Penny Brown - Sparks in Isolation - The Story of 2020-2021
Sparks had big plans for 2020: a new studio album, a European tour in the early autumn, and the premières of a documentary directed by Edgar Wright and their musical movie, Annette, directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, both of which have been several years in the making. This was to be a major year in their long and distinguished career. But like everything else worldwide, these plans were badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown in many countries. Although, fortunately, filming for both Annette and the documentary had been completed before the pandemic struck, their premières and release were delayed, with film festivals cancelled and the film industry as a whole at a standstill for months. The tour had to be postponed to May 2021 because theatres and other entertainment venues were forced to close and travel restrictions were in place, and even this plan has had to be revised because of the ongoing situation. The tour showcasing A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is now scheduled for April and May 2022.
Ron has spoken movingly of the effects of the situation for him personally, saying early in the pandemic that he felt bewildered and has struggled to remain creative, particularly as their normal strict routine, working together in Russell’s home studio, has been crucially disrupted by the stay-isolated-at- home imperative. A video announcement for the new album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, of them standing two meters apart in a local park, wearing masks, was a sad reminder of how they, like everyone else, have had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic. In an interview for the July/August edition of Classic Pop, Ron confesses to a more existential angst, that he feels dwarfed by the whole situation: ‘trying to come up with a reason why you’re significant at all when all this is going on. The inspiration to think one has significance at all is hard, but I’m trying to find a way through it all’. Russell has been less forthcoming about his personal feelings, although he has repeatedly confirmed that he misses being able to work together and their visits to their favourite coffee shop.
He has, however, become increasingly upbeat about the effect on their work, describing it in an interview in Entertainment Weekly, accompanying the recent première of the home-made video for ‘Left Out in the Cold’ (18 February) as a ‘really good challenge’, forcing them to think about doing things in a new way: ‘You have to find ways of moving forward and not be paralyzed’. The spirit of Sparks can still flourish, but in a different way.
Flourish it certainly has. Despite these disappointments and frustrations, Sparks have risen to the challenge of maintaining their public profile and keeping the connection with their fans, entertaining us in a multitude of imaginative and innovative ways. This is, of course, entirely typical of Sparks who, throughout their career, have persevered in their self-belief and work ethic despite setbacks and let downs and have always managed to rise above circumstances with an enviable and ingenious talent for adaptation and self-reinvention. Their activities over the past year have gone far beyond the common run of Instagram images or occasional videos of housebound acoustic performances, and demonstrate their dedication to their work, their creative hunger, fertile imagination and sense of fun, and the desire to foster the sense of community amongst their fans worldwide. Russell has said that he dislikes the approach of some musicians to just pick up an acoustic guitar when it is ‘totally contrary to what you musically believe in’. Full use has been made of the possibilities offered by social media and other online platforms to keep up the momentum. In effect, Russell has asserted, they had been, paradoxically, even more visible this past year, as normally they would be travelling abroad on promotional visits of the new album. In the current circumstances, they were doing similar things and more, but in a much more visible way.
The new studio album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip was released digitally on 15 May 2020, as originally planned, but the release of the physical album was delayed until 3 July as a consequence of the pandemic and the nearly three-month lockdown in the UK. The decision to go ahead with the digital release was a deliberate strategy to avoid disappointing fans. In the Classic Pop interview Russell explains that delay would only have been a marketing decision, and they didn’t think that fans should pay the price of such considerations. Short promotional videos in May and July featured both Ron and Russell and the ‘Sparks’ Spokesperson’ (a model female head wearing a broadbrimmed hat, the voice impersonated by Russell). Previews of individual songs (‘Existential Threat’, ‘Lawnmower’, ‘One for the Ages’, ‘I’m Toast’, and ‘Self-effacing’) were posted in June and July to whet fans’ appetite. The album received widespread acclaim, reaching no 7 in the UK album charts (as did Hippopotamus before it), and extremely positive reviews and articles on Sparks were featured in many newspapers and music magazines. Classic Pop featured Sparks on its cover as well as an eight-page spread inside which included an interview with Edgar Wright about his forthcoming documentary. Ron and Russell also did a number of interviews about the album, virtually of course, with each responding to questions separately from their own homes, for American, English and French outlets.
