Last Friday, legendary pop duo Sparks released their new album, their first in 8 years, called Hippopotamus and later this month perform songs from it – and their hundreds-strong back catalogue – on Tyneside. Mick Burgess caught up with brothers Ron and Russell Mael

You're over in the UK in a few weeks for your latest tour. Are you looking forward to coming over here again?

We're really excited about being back in the UK again and this time we`re doing 9 shows and that's a lot of shows for Sparks. The reaction has been really good in those cities where we`re playing and quite a few are sold out now so we are really looking forward to it.

What do enjoy most about touring the UK?

It's definitely not the weather. It is the musical atmosphere more than anything and it`s always been special in particular to us because we had a couple of albums out in The States before we moved here for a couple of years and there was no reaction. We got the opportunity to play over here and the reaction was 180 degrees away from what we were getting in The States. To us, it`s special playing in the UK because it`s where we were first accepted.

Is it important for you to get out and connect with your fans in as many places as possible?

We're really happy to be playing outside of London. It's much more exciting for us to go all over and country and play rather than just playing one or two shows in the same place.

On 19th September, you`re up in Newcastle. It must be a fair few years that you last played up here?

The last time we played up in the North was in 2006 at The Sage in Gateshead so it's about time we came back.

What sort of show can your fans expect from this tour?

We have a really exciting band that we are playing with. There's 5 other musicians up on stage with us. The show is theatrical in the sense that our personalities have a certain thing within them that projects on stage and the style of the songs too gets across a certain theatricality so even though there`s no external elements like props or projections there`s definitely a theatrical feel to the show.

You have 22 albums released in your own right so far and number 23, Hippopotamus, is on its way very soon. What sort of set list are you looking at for this tour?

We do eight songs from the new album and we've played some shows in Scandinavia and the reaction to the new material has been inspiring. There's 15 songs on the new album and it was hard to pick those ones we're going to do. We`ll be playing a couple of songs that are deeper cuts from our past that we haven't done in a long time and we'll obviously do the hit songs alongside some of those more obscure songs. It`s a pretty good mix.

Are you finding each time you tour you are attracting newer and younger fans to your shows?

We enjoy having people who have been there from the beginning but it's also really satisfying when our music appeals to new fans and younger people too. It says that there is still something in our music that is still as vital as it was. That's very satisfying to know that we can connect with a new and younger audience. We thought our new album was really special when we were recording it but we're not the most objective of observers on that and the reaction has just been way beyond what we thought was possible. It`s an inspiration to us. It's surreal to us at this point that we have done 23 albums and for this album to be the one that seems the most praised is hard to fathom.

It's been 8 years since your last album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. How is Hippopotamus a progression from that?

It`s really a progression of the work we did on the Bergman project and we are doing another movie project since then too called Anette with French director Leos Carax. That project was working in a narrative way that was very different from doing an album of discreet Pop songs so that process refreshed us to want to attack a new album of Sparks songs in a more traditional Pop way in the terms of them being 3 or 4-minute songs.

Edith Piaf Said It Better Than Me. What does she say?

It`s a song about a guy who has an incredibly empty life and Edith Piaf through her music and in particular through Non, Je Ne Regrette Rienne she said that despite all of the tragedies and hardships through her life that it was a memorable life that she had lived full of events and many bad ones. So this guy is jealous of that position where someone doesn’t not regret this whole laundry list of bad events and he can`t think of anything in his life that is memorable to compare it to Edith Piaf.

When You're A French Director is written for a movie called Anette by Leos Carax. How did you get involved with that?

We worked with Leos Carax on the entire movie. We wrote the story and the lyrics incorporated into the musical pieces. We had met Leos at the Cannes Film Festival where we'd gone to do some work on the Bergman Project. He had used one of our older songs, How Are You Getting Home, on his last film called Holy Motors. We met him there and found out he was a big Sparks fan. We had this project nearly completed and we decided to send it to him and see what he though and to our pleasant surprise he was really excited and said he'd love to direct it as his next film. That was such a big honour for us as he doesn`t make that many films. To have him make a film about a story created by us is really exciting.

You've always had the knack of coming up with great titles and So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play is up there with the best of them. Where do you draw your inspiration from these?

They just pop into our heads. I wish there was an answer that was more specific but that is kind of the case. The music is always written first and if we're lucky the song title comes at the same time but sometimes it takes longer. You don't want to diminish the impact of the song by having substandard lyrics and So Tell Me Mrs Lincoln took a long time. It's an old Vaudeville bad taste joke and we just used it in a different context.

