Artists such as Lorde, Sparks, the Moody Blues and Metallica bring changes of pace to a prog-heavy playlist with twists and turns
Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of stories and suggestions on last week’s callout. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.
Augusta Holmès’ compositions won awards and acclaim from admirers including Liszt and Saint-Saëns, so why is she, and so many of her female contemporaries, all but forgotten today?
Augusta Holmès was a remarkably gifted French composer, pianist and singer with a voice of extraordinary range and colour. Rossini told an audience after one of her early concerts: “Mark my words, you will hear a lot more from her. Remember that Rossini told you this.” Liszt wrote that the works by her male contemporaries were mere trifles compared to her 1870 opera Astarté.
She was a prolific composer of music conceived for large forces. She wrote her own texts and libretti, and took part in designing sets and costumes for her operas. She was well connected in Paris’s cultural circles, counting among her friends and supporters Saint-Saëns (who repeatedly proposed marriage), César Franck, Vincent d’Indy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rodin and Renoir, who painted her three daughters.
One critic of the 19th century wrote, 'We do not want to open the doors of our opera houses to women composers'
Chris, what’s your favourite young and upcoming band?
Chris isn't here sadly, but I like that band Judah and the Lion. I heard some artist, I think a bit of a solo act, called Grandson, the other day, and it sounds a bit like weird, heavier Twenty One Pilots, Nine Inch Nails kinda thing, sounds cool. He's literally just released a few singles. - DH
I quite like the look of that band that played the NME awards, Pale Waves - that was the first time I'd heard of them. - MB
I build sandcastles on a regular basis so I'm gonna choose snowmen cos I don't get to do that very often. - MB
I'd probably choose snowmen as well. Trying to think back to the last time I did that... When I was a kid and it rarely snowed I really enjoyed rolling up that huge ball of snow. I once built an igloo with my sister - no shit - and got inside it. - DH
Will the setlists for the next tour provide more room for rarities (Muscle Museum, B&H, Dead Star, Showbiz, etc.) seeming that your fans love older material more? And less filler songs, perhaps, like NKOK, Interlude, Isolated System?
Regarding rarities, it's more likely that we'll do occasional shows for the hardcore fans that want rare and early material. Regarding the bigger shows, the majority of the audience don't respond to the rare deep cuts. And filler songs - sometimes I need a vocal break. - MB
They do like each other but Floyd's a bit older than Hazel so he's now ready to chase the girls around a little bit, and Hazelnut's a bit too young for him, which he recognised when they met, so I was quite proud of him. He was more interested in the older ladies right in front of Hazel. Maybe trying to make her jealous... - DH
Do you miss playing tiny gigs to 50 people in bars and clubs?
Absolutely not! I mean, not to 50 people. With Muse, probably not, I think our music doesn't really work that well in those venues, but that Dr Pepper's Jaded Hearts Club thing we did - we did a couple of birthday parties to about 50 people and really enjoyed it actually. - MB
A recurring theme in your music is outer space – why does it fascinate you so much?
How could anyone not be fascinated by outer space?! I mean, it's so vast and so crazy and strange, it challenges our logic and what we think, how we came to be. What I'm particularly fascinated by is where the universe came from and what it's constructed of - these are wild questions to think about. I'm particularly interested in what people like Einstein and other physicists and biophysicists are trying to find out what the algorithmic nature of the universe is, to break it down into maths - what is it? And what I'm fascinated by is when that theory is revealed, we'll essentially be seeing a programme of sorts - the possibility that the universe is a programme of some kind, I find that to be fascinating. The way that people understand the universe is through pure maths and they're starting to see a set of rules that if you follow, a universe will come out of it. I'm fascinated by where that comes from - MB
Do you think that the music that the majority of millennials listen to is dumbing down our generation?
No, I don't think that. I think the 2010s is the decade where it's the beginning of the end of genre-specific music. Everyone seems to be genre-blending now to the point where there's no clear separation between genres like there used to be, and I think that's probably an exciting thing. - MB
What happened to your long red coat with massive black feathers all puffed put on the sleeves from the Resistance album tour? Can I please have it?
I think we've got warehouses full of old touring gear and clothes - I feel like we need to go down there and go through it all. We just keep avoiding the clearout - or the clear up. It's probably buried in a bunch of flight cases somewhere. - MB
Which moment of your concerts do you relish the most?
For me it's that moment when you're about to go on, the adrenaline, excitement, nervousness combined, and the moment you step on the stage those feelings sort of convert into energy and confidence. Nervousness before to confidence after you walk on - that's the best feeling for me. - MB
There's probably some key musical moments in the set that are always exciting, like we played Knights of Cydonia at the end of the set for years now because it seems to be the best closer, that bit at the end where it builds up - that's always exciting because the crowd always kick off and react, and it's exciting to see what they're gonna do when it drops. - DH
Do you guys ever look at the official Muse messageboard?
I used to quite a bit - if you wanna find out some stats about the band it's a pretty useful place to go because people on there compile everything that we've ever done, chart positions, sales, stats, gigs, which can be interesting sometimes. - DH
I used to back when they liked us but zoned out after everyone slagged off Supermassive Black Hole! - MB
What happens to all the guitars that get trashed when you’re on tour?
