Some questions are easy to answer, some not so, but some are so easy to answer they are referred to as a no brainer, and this was the case when I was asked if I’d be interested in talking to Russell Mael, one half the sibling duo Sparks ahead of their first album in eight years and a UK tour to coincide.

Our chat took place in early May with me in the basement of an old mill just outside Manchester city centre and Russell in Los Angeles. At this point only the title track of the new album Hippopotamus had been released, and what a track it is as an introduction to newer ears, as Sparks last album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman was released eight years earlier. Sparks music isn’t that easy to put your finger on if you have to explain their sound to someone. The band’s Wikipedia page gives you genres such as Glam Rock, New Wave, Chamber Pop and Art Rock. All of these are true, but very rarely will one or all of these suffice. Sparks, quite simply are Sparks, they are their very own constantly shifting and steady genre and have been since their inception almost 50 years ago.

Our conversation starts with the lead single and title track Hippopotamus, which I describe to Russell as beautifully bizarre, he thanks me, agrees and continues “The track is off beat and not traditionally a pop song. We were very happy that BMG decided to go with that as the first track to be released from the album, if you want Sparks at its most extreme, then that’s a good candidate for it.” It would be easy to point the uninitiated to much older tracks from decades gone by such as This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us, Achoo or Amateur Hour, all of which could be described as beautifully bizarre and typically Sparks, but that wouldn’t be the point of introducing someone new to Sparks. They can do what they have been doing well for years now and want to do it better and differently each time. Spark albums will always have the beautifully bizarre, the perfectly and brilliantly constructed pop song, and everything else in between.

On the subject of the new album being their 23rd studio album Russell tells me “We include The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman album as a Sparks album although some purists say different because it’s a narrative album, but we feel its 100% Sparks.” And with it being eight years since their last release? “We always planned to do another after the last one. Always working non-stop 365 days of the year. We’ve been working on another movie musical called Annette with the director Leos Carax (who features on the new album too), and then there was the FFS album with Franz Ferdinand that took up a year and half. All that led up to Jan 2016 when we started working on Hippopotamus, and we worked on that non-stop until about October last year.”

Sparks – Hippopotamus

But does the shine of releasing new albums start to dim when you reach your 23rd? “It’s always really exciting especially this time round because we feel the material is really strong. There’s 15 songs on the album, a first for Sparks having that many songs on a new album. It’s also exciting with a new label. The only frustration for us and some fans is having to wait until the release date. There’s a long lead time for this one so the label can do a proper job of promoting it.”

Well the lead time is over, and having been a listener of Sparks for almost 40 years I can do nothing but agree that the new album is full of strong material, so much so that the album has shot straight into the top 10 album chart, their first album to do so in 43 years.

The UK leg of their tour starts on Monday the 18th of September with many dates selling out well before the album’s release. Their most recent UK show was a set at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Glasgow earlier in the year, which if you didn’t see was sublime. “It was the first time playing with a new band” Russell tells me “so there were some anxieties going into that show. We’ll have the same band for September tour. Although the guitarist Michael Schuman of Queens of the Stone Age has some conflicting dates so we’ll have someone else to cover those few shows he can’t make.”

As you can probably tell I’m a big Sparks fan and hopefully this new album will garner them some new ones too. If you get chance, get the new album and try and make one the shows, you can thank me later.

Simon Zaccagni

‘Accidental Editor’ of Silent Radio from its inception in 2009 through to 2020. None of this was planned; I’ve never been in a band, never been part of the ‘music scene’ and never expected to be the gaffer of a music website with loads of dedicated music loving writers. I bought my first record when I was 8 and haven’t stopped buying since. I love crate digging for bizarre and weird stuff, but equally happy ploughing through press releases looking/listening for something I’ve never heard before.