Several of the songs on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip are in fact relevant to the modern age, such as ‘ I-phone’ and ‘Please don’t fuck up my world’, but none more so than ‘Existential threat’ (premièred 3 July). This seems uncomfortably prescient in its evocation of a man in the grip of a constant dread, and could well stand as an anthem for the Covid-stricken world. The official video by the graphic designer and animation artist Cyriac admirably captures in a highly coloured and gruesome way the frenetic panic of the obsessed character in the song, who feels besieged by dangers everywhere, in his food, in his toilet, in the street and in his car. This is not one for those of a nervous disposition! Cyriac also provided a ‘guide to making a music video’ (21 August), to celebrate the two million viewings of ‘Existential Threat’, which makes it look ridiculously easy! There have been other official videos too: the entertaining story for ‘One for the ages’ (27 March), hand-drawn and animated by Chintis Lundgren, depicts a cartoon cat-like figure who secretly writes his soon-to-be-great opus while doing a humdrum office job. A large cast of animal-like creatures, all wearing a tie (presumably a symbol of their corporate oppression!) talk about him over the water cooler, and, in his fantasy, acclaim his success. It should not escape a fan’s notice that the dreamer has floppy dark hair while the boss wears round glasses and a moustache! The ‘office’ is also invaded by sinister ball-like creatures, wearing shades and carrying guns, perhaps the characters from his great project or an externalisation of the would-be star’s feelings about his day job. In complete contrast, the home-made video for ‘Lawnmower’ (14 May) reflects typical Sparks’ humour as scenes of a rather sinister-looking Ron in a bowler hat pushes on an unseen lawnmower behind a singing Russell, intercut with scenes of a young woman packing cases into the back of her car, and various images of lawnmowers going about their work. The video, (29 December) for ‘i-phone’, has Russell (and sometimes multiple Russells) singing against the background of a computer-generated suburban residential road, while Ron (and sometimes multiple Rons) passes back and forth obsessively studying his phone and taking selfies. The most recent video (18 February 2021), for ‘Left Out in the Cold’ takes a similar approach. Multiple versions of Ron and Russell, muffled in overcoats, scarves and gloves, shiver rhythmically against a haunting background of a frozen waste, with, at the end, a humorous touch as an elegant woman in overcoat and sunglasses crosses the scene with only a passing glance at them. At least she has the sense to wear a hat. Perhaps she is the Uniqlo supervisor, sent to check them out! Russell explains, in an accompanying interview in Entertainment that they made their contributions separately and, ‘by the magic of film making’ put them together. He describes the nearly year-long restrictions of the pandemic as a continuing challenge that forces them to think in different ways and come up with things that they might not have normally done. This positive approach is their way of not succumbing to ‘the horrible situation that’s out there in the world’, and moving forward.
In the absence of live shows, we have also been treated to’ live in isolation’ performances, in which Ron, Russell and other band members play ‘socially distanced’ in their own homes, the different parts put together seamlessly, a considerable feat of synchronisation and technical wizardry. To date, these have featured ‘All That’ (11 June) and ‘Lawnmower’ (25 December). The band members featured are familiar to us from the Hippo tour: Steve Nistor (drums), Evan Weiss (guitar), Eli Pearl (guitar) and Alex Casnoff (guitar). In the ‘Lawnmower’ video, the latter two are humorously shown ‘otherwise engaged’, Eli busy with a book and a nail file, and Alex with a laptop, although they join in the singing, since the main focus of the music is Ron’s keyboard, Evan’s guitar and Steve’s drums. In October, November and December, we were further treated to a series of videos on Fridays of the lyrics from ASDDD, with the words shown dripping in the now familiar ASDDD primary colours.
