There was some kind of grand cosmic alignment in the stars that made 2021 the year that Sparks — after 50 years as a band and 25 albums of deft, mordantly smart music that spanned genres and moods with an ease that most artists, in any medium, struggle with — into media sensations.
Two major films (the documentary The Sparks Brothers from Edgar Wright and the avant-musical Annette with Leos Carax) kept bringing fuel to the fire. All of a sudden the Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, weren’t just a cult band venerated by a select few hardcore fans. And the world has thankfully taken notice. I spoke with the Maels via Zoom about The Sparks Brothers (now on Blu-ray) and Annette (now streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.), because occasionally everything in the world isn’t terrible.
2021 has been quite a whirlwind of a year for you — starting in January with the documentary premiering at Sundance, then Annette taking over Cannes in May, and now gearing up for a major international tour. It feels like there was an unspoken global decision to recognize Sparks, not just as musicians and writers, but as icons. How does one react to that?
Russell: What took them so long? And why now?
Ron: It was pretty amazing. So much of the time, we don’t really obsess over that sort of thing, about how to get into the spotlight just a bit more. And when that happens without an effort being made on your part, it’s very refreshing. We’ve tried so many times over the years to have a Sparks-related film, so to have two of them coming out at the same time was very surreal.
The Sparks Brothers just came out on Blu-ray, and one of the extras is an entire concert from the O2. Is there any chance that someday we might see the legendary 21 Albums in 21 Nights shows from 2008?
Russell: I’m not sure about the quality of the filming. There was some, very restricted filming done of the shows, but it wasn’t done in a multi-camera sort of way. It would look more like a bootleg, but maybe that’s OK? We’ll see at some point in the future if that’s a possibility. We like to put out things on our own that are of a certain quality, and we’re not sure that what was filmed would be up to that. Also, 21 shows would require a lot of sifting and editing — a mammoth task. But we’ll see.
Ron: We’ve never had a live performance shot in the way that Edgar did [for The Sparks Brothers]. There were 44 people as part of his crew for that one show. We’re not really sticklers for slickness, but it’s nice to have a more professional approach to the show where it looks like a real film, and with as much care put into the sound, we really feel comfortable with that entire concert on the Blu-ray.
During the development and editing of the documentary, were there moments or interviews that you hated to lose? And have any of them been recovered for that hour-and-change of extra scenes?
Russell: Edgar had to make some decisions. The film as it stands now is two hours and twenty minutes, which for a documentary is very long, and he worked long and hard to convince the powers that be that that’s how long it needed to be. But he had a 10-hour assembly at one time. It’s just that you want the film to be somewhat accessible, length-wise. Thankfully, on the Blu-ray, Edgar has included several scenes that couldn’t fit into the actual film.
We did a karaoke performance in Tokyo — the whole band was in this karaoke parlor, and Ron and I did “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Of Us” to the karaoke machine, and that scene is there. And there’s a lot of extended interviews with people who are already in the documentary — they just speak a bit longer. Flea has a very eloquent little speech about Sparks, Steve Jones is there, and Neil Gaiman doing his recitation of “Amateur Hour” and “Tits.”
Since we’re talking about formats and variants and such, what exactly is the difference between the Cannes Edition of the Annette soundtrack that’s out now versus the edition that’s coming in November?
Russell: The Cannes Edition was something that the record label associated with the film wanted to have ready for the film’s premiere at Cannes and its release in France. It’s 15 pieces of music, a sampler of sorts, and then, in November — we’re just finishing putting it together, and it’ll be the entire soundtrack. There’s 42 pieces of music from the film, and then some of our demos with my voice and with Ron’s voice, and then a few demos for scenes that ultimately weren’t used in the film. We like to think of them as interesting bonus pieces.
How far along did your unmade collaboration with Jacques Tati make it? Was there some aspect of it that was completed, that the public can dig into?
Ron: It was back in the mid-’70s, and our meeting with Tati was organized by one of the guys at Island Records, our label at the time, thinking that our sensibilities were similar. The only musical aspect that came to fruition was a song that became “Confusion,” and it made it onto Big Beat. As disappointed as we were that that didn’t happen, having made a film with Jacques Tati is the kind of event where you just quit after that. But it wasn’t really a musical — it was more in line with the traditions of the Tati films.
We were living in London at the time, and he was in Paris and we would meet on weekends. He was developing a story about two American TV technicians who’d come to France to help salvage a struggling provincial television studio. He would play the Monsieur Hulot character, and we would play the Americans. And it was a major disappointment that that couldn’t happen; I idolized his work. And he was really very much like the character of M. Hulot when you were there with him — it was almost like over time they had meshed into one.
Well, if multiverse theory hasn’t led us astray, somewhere and somewhen it got made, and perhaps technology will allow us to experience it someday.