point where we feel that we aren’t evolving, then it really isn’t time to continue going,” Mael says. “We don’t want to just be rehashing things from the past. I mean, everything is filtered through your sensibility, so you can’t escape that continuity in what you’re doing, but we definitely try to move on from what we’ve done before. It’s important for us to feel, at least in a certain way, contemporary in what we’re doing.”
To that end, Mael listens to the likes of Billie Eilish and The Weeknd — not in an attempt to pinch some tricks, but rather to ensure that they don’t sound dated next to the current darlings.
“When I’m listening just for pleasure, my first love has always been pop music but I kinda have to listen to maybe other kinds of music just to feel like some depth is there just for me at this point,” he says. “I don’t listen for inspiration in a specific way, for something I can use. It’s more just the idea that music can have a strength and that is inspiring to me, just to know that music matters.”
Music does matter, even if it doesn’t always feel like it right now. What can start to feel like a conceit in difficult circumstances can actually provide blessed relief, context and even therapy. For the artist, there’s the challenge of actually rolling out a new release in lockdown, though Mael says, in that regard, little has changed.
“We planned to do a tour in October and we’re not really sure where that stands — but up to this point, other than just people feeling weirded out, it hasn’t really affected what we’ve done,” he says. “In a certain way, we’ve been more active as far as doing videos on our own and different other things like that. There had to be a delay in the release as far as the physical album, until July. But we really felt it was important, even if it separates the two releases, to have the album coming out in a streaming way, right when it was intended to be released. So it hasn’t affected anything in that way. Maybe, who knows, it’s pretty difficult to find a silver lining in any of this but, that people seem really intent on finding things that have some meaning to them right now, so perhaps it’ll draw in some people that weren’t even possible listeners before, we don’t know.”
In addition to the new album, English director Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Baby Driver) is working on a documentary movie with and about Sparks. Ron says that’s currently going through editing.
“There was a time where it was like six hours long,” Mael says. “He had it down to three hours. The intention is for it to have a theatrical release as well as a streaming release, so he’s looking to split the difference and have a one, maybe two and a half hour release. We’re fortunate with that in that all of the shooting was completely finished and they’d amassed an amazing amount of footage of us. Spoken to a lot of people. Everything is shot and he’s in the process of editing it now.”
Sparks likes to stay busy. In 2015, they released the FFS album with Franz Ferdinand. Nearly two decades prior, in 1997, they rerecorded “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” with Faith No More. So who else would Ron like to work with?
“We’ve always been big fans of Public Enemy and would love to do a collaboration, at least with Chuck D,” Mael says. “I’ve always admired him and I think the combination of what he could bring and what we could bring would be something unexpected. We met him — we played a festival two years ago perhaps, in Spain and we talked for a little bit. So who knows what could happen there. The thing with Franz Ferdinand was thrown out and then eventually did happen after quite a few years later. So in my fantasy world, I’m hoping at some point that will happen. I don’t have a clue what the final result would be, but that’s why I’m interested in it.”
After lockdown is lifted, the group is keen to tour, but we obviously have no idea when that will be. For now, the steady drip, drip, drip of Sparks music into our homes will have to be enough.
A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is out now digitally. Physical version is out on July 3.