Flashes of inspiration
After 21 albums, the idiosyncratic duo Sparks take a new direction with a fantasy radio musical about Ingmar Bergman. Ben East reports What's left for the band who has done, well, just about everything? Sparks have, in 40 years, written 21 albums and taken on glam rock, techno, chamber music and opera. They've worked with the French cinema auteur Jacques Tati and made a soundtrack for a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. They might be decried as being artfully and willfully idiosyncratic (the title alone of their 16th album, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, proves that), but the American brothers Russell and Ron Mael have had hits with Sparks too - most famously, This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us in 1974. Meanwhile, celebrity fans (most notably Morrissey, New Order and Depeche Mode) are unstinting in their praise.
"What's left?" laughs Russell Mael from his California home. "Y'know, that's kind of how we felt too. What we did know is that we couldn't sit down and write another Sparks album of three-minute pop songs right now, however inventive they might have been. We'd always felt that our songs had elements that could be described as being cinematic, theatrical and visual in style, though, so when the call came to do a musical, we grabbed it with both hands. And what an experience it's turned out to be."
It has indeed. And the route to The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is as fittingly bizarre as the band involved in making it. Just because someone there liked them, Swedish National Radio got in touch with the Maels and proposed that they write a radio musical for them - the only stipulation being that it had to incorporate a Swedish element. "At first, we obviously thought of cars and Ikea," Russell chuckles. "I'm joking. But the more profound, more lasting idea - being the film fans we are - was Ingmar Bergman. So we hit upon a fantasy situation of him going to Hollywood, which is obviously a lot more universal, too."
Immediately, a story based on the legendary Swedish filmmaker had a bigger life beyond a broadcast on Sveriges Radio. A live recording in front of an audience is broadcast on BBC 6 Music today in the UK, and The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is out now. There's talk of it being a stage musical, and Russell even speaks excitedly of film plans: early meetings have been had with the cult David Lynchian director Guy Maddin. And the reason he's so excited isn't just because of the multitude of possibilities but because this project really did change the way Sparks worked: not an easy thing to achieve 21 records into a career.
"It forced us to work in a more narrative format - which we're used to over the course of one song but not over the course of many songs," says Russell. "And it had to make clear, logical sense even within the context of being a fantasy, particularly as at the moment there are no visual clues because it's radio." I wonder if the Mael brothers are also making a comment on the depressing power of Hollywood and the state of filmmaking. Just as they've generally worked on the margins of pop stardom (this enjoyable musical also takes in jazz, rock and operatics), Sparks have always seen their film work remain generally left-field.
"I wouldn't want it to be as specific as that - it's not Sparks having a go at Hollywood," he argues. "It does have a theme there about the relationship between art and commerce, but it is supposed, really, to be about Ingmar Bergman being locked into a fantasy, mythical Hollywood where strings are very much attached to everything he does. Will this man make a Faustian pact is basically the idea, but it's fun, too: one song has him stuck in a Hollywood blockbuster that he can't escape from. A lot of the time, it's bombastic, musically."
These are the consistent threads running throughout Sparks' career: fun and bombast. Why else would they have taken on playing all 21 of their albums, in order, one night after the other, last May and June, other than because it seemed like an exciting, interesting thing to do? "Exactly! Y'know, I wonder whether that might have been a unique thing. I mean, how many bands have 21 albums in the first place, let alone the desire or stamina to play them all back to back? It was a massive thing for us - not just in the four-month-long rehearsals for 260-odd songs but in what we learnt and accomplished in this long career.
"One of the strengths of Sparks is that we haven't looked back, that we have pushed things and done adventurous stuff like an Ingmar Bergman fantasy musical. But once we did, we saw a consistent sensibility and tone right from the start. That's what was fascinating, seeing a Sparks universe evolving, fully formed from that first album." It's a universe once visited, never forgotten. The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (Lil' Beethoven) is out now.