Beachwood Sparks – a brief chat with Chris Gunst

Hailing from that little town known as Los Angeles, Beachwood Sparks embody a sound and an ethic often ignored. They sound homespun like the lasso that forms their logo, but don’t call ’em alt-country, this is cosmic american music and one of the most delightful records we’ve heard this year (of course it’s only halfway over…). Although this chat is short, it’s sweet. Enjoy!

K: It’s tempting for most people to lump you with the alt-country crowd, but it’s somehow different, isn’t it? How do you see yourselves in contrast or comparison to that scene and sound?

I think we might go for a bit of an older sound. I don’t know if it comes from using older equipment or what, but I think that’s how we sound different from those bands. Maybe less modern rock sounding and not so over-produced. Not that this album isn’t produced. I mean I don’t have anything against those bands or anything, but I don’t listen to them that much. I think a lot of those bands listen to each other and start sounding the same. Maybe some people who like them might like us, but I think it’s different.

K: The vibe you’ve captured seems typical of LA from a few decades ago, but it kind of went into hiding since then. Do you think it still existed in the background or have you resurrected it?

I’m not sure because I didn’t live around here at that time, since I’m from around San Diego. There were the Paisley Underground bands that were around in the 80s, like The Rain Parade and The Dream Syndicate and stuff. I think the feeling of being influenced by older music has been around all the time, it just takes different forms in different decades.

K: Maybe The Eagles had a hand in killing that more innocent sound…

I think The Eagles definitely played a part and all of those 70s rock bands just turned the music industry into such a business, looking for huge money acts and big hits. It took away from the art that the 60s helped nurture. Tom Waits said that the Eagles weren’t real cowboys because instead of running around with cowshit on their boots, they were running around Laurel Canyon with dogshit on their boots. I like that quote.

K: As a singer, do you feel daunted by being compared to Gram Parsons?

Yeah, definitely, because, you know, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, The Byrds, Neil Young are huge influences on us. So being compared to any of them at all is a huge compliment.

K: Is the name Beachwood Sparks related to the Zombies song "Beechwood Park"?

Well, at the time, I didn’t know that song. I mean, I knew the Zombies and I knew that album, but I’d never really looked at the names of the songs, you know? Brent, the bass player, lived on a street called Sparks and the street right before it was Beachwood. When he lived there, we were hanging out a lot and wanting to start the band, and everytime I would drive there, I would pass these streets, so when it came time to come up with a name, we just came up with that just out of being crazy I guess. But wherever you get the name is almost irrelevant at first but it helps to form your identity and people can get whatever meaning they want out of it. That’s what it’s there for, to be interpreted.

K: How is it being on Sub Pop? what is the process, eg what do you record first and so on?

They’ve been great, super supportive and really great to us. I think we can flourish way more on Sub Pop than any sort of big label. There were a bunch of majors interested in us, but they were just talk. They didn’t really know what they were going to do with us. So in the end it’s better we’re on a small label where they give us more attention. We would have died on a big label.

K: Who was in Further?

I played bass in Further for about six months towards the end of their existence. Brent and his brother Darren formed the band and they were in it from the beginning. I really liked playing with them, that’s what drove me towards a more rock n roll way of playing and songwriting was meeting up with those guys.

K: The Sparks have also been involved with Kurt Heasley of Lilys, right?

Well, Aaron, our drummer, has been playing with Lilys since that album Better Can’t Make Your Life Better. Kurt changes his stable of musicians a lot, but Aaron was on tour with them for that album and they came out here. That’s how we met him. Then Aaron ended up moving to LA to live with his girlfriend and we were into a lot of the same music and philosophies and stuff so it all worked out. We also played some shows on the West Coast backing Kurt. Beachwood Sparks would open and then we would sort of transform and Kurt would come out.

K: He didn’t require you to change clothes into Kinks-style gear?

No, but maybe once or twice we might have. I might have taken off a jacket…to reveal another shirt, but nothing serious.

K: What was it like hanging out with Kurt, he’s always portrayed as a truly quirky character…

It was great, I think he’s really underrated. People usually focus on his wild personality and things, but his songwriting is pretty incredible. Especially on his last two albums, I think he’s really started a style of his own. People say "Kinks, blah blah blah" but it’s the same as saying "Flying Burrito Brothers" about us. But it’s a small influence in our lives, but there’s definitely quirks and personality traits of our own and of Kurt’s that come through in our music.

K: What are some of those quirks?

We all come from growing up in the 80s and 90s so there’s going to be some kind of punk or modern touch to things that they didn’t have any concept of in the 60s. There was nothing to really, musically, rebel against at that time. Psychedelic and stuff was going on but people pretty much accepted it as a natural evolution. Now when you do something that changes it up, people are like I can’t believe they’re changing, I can’t believe they don’t sound like every other group. I think people nowadays are less accepting of new sounds. So bringing an old sound back becomes new. We were all in young punk bands and had the opportunity to listen to Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Joy Division and so forth, and that stuff seeps into your brain and colors everything you do. But comparisons to past bands help people know if they might like it. It’s a symptom of the computer age. Like if you go to amazon.com, and they have those lists that go "People who liked this album, also bought..". It’s a movement towards homogenizing everything, wanting to put everything in categories.

K: Do you feel that you share the same philosophies as the people you name as your influences? Are you also searching for a "cosmic American music"?

Yeah, we just wanted to make music that was honest to ourselves. This is what came out. It’s not contrived. It’s just what comes out when the four of us play together. I think all those bands did the same thing. Trying to make music that’s emotional and honest. Nowadays, it’s easy to point out all the things that are wrong with society. I think we’d like to give the message that of course we all know that the world has gone to hell. But there’s another way to get around it, another way of life, a way to make yourself and your friends and everyone around you happy. There is a way out of feeling terrible, through music.

K: I think that’s a noble cause…

Originally published by Konketsu in 2000