Ron and Russell Mael talk about Veronica Lake, North Korean military pageantry and their expanding collection of trainers and snow globes. Oh, and their 25th studio album, ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’. Yes, it’s just another day in the strange and beautiful world of Sparks

“During the Second World War, so many women were following Veronica Lake’s fashion sense that the US government had to find a way of getting her to change it,” says Russell Mael.

It’s a breezy LA morning for Sparks, and Russell and Ron Mael are both immaculate in black. Two minutes into the conversation, and we’re discussing… well, Veronica Lake – the 1940s actress whose career encompassed a string of classic film noirs and, indeed, who has inspired a rather spiffy number on the splendid new Sparks album, ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’.

I wasn’t sure if the song, simply titled ‘Veronica Lake’ and filled with wartime imagery, was a cunning metaphor for the current situation in Ukraine. It’s not. It’s about Veronica Lake. More specifically, it’s about the movie star reluctantly changing her signature long hairstyle in 1943 at the request of the Franklin D Roosevelt administration.

“Veronica Lake’s hair was causing a problem with women working in factories – their long hair was getting stuck in the machines,” continues Russell. “So the government asked her to change her style to help with their safety.”

“She was never as popular again after that,” adds Ron. “She did things that were well known. For about five years she was probably the biggest actress in the world. But it was brief. Partly because of her personal problems but also… changing that peekaboo hairstyle was like kryptonite! She was never quite the same. Seeing only half her face was quite a thrill.”

The Maels, it always strikes me, are collectors. Not just of a blissful cavalcade of actual stuff , but of anecdotes, stories and gleefully quirky footnotes from the frontlines of popular culture. For over 50 years now, tides of this delicious flotsam have washed up on a grand total of 25 studio albums.

Further evidence? Also on the new record is ‘We Go Dancing’, a sardonic paean to the choreographed military parades of North Korea: “Pyongyang is a-rockin’, missiles driving through the square / We go dancing proudly, legs are kicking in the air.”

“The title of that song had come up, but it was just such a mundane and hackneyed title for a pop song, and we didn’t want it to be about dancing in a club,” says Russell. “So we had the idea of attaching it to the pageantry of North Korea. The military displays where people are – in their own way – dancing and parading as though it was a fashion show. With the women all perfectly in lockstep, their hair all done uniformly, and Kim Jong-Un, in essence, taking on the role of the DJ.”

Given the bizarre nature of the Sparks story, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible for the Maels to have actually trodden on North Korean soil at some point in the last five decades. So have they?

“Not lately,” deadpans Ron.

But, alongside the brothers’ gleeful curation of pop culture imagery, the album is tinged with feelings and memories that seem decidedly more personal, even occasionally melancholy. The title track, for all of its musical joie de vivre, depicts a succession of tearful coffee drinkers all arriving, one after the other, at a lonely table for one.

“It just seems like there are always people sitting at tables by themselves,” says Ron. “And you sometimes wonder what their story is. And what they’re thinking about when they put away their phone and sit staring into their latte.

“People sometimes mention that they feel our songs aren’t based so much on personal experiences – which can be true. But you still draw on the impressions you get from what’s around you. And nowadays, we don’t have many personal experiences other than going to coffee shops.”

Does that assumption frustrate them, I wonder? Sparks songs have always been rooted in humour, but many of their lyrics seem deceptively confessional, including several on the new album. Surely ‘Gee, That Was Fun’ is a pretty direct look back at a mismatched romance? “Should have spent less time watching sports, should have improved my quick retorts / You were a bit too good for me, didn’t take long ’til you agreed.”

“So many people open up their hearts within pop music,” says Ron. “And it’s done in a way that’s kind of obvious – meeting somebody at a certain time, or having an affair that didn’t work out.

“It’s more difficult to pinpoint that with Sparks songs. Maybe sometimes the personal touch is couched in a situation that isn’t immediately identifiable as being a part of us. But I definitely think it’s there. We’re not at all distanced from what we’re writing about, but lyrically we try to find ways to express things that aren’t the most obvious ways to say something.”

So which songs on the new album are the most personal, I wonder? It’s an impertinent question, and I jokingly undermine it – I know they won’t tell me, I chuckle. But they do. And I was right. Well, possibly.

