Beachwood Sparks – Grievous vibrations
In an underground bar near a gritty intersection in Hollywood, the sights and sounds suggest a gathering in Laurel Canyon some 30 years ago. Unruly hair, sideburns, and 1970-ish country-rock garb flourishes. Onstage, Beachwood Sparks churns out gobs of stratospheric folk-rock that suggests practically every stroke of rootsy, trippy music the Golden State has ever offered, including the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, the Byrds, and, when the four-part harmonies fall flat, jokes bassist/vocalist Brent Rademaker, the Grateful Dead.
Guitarist/vocalist Chris Gunst calls it “psychedelic country music.” “We definitely embrace the culture of the late ’60s,” says Gunst. “We admire what people were doing then. We just wish maybe it could be as peaceful now as it was then.”
Beachwood Sparks began about two years ago, soon after local college radio DJs and recent grads Gunst and Dave Scher (keyboards/lap steel/vocals) hooked up with scene veteran Rademaker (formerly of the indie-rocking Further) at Rademaker’s home in Burbank. They bonded over the various tangents of cosmic American music, then moved to the garage where the band, named for an intersection near the house, was born.
Originally a four-piece, Beachwood Sparks quickly became a monstrous sextet that suggested modern-day sonic masters Spiritualized as much as it did the older lot. The group, eventually including drummer Aaron Sperske (Lilys, Pernice Brothers), was soon opening for Beck, playing highly-coveted residencies at local clubs, and getting major-label attention.
But it wasn’t until a gig in front of the Sub Pop brass in Seattle did a deal finally happen. By this time (early ’99), the band had downsized to a four-piece again and steered more toward an airy country sound. They wondered: What if Sneaky Pete Kleinow played with the Beach Boys? What if Carl Wilson stepped in for Gram Parsons?
Initially, disappointingly, it seemed to normalize the band. But eventually the remaining players found their voices in the newest version. Gunst’s delicate vocals and the semi-smooth harmonies that surround it meshed with the radiation of 12-strings guitars, keys and lap steel. Their self-titled debut, due out March 21 on Sub Pop, is a colorful, unpredictable workout on the Americana astral plane, from the aptly titled opening track “Desert Skies” to the supersonic choogler “Sister Rose”.
Gunst would like Beachwood Sparks to be an “antenna” for people to turn on to the sounds and culture of the ’60s. And maybe the band could further follow the lifestyle themselves. “There’s sort of those dreams of Broken Arrow Ranch someday,” admits Scher, of Neil Young’s renowned Northern California home.
“Yeah, like Neil,” says Gunst, “who made it and did it the way he wanted to do it. That would be a dream.”