Sparks interview: Too latte for goodbyes
By Steve O'Brien | June 30, 2023
Classic Pop talks to Sparks about their latest album, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte
Sparks adore their coffee, so it was perhaps inevitable that one day they’d write their preferred caffeine-based beverage into one of their album titles. The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is the brothers Mael’s 26th long-player and its lead-off single, their first ever coffee-based song.
“Latte’s not our favourite, though,” a fully coffee-d up Russell Mael tells Classic Pop over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, “but ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Soy Cappuccino’ didn’t have a good ring about it.”
It’s been three years since Ron and Russell Mael’s last album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. A new Sparks LP is always a big deal, but this time it feels different.
Not only is The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte the pair’s first album since the career-boosting The Sparks Brothers documentary, but it marks their return to Island Records for the first time since 1976’s Big Beat.
“We toured last year and the audiences were a lot bigger than they were in the past,” the ever-youthful looking Russell tells us. “We owe a lot of that to Edgar Wright’s documentary and the Annette movie [the big-screen musical starring Adam Driver they wrote and which came out in the US a few months after The Sparks Brothers].
“It put Sparks on the map in areas that we wouldn’t have normally been able to reach. The combination of both those films has had a huge impact for us.”
With more eyes on Sparks than at any point since the 70s, what better time for the boys to reteam with the label that they enjoyed their biggest success with?
The duo’s highest charting album to date, 1974’s Kimono My House (No.4 in the UK), was the first of their four records with Island and, and, who knows, maybe The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, with that Edgar Wright fire behind it, will beat even that?
“It’s just an amazing story that we were with Island for the first album that broke through internationally, and that now, 49 years later, we’re re-signing with that same label,” says Russell.
“And it’s not based on nostalgia, it’s based 100% on this new album. We’re really happy to be back with Island, but to be back with them based on what Sparks is doing in 2023.”
With 26 albums under their belt, and hundreds, nay thousands of songs in the archive, Sparks are among the most productive bands in pop history.
Yet each album is always started from fresh. There are 14 tracks on The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, yet none of those are leftovers from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip or 2017’s Hippopotamus.
“Most get abandoned forever, only because you get excited about starting something new,” explains Russell. “And you would rather it be completely new rather than taking something that you’d had laying around and then say, can we try to salvage that piece that didn’t make the cut the first time around?
“We have tons and tons of bits and pieces laying around, but there’s something more fun when you’re starting a new thing, just to make it completely fresh.”
“We’ve gotten pretty merciless at pruning things out that we think are not up to the standard they need to be,” Ron tells us. “Within what we’re doing, we know what is strong material and what isn’t. Even the amount of songs – we never know going into an album how many songs are going to be on it.
“With what we do, anything can go because our songs are in so many different styles. But if there’s something that really feels like it isn’t part of the programme, we leave it off.”
By the time you read this, you’ll have already clocked the lead-off video for the album. The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is a one-take promo featuring Hollywood A-lister Cate Blanchett, who, while rocking a banana-hued suit and shiny white creepers, hoofs her way through the title track.
However, the involvement of this double Academy Award-winner won’t be a total surprise to anyone who saw The Sparks Brothers documentary.
“Your favourite band’s favourite band” was the movie’s tagline and director Edgar Wright assembled quite a cast of marquee-name fans, from Mike Myers and Giorgio Moroder to Mark Gatiss and Neil Gaiman as well as more surprising followers such as the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Flea, we wouldn’t have thought, would have been able to articulate in such a really nice way his positive feelings about the band,” says Russell of the generously tattooed Chili Peppers’ bassist. “The specific songs that some of the talking heads spoke about were interesting, too, because they were from albums that went more under the radar.
- Read more: Making Sparks: No.1 In Heaven
“They were all over the map stylistically, they’re music people but from very disparate corners. Then to have writers like Neil Gaiman speaking about Sparks was really a shock. We don’t know those people at all personally, so to have them speaking so nicely was great.”
One of the reasons why Sparks, 50-plus years into their career, are still so incredibly vital, is that they’re not nostalgists. It would be easy for any band of their vintage to crest on former glories, to keep chugging out the same album over and over again, their daredevil spirit long since extinguished. But not Russell and Ron.
When asked which of them would do better with Sparks as their specialist Mastermind subject, Ron points to Russell, but even he admits to whopping great gaps in his Sparks knowledge.
“A lot of times people do ask about some song off a particular album and we honestly on some occasions can’t remember which album it was from because we tend to file everything away after we’ve finished, we’re moving on to the next thing,” says Russell. “We don’t remember the chronology of where something was and what it was specifically. We usually have to ask people.”
