Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sparks Drummer Project (8): Christi Haydon-Wilson!

Image result for christi haydon wilson1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins was Sparks' first record in 6 years, and anticipation was high. The album was innovative, musically challenging but accessible, and altogether compelling, and a major hit in Germany and throughout Europe. Over time, it became THE album that grew on me most as time passed. Christi Haydon-Wilson played percussion with Sparks to support the album.

Christi was kind enough to talk about how she became a member of Sparks, and what Ron and Russell were up to in the years preceding the release of Gratuitous Sax, including the development of a film based on a Japanese anime comic book, Mai The Psychic Girl. Christi was the voice of Mai. We also talked about Cindy, the webseries Christi is co-producing with Larry Wilson, of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Adams Family fame. The website for Cindy is here and there's also a facebook page. Christi plays the fairy godmother "with issues," and is co-producing the series. And it's not too late to help the webseries air - there's a Kickstarter campaign in its last few days if you're considering a contribution. I am sure that even small amounts are very appreciated.

I am grateful to Christi for spending time talking with me and I hope you enjoy the interview.

Early Work With Ron and Russell Mael 

Monte: How did you come to work with Sparks?

Christi: I was working in Bullock’s Department Store in Los Angeles, which is no longer in existence. This was 1986. I was working at the Estee Lauder cosmetics counter. The other girls who worked at the cosmetics counter would always ask me, “have you noticed that the singer from Sparks is always coming in here?” I knew who he was, but I never saw him!

One day I came back to work after a day off and one of the girls said, “oh my god, the singer from Sparks left a package for you.” It was a 45 record, Music That You Can Dance To, and Russell just said, “I really like your looks. Please give me a call.” I gave him a call, and we ended up on the phone for two hours, we hit it off really well. He and Ron were looking for a female singer, or perhaps a girl group to produce, and we started working on music together with them writing for me, and it turned into a really long friendship with the guys. We’re still really good friends now.

Monte: I was going to ask whether you still stayed in touch with them…

Christi: I do. When I gave birth to my daughter there were only three people that we invited to the hospital and they were two of them. They were also at Autry’s first birthday party, her fourth birthday party…they’re two of the nicest guys I've ever met.

Monte: That’s what a lot of the people I've talked to say. Not all, but the majority.

Christi: They mainly want to be known for their music, and the stories that go with the music. The stories I have about time with them aren't at all embarrassing, they’re really charming. But a big part of our (friendship) is mutual trust. They know I won’t be telling embarrassing stories about them. They really just want to be known for their music.

Monte: It must have been a productive period. Katherine Hepburn – what a great song! Did you have higher hopes for that? Were there additional recordings made that they produced?

Christi:  Yeah, we did some recordings and we shopped it around. I got in the door with Simon Fuller, who manages Annie Lennox among other cool people. I got in the room with some really cool record labels in England. As a matter of fact the first trip to England I took by myself, Ron and Russell paid for me to go. I remember literally Russell typed out a sheet of paper for me and said, “these are all your meetings! You’ll do great!” So now the Mael brothers shipped me off to London to start meeting with record labels.

It’s unfortunate (though), it was kind of a “lose-lose” situation because what happened was, doors were opening obviously, because people knew that Sparks produced me, but if Sparks had written for me like they wrote for themselves, there was no way I was going to get a record deal. I mean THEY have had times when it was hard to get a record deal, because they are just so ahead of their time. So people would hear what they had written for me and it actually sounded fairly commercial. It was still interesting, had a lot of musical integrity, but way more palatable than anything they would do for themselves. And people hear that, and I know it was a disappointment to them. The feedback we would keep getting was, “it’s too commercial.” So what does that mean? Too radio-friendly? Too hit-like?

It was too commercial for Sparks, but I wasn't supposed to be Sparks. But if it wasn't avant-garde like Sparks are supposed to be, there’s no way people were going to go for it.


Monte: When you performed as a member of Sparks, you were playing percussion, along with the electronic pre-recorded music on stage. How did that work? Did you have any freedom with your parts?

Christi: I had no freedom! It was pretty stressful. Sparks’ songs are very precise, and not a lot of room for improvisation. They know what they want to have happen.

So, the States, you had to have a musician on stage to represent every instrument.  The nice thing about England (at that time), I guess because of the dance music craze at the time, it seemed like as long as you were honest about it, if some of your stuff was coming off the computer, that was fine. As long as the audience could see that, it wasn't communicated as bogus. So we had a fourth member on stage, and that was the computer.

I covered a lot of percussion, but there was no way I could cover all of it.

We did MTV Most Wanted live, and we did six or seven songs, and all these faxes were coming in while we were performing. We’d take breaks during commercials, and they would come and read some of the faxes to us. For every fax where they mentioned me and said something great, there would be that fax that said, you know, “where’s Dinky Diamond?”

