The Tarnished Gold
Some albums were made to be played on a Saturday night. The Tarnished Gold was meant to be played on a Sunday afternoon. Listening to Beachwood Sparks’ first album in 11 years is like being under cobalt blue skies and smelling the night-blooming jasmine on a perfect spring day in Los Angeles. “That’s definitely the idea,” founding member Brent Rademaker confirms.
The world has caught up to Beachwood Sparks since they came out of nowhere in 2000 with their self-titled debut album, bringing new life to what Gram Parsons famously described as “cosmic American music,” and recapturing L.A.’s laidback but vibrant heyday back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. At the time, this kind of harmony-rich, irony-free music was rare. After their second album, 2002’s trippier Once We Were Trees, and the decidedly offbeat 2003 EP Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, Beachwood Sparks called it quits. But during the subsequent half decade, the indie music scene began to change with the appearance, and wholesale acceptance, of multi-voiced throwback groups from Fleet Foxes to Bon Iver to Grizzly Bear. Clearly, the time is right for an album that stands as the purest expression of this hallowed form to appear in the 21st century, as the planets at long last align for this single-minded band.
The Tarnished Gold is the work of the classic Beachwood Sparks lineup: singer/guitarist Chris Gunst, singer/bassist Rademaker, singer/multi-instrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher, and drummer Aaron Sperske, with invaluable support from guitarist and longtime friend Ben Knight (The Tyde). For the sessions, the band expanded to seven pieces, with guitarists Knight and Neal Casal (solo artist and former member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals), with Dan Horne on pedal steel in place of Scher, who opted to play organ, key, flying V guitar and electrified melodica. Also lending a hand were Gunst’s wife Jen Cohen, Sparks’ very first drummer Jimi Hey, Brent’s brother Darren (leader of The Tyde) and L.A. indie-rock maestro Ariel Pink. Once We Were Trees producer Thom Monahan returned to his familiar spot behind the console.
“I didn’t feel an urge to jump back into that scene,” Scher says of his initial ambivalence about picking things up again with Beachwood Sparks. “By 2003, I felt like we’d played our hand. We’d done anything that was in front of us a few times over. When you start out in a band like that, you really are a clubhouse and you’re a synchronized unit in terms of what you do with your time. But there’s a natural point when you outgrow all that. Some bands just play through it and figure it out, but in our case it went into hibernation.”
After the breakup, Brent, Chris, Farmer Dave, and Knight gravitated to The Tyde for a while before going their separate ways. Gunst and Cohen then moved up to Los Gatos and formed the Mystic Chords of Memory; he also got his master’s in psychology and became a therapist. Rademaker, who briefly had a band called Frausdots, moved back to Florida and got a fulltime job in Ikea’s environmental recovery division. After cutting an album with Jimi Hey as All Night Radio, Scher started making a living playing music, touring with Interpol and Jenny Lewis, while Sperske became the drummer in Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The four musicians had minimal contact with each other until 2008, when they reunited to play SP20, Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary celebration, with Horne quickly learning pedal steel in order to fill in for Scher, who was out with Interpol. The performance went so well that they booked a few dates, including a memorable one at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, right after it reopened following a series of wildfires.
It might’ve ended there if not for Sperske, who continued to press his onetime bandmates to keep things going, not only because they were sounding better than ever but also because the musical climate had shifted toward their style of music. “After SP20, Aaron continued to call us up individually,’” Brent recalls. “He has this rock & roll energy, and he kept pushing us forward. If we didn’t have Aaron, we’d never get anything done.” They all viewed it as another favorable sign when their cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” from Once We Were Trees was used in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Eventually, all four made the commitment to record an album, to the delight of Sub Pop A&R exec Tony Kiewel, who’s known Scher, Gunst, Hey, Knight, and onetime auxiliary member Jimmy Tamborello (Dntl, The Postal Service) since they were all students at Loyola Marymount and DJs on KXLU, the school’s influential station. (It was during those days that Scher picked up the “Farmer Dave” handle, which he used on the air; he’d picked it up after purchasing a mail order ant farm.)
This time around, they were determined to max out their strengths. “When we get our instruments on and have somewhere to play, it’s just supernatural, and it always has been,” Brent marvels. “But this time, I thought we could pull off something unprecedented—for us, at least—where we make a relevant album but not make the same mistakes or live the same rock & roll lifestyle.”