Most of them get fixed! I've very rarely broken a guitar to the point where it can't be fixed. Worst thing that happens is they get a crack in the back and you glue it back together. It looks like I break a lot but really it's one that just gets fixed. - MB
Is there any of your recorded songs you would like to delete from memory/existence forever?
No! Not songs because we wouldn't have recorded or released them if we didn't like them. But there might be a few music videos... like the first Uno video. A Muscle Museum video that was particularly painful... we just didn't know what we were doing, we were young kids. Some of the early stuff. I didn't really think Undisclosed Desires worked out that well - just didn't look very good in the end. - DH
I thought that was alright! It wasn't too bad - MB
Is Thought Contagion influenced by the 2016 US presidential election?
Probably influenced a bit by the endless news coverage in the US about that - when you watch CNN or MSNBC, all you see is Trump 24-7, it's like they're not interested in anything else. Was the song influenced by that? I mean, it's probably more influenced by Richard Dawkins' original idea of what he described as a meme, even though that word has changed meaning over time. How he originally meant is was to describe when somebody else's ideas or beliefs, regardless of validity or accuracy, can have a way of spreading around like genes do, growing in each other's minds and surviving. Certain ideas are very robust the way genes are robust. He was trying to find a way to describe how thoughts can be contagious and spread and have strength and grow in the way genes do through evolution. And unfortunately it's particularly true for the people who don't want empirical evidence applied to their belief systems - and they tend to be the most fervent. Sometimes those belief systems are the ones who spread the most.
My favourite episode of Black Mirror is USS Callister. An amazing concept but our new music video, Thought Contagion, has a little bit of influence from another one, San Junipero. I really liked the virtual reality stuff, the idea that we can go back to the 80s and pretend we're all living in the 80s. - MB
Maybe one of my favourites is Absolution. We did quite a few bits of artwork with Storm Thorgerson, a pretty well known, respected artist who sadly passed away. And he was an interesting guy - very opinionated but always had crazy, surreal ideas and I always thought Absolution really conjured up something. You looked at it and didn't know what was going on with the people flying above. - DH
Is this upcoming album going to be a more varied experimental body of work and can some heavier sounds (instrumentally) can be expected on some tracks?
It's gonna be varied, definitely, but I wouldn't necessarily call it experimental. The 2nd Law was a very experimental album. We're hoping to end up with 10 or 12 great songs that are all varied in style but sound good. We'll be doing lots of genre-blending and era-blending. -MB
Dom, you finally got to play Glorious last summer!! Any luck convincing Matt to keep it on the setlist more permanently?
Yeah, we played it at Shepherds Bush Empire for the first time in about 12 years, and it was actually great - we kind of gave it away to the fans for Christmas so I'd love to play it more. I think Matt should say yes. - DH
Matt you told that you would like to do Muse tour around regions in Russia? When are you gonna do it or was it joke?
No it wasn't a joke - I like the idea of doing that one day. We just haven't really got as far as investigating the trucking routing and all that stuff. It's a big place - turns out some of those cities are thousands of miles apart. We love the idea of it though. I've always wanted to do a tour of Eurasia where we start in Europe and then work our way across Russia and end up in Asia. - MB
Has Matt discussed a Trent Reznor production credit with him on a future release while bumping into him on the school run? Would love to hear what that sounded like!
No I haven't but our kids share a cubby together, they're in the same class so his son and my son are buddies. You never know, something could happen. - MB
But I'm a massive NIN fan, so it could be cool. - DH
Apparently Muse never sleep: five months after they signed off touring for 2017, the Devonshire band are back. Their new single Thought Contagion will be unveiled this Thursday – and fans can grill frontman Matt Bellamy and drummer Dominic Howard all about it in a webchat from 12.00pm GMT on Friday 16 February.
Muse have been cagey about what fans can expect from the follow-up to their 2015 album, Drones. This new release might not even be an album, but a series of EPs and standalone singles in the vein of last year’s Dig Down. In 2017, Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme said the band were conscious of how fans consume music in the streaming age: “There’s so much emphasis on individual songs, that there was no reason why we couldn’t do that,” he told Music Feeds.
Katy Perry has expressed regret at the stereotypes peddled on her debut single. She’s not the only artist who has attempted to distance herself from badly aged material
What a difference a decade makes. “If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it,” Katy Perry recently told Glamour magazine of her 2009 breakthrough hit, I Kissed a Girl. “Lyrically, it has a couple of stereotypes in it. Your mind changes so much in 10 years, and you grow so much. What’s true for you can evolve.”
Given that I Kissed a Girl is little more than a piece of titillation – “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it / It felt so wrong / It felt so right” – I’m not at all sure removing a couple of stereotypes from it would make much difference. And there was no mention from Perry of her contemporaneous and even more are-you-really-sure-you-want-to-go-there Ur So Gay.
Glastonbury at Silver Hayes about three years ago. I'd had very little sleep the night before and was worried as it was a really big gig for me. But when I walked onstage the crowd had this big surge of noise and it was quite moving and I ended up having one of those gigs where everything worked seamlessly. The atmosphere was perfect.
Are Radio DJs on the way out due to streaming sites?
