Beachwood Sparks – Through the trees
Casal, though not a formal member of the band, is touring with them this fall, after spending much of the spring in Europe as a touring member of Hazeldine. His talents as a guitarist, keyboardist and singer are well-documented on his own albums, from his 1995 Zoo Records debut Fade Away Diamond Time through a series of Europe-only releases and his latest, Anytime Tomorrow, on indie label Morebarn.
There is an extended and emotionally intimate brotherhood with these guys, the shared language being music. Sperske asserts that his Sparks brethren have not only inoculated him with a new ear for what he listens to, moving from retro soul to retro country hybrid musics, but that, “I even started to play different. I went from playing very angular to playing very eluvial.” A curious choice of word for drumming, but for the Sparks, rooted and earthy as well as wet, wild and eye on the pie in the sky, it fits.
Beachwood Sparks is elemental, in the sense of texture and groove, a whirling wall of sound that rolls more than it rocks. Sperske continues, “It’s like when we all lock into an E chord, it’s about the emotion, what everyone’s feeling, that makes it work.”
In the van, Casal is still at the wheel as they continue rolling toward New York. The conversation is friendly, humble, and disjointed. The pall of 9-11 hangs heavy, Saturn’s going into retrograde in just days, and meddlesome energies are conflicting with our communication. The weather crackles the telephone reception. There are mysteriously demagnetized portions of our recorded interview. I ask Gunst what each member of the band brings to the table. The phone dies.
When we reconnect, he says, “Where were we? Oh yeah. I think it’s kind of untouchable. I can’t really explain what makes us a good band. I just know that no matter how shitty anything can get, when we’re on, when we play together, there’s the feeling you get that’s just really really good. I can’t explain it any other way. They’re all my friends, so, you know, it’s not like any of us were out just searching for random musicians to play with. We’re all close, you know. So it brings out way more of an emotional current between us all, I think.”
In more ways than experimental and recombinant sound, Beachwood Sparks resembles bands from the Athens, Georgia, Elephant 6 collective — the dearly departed Olivia Tremor Control and the Apples (In Stereo), the latter of which Rademaker refers to as longtime friends. All seem to be in it for the sheer beauty of making what sounds good them, and perhaps as importantly, what feels good to them. Rademaker concedes that it’s nicer and more “relatable” being compared to the Olivias or the Apples than to be written off as a retro act simply copying the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Then again, he notes, with much laughter, “We consider ourselves kind of this, I don’t know what to call it, but underground or fringe or just ‘weird’ group. But, I don’t think we’re as weird as we think we are. We think we sound like Joy Division, but people say that we sound like Poco. I’m not taking that as an insult, because people can hear whatever they want to hear.”
Regardless of past criticisms or comparisons, what is clear is that Once We Were Trees is a remarkable record, and a significant step forward for this band. It is secretive and shadowy, in a most comforting sense. Sweet nothings whispered to those who can hear. Beachwood Sparks is not being courted by the majors, but they themselves are courting all who will listen. Gunst even does a turn at crooning Sade’s “By Your Side”, which in the hands of the Sparks becomes not a rebuke, but a meditation on the understanding of love gone wrong.
Slowly, through time, the songs reveal themselves to be part and parcel of the whole forest; lullabies for adults, who “come from children” as one of the songs suggest. Brilliantly simple lyrics are embraced like koans in the folds of inverted and spiraling guitars and keys which weep and tickle. The tunes fold back in on themselves and come out from darkened corners to bend in refracted light, much like a long walk in the woods searching for answers to spiritual riddles in the basest of contexts: how to love another; how to love oneself; how to know when to let it go; how to become a man.
Scher says that the texture of the band’s music is crucial. “It’s the musical product of our sort of our caginess. Chris refers to it as our collective insanity. I think that’s pretty much, regardless of the craft or the songwriting, whatever you think of that, you will hear the instruments and the texture and you will know that we’re nuts.”
The band was invited by musical hero turned friend and peer, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, to record at his home studio in the woods outside Northampton, Massachusetts. This setup bore a generous weight of the heavy magic variety. “Our state of minds had a big influence on it at the time,” Rademaker recalls. “We were snowed in in a blizzard, and I think that kind of made us feel…it definitely had some sort of, I can’t describe it. But it definitely had some affect on [the recording]. This was this [past] winter. I don’t know the month, because we’re on the road right now, and I’m not supposed to be responsible where time is concerned right now.”
The band trundles on toward New York. The headliners for the tour, the Black Crowes, are in three big buses and a Ryder truck full of equipment. The venues are 3,000-6,000-seat theaters and smaller arenas. Beachwood Sparks is being received better than they could have hoped from the rock crowds the Crowes draw. The night before, one of the Dallas Cowboys presented himself to the band as a big fan.
The Sparks are beginning some of their sets with candlelight vigils and starting out with soulful renditions, testing the waters, the emotional climate of the crowd, before moving forward to see if anyone wants to celebrate a little and forget their troubles. Fans tend to end the shows of late shouting USA, USA, but no one is yelling for the opening band to turn it up and play faster.
At a show in Farmington, New Mexico, three nights after September 11, they closed their set with “Let It Run”, building to the songs gloriously shimmering close, repeating over and over the lyric like a chant: “Don’t be late. Live for happiness.”
“It felt like the audience really got quiet,” Gunst marvels, “and they could understand what we were saying. It was beautiful.”
Maybe music really can save us.
Freelance writer Paige La Grone believes in heavy magic.