I don’t have a problem with that. I totally get that. It’s either going to be their thing, or they’ll accept it or they won’t accept it. I mean, I was a chick in a ballroom gown, and I was covering percussive parts but I wasn't covering every drum part. I didn't have a kick drum, I wasn't doing big-ass drum solos.

Monte: Did you have formal training as a percussionist?

Christi: I was literally groomed to play the parts. They were producing me as a singer. The thing I love about them is that they just have these cool ideas and try to make them happen. I had always wanted to learn to play the drums. I’m a rhythmic person and I just thought, what a cool thing to be able to do so I jumped all over it.

I did have training. I was trained by a really great drum coach in Los Angeles. A lot of money was spent on getting me those lessons. They wanted me to be good. They hadn't performed in a long time, so this was a pretty big deal – who is in the band? What do they look like? So there was a lot of pressure.

It was a funny way to be trained. I literally knew their stuff. That was my training.

Monte:  You were trained on the spot.

Christi: My drum instructor had never heard of Sparks before. He had no idea who they were. He’d look at me sometimes and it was like, “how am I going to teach you to play this stuff?”

Monte: So it wasn't a matter of learning the rudiments of drumming and moving on from there, it was more a matter of, “here’s the song; what do I do?”

Christi: Yeah. It was tricky because I was only using my hands. I didn't have the luxury of four limbs covering a bunch of beats; it was two limbs covering a lot of beats – a lot of unusual beats.

One of the hardest songs for me to learn was At Home, At Work, At Play. Just listening to that song is a little bit challenging! It’s a wonderful song, but there’s a lot going on.

Monte: What were others that were a challenge?

Christi: Number One Song In Heaven and Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (which they performed as a medley) were challenging, at least how we performed them live. They were extremely repetitive and I’m pretty sure they lasted 12 minutes. My wrists were almost killing me and we had only gotten one song into the show!

Monte: So you enjoyed being in Sparks, but you ended up going in a different direction.

Christi: The main thing that puts the brakes on was deciding I wanted to have a child. It didn't take a lot of thought. I always wanted to have at least one child. It seemed like it was the right time. I fell in love and got married. 

They would have continued having me in the band.  We weren't even working on stuff for me at that point, it was more about me being in Sparks. We had taken a break from demo stuff with me and it was all about recording Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1994). They had a gold record in Germany so we were supporting the record. We were taking a break for the holidays, it was Christmas 1995, and I got married on December 2nd, 1995. I realized it was just hard for me to get excited about (Sparks stuff). It had nothing to do with the guys at all. It wasn't an easy decision but it was the right decision. Sometimes doing the right thing isn't easy.

I couldn't get a record deal, but I could get pregnant!

Monte: Well, it was only a short time that you toured with them, but you won a lot of people over.  People seem to have a soft spot in their heart for you.

Christi: Why do you think that is the case?

Monte: They hadn't toured for a while, and they came up with this very new presentation without a band, and they had a new vision and you were a big part of it. You helped make that happen. You were musically making a lot of great contributions. You had a very striking appearance, and then you had a great song. They performed Katherine Hepburn on their last tour.

Christi: It was a great song. I think all that translated – a lot of people had a built-up romance, especially in Germany, where both of our videos (from Gratuitous Sax) were shown there – When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) and When Do I Get To Sing My Way. Both of them have a running theme where Ron is getting left out – Russell is getting the girl and I’m the girl. People had a lot of fun with that, I think, wondering “oh is there something going on with these three?” and also, because I felt so grateful and joyful to be part of Sparks, I think that translated. That can be contagious, when you know someone is enjoying their job.

Monte: The My Way video is my favorite Sparks video. It’s so well done – maybe that’s another reason people have that soft spot in their heart.

Christi: I love that video too. Sophie Muller is an amazing director – she’s so good, a hoot to work with. I remember that little boy in the video – he hated my kissing on him! At one point I said to him, “listen kid, someday you’re going to think you’re the luckiest guy on the planet!” But he was like, ahh, a woman kissing on me!

Mai The Psychic Girl

Monte: I believe you were involved in the Mai the Psychic Girl project (this was Ron and Russell’s film adaptation of the eponymous Japanese anime comic which never came to fruition – despite years of effort by Ron and Russell).

Christi: I was Mai The Psychic Girl (for the demos). We’re talking two hours of music. That movie was going to be wall-to-wall sound. It was literally going to be all music and spoken dialogue with music, and breaking into song as well. It went through a lot of incarnations. A lot of big directors were attached but it just never saw the light of day. We had Francis Ford Coppola, we had Tim Burton…

Monte: I never knew about Coppola.

Christi: We never met with Coppola, but the higher-ups at Zoetrope were the ones meeting with us and speaking on his behalf. The intent was for Francis to direct, but they were saying that even if he didn't direct, it would still be with (Coppola's studio) Zoetrope, and they would help get a director attached.

