Russell Mael of the band Sparks with brother Ron perform at Coachella. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Sparks, the long-running L.A. pop-dance-rock band consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, has long pushed at the boundaries of pop music.
The quirky outfit created humor-laced operatic rock in the early 1970s that influenced Freddie Mercury and Queen, cooked up influential electronic dance music in the late '70s and flirted with pop stardom in the snappy techno-rock of its 1983 hit single "Cool Places." The Mael brothers have since explored other quirky niches of the pop music world, abandoning the rock band format entirely for a trio of albums built on electronic and orchestral sounds.
Sparks' latest breakthrough? A spot on the bill of this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The band also sold out two nights this week for shows at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. All are part of the Two Hands, One Mouth tour, which radically rearranges a couple dozen cornerstone songs from Sparks' repertoire of nearly 300.
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After their Coachella performance last weekend, the Maels talked about what they have in store for Wednesday's second of back-to-back concerts on their home turf in Hollywood.
Has a Coachella performance been on either of your bucket lists?
Russell: Yes, we've always wanted to be at Coachella, because it's such a big platform to be on. The irony is that we've usually had a more traditional band format — with guitars, bass and drums — and now that we're doing the Two Hands, One Mouth tour, we got the call, "Can you guys do Coachella this year?" It's less than an immediate, traditional format to play in front of a large festival audience.
Ron: Even in the Coachella context, there are enough people looking for bands that are working outside of the normal strictures of what a band is and what dance music is. So we attracted both [on Friday]. There were a lot of people who were just purely curious and they became converts. Because Coachella sold out before any of the bands were announced, there weren't a lot of hard-core Sparks fans.
What was the impetus for ditching the usual instrumentation on this tour?
Russell: If you know Sparks, you know it's perfectly expected for us to do the unexpected — something that would be a fresh turn on what we do…. A couple years back in London we did all 21 of our albums in 21 nights, which was this other audacious and harrowing project we got ourselves into. This is almost the counterweight to that whole thing of doing all your material in 21 nights as faithfully as you could to the record. This is almost the polar opposite: doing a lot of our catalog of material in a pretty drastically different form.
Ron: Rightly or wrongly, we get lumped in with other pop duos, so wanted to do something musically live that we believe most other pop duos can't. What we do is entirely live…What we're doing is completely in the tightrope-walking area, every night. It keeps us alert.
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Anything special in store for the hometown shows this week?
Russell: One thing is we've added partly with L.A. in mind that we hadn't done on European [Two Hands, One Mouth] tours — the Europeans will kill us for this, and the Japanese — is we've added 'Angst in My Pants.' We felt we were maybe a little lacking in material from that era [the early '80s] and there's always been something special about that song. It was one of the KROQ-era songs, and now we've done it in a really different rendition.
What's the status of the plan to turn your 2009 made-for-radio musical "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman" into an actual film?
Russell: After we finish these American dates, we're going to the Cannes Film Festival to meet with the sort of people that might help in the financing of the film. The Canadian director, Guy Madden, who performed it with us live at the L.A. Film Festival, he's really passionate about this project as well and still wants to be the director…. This isn't our No. 1 skill set — getting financing on anything — but we feel so passionate about this project, we really feel this is something we should do.