Sparks plug away toward ultimate entertainment

by Philip Brasor

Most successful pop musicians live in a strange world. Several years ago, Bono shocked conservative sensibilities and delighted antiestablishment types by uttering the F-word at the Grammys, but he was not being rebellious. The word slipped out because he was excited about receiving an award from the American recording industry, which is a pretty conservative institution.

Russell Mael of the American pop group Sparks watched “bits and pieces” of the most recent Grammy Awards on TV. “It looked like a parallel universe,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “This whole idea of everybody desperately wanting to win awards for what they’re doing in pop music, it’s just bizarre. It certainly isn’t the world I operate in.”

On the surface, Mael’s opinion pegs him as a marginal artist, but Sparks have been around since the early 1970s, playing quirky but by no means inaccessible melodic pop. Over the course of 21 albums, many on major labels, they have garnered some chart hits and enough of a following to sustain a solid career.

“The commercial side is always there to take advantage of,” says Mael, “but we want to stay relevant. The times we’ve been commercially successful, it didn’t alter our approach. It was simply good fortune, something that was no more or less musically valid than our less successful material. It just worked on a more popular level in a particular country at a particular time. Of course, we’d love to have more people listening to what we’re doing, but we prefer it to be on our terms.”

Those “terms” are difficult to define. Since the beginning, Sparks have been Russell on vocals and his older brother Ron on keyboards, and it would be easier to describe their music as what it is not. It is not rootsy. It does not trade in romantic introspection or politics or sunny feelings. It has never reflected the pop zeitgeist at a given time (though in some instances it did prefigure a few). It is purposely wry and stylistically provocative, and while it has attracted the interest of critics and peers, the American public didn’t get them, at least not in the beginning. They received a more enthusiastic reception in England, and in 1973 moved to London. Their 1974 album “Kimono My House” spawned two Top 10 hits on the U.K. singles chart.

“When we lived in England in the ’70s, there was this positive competitiveness among the bands we were associated with, like Roxy Music,” says Mael. “It was a spirit of trying to one-up the next group, but in a good way. England at that moment was vibrant; exciting. Bands were trying to capture your attention in new and unusual ways.”

In 1976, Sparks moved back to Los Angeles and enjoyed more success on their home turf in spite of their restless musical direction, epitomized by the Giorgio Moroder-produced disco of “No. 1 in Heaven.” However, the band maintained an off-kilter image. On stage and album covers, the brothers’ odd relationship has never varied. Russell is the dramatic, slightly fey vocalist whose most potent weapon is his operatic falsetto. Ron, with his intimidating eyewear, conservative tie, slicked-back hair and mustache (which, over the years, has changed from a Chaplin/Hitler smudge to a pencil-thin job) stands in stark contrast: silent and sinister, perched at his instrument.

The imagery has a purpose, but Mael is uncomfortable when people label the band “theatrical.”

“The subject matter of our songs and the way they are written have a certain theatricality,” he admits. “But we still consider ourselves a pop band. It’s just that at the center there are these two heightened personalities.”

Though Sparks never went away, they’ve had dry spells. Lately, they’ve enjoyed a resurgence, but it’s hardly nostalgic. The brothers’ last three albums are wittier and more musically daring than anything they’ve ever done. Moreover, their stage show has been revitalized with the kind of interactive visuals you’d expect to find at amusement parks rather than rock shows.

“We wanted to do something visually in keeping with the spirit of the music,” explains Mael. “It has to be connected to what we’re doing rather than just be wallpaper. It has to enhance our stage personalities and the lyrical stance that’s central to our songs.”

That stance is sardonic. Sparks’ latest, “Exotic Creatures of the Deep,” is a survey of postmillennial solipsism that wears its cynicism on its album sleeve, nowhere more garishly than on “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” a song about a man whose girlfriend is so obsessed with the titular solo singer that it is putting a crimp in their relationship. (The ex-Smiths frontman, it should be noted, is a fan and friend of the band.)

After almost four decades as a steady force in pop, Sparks have definitely arrived. The group played 21 sold-out nights in London last May, with each show dedicated to one of their albums. Last summer at Fuji Rock Festival, they captivated an audience who didn’t seem to know anything about them but who brought them back for three encores.

“We’re doing a show soon at UCLA,” says Mael. “They have an interesting booking policy — a symphony orchestra one night, a ballet, an evening with the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. And then they have Sparks in amongst all this. It puts what we’re doing into a special context.”

But it’s still pop, he insists. It’s meant to be entertainment that anyone can appreciate. When asked what he would consider the epitome of entertainment, Mael thinks for a minute.

“It would probably be ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ ” French filmmaker Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical. “It’s the deliberateness of the form; the way all the dialogue is delivered musically without any loss of emotional power. When it gets to the ending scene, even though I’ve seen it many times, I just can’t help but cry.”

Sparks play Apr. 23 (songs centered on “Kimono My House” and “Exotic Creatures . . . “) and Apr. 24 (songs centered on “No. 1 in Heaven” and “Exotic Creatures . . . “) at Shibuya O-East, Tokyo (7:30 p.m.; [03] 3444-6751); then Apr. 26 at Big Cat, Osaka (7 p.m.; [06] 6535-5569). Tickets are ¥6,800 (standing) and ¥7,800 (reserved seats).