“Something like ‘Gee, That Was Fun’…” says Ron. “Of course, it can be taken in several ways – it can be a personal situation, or you can relate it to Sparks, addressing our audience. But I think the lyrics are pretty direct. You don’t need a dictionary to figure out the sentiment.”

Let’s discuss electronic music. Edgar Wright’s excellent 2021 documentary, ‘The Sparks Brothers’, shone the spotlight on one of the Maels’ first compositions, 1966’s ‘Computer Girl’, recorded in their earliest guise as The Urban Renewal Project. It’s a beautiful relic of the era. “If you’d like / A date with her / Stick an IBM card / In her stomach,” sings an 18-year-old Russell Mael to a throbbing psychedelic backbeat. So they’ve always had this interest in the vanguard of new technology? Even Russell confesses to feeling surprised.

“It was really interesting for us to have some focus put on that song in the documentary,” he says. “Like, ‘Wow, we were talking about computers way back then?’. We were certainly surprised that we were doing that in 1966, because there certainly weren’t any home computers around. They were all in scientific institutions.”

Photo: Munachi Osegbu

Their quirkiness brought them to the attention of Todd Rundgren – another nascent scenester with a burgeoning interest in the possibilities afforded by new technology. In 1971, with their band renamed Halfnelson, the Maels teamed up with Rundgren to work on their debut album proper. Buried deep in ‘The Sparks Brothers’ Blu-ray extras is a touching reunion – the first time Rundgren and the Maels have seen each other since that album was completed, five decades earlier.

“There wasn’t a falling out – it was just one of those things,” says Ron. “Before we had any records, we made tapes with really elaborate packaging and sent them out to people. We assumed, ‘Well, everyone’s going to go for this…’. But it was only Todd! And we’re forever indebted to him. Not only for embracing those songs, but also – when the time came to record them – for keeping the essence of what they were. He didn’t want to change our sensibility.

“When most producers hear a band that isn’t what they’ve heard before, their inclination is to homogenise them. But Todd was the opposite. He wanted to keep the eccentricity. It was pretty amazing seeing him after that length of time.”

The full-scale conversion to synthpop came with 1979’s groundbreaking album, ‘No 1 In Heaven’. Produced – of course – by a founding father of the movement.

“Giorgio Moroder was one of the people who got us really connected into the whole electronic world,” says Russell. “And how much has that whole world changed since the time we worked with him? To get those sounds, you absolutely had to go to a studio that was well equipped with these big, modular Moog synthesisers, whereas now you can literally get them from a laptop.”

“Because of that, in 1979, we couldn’t tour with ‘No 1 Song In Heaven’,” adds Ron. “There just wasn’t a way to do it onstage.”

Did they face any pushback? This was the era, lest we forget, of the vinyl-burning “Disco Sucks” movement in the US. More understated sentiments in Britain manifested in “Musicians’ Union Says Keep Music Live” stickers, plastered in the back windows of Citroën 2CVs.

You’d hesitate to ever call Sparks a traditional rock band, but they’ve never been strangers to bass/drums/guitar. Did the switch to electronica prompt accusations of treachery?

“Yeah,” nods Russell. “But it was odd – it was mainly from critics… ‘It’s a machine playing the music’.

Playing with guitars was real music, and electronic music was a lesser form. We didn’t think that way at all. It was just a different backdrop for the music we were making, so for us the argument was a non-starter.

“Although there were those camps, the public was 100 per cent supportive of what we were doing. They left the critics behind. Three of the songs from that album went into the UK Top 40, so they had no problem with us making electronic music. It was the critics who thought we were being blasphemous.”

Both Russell and Ron are ineffably polite. Charming, thoughtful, soft-spoken. As a giddy child of the 1970s, it’s hard not to pepper them with the daffy Sparks-related trivia that has bounced around my head for a lifetime, and they listen with heartwarming patience. Are they aware, I wonder, of a 1975 episode of knockabout BBC kids’ programme ‘Crackerjack!’, in which the presenter, Don Maclean, sings ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’, while hitting Peter Glaze over the head with an old boot?

“I don’t think so, but we’ll check it out,” smiles Russell, looking appropriately bemused.

The conversation also turns to Ron’s beloved Shangri-Las and his adoration of their genuinely poignant 1966 single, ‘Past, Present And Future’. And then it’s the westerns and war films the Maels used to watch with their father on blissful childhood visits to 1950s cinemas.