I hope not! I think people still like to be guided. They still like a personal, human curation process. People who are passionate about music. In the same way I love football but don't have time to sit and watch MOTD every week - people are busy, so if they can sit and listen to a music show from someone they can trust, I don't feel that will ever go. A person presenting music is still something people want.
What’s the strangest thing you have seen at a gig or party?
My first gig that I ever went to was Moloko in Dublin when I was 15 or 16. Roisin Murphy blew my mind. There was a dog basket onstage that she regularly curled up in and she had a loudspeaker and sang a lot through that. She also had her entire Irish family with her who of course we made friends with at the lock in afterwards. I've loved her ever since.
Being on the dancefloor mainly. Hearing Daft Punk's Burnin' for the first time. Making about 35 new friends every time I went. Seeing life-changing DJ sets from the likes of Andy Weatherall and Laurent Garnier.
Let's use the example of Nuyorican Soul – I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun (4 Hero Remix). When I was in my late teens I started buying records properly. I lived in Farnborough and there was not much going on there apart from a weekly car boot sale. I'd go there every week and come home with loads and loads of vinyl and so loved joining the dots between labels and artists and producers. This record helped me discover Minnie Riperton and the Rotary Connection and there's many more like this.
Of course I'm going to say no to this question. My Friday show is loved by all ages. I get so many videos from parents of their small children raving in pyjamas. And equally so many middle aged people who love it. It generally feels like a cross-generational thing and that makes me really happy.
Do you think anyone (including you) can leave a legacy as important as Pete Tong’s?
I think people can definitely leave a legacy as important as Pete Tong's. However, in terms of electronic music, Pete sums up the time when electronic music was at its peak in term of cultural significance and popularity. And also he was absolutely imperative to making that happen. Every dance track that you hear in the charts today can be traced back to the work of Pete Tong. He persuaded Radio 1 to ditch the road shows and go to Ibiza instead. The rest is history.
Sweet Thing. That's my favourite song of all time. It feels like it's bordering on the divine - there's something semi-religious about it. The lyrics are so beautiful. I have so many associations with him and growing up in Dublin.
Can you name three male allies to women’s rights in the music industry?
I have been racking my brains and the answer is no. I cannot name a man who is publicly pushing forwards women's rights and making a point of appointing women. It maybe that I might not have come across him yet.
As for the instrument – I'd like to get rid of bongos and saxophones in nightclubs. If I'm ever DJing don't ask me if you can play bongos alongside my set.
District 8. It's in an old theatre called the Tivoli. I played there a couple of Christmases ago and it was one of my favourite gigs ever. The Dublin crowds are unbeatable. Yes I am biased but it's true.
My favourite thing about being me is my kids. I was thinking about it the other day. I had a nice chat with Plan B last night and he is one of so many people that I've interviewed that has been completely transformed by fatherhood. I feel like children are the greatest gifts.
Is your home a bit like Peel Acres? Thousands of records shelved on the wall. Or are you a digital kind of person?
It is my lifelong dream to be able to do my show from my house a la John Peel in Peel Acres. I have a office at the end of my garden which has my record collection in it so all my music is there. And I have to be a digital kind of person because that's how it is these days but I'm useless at managing and storing my record collection online. It keeps me up at night worrying where all the music has gone.
How can we combat the increasing closures of older venues like the Arches in Glasgow and London’s Astoria?
I've been thinking a lot about the closure of our venues. I think it's super-sad. Another venue that I love in Birmingham - The Rainbow Venues - has announced it is closing. My whole career was started from going around and playing these super open minded clubs run by young entrepreneurs. The problem is these people are now losing money on a monthly basis. It's hard to keep a club night going these days. There's so many reasons for this and a lot of it is a change in culture. The generation of kids now see human connection in a really different way to how we saw it when clubbing was at its peak. So much of it is to do with phones. I could write an essay on the subject. I've just finished a tour of small and brilliant clubs around the UK. It's been over a year since I've done this because I've been having a baby and I've really noticed a distinct change in the time since I did it before. That change is phones. When you do these clubs you're at really close proximity to the punters and whenever I played people were shoving their phones in my face. One of three things would happen 1) People are filming you with a flash on, which is permanently bright in your face. 2) People write things on their phone and then shove it in your face - "Annie can I touch your hair" and stuff like that. 3) The worst one, which makes me want to take people's phones and not give it back - a request for me to take a selfie and then return the phone. It's really hard to focus and get into a set when you're constantly trying to answer people's phone issues. My friend Heidi confiscates everyone's phones because she's so sick of it. Clubs are such a precious opportunity to experience human connection and stand beside each other in a small space and all hear the same thing. It's a really simple but profound thing. And it's hard to benefit from that if you're just filming yourself on Snapchat. The idea of human connection is becoming obsolete. There's a lot of clubs out there in Europe that have a policy where you stick a sticker over phone cameras and I think that could really help in preserving the magic of club culture.
Any advice for someone looking to carve a career as a DJ and radio presenter? How do you build your own brand and, of course, avoid the dreaded burnout?