Then there was Darrell Roodt, the South African director who directed Saraphina!, he was very interested in directing. That one (also) fell through.

Monte: Do you think it will ever see the light of day? It seems like they are still interested in it.

Christi: I could see it happening. I’d be kind of shocked if it happened, but we all cared about that project so passionately that there will always be a push there, I think. Even now, if you heard the music, there’s no way it sounds dated. It is so unique. It’s crazy, I’m not sure they still have the rights to that comic book. Larry (Wilson, husband and oft-time collaborator with Tim Burton) put 10 grand up every couple years, to keep the rights to that comic book. He finally let it go.

But you know what’s interesting on the demos, Jane Wiedlin is on them, and Lance Loud – he’s so funny. A good friend of ours. He was an amazing guy. A great writer and a great musician. He was with The Mumps…a real character and a lot of fun to be around. Everything his character was supposed to say – he was playing a snot-nosed German kid – and everything coming out of his mouth was hysterical.


Monte: So let’s talk about your current project – the Cindy webseries. You have a major role in that (Christi plays the fairy grandmother, and is also the series co-producer).
Christi: Cindy was the brainchild of Larry Wilson. Almost the entire time I've known him – at least 20 years – he’s had this idea kicking around about a modern telling of the Cinderella story. As you can imagine, what would have been modern has changed many, many times. At one point, Cinderella and Prince Charming skype a lot! Now that doesn't even sound that modern.

It kept on taking on different incarnations but Larry was either busy with other projects or other things taking up a lot of time. He didn't abandon it, but he wasn't actively pursuing writing. Finally, when he was teaching a screenwriting class at UCLA a few years back, there was a writing student named Megan Hannay and when Larry first met Megan, he saw her potential. I remember him saying to me, “I've got a student that’s really special. I can see this girl writing a big movie – something that people would really care about.”  They ended up co-writing together and she was perfect. The two of them just sparked off of each other and now we have season one of the Cindy series. We have season one, all the principle photography (is done).

The Kickstarter campaign will help us post-production, which can get a little pricey, with the special effects…you really want to do a good job with it.

We’re being very well received by anyone who knows about us so far. We’re hoping to reach our Kickstarter goal, but what really touches our heart is to know we’ll have an audience when we’re done.

Monte: Can you tell us about the characters in the series?

Christi: The nice thing about Cindy is that it’s pretty well balanced. Obviously Cindy is our star… I don’t know how Megan and Larry did it, but that keeps it pretty exciting, because you’re not just watching the same people over and over again. It’s a quirky cast of characters and everyone gets their turn. And the great thing about it is, the reason I think it took so long to happen is because our daughter Autry  was finally old enough to play the part of Cinderella. She got to star in her dad’s big idea.

Everyone in the series is a friend to the point where they’re like family. They were already that close knit. It’s hard for me to be objective because I know all these people, and I’m in it, and I know all the behind the scenes stories, but I feel  pretty certain that when people watch this, they’re going to be fascinated by this connection we all seem to have to one another. We’re having so much fun! I’m ready to get season one out there and start on season two!

Monte: How many episodes have you filmed?

Christi: There are ten. They average about six or seven minutes. Hopefully we've done something fascinating so people will stop everything else for that amount of time and watch it.

It really means a lot to us when people (donate to the Kickstarter campaign). Even when people can only donate a dollar, we appreciate it. Even if they can’t donate but tell us a kind word that means a lot too!


And a couple final treats: Here's an extended clip from a 1995 Sparks concert in Amsterdam featuring Christi: 

And here's a trailer featuring Christi talking about her role in the webseries: 


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  3. Monte why are letting these disrespectful comments be on your blog? Disgusting on all levels.

  4. Christi Haydon was so graceful, elegant in the videos "When Do I Get to Sing My Way" and "When I kiss you".
    It is possible to reply them one million times just to stay with her so beautiful smile and to hear the Sparks divine melody.
    I (We) miss a so perfect style ...

    A French admirer

  5. This "chick in a ball gown" was beautiful... but Christie and now beautiful!

  6. Thank you so much for posting this important information. This is great. Drum clip

  7. As a lifelong Sparks fan and lover of bobbed hair. I would really like to thank you for doing the impossible and increasing my enjoyment of the band even further. (Also a big TNG fan).

  8. Christie looked great on creature features last night. Sparks needs a reunion tour.

    1. No they don't, because they never stopped.

  9. That was fun! Nice to have a light shone on an era of Sparks that, for me, was very out of sight. Christi was such a good match, as visually iconic as the brothers. Both cheerful and energetic. Hard to believe that she had no prior experience as a drummer. A good example of rising to the challenge. Especially with those two, knowing their history with drums. It couldn’t have been easy.

  10. How messed up are you?