"We don't have that much of a preconceived idea of what Portland will be like in a musical sense, or what the audience will be like," Sparks singer Russell Mael told me at the end of our half-hour conversation prior to the band’s first-ever appearance in town. I myself had an idea of what kind of reception they'd get here, but didn't let on. And my hunch was right, as the duo—Russell and his keyboardist-composer brother, Ron—were visibly overwhelmed by the wild ovations heaped upon them Sunday night at an almost-full Aladdin Theater. After (and, sometimes, during) each number, the crowd loudly cheered and clapped with enthusiasm, and at the end of the main set and the encore, that place was about as noisy as it ever gets.
Ron, who in his stage persona always maintains a blank, if vaguely threatening, expression, was forced to crack a smile not only during the bows but even, once or twice, in the middle of a song, at the crowd's "you don't have to ask us twice" response to an invitation to sing or clap along. During the boisterous post-set applause, he completely lost composure, hiding his head behind waving hands as if to ward off the cheers, then taking the mic from his brother to say something like, "You're gonna give me a swelled head." Russell's assessment: "We played Coachella the last two weekends, and we've decided that one Portland is cooler than two Coachellas!" If you couldn't guess, the crowd liked that, too.
Part cabaret, part Philip Glass-meets-Gilbert-and-Sullivan, Sparks' set ranged over their entire career, from their first hit (well, a hit in the U.K., anyway), "This Town's Not Big Enough for Both of Us," and other early favorites like "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” through their disco and new wave periods, and onto a generous helping of material from their most recent albums.
With all the show's frivolity, an unexpected emotional moment came with "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" from 1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. That song's refrain joins the title phrase with "When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt?" with "Sid Vicious" substituting for "Sinatra" in alternate choruses. Russell Mael's performance of the song betrayed a moving humility, and it spoke to the frustration Sparks, and other unsung acts like them—not to mention unfulfilled people in general—must feel at times.
But the show's triumphant closer was a new song mustering cheeky bravado from the tour's given title, Two Hands, One Mouth—which, Russell sang, is "all I need to satisfy you." The audience agreed. Russell said they had no idea why it had taken them four decades to reach Portland, but he assured us Sparks would be "back sooner than you expect." We'll be ready for 'em.
BONUS! Jeff Rosenberg’s extended Q&A with Sparks’ Russell Mael:
Willamette Week: I felt less bad for Portland when I read that on this tour you also just played in Dublin for the first time ever. I wondered if it's touring as just a duo that makes it possible for you to hit some of these markets you've neglected in the past.
Russell Mael: Yeah, we also played for the first time in Norway, too, in Oslo. It's not really [the duo format], it just seems at the moment there's just a really great feeling toward the band out there, and it just allows us to come to more places. I mean, we can't exactly explain, but there's just been a real outpouring of goodwill and love towards the band. I sound corny, but, you know, we got asked to do Coachella this year and stuff, and things just seem to be opening up. I think people are just more receptive to things, and seeking out things that are not as just typical band formats and the same thing that you've kind of heard over and over. So I think where sometimes people had maybe thought of Sparks as being a little obscure or something, I think people are now opening up to being more receptive to hearing things that are just more special than the run of the mill stuff that passes through town.
I guess the great thing is that you guys survived and stayed together long enough to reap the benefits now.
We both have this sort of goal and vision to really spread the gospel about Sparks, and it's a real passion to be able to constantly sort of reinvent yourself and to do what you think is provocative music in this day and age, and to constantly come up with new ideas and all. You know, it's harder and harder for a group that's been around that long of a career to find new avenues, and it's a real constant goal and a constant search just to be able to come up wtih stuff, but that's what keeps the band alive and fresh-sounding.
I found, listening to the new live album of the duo tour, that breaking it down to just the two of you, it reveals the consistency of the sensibility behind all the music you've done, even across all the genres or styles that you've explored over the years. It makes the point more than ever that it's all Sparks music. Was it surprising to you how the duo format brought out that aspect of your own music?
I think that's true. I think that doing it this way kind of brings to the fore the songwriting abilities of Ron, and pushes to the fore my vocals, and pushes to fore Ron's lyrics, and I think, through that, you can see that there's a consistency to Sparks' kind of world vision through different periods of music we've had. Maybe the format that has been placed in the production has been constantly changing, but beneath all that there's been a consistent point of view that the Two Hands, One Mouth album brings to the fore. You can kind of see, if you listen to that album, you might not be able to tell, if you were uninitiated to Sparks' music, which period some of the songs are from—which were more recent and which were from a different era. And I think it makes that point more apparent, that Sparks at the core is a sensibility and a musical style, and a certain way in a lyrical stance that has remained fairly constant throughout the 22 or so albums we've had.
Did doing that three-week run of shows performing each of your albums in their entirety serve as an overview of your whole career that prepared you for condensing it down into the set for these shows?
In a certain way, it's almost the polar opposite of the 21 Nights affair we did in London, where we did all our albums back-to-back, from song one to song 265, or whatever it was at that point. And they were done with the idea of making them as close to the original versions as possible, 'cause at that time we thought it would be good if they could be not updated in any way, but pretty faithful to the original versions. So, in a certain way, the Two Hands, One Mouth tour is kind of the opposite extreme to that, where we're just approaching songs but trying to do them in a way with just the two of us, which we've never done before, and trying to find the in a way that doesn't read as being like a singer-songwriter "evening", which, to us, is really boring, but to do it in a way that has all the eccentricity of the band, and all the power and urgency of the band, but to have found a way to do that with only the two of us. So, that's what we think that Two Hands, One Mouth has hopefully succeeded in doing.
It seems to me that many or most of Ron's lyrics—much like your pal Morrissey—seem to be generated by first coming up with something that would make a really good title for a song, and proceeding from there.
Yeah, a lot of the time that is the case, where you have something that is a strong title, and the lyrics will kind of fall into place, or the viewpoint of that title will become a little more defined, but that is the starting point a lot of times. A lot of times Ron will just have the title for something, and all the verses will [at first] just be me kind of yammering nonsense stuff and getting to the chorus or whatever the title phrase would be, and that gets inserted on a demo version of it, and then eventually, I think that Ron is a really great, really talented lyricist, and he's always able to come up with something that's interesting, once he's had a good title to work with.
I just picture hanging out with him and him whipping out a notebook or an iPhone constantly throughout the day, jotting down phrases for titles.
Yeah, that's kinda the case. Or retaining it in his brain somewhere. But the well hasn't run dry on miracle ideas.