– Cosmic American Music for the 21st Century
by Bryan Thomas
Music scribes love inventing a good neologism. For example, "Progressive Country," "Continental Country," and "Country Rock" were just a few that critics came up with to describe the music Gram Parsons was recording with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds (Sweethearts Of The Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and, of course, those high, lonesome sounds he nearly perfected on a couple of extraordinary solo albums.
Parsons felt that none of these mongrel categories (especially the hyphenated Country-Rock, which he apparently despised) really captured the essence of what he was trying to do. Instead, the Harvard-educated hillbilly came up with one of his own—Cosmic American Music—a term more prophetic than practical (can you imagine seeing this on record store bin cards?), but one he felt best described the "cosmological" confluence of indigenous U.S.-bred genres (country, rock, blues, bluegrass, and gospel) coming together to form a universally appreciated "new" sound.
Parsons correctly envisioned a day in the future when genres would crossbreed and indeed they did, particularly in the incestuous bands spawned in the canyons above Sunset Blvd. Like some kind of gifted lineage out of the rock Old Testament, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield begot Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young begot McGuinn, Clark & Hillman begot The Desert Rose Band, on and on, until they became diluted and sometimes ended up sounding like FM-lite pabulum for the boomer set.
Despite his attempts to popularize its use, Cosmic American Music was never taken very seriously by anyone—it was used only by the occasional longtime Gram fan or fussy music historians—and eventually disappeared into the sands of time.
Well, folks, I believe it’s high time we reinstate the Cosmic banner again because there isn’t a more appropriate name I can think of than Cosmic American music to describe the territory L.A.’s Beachwood Sparks explore on their eponymous debut. Beachwood Sparks is a lilting, loping folk-psych soundscape of mournfully sweet guitar-driven tunes, flush with warm but frail lead vocals, close harmonies (think Smile-era Beach Boys, The Byrds, maybe even a little Workingman’s Dead), tottering Olivia Tremor Control-meets-"Interstellar Overdrive" organ riffs and the occasional whine of an old pedal steel, all of it sounding something like what a cryogenically-frozen Buffalo Springfield circa 1967 might sound like if they were thawed out today, or maybe even Neil Young’s first solo outing, minus the Nitzsche strings and female ooh-ahs.
Indeed, Greg Shaw of Bomp! fame (the record label who issued Beachwood Sparks on vinyl with hand-painted cover artwork, a detailed back cover collage, and an intricate fold-out poster insert—Sub Pop Records released the CD) says: "Beachwood Sparks have more in common with Buffalo Springfield than the similarity of names. But this BS take the implicit country influence of their forebears, add a psychedelic steel guitar, and invoke the ghost of Gram Parsons in a way that makes you forget everything that’s happened in music since 1972."
Shaw’s right; a lot has happened since then. You might even say that the band cover more lonely terrain than Parsons himself could have envisioned (he died in 1973 after draining an entire trust fund on a self-destructive liquor binge). A few more recent sub-genre influences from the past few decades have also seeped into the group’s refreshing revisionist amalgam; here’s where 80’s Paisley Undergrounders (the Rain Parade, the Long Ryders), moping 90’s navel-gazers (Sparklehorse, Idaho, Radar Bros.), used-to-be-alt-country-but-don’t-call-us-that-now bands (The Jayhawks, Wilco, Pernice Brothers) and earnest twee-poppers (the Pastels, the Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars) meet head on.
And how do the band describe their sound? Keyboardist/lap steel guitarist "Farmer Dave" Scher takes a more poetic, scenic route: "Imagine our record cover…the beautiful sea and the beach, leading up to the mountains and this brilliant and intense star-filled sky, and the desert beyond…"
In addition to the band’s obvious debt to Gram Parsons’ Cosmic influence, Farmer Dave says that they’re also fans of "newer groups like Can, Joy Division, New Order, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, and the Rain Parade. We like old psychedelia and Freakbeat and country and soul and jazz and dub…it was a good century for it, anyway. Given those parameters, [the band’s sound] is possibly a mix of any of those…but we leave declension of commonality to chemists, bankers, and such."
Bassist/vocalist Brent Rademaker once told a journalist that "David Crosby and Gram Parsons never got to grow up hearing Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. We’re comfortable playing a country song that goes into space rock. I remember playing gigs where we would take the stage and say, ‘No songs!’ We’d go to outer space. Right now we’re more into traditional songs and arrangements."
Indeed, Farmer Dave says "the move [toward a more traditional countrified sound] was conscious and natural. We started out with a vision we’ve come back to."