I guess my biggest piece of advice is to be pro-active. Do not wait to be plucked from obscurity. Have your own thing going on - be it your own club night, mixes online, podcasts, radio show. Do your own thing at a very small level so you always have something to show for yourself. That way you constantly have a calling card for whenever anyone comes along that can help you. The best way to avoid burnout is to be doing something that you love. Radio is something that I hope I will be doing when I'm old and decrepit. You can grow old gracefully and disgracefully on radio and I hope the BBC will let me do that - and yes that is a hint.
Did you find the jump from being a dance music specialist to Zane Lowe’s slot a massive change?
Yes it was a massive change. Firstly, it was hugely intimidating. I sat in on Zane's last show and they had a hashtag which was something like #thankyouzane and it felt like every massive artist out there was using it from Adele to Chris Martin. Bono sent him a pint of Guinness whilst on air. And I sat there going "fuck" basically. But once I got stuck into the show it felt like more of a surmountable task. I never worried about not having the knowledge of traditional rock'n'roll because I come from that background - I spent many years in scuzzy venues watching bands. I don't think that I got the show because of my electronic background – I think it was just experience and profile and the right place at the right time I guess.
I think any change in music is good. It's traditionally cyclical. Things come and go, genres mutate and that's what's exciting about music. I do feel that guitar music will return to being a chart topping genre at some point definitely.
My favourite is a red patent hooded affair recently purchased from Zara. It's like one my mum used to have in the 1970s and I love it.
And ready to answer your questions
“DJ” feels like a bit of a reductive term for what Annie Mac does. Sure, her job mainly involves playing records, in clubs or the radio. But more accurately she’s an irrepressible music evangelist, bringing exciting new artists to wider attention and tirelessly extolling the virtues of music.
Since 2004, the Dublin native has been a constant, reassuring presence on Radio 1. She currently helms the early evening show, formerly the province of Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq, where the hottest record of the day is ordained and inevitably goes on to become a massive crossover hit. In 2009 she started her regular Annie Mac Presents club nights and compilation albums – her ninth one is due out this week, and she’ll be hoping it replicates the success of the previous five by topping the iTunes chart.
Dwyer has released 21 albums with Thee Oh Sees – and 20 other records that range from German industrial electronics to heavy metal. He gives the backstories about key tracks in his vast back catalogue
‘My motto is: try everything, life is short,” says John Dwyer, the leader of San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees. “We are growing at every turn. Every day you get a little older, a little closer to the grave – you should taste it all.”
A master of contemporary garage rock, he came into prominence as part of the fruitful San Francisco scene of the early 2000s. Since then Thee Oh Sees have rattled out 21 LPs of bewilderingly consistent quality, under various iterations of their name, and Dwyer has written, recorded and released another 20 albums with other collaborators, encompassing everything from industrial electronics to improvised jazz and death metal.
Ahead of Chance the Rapper’s bow as the emcee of SNL, we take a look at his musical forebears who have pleased, shocked and nosedived over the years
This weekend, Chance the Rapper will take the stage to host Saturday Night Live, leaving the musical guest duties to Eminem. Last weekend, Taylor Swift rejoined the late-night sketch institution for a couple of songs, but she also handled full hosting responsibilities back in 2009. Ever since Paul Simon emceed the second-ever episode back in 1975, SNL has granted adventurous musicians the opportunity to try their hand at sketch work.
Episodes hosted by non-professional actors are always dicey; there are few experiences more exquisitely painful than watching a good-natured quarterback stumble his way through a commercial parody. Musicians generally have a better go of things, channeling their natural stage presence into a more precise format. But when they tank, they tank hard. We’ve surveyed Saturday Night Live’s long history of turning the host’s mic over to music stars.
With her synthpop-heavy sixth album, the popstar dispenses with her diary-like lyrics in favour of something darker and more suggestive
For any Taylor Swift fan, a new album release promises not just a fresh batch of music but a chance to engage in that old Swiftian pastime: unpacking and deciphering the references in her lyrics, from allusions to the boys who’ve earned her ire to the ones that captured her heart. Following the release of the superstar’s sixth album, Reputation, the tradition persists: except this time, the album’s as much about Swift as it is the courtships that put tabloids in a frenzy.
A gentle Trump parody aside, the Country Music Association’s annual event dodged burning political issues – including gun control
“Maybe next time, he’ll think before he tweets,” sang co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood during their opening banter at the 51st annual Country Music Association awards. In terms of political provocation or controversy, the minute-long Trump-baiting parody of Underwood’s hit single, Before He Cheats, was as notable a political statement as anyone made during this year’s ceremony.
Paisley and Underwood have developed a repartee in their decade-long stint as the show’s co-hosts, yet their shtick has always been grounded in an affable, aw-shucks flavor of humor designed not to offend. As such things go, they’re consummate professionals, able to effectively deliver one-liners and to keep the performances and award presentations moving at a brisk pace. But provocateurs they are not.
He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched. And a misdiagnosed bipolar condition meant he retreated into silence for the last years of his life. But now the pianist’s singular talent is finally being heard
Consider this: both Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were born in 1917. The creative DNA and brilliance of each musician were integral to the birth of modern jazz. For countless hours, weeks and months during the early 1940s they played, studied, argued and innovated together, along with Charlie Parker, drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Oscar Pettiford, guitarist Charlie Christian and a steady progression of black men dedicated to exploring the possibilities of the music of their time, and to changing its shape. (And yes, aside from the pianist Mary Lou Williams and a number of female vocalists, this chapter in musical development is about the men.)