When the time came to prepare the material and track the album, everything fell right into place. “We definitely got our sound together, which isn’t hard to do,” says Farmer Dave. “It’s our own nature, so that part took care of itself. And people brought in solid kernels of ideas.” Brent picks up the thought. “The way we did it was, we’d bring in songs and let the band paint them in,” he says. “The seven of us played everything live in the studio, and Thom cut it to tape. When we recorded a song, we didn’t labor over it like we had in the past—this time, once everybody knew it, we’d get a keeper in one or two takes.”
Right after the Gunst-written opener “Forget the Song” which Rademaker describes as “classic Beachwood Sparks,” comes what serves as the reformed band’s ecstatic statement of purpose, Scher’s glorious “Sparks Fly Again,” on which he takes a rare lead vocal. “I wrote the chords and ideas to actually reference a bunch of the things we did way back in the roaring ’90s,” he explains. “I really tried to make chord changes that took elements of different songs that we had done before; I tried to write in our vocabulary, our idiom. And with the lyrics, I thought it would be fun to make it a description of what was actually happening, to do a full send-up of the kind of structures we used to really be into at the start, when we were our own strange little mini-culture. It was my way of saying, ‘Let’s light this baby up again.’”
Brent wrote “Mollusk” about the Venice surf shop where musicians from around town gather for jam sessions. Being a lifelong surfer and a highly regarded player, it’s no surprise that Farmer Dave is a fixture. “Now that there’s no Jabberjaw, and we don’t have the house on Sparks Street in Burbank or the one in Echo Park anymore, the Mollusk Surf Shop has become the epicenter,” Brent points out. “That’s my headquarters,” says Farmer Dave. “At the base of it, aside from surfing and the culture of California, there’s a big love of music there. I also started doing a club night just a few doors away in this old Prohibition-era speakeasy called Club Pacific.”
Chris’ title song “just played itself,” says Brent. “That’s the first take, and it was just magic.” “Water From the Well” and “Nature’s Light” reflect Gunst’s knack for coming up with vivid imagery inspired by the natural beauty of Northern California. “Chris has a gentle spirit that really comes through in the music,” says Brent.
Though Rademaker wrote “Talk About Lonesome” while still living in Florida, it’s about the band and the ache he felt having concluded—wrongly, it turns out—that his life in the band was in the past. With its mariachi vibe and lyric entirely en español, the Gunst-penned “No Queremos Oro” reflects his family’s multi-generational history in Los Angeles, partly inspired by the music blaring out of the food trucks on the streets of the Eagle Rock neighborhood where they cut the album. The band rehearsed “Goodbye,” the perfect closer, on the back porch of the studio, then went right into the tracking room and nailed it, encapsulating the inspired but unforced vibe of the album, which seems to exist out of time, floating in some sun-dappled parallel universe.
“Everybody thinks our dream would be to have a time machine and travel back to hang out with the Burrito Brothers,” Brent says. “That would be fun. Chris and I even used to joke about being Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons. ‘Which one am I? You don’t sound like Gram, and I don’t either.’ But you could picture Farmer Dave all the way back in the Gold Rush era—he’s got such an old spirit. Chris has that too. It would be impossible to do this without each one of those guys.”
“We’re treading in areas that we never thought we’d go on this record,” Brent continues, sounding like he’s still somewhat surprised by what the reunited band was able to accomplish. “The theme has probably been touched on by some other bands, but it’s our own way of looking at it. And we actually lived this. For a lot of years now, we’ve represented this part of the country, this town and music in this town. We’ve been through a lot of struggle in terms of money, music and the lifestyle, and I think The Tarnished Gold really gets into all that—the meaning is right there in the title. On top of that, we can relate our plight to the plight of the country; it all ties together.”
Now that the new album is ready for the world, Farmer Dave is cautiously optimistic about the future. “Our expectations were not just to get together and do this record,” he says. “All of us innately felt that, with all the effort we put in and how much of ourselves we contributed to try and make something special the first time around, some people don’t even know it existed. So, in addition to us getting back together, maybe more people will get to know about what we accomplished and even go back to the old records. This record closes a circle for us.”
“It’s great to be making the kind of music that I like with my best friends and favorite musicians,” says Brent. “The triumph was not only that it came out so listenable and good but also that we made the most of just being together. And if this turns out to be the last Beachwood Sparks record, we can take satisfaction in the fact that we went out on a high note. At any rate, I know I’ll be listening to this record for the rest of my life.”