He recently told Billboard’s Chris Morris, "it’s a total score to be a chemist of sorts…if it was just straight country, not only would I not be able to do it, but I wouldn’t be able to do an authentic rendition."
Beachwood Sparks evolved from Rademaker’s and guitarist/vocalist Chris Gunst’s previous lo-fi Cali pop band Further, whose mid-90’s releases on Rademaker’s own Christmas Records deserved better exposure than they received. The band’s finest hour, Golden Grimes, was issued by Alan McGee’s Creation imprint in the UK, and they even hung out with members of both Primal Scream and Ride while touring Britain, debating with them whether the Brits would ever truly "get" the canyon rock sound. "You can put a cowboy hat on if you want," Rademaker told them, "but you’ll still play Northern English music." Further eventually called it quits in 1997.
Rademaker and Gunst—who also pulled double-duty leading the slumbering post-rockish Strictly Ballroom—then hooked up with Farmer Dave, whom Gunst met while both were spinning records at legendary KXLU college radio station on the campus of Loyola Marymount College, not far from where the Wilson brood grew up and became the Beach Boys.
Farmer Dave recalls "Chris and I were really into Further when we were dee-jaying up at KXLU. I became especially interested a bit later on when they were evolving into this blend of the exciting things that were going on with the indie rock sounds of the time and this timeless vision of a classic California West Coast sound."
Tapping into that classic California West Coast sound is a vital part to understanding where the band’s coming from. Except for Rademaker (who was born and raised in Florida, like Parsons), the rest of the Sparks—Scher, Gunst, and drummer Aaron Sperske [ex-Miracle Workers, ex-Schleprock, and currently also in Kurt Heasley’s Lilys]—are all California natives and (for a change) proud of it.
Gunst even claims to be a "tenth generation Californian" and Scher proudly runs a website of his own, Farmer Dave’s Trading Post and Rest Stop, which—while it fails to provide any info about his band—is devoted to spreading the topographical gospel of the sun swept California canyons he loves, and provides links to sites about a wide assortment of his favorite bands in addition to those about California history, hiking trails, and off-the-wall areas like cow tipping and spontaneous combustion!
"That’s something I put up when I was working years back," says Scher of the website. "I hoped it would serve as a trading post for anyone to leave a note for others to come across. It also has music links. I haven’t had the time or technology to really cultivate that idea fully, but we still get a lot of interesting people passing through. I hope it can grow this year, and link up with a good Beachwood Sparks website, too!"
Farmer Dave continues the band’s journey through the past: "After our first shows in 1997, we took a break, and [drummer] Tom Sanford and [guitarist and songwriter] Josh Schwartz joined the group. They are both brilliant and explosive players, so our sound changed a lot with them. There were six people in the group banging out a sound. We had some fantastic shows and put out our Bomp single ["Desert Skies"/"Make It Together," still readily available on 45 from Bomp!] at that time. Somewhere along the way, Aaron Sperske, the Lilys drummer, moved back to California, and started playing with us."
The personnel changes weren’t over yet. Schwartz soon left the band, taking with him their now absent Big Star influence, not to mention what Shaw calls their "bubblegummy edge." Percussionist Pete "Sleigher" Kinne left the band last year as well.
Farmer Dave says now that "the next winter, different people were moving in different directions, and soon it was just four of us. And the change [in our music] was instantaneous…with that first rehearsal, we found that we were well on our way to that sound we’d dreamed of in the first place!"
As for how they got their name in the first place, a few have wondered if it was somehow a tribute to the Zombies’ "Beechwood Park" (Odessey and Oracle), but according to Farmer Dave, the name actually comes from two consecutive street names the band members had to pass before arriving at their Burbank rehearsal space.
Beachwood Sparks’ first gig was in June of `97 at the now defunct Hollywood Moguls club, and just a few short months later, they had earned such a huge local following that they were one of thirty unsigned bands invited by ASCAP to play their first East Coast shows at the CMJ Music Marathon, performing before a crowd of mostly music industry wags who started buzzing about the band before they left New York.
The Sparks returned to the West Coast to play shows which took them from Seattle to San Diego and were shocked to see kids showing up and earnestly imitating their casual Western wear (onstage, they’ve been known to dress up in cowboy hats, buckskin fringe, vintage suede wallabees, denim jackets, and they all sport longish natural-bob mop-tops, looking like they’ve just stepped out of a time machine from the late 60’s/early 70’s).
Last summer, when the band took the stage at the Whiskey A-Go-Go-opening for the Lilys, wearing matching white yoke-shouldered cowboy shirts and white jeans, Rademaker introduced their first song by saying "this is our first single, which came out in…1963 was the year, I believe." If you had closed your eyes when they started playing "Desert Skies" you might have even thought he wasn’t joking if it wasn’t impossible to notice he was about, oh, at least a few years off the mark.