“Two movies, a newsreel and a cartoon,” says Ron. “That, for us, was an amazing Saturday.”

Those giddy ebbs of pop culture odds and ends – the forgotten films and TV shows, the heartbreaking drama couched in disposable pop songs – are washing over us again. How about reaching out and grabbing one at random. Something tangible this time, something from an actual collection.

On a shelf behind Ron, I notice, rests a tiny fraction of his notoriously vast collection of boxed and unworn trainers. Is he familiar with the collector’s dream? Surely we’ve all had it. You walk into a mysterious shop, and there on the shelf is every single item missing from your prized collection of whatevers. But the shop doesn’t take credit cards, so you dash outside to a cash machine. And when you look back over your shoulder, the shop has vanished.

“The internet is that shop nowadays,” chuckles Ron. “For sneakers, anyway – it’s made them too easy to get. Most of my sneakers I actually bought on their release date, and that was the fun thing. There were tons of kids, and you’d wait in line outside the shoe place in the mall until they opened at 6am. It made the shoes mean more, especially when everyone was wrestling to get the last pair in size 12. But that kind of hunt is gone now! It was really exciting.”

He collects snow globes as well – those little glass domes you shake to make a fake snowstorm. He’s got thousands of them. Is that it, though? Sneakers and snow globes? Or does he collect anything else? He gives the bashful sideways glance and half-smile we’ve all seen in vintage ‘Top Of The Pops’ performances, and it gives me a genuine tingle.

“No, it’s kind of… everything.”

And Russell? Is he the non-collecting Mael brother?

“No, I collect stuff too,” he smiles. “We go to Japan a lot, and there are too many things to buy and collect there. Little figurines of characters. But then they make them into a series and you need to buy all 250 of them.”

Oh, which characters?

“All kinds of things,” he shrugs. “Sunny Angel – do you know about him? They’re kind of Kewpie doll characters. But you can never just buy the figures you want. The collections are unmarked, so you don’t know which ones you’re going to get. You have to randomly buy them and take a chance. And they are not cheap.

“I used to really like Pez dispensers, but now they’re on the internet too. So if you have the money, you can just buy every single one. And that took the fun out of it – because whoever has the most money can have the best collection. Maybe that’s just the way life is? But it took the sport out of finding one really cheap from an old lady who didn’t know it was valuable.”

This is what I love about Sparks. Even their hobbies are pursued with maximum dedication. Their work ethic, wherever they apply it, is unparalleled – 25 albums in 52 years, and another world tour on the horizon. In 2021, they collaborated with French director Leos Carax, writing and scoring the Adam Driver movie ‘Annette’. A follow-up film, ‘X Crucior’, is now in the offing. How do they crowbar so much in?

“If you want to get something accomplished, you have to work at it,” says Russell. “The new movie is a full-length feature film with a lot of music and a narrative story. And it’s taken a lot of time, so we’ve spent a lot of time working.”

I’m aware I don’t have much more time with them. They have a whole day’s worth of promotional fun ahead, so I suggest doing something silly. Instead of ‘Mr & Mrs’, how about ‘Mael & Mael’. How much do they really know about each other? Russell – what’s Ron’s shoe size?

“I don’t know,” confesses Russell. “Big! Is he a 12? He mentioned size 12s earlier…”

Blimey, really? Those are enormous feet.

“Yes, but it’s a US size 12…” protests Ron. They’re both laughing now. But does he know Russell’s shoe size? He’s embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t. Russell shrugs it off.

“If anyone is looking for that special gift for Ron this Christmas, it’s size 12 shoes,” says the younger Mael. “And if anyone is wondering what to get Russell, it’s eight-and-a-half, American size.”

And with that, our time is up. I’m gushing now, trying to cram in everything I’ve always wanted to say to them both. Racing to say thank you for validating those of us who share their obsession with things. Those of us who have ever taken old pop records far too seriously or who can quote, word-for-word, films nobody else has ever heard of. Those of us who have spent our entire lives feeling a bit weird, geeky or embarrassed about our interests. Sparks, for 50 years, have made all stuff feel like the coolest fucking thing in the world.
They say soft thank yous, both smiling modestly while looking bashfully at their feet. Size 12 and size eight-and-a-half. US sizes, remember.

“Just keep collecting!” shouts Ron.

They both wave, and then they’re gone.

‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’ is released by Island

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