Then, by virtue of his crowd-pleasing pyrotechnic style, “dizzy as a fox” personality and willingness to school the squares, combined with the organisational gifts necessary to keep his bands together, trumpeter Gillespie’s career soared to the stars while pianist Monk, the jobbing musician who couldn’t, more than wouldn’t, conform to the conventions of the job, spent most of his professional life struggling to support his family.
When you understand the inside the outside will be just fine, he’d say, Get inside the music and listen.
At Sharp’s folk club, one seat was poignantly empty: that of Tom Paley, who once played with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and who died last week. The club’s regulars explain what he meant to them
An old man in an exceptional jumper is singing an old sea shanty in tribute to Tom Paley, who died last week aged 89. Everyone joins in with the chorus, hesitantly at first but harmonising strongly by the end: “Tom has gone and we’ll go, too. Tom’s gone to Hilo.”
Florence Welch and Calvin Harris have objected to their music being used at the Tory conference – the way Keane and the Dandy Warhols once did, too. It’s not surprising, given the tin-eared way the Tories twist song meanings
When compared with a stage invader, an unrelenting cough and a letter F with less staying power than David Davis, Theresa May probably isn’t that bothered about Florence + the Machine being cross with her conference speech.
Molly Rankin was stuck trying to honour her late father’s musicianship, until indie-pop opened a door. She discusses being an unlikely bandleader – and why it’s awkward playing music with your boyfriend
As I’m waiting to be connected to Molly Rankin of the Canadian indie-pop band Alvvays, the video for one of their new tracks In Undertow – an addictive shoegazey swirl of Farfisa and feedback – has just gone live on YouTube. When she comes on the line from Toronto, I ask if she’s watching real-time reactions on the comments thread.
From Charlotte Gainsbourg’s delicate minimalism to kick-ass indie-punk by Dream Wife – plus Somali disco and elegant techno – here are 50 of the month’s best tracks
Last month we launched the first of an ongoing series at the Guardian where we round up 50 of the month’s best tracks, across all genres – and tell you a bit more about 10 of the most exciting ones below. You can subscribe to the playlists via various streaming services in this widget, and let us know what you think in the comments. Google Play Music users can access the playlist here.
Make your nomination in the comments and a reader will pick the best eligible tracks for a playlist next week – you have until Monday 2 October
We’re spinning around for your song suggestions this week. For more on how to interpret the theme, keep an eye on the comments.
You have until 11pm on Monday 2 October to post your nomination and make your justification. RR contributor Sarah Chappell (who posts as AFictionHabit in the comments) will select from your recommendations and produce a playlist, to be published on 5 October.
Twenty-five years ago, the British charts exploded with cheap and cheerful songs such as Sesame’s Treet, Trip to Trumpton and Ebeneezer Goode, that turned a whole generation on to dance music
Underage discos could be pretty strange in the early 1990s. You’d get a blast of Nirvana; maybe even REM for the more sophisticated pre-teen. But you were also guaranteed to hear at least one example of speaker-rattling, drug-referencing rave music that borrowed samples of children’s TV tunes for its hooks – samples that its pre-teen audience was too young to have nostalgia for.
The Northern Irish duo have become one of the biggest acts in dance music – partly thanks to their DJ sets of ultra-obscure house and disco. They lift the lid of the darkest corners of their record collection
Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar are dance music royalty, playing alongside house music’s biggest names and making waves with their new self-titled debut album. The former schoolfriends from Belfast are also scholars of dance culture: before their success as DJs they had built a reputation with their blog, Feel My Bicep. Since 2008, FMB has showcased the pair’s obsessive trawling of record shops and online sources for unknown club music oddities across the decades – this collectors’ mania has influenced a generation, and it has given Bicep’s music an extraordinary maturity. We asked them to pick their 10 favourite curios from the deepest corners of their record boxes.
A regular reader picks from your best live version suggestions – Songhoy Blues, Grateful Dead and Neil Young among the performers selected
Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of suggestions in the comments on last week’s callout. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.
In Spain, they say duende. Originally the word denoted a sprite or goblin, but is now used to signify the olé moment, when the spirit enters the performer, uniting audience and artist as one. That’s the deal with live music: it transports us from the humdrum, and as we leave the daily grind behind we feel something inside. Unbridled joy, spiritual contact, emotional release: call it what you will, but we have all felt it. As we begin our playlist, watch Javier Limón’s eyes express the privilege he feels playing his guitar alongside Concha Buika as she sings Oro Santo.
Ron: to the question we can't find about the album artwork, we think that the visuals for our album covers are an important element of the whole process and we take a lot of pleasure in trying to come up with interesting visual ideas for the covers. We think the covers really reflect a lot of the sensibility of a band, and in our minds they tell you a lot about what Sparks is like, and a lot about our sensibility. Covers like Propaganda, where we're being abducted and tied up in the back of a speedboat- you don't know what happened before that photo was taken. We kind of like that idea of taking a slice of a scenario, and leaving it up to the viewer to determine in their mind what has actually happened. The cover to the new Hippopotamus album is one of those situations where we're looking into a swimming pool - the perfect LA swimming pool - and we see the head of a hippo. You don't know what happened before, or five minutes after - we like those situations, where you as a the viewer can make up your own story. Both those albums, the images are so striking that we suggested not having any typography, not even the name of the band, because the image spoke so much there was no other element needed. You didn't need to know who the band was - the image is so striking you want to find out.