In March 2020, when no-one foresaw the extent of the devastation wrought by the pandemic, we were given a humorous video satirising panic buying, in which a white budgie tries to fill a miniature shopping trolley with toilet rolls, to the tune of ‘Something For the Girl With Everything’. Both Ron and Russell have separately treated fans to short videos, which by their contrasting content and presentation reflect the different personalities they cultivate in Sparks. The first, posted on 23 March 2020, was a short piece by Ron on his ‘International Hand Sanitiser Collection’, a topical subject early on in the international health emergency. In his characteristic laconic manner, Ron presents and comments on the qualities of a number of bottles of sanitiser collected on his travels abroad. Many fans commented that it was strange how a boring subject could somehow be so hypnotic and compelling. A week later (30 March), and again on topic, we were treated to ‘A day in the life of Russell, a self-isolating Spark’, a speeded-up gallop through a typical day to a superb instrumental version of ‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’. Russell is seen waking up at eight, having a healthy breakfast, reading the New Yorker, collecting his post, exercising, twice taking a nap on his couch, sorting through his records and hats, watering his garden, playing around with a theremin, practising singing, repeatedly washing his hands and going to bed at 11.30. Despite its pace, it captures the boredom and search for time-occupying activities experienced by everyone in this unprecedented situation, as well as demonstrating the good practice of exercise and frequent hand washing, in an hilarious manner. Described on the NME website as ‘a wholesome video’, it also offers, of course, a tantalising glimpse for fans of various parts of Russell’s house and garden in complete contrast to their usual secrecy about their private lives.
This was followed up by a series of suggested ‘activities’ from Russell: first, an invitation to the stir-crazy to join in ‘One for the Ages: Russell’s Self-Isolation bop’ (8 April), in which, to an exciting new instrumental version of ‘One for the Ages’, he dances, if that is the right word, with a miniature guitar and a fan, and wearing a black mask. Over the next few weeks, we were offered two ‘Exercise Classes’, with Russell demonstrating various physical exercises from his living room (20 April and 26 May), which the viewer is invited to join in to ‘beat the self-isolation clock’. In the first video Russell wears a tee-shirt with Shibuya printed on it, a souvenir perhaps from their performance in Japan in 2018 at the Shibuya Club Quattro, while in the second he wears a ‘Moog’ tee-shirt (in honour of Moog synthesizers). Although the advice about pacing oneself and keeping hydrated (although Russell’s frequent slurps from a can of cola is perhaps not the most recommended way to do so) are presented in a serious manner, the ‘demonstration’, to the tunes of ‘Beat the clock’ and ‘Sports’ (‘ready, get set, work out’), is speeded up, so the result is manic, hilarious, not to mention impossible to emulate. Similarly, we were offered two singing lessons, one, headlined ‘A free singing lesson with a top professional’ (11 May) starting off simply, but moving on to feature the impossible ‘Equator’ and a speeded up operatic aria and the other (7 August) a rendition of the entire Kimono My House album in 90 seconds. Well, a line from each of the songs, at least! The energy, humour and element of surprise of these videos present a striking contrast to the gentle and more soothing atmosphere of Ron’s videos.
In the summer, we saw more of the boys’ collections: on 16 June, Russell treated us to a tour of his international fridge magnets collected on his travels, which he says helps to keeps his spirits up by ‘thinking of all the wonderful Sparks fans from around the world’. To appease fans who fail to see their country represented on the display, Russell cannily informs us that he has many more tucked away on a drawer. In interviews, Russell has also talked of his collection of Russian dolls and shown one of his favourites, of Abba, bought in Stockholm. In complete contrast, on 26 August, Ron, wearing the new Sparks beret, showcased ‘The Ronald D. Mael Collection of Souvenir Stones and Shells’ acquired on their many trips abroad, an addition to the ‘burgeoning cultural scene of Los Angeles’. In this slightly mystifying yet strangely compelling film, he presents a small number of plastic boxes containing stones or shells from Mexico, Italy and Japan, which, he hastens to tells us, have been legally acquired. On 8 July, a video billed as Sparks’ first U.K. television appearance of the year featured the Sparks’ ‘spokesperson’, who greeted us with an Irish ‘Top of the Morning’, and promoted the new album for the UK chart week. A deliberate(?) gaffe occurred when ‘she’ referred to the record company as BMW, instead of BMG, and the promised link with the Mael brothers in Los Angeles results in mere static crackling. Who knows whether this an intended joke or not? I suspect it was, because the announcer seems unfazed by the situation.