They had become semipermanent Lilys by then, too, all of them touring with Heasley after The 3-Way (Sire) was released. Kurt even moved to California last year and stayed at Sperske’s Echo Park home for the summer.
Beachwood Sparks didn’t realize the impact that their single had made on fans outside of L.A., where they had been profiled by L.A. New Times, BAM, and the Orange County Register and industry rags like Music Connection had already labeled them a "band to watch." The buzz spread like wildfire, though, and before long, several major label A&R cats began flirting with signing them. They ended up demoing tracks for Interscope and Dreamworks, but unfortunately both labels passed. "I don’t know what we’d do with you" Rademaker was told by one A&R rep, who wanted to sign the band but couldn’t get his bosses to hear what he heard.
The Sparks contributed another terrific 45 ("Midsummer Daydreams" b/w "Windows ’65") for Sub Pop’s Singles Club, and donated a track—the vaguely Yo La Tengo-ish "Sweet Julie Ann"—to the Sealed Fate Records compilation Mystique: Benefit for the AIDS Action.
Then, due to what Sub Pop called the "hysteric popularity" of the band’s now-out-of-print "Midsummer" single, they were picked up by the label for a one-off CD. The hysterics didn’t stop there. This past fall, just before recording their full-length, they were one of five groups nominated for the hometown alt weekly L.A. New Times’ Best Rock/Pop Band of 1999, and opened for Beck, who handpicked the Sparks to appear at one of his only L.A. area appearances that year (prior to his Midnight Vultures tour).
The debut album was recorded over the course of three weeks at Studio .45 in Hartford, Connecticut, with their longtime producer/engineer Michael Deming (who’s worked with the Lilys, Pernice Brothers/Joe Pernice, Scud Mountain Boys, The Apples In Stereo [see sidebar story]) behind the boards.
Scher again: "Studio .45 is located in the old Colt munitions factory. We tried to lay down sounds in keeping with our live shows, and pretty much remained faithful to that, I’d warrant. It was great working with him, because he was able to help us fine-tune our singing parts, and he gave us time to stretch out and find ourselves in the studio. When we did something well during tracking, he’d say ‘phenomenal!’"
Scher has this to say about the opening track on Beachwood Sparks, "Desert Skies": "Chris wrote the words and they explain themselves, beautifully. It’s a great way to start off our album, and his words say how all of us feel, which is why we love to play it. For me, it echoes songs like ‘Here We Are In The Years’ by Neil Young, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ by George Harrison, or ‘Away From The City’ by The Summer Hits. The music behind the words has changed right along with ourselves; the group…kind of has a mean stomp to it these days, doesn’t it?"
One highlight is "Old Sea Miner," of which Farmer Dave says: "That one is kind of like a nursery rhyme extolling this character who goes down under the sea in a diving bell and finds all these treasures of sound to bring back to eager ears waiting upon yon bleak shore. It’s really a thank you song for all the artists, bands, music heads, record freaks; really, any one of these pioneers who go above and beyond the herd to find something special in the world…and then bring it back and share it! With the world being like it is, we need these people and must appreciate them. So it’s a musical thank you, and it’s a good one to hear live."
Future plans for the band include a West Coast tour and the band will also be showcasing at this year’s SXSW confab. "We’d love to get across the country, and to Japan and England," says Scher. Meanwhile, the band members are moonlighting in various other bands and having fun. Gunst’s band Strictly Ballroom is still playing, though now going by the name Arca, while Rademaker and Scher (who has collaborated with Marc Bolan’s son Rolan, and dabbled recently with electronic music) both play in Brent’s brother Darren’s band, The Tyde, another glorious "band to watch."
Bomp!’s Shaw has even hinted at doing more with the band: "I’m sure they’ve got a great future. New songs are popping out like crazy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had another record ready before the year is out. Bomp! may do another single, or an EP, or something else with them; the possibility has been discussed, but not the details."
Shaw thinks it’s remarkable that Beachwood Sparks is creating quite a stir with their retrofitted bucolic pop sound. "When’s the last time `mellow’ was used to describe an insanely popular new band?" he laughs. "These are the kind of wonders Beachwood Sparks are capable of, and though, of course, the kind of music they’re influenced by has been virtually forgotten in today’s world, they succeed in bringing it fully into focus, and making it relevant. That, to me, is real vision!"
Orginally published in Vendetta Magazine #14 in the spring of 2000