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Sparks still flying, 45 years later

@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

Posted: Monday, November 4, 2013

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It's been 45 years since the Mael brothers -- Russell and Ron, better known as Sparks -- formed their first band and recorded their first album.

And though that group, Haffnelson, was short-lived, it launched the Maels on what's proven to be a long, creatively diverse and idiosyncratic musical path that's without stylistic peer.

"It's frightening if that's the case -- but who's counting?" younger brother Russell Mael says of Sparks' longevity, which includes 22 albums since 1971, and though only occasional and almost accidental collisions with the pop mainstream -- including "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us," "I Predict" and "Cool Places," a collaboration with the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin in 1982 -- an enormous amount of acknowledged influence on artists such as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Morrissey, Duran Duran, the Ramones, They Might Be Giants and fun.

"Really, it doesn't seem like it's been that long because I think both of us just approach things kind of wide-eyed and 'Omigod!' We're still excited about stuff in a general way and excited about music and excited about the possibilities. We got at new things with the same kind of intensity and excitement we did 45 years ago.

"If you approach things that way everything feels like it's still the first day and like no time has passed all, you know? "I think that's what keeps us kind of motivated, and hopefully we always see things in those kinds of terms and never get jaded."

And the Maels certainly have plenty of Sparks projects flying keep themselves, and their fans, excited these days.

The brothers, who were raised in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles and were heavily influenced by British pop and psychedelic rock of the mid- and late-60s -- have been enjoying a particularly prolific period. In 2009 Sparks debuted "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman," a dramatic piece commissioned by Swedish public radio about Hollywood's courtship of the famed film director. The group has performed the piece, with additional actors, several times, and it's being turned into a feature film with shooting slated to start next year in Germany and both Maels having roles. A stage musical is also a possibility.

That also inspired the brothers to star work on another "big, conceptual music project" that's "nearing completion" and that Russell, though he demurs on details, says will be different from "The Seduction..."

"We've put a lot of time into it, almost a year and a half now," says Mael, 65. "Whereas with 'The Seduction of Ingmar Berman' we kind of created a monster in that it has, like 14 characters and 14 roles, the new project is created in such a way that the main characters in it are Ron and myself. So it's smaller in that sense, but we hope it's compelling and fresh and all those sorts of good adjectives."

While working on that, meanwhile, the Maels have also stayed busy on stage with another fresh concept. They launched their "Two Hands, One Mouth" show a year ago in Europe, presenting their first-ever production as a duo, without a band. It yielded a live album, and the Maels have taken the show to Japan and performed at the Coachella Festival in April, with North American dates that have followed throughout the year.

"We didn't want to be off the map for too long while we were preparing the new album," Mael explains. "We were looking for something we could do in the interim and thought, 'Well, what have we not attempted to do, ever, as a group.' And we thought about just taking the core elements of what Sparks has always been -- Ron's songwriting and his melodies and lyrics and my singing -- and seeing if we could do a tour with just the two of us but also not lose any of the kind of power and urgency and excitement and eccentricity of what the band is.

"So that was kind of the motivation for this."

And, Mael doesn't mind saying, it was a daunting proposition.

"Oh, yeah, we were really apprehensive," he acknowledges. "It's putting yourself really out there naked, as it where. There's no support system from a band. There were apprehensions about whether it would sound the way we anticipated and if it could still sound sort of big and substantial and not be the usual kind of singer-songwriter evening, 'cause that concept's kind of repellent to us, that it would be in any way mellow.

"And it really hasn't been in the least. It's been a great deal of fun, and I think the audiences have really enjoyed seeing us in a different way."

Another part of the allure, Mael says, is that the format allows he and his brother to dig a little deeper into the Sparks catalog -- which they're also celebrating with a box set, "New Music For Amnesiacs: The Ultimate Collection," which came out Oct. 22.

"We wanted to come up with songs that are maybe not the obvious ones always," he explains. "We do some that are well-known, but we wanted to do some, too, that have been more obscure Sparks songs. And we're finding the audiences are enjoying those as much as the more-well known songs; maybe they weren't as keyed into those songs on certain albums, but now, doing them in this context, ever song becomes more featured and have a purpose within the set. So that's really fun, too."

The underpinning of "Two Hands, One Mouth," meanwhile, is the relationship between the Maels themselves. It's been a consistent and productive association without interruption, and it's never gone the destructive way of battling brother teams in the Kinks, Oasis or the Black Crowes.

"I think there's a common spirit and a common goal to what we see Sparks being," Mael says, "so there's not an ego at all about, 'Oh, I want to be writing more songs' or 'This is the direction I want to be going in.' The direction and everything, we're clear on that. We both just sense the same sort of needs and direction for our music.

"So there's not the conflict that you hear about from those other bands, which is always about musical differences or ego differences. We don't have those issues. We have other issues, maybe, but being brothers in our case has been an asset more than anything else."

Sparks performs Monday, Nov. 4, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Call (248) 858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com.

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