A major contribution has been the ‘Lyrically speaking with Ron Mael’ videos, a lengthy series in which Ron reads the lyrics of Sparks’ songs, beginning on 5 April 2020 with perhaps appropriately, ‘Self-Effacing’ and continuing every Sunday for a full year. Ron sits in front of a bookcase which displays a different book each week for fans to identify and ponder its possible relevance to the chosen song (although often ‘Probably Nothing’). Above the bookcase we see cases of his often spoken-of collection of Air Jordan sneakers. His different outfits are a further source of interest and speculation: not just the typical white shirt and tie, but occasionally a dark hoodie, a beret for ‘I am Ingmar Bergman’ and ‘When you’re a French Director’, and a snazzy red shirt with Christmas motifs and matching mask and white beret for ‘Christmas Without a Prayer’.
His choice of songs has included all the tracks from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, plus songs from throughout their lengthy catalogue, some very well-known, others less so: ‘ Let’s Go Surfing’, ‘Probably Nothing’, ‘High C’, ‘I Married Myself’. The reading of ‘Johnny Delusional’, from the hugely successful FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, was prefaced by a dedication to ‘Alex, Bob, Nick and Paul – it was a great time’. Fans have been delighted to hear more of Ron’s voice, which in these presentations is soft and soothing, and his relaxed, even stoic, delivery.
His genius as a songwriter is all the more apparent when he is seen to deliver his own words, and the focus on the lyrics has the effect of suggesting different meanings and arousing different emotions, as fans’ reactions testify. One memorable week (30 August), we were introduced to a ‘guest speaker’: Russell, who presented ‘Hasta Mañaña, Monsieur’, for which he penned the lyrics, in a comically serious and straight-faced manner. There is a degree of irony in this, as Russell is known to be a good linguist, who contributes fluently in French in interviews, and often says a few words in the language of the host country at live shows. It is fascinating to see both doing their own very different thing: Russell’s sporadic and varied videos are generally manic, full of humour and energy while Ron’s regular appearances are calming and restrained and, for many fans, have offered a focal point to the week.
Sparks have also followed a new lockdown trend of participating in live streamed programmes, broadcast from both the US and the UK. A Tim Twitter’s Listening Party took place on 20 May, to celebrate A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, in which participants were invited to play all the tracks from the album and follow a live commentary with Tim and Sparks. A two-hour radio programme followed on 7 June in which Sparks joined Tom Robinson’s ‘Now Playing @ 6Music, Bring Your Own…Sparks’ on BBC6 Music, to talk about some of their favourite music as well as their own work. The eclectic track list included Billie Holiday’s iconic ‘Strange Fruit’, covers of Sparks’ songs by Gemma Ray and Martin Gore, collaborations with Franz Ferdinand (FFS), Les Rita Mitsouko and SebastiAn, and music by artists and composers from The Who, Kraftwerk, Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand, and the Pet Shop Boys to Nervous Norvus and Teleman. On 13 November, the U.S. Cucalorus Festival featured a 90-minute retrospective of Sparks’ music videos, ‘Visual/Sound/Walls’, hosted by Aaron Hillis, with a live chat where the listeners could send in questions and comments.
Another new venture was the introduction of the online Reinforcements Official Community Fan Group, administered from Sparks HQ at Republic Media. An official statement tells us that it was created, not to be in competition with other groups, but as an official platform where Sparks HQ can initiate fan-only contests and activities, and was inspired by the success of the ‘Sparks For The Ages’ playlist competition on Spotify. It aims to reach out to super fans (Sparks’ reinforcements) more directly, and although under the official eye, fans are encouraged to celebrate their fandom in any way they want, as long as they abide by the group rules of course. Their fans are ‘some of the kindest and most inclusive people’, we are told, and are a source of pride for Team Sparks. At the time of writing there are 1.2 k members.
