I spoke to Ron from Sparks on the telephone because he’s touring again, with brother Russell. Just to be clear, Ron is the one you probably think of when you think of Sparks. That’s right, the super intense one with the Hitler moustache that became a Jon Waters moustache. This time they’re touring without either bandmates or computers and, being Sparks, have therefore decided to call the latest batch of shows their “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour. They’re good at names. Case in point, their last project was entitled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. It was also a 24-part electropop-opera which saw the great Swedish director teleported into 1950s Hollywood, and aggressively wooed by adoring studio bosses, only to be rescued, at the last, by the Angel (Greta) Garbo. A somewhat crudely fashioned premise, sure, but the rhyming couplets ring wonderfully true: “Alfred Hitchcock, bless his soul, there chomping on a dinner roll,” and so forth.
Ron was very sweet, and not very weird at all, contrary to what you might have heard, or perhaps gleaned from the above, although that wasn’t my intention. Sparks’ ideas are unusual, certainly, but aren’t all good ideas, isn’t that the point of good ideas? I’m not even sure they’re wildly eccentric, in the way that critical consensus seems to insist that they are. I mean, Jay Kay from Jamiroquai, that guy’s an eccentric, he’s spent hundreds of pounds training his dogs to physically maim intruders, that’s eccentric, who does that? Lots of people, on the other hand, dress like Ron, are a bit starey like Ron is when he’s on stage – academics mostly. The concept of the director of Wild Strawberries being courted by fawning philistine executives is funny, it’s not only funny if you’ve got a “surreal” sense of humour. And “two hands, one mouth” is, when you think about it, a statement of fact, albeit quite a witty one. I spoke to Ron from Sparks on the telephone and he was, it transpired, exactly like I imagined he’d be: a gentleman popstar, thoughtful and rather romantic.
DiS: I gather you’re in Sweden at the moment. What is it about Sweden? Since The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman [Sparks’ 2009 radio opera – see above] have you been Big In Sweden?
Yeah, we’re playing the second of two nights at a theatre that we’ve played quite a few times here called the Sodra Teatern, but some people really became aware of us at the time of that [Ingmar Bergman]. Actually, the premiere of that, the radio presentation simultaneously invited the public into this same theatre that we’re in right now, that was the first performance of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. And the woman that was the head of the radio station [that commissioned it] had seen us in this theatre I don’t know how many years ago. She’d never really known about us until around Lil’ Beethoven time, but they sponsored a series of radio musicals and opera pieces. She gave us complete freedom to do whatever we wanted, but the subject matter had to be in some way connected to Sweden. So we came up with an idea of Ingmar Bergman coming to and being wooed by Hollywood.
DiS: So perhaps less Big In Sweden and more big in this one particular theatre?
DiS: I read somewhere that a particular aspect of what you liked about your idea was the fact Bergman was this austere figure, and so inserting him into this florid context was quite funny and strange. That struck me as an interesting parallel with your own role in Sparks – you have this intense, stationary demeanour, with all this hyperactive music going on around you…
Well, we never really consciously had a band meeting and decided our roles, those sort of things just happened. But you know, it’s odd right now because we do four of the Ingmar Bergman pieces now as part of our live set and, echoing what you say about the connection between the personas of Bergman and myself, I’m doing the role of Bergman in the live version. I’m pretending I’m him.
DiS: You’re bringing that live set to the UK again, having premiered it at the Bush Hall back in June – do you and Russell still see yourselves as Anglophiles?
Yeah, there always has been that – we feel more of a kinship with the music aspect of Great Britain. You know, we’ve never really felt that we could relate, if that’s the right term, to most American music. From the very beginning it was British bands like the Kinks that we liked. It just seems like there’s more passion about pop music and good pop music in the UK than in other places.
DiS: Do you think that binary still exists though? I understand the way British musical heritage is understood in terms of its eccentricity, but I feel like in the last ten years, you could point to a kind of reversal, with the most idiosyncratic figures emerging from scenes almost everywhere except the UK. Perhaps it’s a grass-is-greener sort of a thing?
Yeah, maybe it’s just a fantasy of mine, and I’m just not aware of the eccentric Americans. Or possibly it’s just because I see how difficult it is for most eccentricity in popular music to become a part of something more than just a small niche.
DiS: On this idea of eccentricity, I’m keen to avoid the kind of ‘oddball’ questions you usually get asked, but I do often wonder to what extent everything you do is genuinely pursuing a specific artistic aim, and how much is just willfully contrarian – deliberate opposition to the banalities of bad pop music…
Well, it might have changed through the years. When we first started off, the only contrarian aspect was we didn’t want to be American. We wanted to be sort of mainstream British. But then I guess a slight failure to become really that kind of led to the direction of what we’ve done. But now I think there is a certain element of not wanting to fit in with things, just because there’s not anything interesting from our perspective that we want to fit into. We’re sort of automatically contrarian.
