Pop-rock icons Sparks talk reinvention twenty-three albums in — L.A. dates at El Rey

Sparks Release 23rd Full-Length Album with Three Los Angeles Dates at the El Rey


With a discography spanning decades and legacy of influences across genres, Los Angeles-born pop and rock act Sparks have made a career out of reinvention that’s culminated recently into the release of their twenty-third studio album, Hippopotamus. Comprised at its core of brothers Ron and Russel Mael, the two first made a name for themselves in the L.A. circuit for their quirky take on pop and smart, acerbic lyrics, before relocating to England during the glam-rock era. It was there that they recorded Kimono My House, a breakthrough album that was not only a critical and commercial success but one that made imprints on artists from Kurt Cobain to Björk. With Hippopotamus, the band’s first major-label album in decades, Sparks has managed to once again find the sublimely inconspicuous balance between wildly self-aware and entertaining pop extravagance. In approaching the creation of the album itself, it was important for them to treat it like it was their very first album and to really push on doing something different.

“To not be lethargic or lazy but to make a record that is challenging and fresh,” the brothers said was their ultimate goal, and not a single minute of the fifty-five minute run time of Hippopotamus feels sluggish or trite.

In keeping with that sentiment, back in 2015 Sparks announced that they’d formed a supergroup with Franz Ferdinand named FFS and that a studio album would be released by the group that year. Lead-singer Alex Kapranos had been a big fan of Sparks for some time, even joining them onstage in February of that year for a duet on “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way.” But the collaboration really had started close to a decade earlier, back in 2004 when the two first realized they were fans of one another and started trading demo tapes, one of which would eventually become an actual song on FFS. The actual album was hailed as a revitalizing of both band’s respective sounds, offering minor renovations in the process and a seamless blending of their distinctive sonics.

“We had been focusing for the years after our 21st album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep on more narrative projects – The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman and Annette – and the FFS project reignited our desire to write songs that are more in the [three-minute] structure of a pop song,” the duo explained of the collaboration.

There’s always been a certain level of intelligence and intensity that Sparks has embodied when approaching their pop creations and it was that cultural disconnect between substance and the genre’s lack thereof that set the band apart. Every album leading up to Hippopotamus has been a balancing act of sorts, a high-wire stunt to compliment pop’s infectiousness with a rare sentimentality.

“We have a desire to be challenging ourselves, to do something interesting with the pop form, to make a record that if it were the first Sparks record someone heard it would be as exciting for them as it was for a fan who heard a record for the first time from our earlier periods,” the duo explained.

Bringing their colossal discography with them for their upcoming shows at the El Rey, the band will undoubtedly be facing a strange mixture of fans in the crowd, from those who’ve been such since the 70s and all the ones who’ve become fans in the interim since. For many, it’ll be their first Sparks show ever, so it can be hard to know what to expect from a band so heavily mythologized and with such an iconic concert style. Ron’s deadpan scowls and signature piano playing style are as recognizable as Russell’s eccentric and hyperactive antics–and both will be on display in their return to Los Angeles.

“The show is a mix of songs from the new album Hippopotamus and from our catalogue. What we have found on the tour in Europe is that the new and old songs work so well together,” the band said of their live shows. “Last time we played in Los Angeles it was with an orchestra, the time before it was just the two of us, for the Hippopotamus tour we are backed by 5 musicians Steve Nistor on drums (Steve also plays on the Hippopotamus album and has played on previous tours), Tyler Parkford (Mini Mansions) on 2nd keys, Evan Weiss & Taylor Locke on guitars and Zach Dawes (Mini Mansions) on bass.”

Words: Steven Ward

Sparks will be performing three nights of their six U.S. tour dates at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on October 14 (with The Sewing Sisters_, 15 (with Mister Goodnite), 17 (with The Sewing Sisters). Visit the band’s website and Facebook for more information.

Hippopotamus tracklist — Stream the album
01. Probably Nothing
02. Missionary Position
03. Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)
04. Scandinavian Design
05. Giddy Giddy
06. What The Hell Is It This Time?
07. Unaware
08. Hippopotamus
09. Bummer
10. I Wish You Were Fun
11. So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?
12. When You’re A French Director (featuring Leos Carax)
13. The Amazing Mr. Repeat
14. A Little Bit Like Fun
15. Life With The Macbeths

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