The official Facebook site (allsparks.com) remains the main focus for posting news and photos, including Throwback Thursday pictures of past events and photos, fan art and links to online interviews. There have also been photos celebrating the boys‘ birthdays and occasions like voting in the November US election, Christmas and New Year, promotion of the new album, and a number of ‘checking in’ pictures to reassure fans of their wellbeing. Many of these are repeated on the official Sparks Instagram account. While obviously, these social media sites can no longer offer glimpses of the many places Ron and Russell visit on their travels, fans can still keep track of how their heroes are faring under the conditions that are affecting us all. Early in the pandemic (20 March), they posted a ‘socially distancing’ advice picture, showing Russell in a mask turning his back on Ron, two meters behind him, not wearing a mask. In later rare pictures of them together in the open air, both are, of course, wearing masks. As well as the merchandise related to the new album, the Sparks’ store also offered a superb jigsaw featuring all Spark’s albums up to and including ASDDD and, ‘getting in the swing’, a couple of new items of new merchandise for the times: a hand sanitiser pouch and a mask, although sadly, for technical reasons, the latter did not materialise (no pun intended).
Despite the pandemic, 2021 is still to be a great year for Sparks. The première of Edgar Wright’s long-awaited documentary, The Sparks Brothers, took place at the Sundance festival (streamed online this year) on 30 January and 1 Feb 2021, and was available only to viewers in the US, much to the chagrin of fans elsewhere. A tantalising official clip was, however, posted on 30 January, featuring some of the many celebrities who talk of their love of Sparks, and finishing with Ron and Russell expressing less than warm enthusiasm for the title of the film. It is typical of the shared sense of humour that Edgar Wright should leave this in! The film has received hugely enthusiastic and positive reviews in the music and movie press,
and ecstatic comments from those lucky fans who were able to view it. It was also selected to feature in this year’s virtual SXSW film festival (première 18 March), with an accompanying Q and A session. Team Sparks and Team Edgar Wright must be absolutely delighted and Ron and Russell in particular must be elated at the reception of this major project, not least because it is such a wide-ranging, detailed and affectionate tribute. The large number of live interviews via Zoom with Ron, Russell and Edgar discussing the documentary have delighted fans and whetted their appetite for the wider distribution of the film and even better, in DVD form! In fact, news has just appeared that the worldwide rights to the film have been acquired by Focus Features, who will distribute it domestically, with international distribution by Universal Pictures. It will be in US cinemas on 18 June, with a UK release scheduled for 30 July. Bring it on! (Update: The Sparks Brothers is now widely available on DVD for all to enjoy.)
The most recent activity is the digital release of ‘Your Fandango’ in April, their collaboration with Todd Rundgren (who produced their first album), that came about as a result of their meeting during the filming of The Sparks Brothers. This lively earworm of a song is presented in grandiose terms as polyphonic pop that layers Spanish music, Neopolitan cantatas, baroque fugues and glam rock in one epic composition, and more than lives up to this description. The release was accompanied by a stunning video by Finnish media artist Liisa Vääriskoski, premièred on Sparks’ YouTube channel on 23 April, in which an elegant woman in an eighteenth-century portrait comes to life and embarks on an Alice in Wonderland-like excursion through fantastical scenarios. Visually gorgeous and characteristically humorous, the video is a complex collage of images, including various cameos of Ron, Russell and Todd, that brilliantly complements the complexity of the music. It is a superb addition to the many eye-catching videos released to accompany Sparks’ new songs these past months. The song is to be released on vinyl at a later date.
The next step in the Sparks’ saga is, of course, the première of Annette, which will fulfil a lifelong dream of Sparks. A tantalising and highly dramatic trailer for the film has just been released and it has been announced that Annette has been chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival this year on 6 July – an honour that must surely exceed all Ron and Russell’s hopes and expectations. (Update: Ron and Russell were able to attend the Cannes festival and Annette received a standing ovation. Leos Carax won the Best Director award, and Sparks also won an award for the screenplay music.) The movie will then go on general release in France and on international release at a date to be announced. Fans are clearly both enormously excited by this news and hugely proud of their favourite duo at the success of this project which started life as an intended Sparks’ album.
In conclusion, fans are immensely grateful to Ron and Russell and all their associates for giving so much time and effort to create joy in a time where this is otherwise in very short supply. Moreover …… a picture has recently appeared showing Ron and Russell in their studio (masked, of course) with a placard saying ‘Shhhh! Sparks recording!’. A new album? Despite the horrors of this past year, it is still a great time to be a Sparks’ fan.
May 2021 (updated February 2022)