Growing up in the '70's The Sparks were an integral part of our music viewing on Top of the Pops. How important was Top of the Pops for breaking you as a band?

It was a key thing for us. It was one of the few places you could see bands back then and there were only three channels and that mean a good proportion of the country was watching that show. The reaction was so instant when we did This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us for the first time. It was an amazing experience.

This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us was a huge hit. Did that take you by surprise?

It did in the sense that we'd had two albums out previous to that and they were really strong albums where nothing happened with them. Then we came to the UK and it was the first thing that was released. It wasn't an overnight success and took about six weeks but once we were on Top of the Pops it just flew. We were shocked but it was a dream of ours to be a British band and we were living our fantasy.

Did you feel under pressure to follow that?

Island Records at that time was an incredible label with Chris Blackwell and Muff Winwood. Even before Kimono My House, when we came over to England, we had no songs and they had the faith in us that we could come up with something. We should have been a lot more panicked. They didn`t put any pressure on us to come up with songs. The only thing with Muff is he rejected a lot of songs because he knew we were capable of doing better. As a songwriter, you can be a little resentful of that but it was being done for the right reasons. It wasn't like he'd say you need to write a song like this. It was quite the opposite. When we'd recorded This Town Ain`t Big Enough For The Both Of Us it was Muff that said that it should be a single. We were hesitant about that as we thought it was a little weird. When we were touring behind Kimono My House there was no pressure from Island Records to come up with new songs but we were so excited that within 9 months we wrote and recorded the Propaganda album.

You've had a career spanning over 45 years. Did you ever think you'd make a living playing music for so long?

No, not at all. At the very beginning we were quite content at being able to attract one person to acknowledge our existence and then for someone to sign us to a label and produce our first album was just incredible. We thought we`d achieved everything we thought we needed to achieve. Here we are now, 23 albums later and we would never have thought we'd have done so much all those years ago.

You've been cited as an influence by the Ramones, Faith No More, Def Leppard, Nirvana, The Smiths and Franz Ferdinand amongst many others. How do feel at being held in such high esteem by your peers?

It`s incredible. Sometimes we are surprised by who says they are inspired by us. We found out about Faith No More when we were doing an interview and the interviewer mentioned they had just spoken to them and they said they were big fans of ours. We've always loved Faith No More although there may be some incongruity in that in that our musical styles are very different. We got in touch with them when we did the Plagiarism album where we basically did cover versions of our own songs so we asked if they'd like to play on This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us and Something For The Girl With Everything. We were also lucky enough to be able to play live with them once at Brixton in London and another time at The Palladium in Los Angeles. It was a real thrill to be able to play with a band like that.

A couple of years ago you did a residency in London over multiple nights where you highlighted a different album each night. How much of a challenge was that to do?

We did 20 nights leading up to the release of the Exotic Creatures album and then did another night for that so we did 21 nights in total. We did one album each night in its original running order. Some of the albums were only 38 minutes long so we had to learn B-sides too. There was a whole lot of songs to remember.

Was it tricky relearning some of those songs you hadn't played for a long time?

There was a fair proportion of songs we`d never played so it was a question of having to learn or re-learn those again. There was something like 260 songs to learn so it kept us on our toes. There were several people who bought a Golden Ticket and got into all the shows and got to meet the band. We recorded a special song to for those people called Islington N1 and that`s the rarest song to have on CD. About 100 people chose to come to all of the shows. We did record some shows but if we ever released it we`d have to mix so many songs so it`d be quite a task to do that but we might release something from that event sometime.

Would you ever attempt something like that again?

We've done it once so I don`t think we`d do it again. It was pretty harrowing and intense to have to prepare for that.

You've achieved so much over the years. Do you have any ambitions left to tick off your list?

There is something that we are working on now that is a movie musical and that's always been a dream of ours and the collaboration with Leos Carax seems like it is going full steam ahead. Adam Driver and Michelle Williams are involved and we meet up with Leos regularly. That's an unfulfilled dream for us and we are hoping that it will come out sometime in 2018 and that will then be fulfilled.

What are your plans for the rest of the year and going into 2018?

The movie musical will be the main focus for us and obviously we hope the life span of Hippopotamus will warrant for us to be able to do more shows and we'd like to do a lot of festivals with this album. We love playing festivals as it's playing to people who are unconverted a lot of the time and that`s a special challenge and is exciting for us.

  • The Sparks play at The Boilershop, Newcastle on 19th September.