Iconic Artpop duo Sparks On Its Mysterious, “Mid-action” Cover Designs + Using Imagery to Build Narratives

Sparks, Kimono My House and Halfnelson sleeve designs

Halfnelson (1971)
The instantly recognizable image featuring two geishas was shot by Karl Stoecker, who photographed many of the infamous, glossy, hyperreal Roxy Music album covers of the ’70s (Stranded, For Your Pleasure, the self titled debut…) Sparks had no intention of doing a Roxy, however…
Russell Mael: “That one again fits into the original idea of covers that are situational. Again the viewer enters the situation in mid-action, and you don’t know what led up to that incident. We liked the simplicity—just having the one image of the hippo—it made it simpler and more mysterious [than if we’d included those other objects]. There’s this idyllic southern Californian swimming pool and the water is blue, then there’s this hippo poking its head out of the water at the other end of the swimming pool, and there’s all this bewilderment about what’s going on.” 

FFS (2015)

Russell Mael: “There’s clearly been this airplane crash on the cover. So again we have a situation where the viewer comes into the image not knowing what preceded that crash, what prompted that crash, and why it’s in a typically suburban American neighborhood. I’m not sure how the image on the back exactly relates to the picture on the front, but it’s this really artificial situation where I’m on this horse, and the guys in the band are surrounding me and Ron, who’s wearing—I dunno—a butler’s jacket? Again it’s a situation where you don’t know exactly why it’s there and it can conjure up so many different thoughts. And even us in the American parking lot with the shopping bags with the wife beater shirts on—there’s also something intriguing about it. The quietness… there’s nobody in that parking lot. I really like that image.” 

Sparks and Franz Ferdinand (FFS), sleeve design

The album artwork is generally the last thing these cult artpop legends consider in the making of a record, but the process is treated with the utmost care to ensure that all elements befit the Sparks universe. With A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip… (2020), they’ve produced three different versions of the artwork for the first time, in order to tell a story like the frames of a comic. It depicts the three stages of a paint dowsing, which begins with mild acknowledgement from Ron, and concludes with the keyboardist and main songwriter playing the stooge again as he’s submerged in paint. Looked at another way, it could represent a war between figurative art and abstract expressionism, though Mael admits that may not have been at the front of their minds when they were conceiving it.
“No hippos were hurt in the making of this record,” says Russell Mael. The cover is inspired by the title track on the album, a surreal tale about a swimming pool that contains a number of unexpected objects: a VW Microbus, “a book by anonymous,” a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, and the large titular semiaquatic mammal. Thankfully Johnson distilled the image down to the bare essentials for what turned out to be a striking cover.
“You don’t need to have graphics on the cover if the imagery is really strong.”  

Sparks, Hippopotamus sleeve design

This latest piece in our series Under The Covers, in which we shine a spotlight on a significant album with a seminal design approach to match, is a special one: Russel Mael, one half of Sparks, talks through a selection of the band’s sleeve designs chosen by writer Jeremy Allen. 
Hippopotamus (2017)
Kimono My House (1972)

Sparks, Kimono My House

Russell Mael: “The woman in the photo came from a publicity picture from the ’50s for Oldsmobile, an old American car. Ron went to all of the automobile shows in Los Angeles and the dealers would give away publicity photos of their cars which he’d collect. And so he wrote to Oldsmobile saying, ‘We’re this band that nobody’s ever heard of, and could we use the photo?’ It just shows how times have changed as they wrote back and said, ‘Sure, you can use that photo, but would you not prefer something better that’s showing the car?’ We said, ‘No, no, no, that one’s perfect.’ So they actually gave us the rights to use that photo. It’s a cool story where Ron innocently decided to write to this huge car manufacturer to get the rights to that photo and succeeded—and he did it by snail mail too.”
Russell Mael: “There are two Japanese women in traditional [geisha] clothing and white face makeup, but everything is a little bit off-kilter and the makeup’s been smeared. One woman is looking one way and the other is holding her face with her two hands. Why is she reacting that way? What’s going on? Not having the title of the band or the album name on the cover adds to the mystique. It’s almost the antithesis of those Roxy Music covers: the super high gloss fashion Vogue magazine type models on the cover—this is desecrating that style. They’re beautiful women but it’s destroying their image, whereas in a fashion photo everything has to be retouched to death and everybody’s got to look perfect. Here, their make up isn’t applied right and their poses are not classic fashion photography. It’s fashion photography, almost, but then it’s turned on its head.” 
If there’s one thing that unites most of Sparks’ cover art over the last 50 years, it’s situations. Still scenes that stick in the memory over the course of 25 albums include Ronald and Russell Mael tied up and gagged on a moving speedboat for Propaganda (1974), the brothers Mael getting married on the cover of Angst in My Pants (1982), and Ron taking several custard pies in the kisser for In Outer Space (1983). “Nobody knows what led up to those situations,” says singer Russell Mael over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “and nobody knows what will happen next. We really like those kinds of situations.” In each scenario, we’re suspended in a curious moment, like an Edward Hopper painting, only more lighthearted. 

Sparks started life as Halfnelson, and their self-titled debut album was a Richard Hamilton-like collage designed by Ron, featuring an Oldsmobile advert and a photograph of the band peering into the window by the photographer Larry Dupont, who “surgically cut in our images peering into the back of that car,” according to Russell. 
Indiscreet is unusual in that there are two designers involved, and three main pictures with very different vibes. The cover is a disaster scenario by Richard Creamer, while the back cover is a stylized tableau vivant featuring the rest of the band (by the British photographer Gered Mankowitz). The inset features the Maels wearing muscle vests and holding grocery paper bags. It all holds together somehow, with the contrasts adding to the sense of surreality. 
Indiscreet (1975)

Sparks, Halfnelson sleeve design

Russell Mael: We never even asked Galen what was going on with that. He probably would have said it’s more of an abstract image, and it was somehow appealing that each of us got a sliver. Visually we thought it was a very striking image. [Franz Ferdinand] actually entrusted us when we proposed Galen for the cover, because they had seen some of the other artwork he had done for us, and some of the stuff he’d done for Guy Madden, and they really embraced Galen’s work as well. I think it fit in with their whole sensibility—it’s not a break in design that would have been inconsistent with what Franz Ferdinand have always portrayed, so maybe that’s why the guys in the band liked the image as well.” 
Since 2013, the Maels have worked exclusively with graphic designer Galen Johnson, who came to their attention through the films of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, thanks to the striking graphic installations Johnson created for many of Maddin’s pictures (the Maels are serious film buffs and have two films of their own coming out this year: The Sparks Brothers documentary directed by Edgar Wright, and the Leos Carax musical Annette, which they wrote, out later in the year). With Johnson they’ve revived a trend from the early part of their career, starting with the classic Kimono My House, where their cover images would stand on their own without any text. “Hopefully the cover is enticing enough that people will want to find out who that band is,” says Mael. “You don’t need to have graphics on the cover if the imagery is really strong.”  
Sparks formed a short lived supergroup with Mercury-winning indie darlings Franz Ferdinand in 2015. Each of the six members on the album FFS is visually represented within a triangular strip of what looks like a spider’s web or, on closer inspection, a shard of broken glass. Galen Johnson was entrusted with the job, and while he came from within the Sparks camp, the constructivist echoes in the front cover design chime analogously with the Franz Ferdinand aesthetic.