Ron: We've also always been huge cinema buffs, and so the covers seem to be a still from a movie that's never been made, and taken out of context it's up to the person viewing it to wonder what the whole film would be. We both like the photographer Cindy Sherman, who is the subject of all her photos, and has done that for many years - she has done a series of film stills of herself, that look like they're from some film, but are just imaginary films. She isn't an influence on us, but we identify with that sensibility.
Russell: No, I never have. I've just had good luck. Ron: What are you implying? I actually do sing, with nobody else hearing it apart from Russell, on demos of songs we do, but for the betterment of the musical environment everywhere, no-one will ever hear me. Don't twist my arm.
Does the song My Baby’s Taking Me Home have any hidden meaning in it?
Ron: Thank you for thinking that it has some kind of subtext, but actually, that song is about my baby taking me home. And trying to construct a scenario with what sounds like a pretty banal phrase, can become something more through the repetition of it. It can be taken at face value, but the musical context can raise it into something that's more affirming and uplifting. That album Little Beethoven, we used a lot of repetitive vocals and inspired somewhat lyrically by rap music where a vocal sample was used repeatedly, as well as by John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich. We were trying something along those lines, but the meaning really is: my baby is taking me home.
Russell: There's one section where it breaks, and my favourite line to recite in that spoken section is: "a rainbow forms, but we're both colour blind." And the song kicks in again with: my baby's taking me home.
We’re you in it for the fun or did you know you were iconic?
Ron: When we started it was only for the fun. We never had any thoughts of legacy or anything like that. It was a thrill to have one album released. Music was only a fun thing to do for us, I was studying graphic design and Russell film - but it gradually became something more than the other stuff.
I thought that Let the Monkey Drive would have made a great (and commercial) single, as well as having the potential to be one of your best videos. Who has the most input on single releases: you or the record company?
Russell: We also felt that Let the Monkey Drive was a single as well, and ideally you ahve it where you and the label are in sync with the idea for what a single should be, so that there's a consensus. Sometimes that happens, sometimes that doesn't happen. And that was on our own label, so we only have ourselves to blame.
Ron: We fired ourselves from the label after that. A total shakeup
Have you ever had to overcome a creative block? If so, how did you get through it?
Ron: I've never really felt a creative block. I think there are times where you might have some trouble coming up with either a song or a direction, but if you keep working, that's the solution. I have faith you can get through any of those slightly slower periods by simply pressing on, and the answer will come at some point. Abandoning what you've done in the past is a more general way to avoid the block - working with Giorgio Moroder in electronics, or Little Beethoven, where we decided to use strings and repetitive vocals instead of drums and guitars. The most important thing though is to not sit there and mope about the fact you're having a creative block - it seems like it's trying to romanticise your problems in some way. We try to find a solution, no matter how difficult it is, or if it requires you re-evaluating your whole approach to doing anything.
How much of a culture shock was it to come to the UK in the early 70s, and where do your Island releases sit within the context of your overall material?
Russell: Well, it was a dream of ours to come to the UK in the 70s and be given a record deal with Island Records, as we were huge Anglophiles. It was a huge culture shock to come here, we were from LA and used to sunny skies every day, but the music scene and the opportunity for us to record an album which became Kimono My House was such an amazing opportunity for us, that the culture shock aside, we were just really happy. the Island albums really mean a lot to us; we have other periods that also had a huge significance to us as well, for various reasons. Certain songs have been really successful in France for instance, and a song like When Do I Get to Sing My Way was huge in Germany, so they have a huge emotional significance to us, because of the time they were in a particular part of the world. There were albums that were less well known in Europe but big in the States, especially on the west coast, and we did large concerts in the US as a result, so the significance of a particular album has different meanings for us depending on the time they were released and the part of the world where they attracted more attention. Hopefully with Hippopotamus we'll have it be successful everywhere in the world at the same time.
Ron: Even before we came here, just reading Sherlock Holmes, that was our view of what England was - this kind of fuzzy, brick buildings, vaguely mysterious... that whole sort of thing. We'd never been here, so it was like a fantasy place for us, both musically and in a more general way.
What is your favourite classical piece of music? Which musical instruments do you most enjoy playing?
Ron: one thing I listen to a lot of is Bach's Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould. I'm a big admirer of Gould as an artist, and as a piano player; he recorded that twice in the 50s and in 1980, it's interesting to see the differences, but both times his playing is so idiosyncratic. He doesn't care about the purity of the music, he sees the music as a way to express himself. His playing was loved and hated at the time, because he wasn't sounding like other classical pianists; his technique was as good as anyone, but his interpretations was sometimes off the wall, and I just love that spirit.
