Music > Interviews


by Lizz





There's a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus in my pool. How did it get there? How did it get there? How did it get there? I don't know.


So begins the titular track from Sparks’ brand new hilarious and clever album. Now. This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us you no doubt know – and you’ll have seen their infamously odd performances, perhaps on TOTP II. But did you know this is their 23rd studio album or that they’ve played as a duo, as a band and with orchestras? They’ve even performed all of their albums in full, chronologically, over subsequent nights. Recently they’ve collaborated with Franz Ferdinand with their project FFS and been working on films and soundtracks. It’s time to return to their roots now, however, and Hippopotamus is a collection of wonderful three and four minute songs that you’ll be singing along to for the rest of your life. I had the honour of speaking to one half of Sparks, vocalist Russell about being in a band with his brother Ron, how the new album came about and how he feels about Frank Zappa ahead of their show at the Waterfront in September.


Your 23rd studio album Hippopotamus will be released 10 days before the gig. How are you going about working out your set list choices? Will there be lots from the new album?

Yeah actually there will. In the recent past we’ve been doing an entire contemporary album and then a second half of all older material, but this time we decided to integrate the old and the new songs. This album could slot in seamlessly with our older material - we’re planning on playing at least eight songs from it live. We always think it’s a bit of a cheat when a band isn’t proud or confident enough about their new material to want to play it to their audience, and we’re really proud of Hippopotamus.



What have been the inspirations for your new album? I’ve heard four tracks and they’re all hilarious and brilliant in terms of subject – for example, where did the Hippopotamus song originate?

The creative process is always a complete mystery and you know, some artists and writers work in such a way that those sorts of ideas surge out of your mind. We always relish having subject matters and lyrics that are non traditional, or if it’s a traditional subject matter then we like to present it in a fresh way. Pop music has been around for 60 years now and so you have to constantly battle to come up with fresh ideas – the worst thing is recycling the past and fitting in. Fitting in is kind of irksome to us, so we rebel against that concept of wanting to be part of a certain movement because we don’t see movements that we want to be a part of so we have to create our own movement. I mean we don’t always go out of our way to try to be different sounding but it just sort of emerges from us.


Speaking of your lyrical content, were words and stories a big thing in your house growing up?

I don’t really know if it was embedded in the household other than we had smart parents, but we are both literate and articulate people who both graduated university and pride ourselves in being rich in our world view and having a certain clue about what’s happening around us, so we’re thirsty for knowledge. Our parents always encouraged us to take whatever path we wanted but we always wanted to learn and apply that knowledge in some kind of creative way.



Which lyricists do you admire?

I’m a big fan of Noel Coward and pop writers like Leiber and Stoller were amazing. Those people are high on our list for lyricists.


How do you feel about Frank Zappa? Your music and lyrics have often been compared to his work during your career.

Obviously it’s undeniable that he was an amazing musician and he had a unique approach. Some people have said that they felt there was some kinship between what he was doing and what were doing but we don’t see that as much. For us he has a detached stance from his lyrics where there’s a sarcasm where he’s kind of talking to you from his musical perspective whereas we feel we have a different approach to our songs – we don’t really see the relationship, although we really respect him and think he was an amazing talent. We’ve always really seen ourselves as a pop band but I wouldn’t have said his approach is the same.


You grew up in California when things were really happening there with The Beach Boys and The Doors, but you preferred English music like The Kinks and The Seeds. Britain returned the favour with being big fans from ‘73 onwards. What was it about British music that floated your boat?

We always felt like we were alien from the LA music scene. We liked the British stuff that was coming over here because there was more care being taken - the lyrics, the music and the stage performance were all equally important. It mattered how the bands dressed, and people like Ray Davies and Pete Townsend were writing strong and unconventional songs about getting a tattoo and that sort of stuff. We felt like those aspects weren’t as important to American bands in the same way in Los Angeles at the time. There was the whole Laurel Canyon scene that was the polar opposite of us – it was only important to have a folk guitar and be au naturel! Au naturel ain’t our thing.


I know you’ve worked on film soundtracks and musicals of late – how come you’ve decided to make a Sparks album right now?

I think it was almost a reaction to doing those other narrative projects that have a storyline that carries through an hour and half of music. For us, going back to doing three or four minute songs was liberating in a way having done those other projects. We did write a lot of songs for the FFS album in the interim. Sometimes you can lose the inspiration to work in the three to four minute format and those other projects came along right at the right time for us, and presented us with a new way of working. The film we’ve been working on most recently is Annette – we’ve been working on that for four years, writing the story, and then a French director came onboard three years ago - hopefully it will be shooting some time in the summer. So making Hippopotamus was like a breath of fresh air for us. We were able to do pure Sparks again.



You and Ron have been into the arts all your lives, so you must feel very lucky that you’ve had so many wonderful opportunities to work in film and music. Is there anything else that you’d like to achieve in your career?

We’re really happy with how things are for us at the moment. The idea of being able to do both a movie musical like Annette with a few big international stars in, and knowing that we kind of conceived that whole project ourselves and now it’s going to see the light of day, that’s a dream come true for us. And obviously doing Sparks stuff, which at its core is our real passion, we’re so excited that we have a new album and being on a new label who really love the record and really support what we do. So at the moment we really have our plate full at the moment and we’re happy that these things will be seeing us through the rest of 2017 and into next year. Our minds are in a really good slot.


The dynamic between you onstage is so entertaining, especially as you’re brothers – you appear so different from each other. I wondered to what extent this is a reflection of your real personalities and whether it changes according to what project you might be working on?

In a way our stage personas are amplified versions of how we are in real life but there’s definitely a correlation between the real and onstage life. Ron is a severe, pensive guy and I’m a little bit more, I don’t know, bouncy?! So yes, those roles are apt even though they’re heightened because you’re on a stage.



Sparks play at the Waterfront on 18th September. Tickets available from