- Read more: Sparks 2020 interview
If Russell and Ron aren’t, therefore, Sparks brainboxes, Edgar Wright most certainly is. His 140-minute documentary was a starry-eyed Valentine to his favourite band, for whom it must have been an odd feeling, as committed anti-nostalgists, coming face to face with their entire history.
“That was something we talked to Edgar about, even before he started assembling it,” says Ron. “Obviously the past has to be a part of any documentary, but we wanted, and he agreed, that the amazing part of the story was the fact that things are as vibrant now as they’ve always been. It was important that all the past was leading up to the present.
“If it were just to be a walk down memory lane then we wouldn’t have wanted to go along with it. So it wasn’t uncomfortable seeing all that stuff, because it was a part of the whole picture.”
Of course, Russell and Ron relinquished control of The Sparks Brothers to Wright, just as they gave over their dream project Annette to French director Leos Carax. As people who have been the only ones in control of the Sparks brand for half a century, was it hard for them to take more of a back seat on 2021’s various Sparks-related projects?
“It’s a different experience,” says Ron. “When we’re working with music, we’re totally in control. And all the decisions, for better or worse. We’re willing to accept the praise or the criticism, but it’s all our decisions. But when you’re working on a film project, it’s a collaborative process, and you have to cede some of your dictatorial impulses to somebody else.
- Read more: Top 20 heroes of synth-pop
“Sometimes it’s difficult because you feel so strongly. In particular with the music on Annette, Leos Carax is an amazing director, but sometimes when a decision is a musical one, in the end, they have the final say.
“We went into that project and also the one with Edgar where both of them were huge fans of Sparks so that made any kind of collaboration much, much easier. You can’t do a film without relying on a lot of other people, and you go in knowing that that’s the case.”
Where they are in absolute control of their brand, however, is in their live work. Later this year, the at-the-time-of-talking 77-year-old Ron and 74-year-old Russell will be playing three of the biggest shows of their career, including two sold-out gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall and a night at L.A.’s historic Hollywood Bowl. Quite an achievement.
“It’s intimidating,” smiles a proud, but clearly apprehensive Russell. “We’re so happy about the Royal Albert Hall shows – both of which are sold out – so we’re in a way relieved, but in a way going, ‘Oh, my God, now we’ve got to really come up with the goods!’ The Royal Albert Hall is, for us Americans, so symbolic of England.
“When we lived in London in the 70s, we didn’t live too far from there. And you know, we’d pass it all the time. It’s this big, iconic concert hall. It was a dream that one day we’d be able to play there, so we’re really excited about that.
“Then when we found out that we had the Hollywood Bowl offered to us, we were equally intimidated because we’re from L.A. and the Hollywood Bowl is maybe as iconic as the Royal Albert Hall is to someone from London. Our mom took us to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, so for us to now be able to play there this many years later, it kinda does your head in.”
Also in the offing is another feature film. As lifelong movie nuts, Sparks had spent decades trying to break into the celluloid world, first collaborating with French mime artist Jacques Tati on a project that sadly petered out, and then with Tim Burton on an equally ill-fated adaptation of the Japanese manga series Mai, The Psychic Girl (a disappointment they channelled into the 2009 concept album, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman).
It is clear, though, that Annette wasn’t just a one-off. That itch hasn’t been successfully scratched and they
are hard at work now on another big-screen musical with the tantalising title of X-Crucior.
“Our lips are sealed, storywise,” Russell says, with a mischievous smile. “After Annette we were so excited about doing another movie project. We have a movie company now and it’s been really supportive of our new idea. We’ve finished the screenplay and done all the music. It’s kind of like an epic musical.
“It’s unconventional for a musical, in terms of the subject matter and the story. Musically, it’s a similar sensibility to Annette, although the story is 180 degrees from what that film was. We think that it’s going to be a really bold movie.”
That’s Sparks in a nutshell. After more than half a century, they’re still as giddily excited by each new project as they were when they waxed that debut album, Halfnelson, in 1971.
Maybe it’s their eternally youthful spirits, maybe it’s the fact that the world is finally turning on to Sparks, maybe it’s because they never look back. Then again, it may just be the coffee.
- Want more from Classic Pop magazine? Get a free digital issue when you sign up to our newsletter!
Steve O'BrienSteve O’Brien is a writer who specialises in music, film and TV. He has written for magazines and websites such as SFX, The Guardian, Radio Times, Esquire, The New Statesman, Digital Spy, Empire, Yours Retro, The New Statesman and MusicRadar. He’s written books about Doctor Who and Buffy The Vampire Slayer and has even featured on a BBC4 documentary about Bergerac. Apart from his work on Classic Pop, he also edits CP’s sister magazine, Vintage Rock Presents.