Russell: The difficult songs fall into two categories - the ones that have an insane amount of lyrics in them, and the ones that have the insane amount of range of the notes, going from incredibly high to low. Actually thinking about it, there are ones with an insane amount of lyrics and an insane range of notes - ones like At Home At Work At Play, even a song like This Town, the range of that song, and hitting that last F-sharp, the word "leave", I have to psych myself up for the final note. On the new album there's a song called Giddy Giddy, and it has a crazy amount of words and also the fact that most of Ron's songs don't have long instrumental passages in them, so it forces me, live, to have to continue singing non stop without any gaps. That's a big challenge for me.
Russell: Nothing other than the traditional fly-check.
Russell: And since I drink so much water on stage, I have to make sure I've peed 11 times before going on stage.
Ron: I sometimes have a similar problem - it must be genetic I guess. The first time we played in Japan, the shows start early, sometimes 6pm. I was in the toilet and heard our intro music playing - the train was leaving the station, and I had to start running.
Is originality in pop – as you are! – now a lost art or cause?
Russell: We're trying our best in Sparks to not make it a lost art.
Ron: Bands that are kind of working in three and four minuite song structures, and aren't trying to bare their souls in overt ways, like the Lemon Twigs where there's a lot of flash involved - it's not as if they're emulating us, but that sensibility, we admire in other bands. It's the thing that's inspired us from the beginning - it was always British bands that had that flash and colour to the lyrics, rather than the American bands who were more involved in the wrong kind of sincerity. There are all kinds of ways of being sincere - people think we are being overly ironic and insincere, but we value sincerity where it's less overt.
I don’t enjoy music any more. Whose fault is that?
Ron: I feel some sympathy for that. There are times I feel the same way. Hang in there - you'll return to it. Maybe you've gone to too many restaurants with bad Muzak in them, turn everything off for a while and you'll come to love it again. There's nothing wrong with you - it's just overload. My doctor's note will be arriving in the mail.
If you had to pick one song from the Sparks catalogue to introduce your music to someone who has never heard you, which one would it be, and why?
Russell: It's so difficult having over 280 songs to choose from, but if I'm pressed today for one, I'll say When I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral, from the album Hello Young Lovers. I really like the complexity of that song. From the new Hippopotamus album I would pick Missionary Position. I feel that the subject matter hasn't been dealt with in popular music: the missionary position, it's saying that the tried and true is good enough for me and you. It's taking a reactionary position that experimentation is fine, but sometimes the tried and true is the better path. And I also like the emotional quality of the melody.
Thank you so much for all of your music. It got me through some difficult times earlier this year. But thanks to you guys, I have my positivity and energy back. And I’m probably not the only one. How does it feel, knowing you and your music had such an impact on people’s lives?
Russell: It's really heartwarming to hear when our music does affect people in that sort of way. Sometimes people ask us about whether our music... whether we want to be doing things that are more related to the political climate now, and for us, we really feel that the diversion of our music, when it does affect someone and helps people get through difficult times, that that for us is something that is really satisfying for us. Being overtly political just seems, for us, too easy of a target to be doing. We like to channel our creativity in a way that's more through a spirit, and a sensibility, that runs through all of Sparks' albums.
Ron: You can be making a more general political statement by making music that is counter to the general flow of what is accepted. Our fans really feel they're part of some movement, that is beyond the specifics of a political party. People know how we feel about things in general, but referring to anything specifically feels like it's minimising the universality of your music. But it's obvious to anybody, I would think, how we feel about the situation in different countries at the present time.
Any juicy gossip on your collaboration with Les Rita Mitsouko?
Ron: We were lucky enough to meet the band when they played in LA, and we really liked their music. They were also at that time going to be produced by Tony Visconti, so we went to France, and had written a song called Singing in the Shower for them. We don't have nasty things to say at all! We loved them both. Visconti was so strong as to get two French people to not smoke in the studio, which is probably one of the biggest feats in his career. We're going to do a duet with Catherine in the next two weeks at La Cigale, for three songs, so we've kept in touch with her, and just think the music she and Fred did and the music she's doing solo, and the style of her singing, are truly amazing. We're really looking forward to working with them again.
Sparks’ music never ages. Any advice to musicians today wanting your length of artistic longevity as to how to Beat the Clock?
Russell: We always set out to try and challenge ourselves and our audience each time we make a new record. With that kind of goal in mind, we're happy to hear that it strikes you and hopefully other fans as being ageless in its content. Having had 23 or 24 or 25 albums depending on how you're counting, it becomes a challenge to present what we're doing with a fresh slant, so that challenge at certain times in our career, we've put ourselves in a different musical context like working with Moroder - we abandoned the classic rock instrumentation for this electronic instrumentation. Then we did an album Little Beethoven, trying to find another context to place Sparks' music, where we attempted to not use any of the rock or pop instrumentation, and replacing the aggressiveness of bass and guitar and drums with aggressive strings and stacked vocals. It's being hungry every time we set out to make a new record, to just want to find new ways to be able to present ourselves that are hopefully vital and fresh.
The narrative of This Town somehow reminds me of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Was it an inspiration?
Ron: I really always liked Thurber as a writer, I like that style of writing. That particular song, it wasn't perhaps inspired, but the concept is the same as Walter Mitty - an individual in each verse, there's a different situation that expands into a bigger than life fantasy, in the same way as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As an aside, I think James Thurber had the best book title ever: Is Sex Necessary? He was always number one on my witty and good writers list; I enjoyed Dorothy Parker in the same vein.
