As soothing as the sun
– Mellow rock from California’s Beachwood Sparks

by Gabe Estill

When I spoke recently to Chris Gunst of Beachwood Sparks, he was moving into a house amidst the hills of Northern California. This seems like a suitable dwelling for Gunst. Thus far, his home turf of Southern California, has served as a muse for the spectral fountain that is Beachwood Sparks.

The band, formed by Chico State college friends in April of 1998, placates a tranquil dose of psychedelic twang, soothing string arrangements and a bit of rock kick that rounds their work to its artistic plateau. They are a band that heavily illustrates its influences (i.e. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys and The Flying Burrito Brothers), but these influence serves as a necessary springboard to etch the carving of the Beachwood Sparks musical landscape. This is a landscape of rolling hills, desert skies and shady trees, all billowing under a sun that always shines brightly.

The year 2000 saw the release of the band’s first major release, the self-titled debut on Sub Pop. “Beachwood Sparks” inevitably evokes the label of the band’s signature work. It seems as though most of their work will stem from the sounds on the first record. However, it would be unfair to pigeonhole musicians of this caliber. The band’s three-album catalog paints a picture of a work in progress. This is a journey that is heavy on influence, but will ultimately be fueled by the creativity and originality of collective growth.

The band is comprised of three core members, Gunst on lead vocals, harmonica and guitar, multi-instrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher and the bass of Brent Rademaker. Aaron Sperske served on drums on the first two releases, but has since departed to be replaced by longtime friend, Jimi Hey. Added to the mix is a second guitarist, Ben Knight, another old friend from Gunst’s college days.

Gunst mentioned Alice Coltrane as one of the artists he is currently listening to. Wife of jazz legend John, Alice’s sound is a jazz kaleidoscope in the echo of her smooth mate. I tried to avoid mention of the obvious influences (in major publications, the band constantly hears the comparisons) and tried to tap into the Beachwood sound via its surroundings. “How much of a role does California play in your songwriting?” I inquired. After a brief hesitation, Gunst replied, “That’s really up to the people. It’s in there somewhere. But wherever I’m at plays a role I suppose.”

While the band wanders through the U.S. (most recently on a double bill with fellow Sub Pop mates, The Shins), they attract the ears of new listeners waiting to embark on the walk through the woods, sit under the tree or ride through the desert on a magic carpet that is Beachwood Sparks.

About a year ago, I had witnessed these culminating elements through a live performance of the pleasantly serene rock of these Californians. At the time, the band was embarking on one of its largest opening jaunts, a 45-minute set before the Black Crowes, one of rock’s finest examples of heart, soul and integrity. “It was long. It was big, ya’ know — with expensive T-shirts and everything. At times it felt a little pointless because people were just finding their seat and not really paying attention,” said Gunst when describing the experience of the tour with the Crowes.

This wasn’t their first undertaking as openers for a major act. Over the past three years, the band served as the opening act for the likes of Beck and former Dinosaur Jr. front man J. Mascis. It is with Mascis that the band found the place for recording its second album, 2001 Sub Pop release, “Once We Were Trees.”

Recorded at Mascis’ Massachusetts home, the album serves as a point of maturity for the developing young musicians and Mascis’ guidance can be heard on the tracks “Yer Selfish Ways” and “Jugglers Revenge.” The album begins with the opening flirtation of “Germination,” which tickles the listener’s attention and then puts you at rest with the intriguing “Confusion Is Nothing New.”
Throughout the album, a new band can be heard that has things a bit more fine-tuned than on the last album. This increased production value does not hinder the spontaneity of the sound; it merely brings it into a fruition that comes with age and time spent on the road and sharing ideas.

This sound is represented once again on the six-song EP, “Make the Cowboy Robots Cry” (released this past summer), the first by the new lineup, and a good indicator of where Beachwood Sparks may go. “(The EP) began as something spontaneous, but then it became something more its own,” Gunst said about the recent release.

As for what Beachwood Sparks will do next, I did not ask. With good musicians, and we definitely have them here, perhaps it will come more as a surprise. Beachwood Sparks’ is one of a journey, not a destination.

Originally published in Western Courier in October 2000