It isn’t like we have some great credo in that kind of way, though. We just want to do things that are interesting and have some scope to them and maybe aren’t copying exactly what we’ve done in the past. I mean obviously, there’s a sensibility to what we do that’s continued through the years, but we try not to repeat ourselves, in the ways we can control at least. That was why The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman project was really interesting to us – it was the first time we worked with a narrative. We’ve always worked with individual songs, and even though it seems there’s maybe a concept – even if it’s a loose concept at the end – we’ve never worked with kind of a beginning, middle and end sort of affair, and working in that way was really inspiring. Also, there was a deadline to it as well. The pressure maybe helped eliminate a lot of the wasted time that we usually get involved with.
DiS: I guess it meant you had to pursue an idea that you might have ruined by thinking too hard about it otherwise?
Yeah, you don’t second guess yourself – there isn’t time to second guess yourself, you have to go with what the first thing is. And we came up with things very quickly and fortunately, we kind of did it as a little in-between project, but it turned out to be something a lot more important – in a musical sense.
DiS: To what extent is the concept behind your current tour, i.e. Sparks stripped back to just you, Russell and a keyboard, deliberately contrarian? And to what extent is it more a purist exploration of some of your back-catalogue?
I guess it’s a little of each of those things. One thing is that doing it this way, both we and the audience are aware more of the songs, as opposed to it being a sonic blast – although we love the sonic blast. We’re not using any computers at all live, and we think that it’s a way that we can present ourselves that a lot of other bands wouldn’t be able to do. I was going to use a computer to have access to more sounds and I decided not to even have one on stage, because it might give the appearance to somebody that some of the things were computer-generated. But we’re trying also to not have it being a kind of mellow, singer-songwriter evening – we want it to still have aggression. So we’re trying to have it all ways.
DiS: Have you found stuff lodged in your work that you’d forgotten about, newly revealed by this approach?
I hope so. I mean, Russell’s singing is so special. The one thing that is different from what we’ve done in the past is that my keyboard parts have to be – it’s hard to explain – wrapping around things more, than the way I usually play within a band approach. So it was a lot of work trying to think of how to approach the live thing with just the one keyboard.
DiS: For some reason, the force of Ingmar Bergman’s narrative made me want to ask a silly question: which would be the superior project, a Sparks-penned opera telling the story of your friend Mike Patton’s life, or a Patton-penned opera about Sparks?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. That’s definitely an equal – they would both be something special. I really have great respect for Mike Patton so almost anybody else, I would say the first one, but with Mike Patton, it’s a draw.
DiS: Any ideas spring to mind, for either opus?
I think in both cases, they would be less about middle period, late period, you know, less about a personal life and more about the way that people’s fantasies about that person have been constructed from what they do musically and onstage. That would be what I would see as the similarities. Because I hate those kind of movies where they’re so beginning, middle and end, even though I’ve just mentioned that The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman has a beginning, middle and end. But not of a person’s life. I think that with both Mike Patton and ourselves, what we are is more just reflected in the music, than in just the basic of story of our life.
DiS: That’s interesting, this idea of your performative role crystallising into something almost fully removed from you and Russell as human beings. I was going to ask what you’d make of an attempt to frame your work as a form of performance art…
Well, any kind of framing of us as anything, we would kind of accept that now. In an ego-flattering way, that would be great. I mean, we don’t consider ourselves at heart to be that – that isn’t the most important aspect of what we do. But as a perception by somebody intellectual that that’s what we are, we would definitely accept that. And it’s true, in a certain way we think of ourselves in terms of what we’re doing, as opposed to who we are.
DiS: Finally, on this notion of you being constructed by your fans, you’re famous for having an active fan club – an active fan club that was once, indeed, run by Morrissey, or so the story goes. Do you think the decline of the traditional fan club is a 21st century tragedy? I’m tempted to think that it is.
I think so because, you know, in a certain way, all that stuff is looked upon cynically as a kind of silliness, and I think that all those things are really healthy. I think that’s a part of pop music that you wouldn’t have gotten with classical music, or jazz, and I think that kind of going goo-goo over something is really a good thing. I think people now are pretty cynical about all of that – there’s the idea of it being juvenile. How it’s viewed now is a little bit sad.
The “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour arrives at the Barbican tomorrow night (October 26th). Tickets for all shows are available from seetickets.com