I bought Tryouts for the Human Race 12-inch picture disk. Most exotic record I ever owned. Do you think it was enhanced by the Peter Cook monologue? It was very mismatched, wasn’t it?
Russell: We thought it was very well matched! That Virgin Records at that time had the good taste to want to have Peter Cook do a monologue as a kind of intro to that song, we thought it was hilarious, and meta at the same time - he's commenting on the song you're about to hear.
The only joke I ever wrote myself was the following: I was with the wife the other day at an airport gate for our flight. We’d been called and were queuing for the boarding desk when the two guys in front of us started arguing with the crew checking the passes. I couldn’t tell what it was about, but one of the guys with curly locks and a high-pitched voice suddenly snapped: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” and marched off towards the plane. His mate with a little Charlie Chaplin moustache just gave the desk crew a big weirdo stare and then followed on. I said to my missus: “I can see sparks flying here.”
Russell: If I have to pick one I would say Indiscreet. Having worked with Tony Visconti, we think he's an amazing producer, and some of the orchestrations he brought to that album are really amazing. From using big bands in Looks Looks Looks, to having a marching band in Get in the Swing, and string quartets in Under the Table With Her, there's no-one else, other than a George Martin, that has that musical ability, to be able to incorporate those kinds of stylistic treatments to pop songs in that kind of way.
This question is for Ron. Why did you eschew the toothbrush moustache for a pencil moustache in the mid-80s?
Ron: The old Hollywood actor Ronald Colman. Our mother must have been a film buff because I was named after Ronald Colman - thankfully not Reagan. In almost every film he had a moustache, and it's really strange thinking back that my mother named me after a guy whose trademark was not only a beautiful speaking voice, but also a cool moustache, which I attempt to have - it's strange that that moustache has become part of my image.
Do either of you enjoy the films of Studio Ghibli (and if so, do you have any favourites? I have also wondered if either of you read the work of Osamu Tezuka, as I have seen photos in which Russell has an Astro Boy statue at his home. His graphic novel Apollo’s Song would make an incredible rock opera.
Ron: My favourite Ghibli film is maybe lesser known: the Tale of Princess Kaguya. It's a different visual style, by a different director to most of the films, but it's really beautiful, and an old Japanese fable brought to life in an almost moving-watercolour kind of way.
Russell: I really love Spirited Away, it's just got an amazingly haunting atmosphere, and the technique is so non-Hollywood CGI - it's really refreshing to see other beautiful styles of animation that don't have to be the Hollywood bombast.
What award would you most like to win: a Grammy or an Oscar?
Russell: Good question!
Ron: We're happy to be in the position where we're eligible for both of them, from having worked on a lot of records we're waiting on that Grammy call, but we've worked on several film projects as well. Just because the area of writing film musicials is more novel to us, and also because it's much more glitzy, I think I would prefer that Oscar sitting on my mantle. Were I to have a mantle. But either one would be perfectly acceptable.
In Morrissey’s autobiography, he talks of getting Russell’s autograph at the age of 17, and how the first five Sparks albums were constant companions. There’s a lot of flowery praise, such as: “The lyrics of Ron Mael and the vocal sound of Russell Mael are solid and original factors, so unique that by the very laws of existence I can hardly believe they exist.” You then go on to release the single Lighten Up, Morrissey. Aside from that signing when he was “17, clumsy and shy”, have you ever encountered Morrissey, and if so, do you think he liked the song/video?
Russell: Yes, we've had many meetings with Morrissey throughout the years, and surprisingly Morrissey really loved our song Lighten Up Morrissey, and so much so that he's used the video we made in a montage before he goes on stage. He was happy enough about it so he'd want to show it to his fans. He was very consistent with our impression we had of him - he lived up to that.
Ron: Estimated number of ties in your closet? 0-10? 10-50? More?
Ron: Definitely more. I've gotten quite a few ties from Japan, they always tend to reinvent and improve things that you can get anywhere else in the world, so I'm really a huge collector of ties from Japan in particular. It's a good period for buying ties, because they're the right width - there were periods when they were too skinny and too mod, or too fat, and you looked like a bad businessman. I'm trying to buy as many ties in this golden age of ties, when they're the width they always should be.
Ron: My favourite is Wild Strawberries - i'ts difficult to choose because they're all masterpieces, but Wild Strawberries, about an old professor facing death, and the way it's presented is the most beautiful and meaningful Bergman film for me.
Russell: Virgin Spring also comes to mind.
They are one of the most idiosyncratic acts in pop history, probably the only band to have made disco with Giorgio Moroder, formed a supergroup with Franz Ferdinand, and created a musical about the life of Ingmar Bergman.
Now approaching 50 years in the game, Sparks – aka brothers Ron and Russell Mael – emerged from Los Angeles in the glam rock era, and they scored a UK No 2 hit in 1974 with This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us, before embracing electronics and dance music. They have continuously released records since: in 2008, their Sparks Spectacular concert series saw them perform all 21 in their entirely. Their 23rd album Hippopotamus is out on September 8.