Beachwood Sparks

by Mark Whitfield

Beachwood Sparks have been described in The Guardian as a band who make “alt-country for people who hate the stuff”, a description they’re seemingly entirely happy with themselves. Mark Whitfield talked to band member Aaron Sperske just before Christmas (2001) about their new album, americana and covering Sade…

Is this your first proper UK tour and how are you enjoying it?

Yeah, it is our first proper tour of the UK and it’s been really fun so far. We’ve been over here before twice briefly, but that was just London, and we played a festival in Reading – we were meant to play Leeds but unfortunately British Rail made us miss our Leeds show [laughs]

Did you have any thoughts of not coming over because of all the stuff going on?

Actually yes – Um, we were on tour with the Black Crowes when it all happened, and we happened to be at home in LA on September 11th, the day we were going to play the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, and you know, my first instinct was that the show would get cancelled, and then I thought that maybe the whole tour would get cancelled, but it didn’t, it was just the one day, and then life rolled on, but it was really surreal. We drove across the country that week after, we made it from LA to New York within five days of it happening, so we saw the reaction all the way across the country, and it was just unbelievable. There was a lot of flag flying and all that, but now people are beginning to take their chances a bit more. We did think about cancelling though – I thought of not coming over. But the world’s so big – they can’t be everywhere at once – and you guys have grown up used to the IRA situation and all that. For us, it was like the total shattering of the American dream, you know.

Do you think it has changed American people in the long term then?

I think America has its own bleakness and grim realities totally, but people are in such a comfort zone and the American trip is about expanding that – you’re not interested in the arts or literature or anything that takes any real time or depth or brainpower – I’m not generalising and saying nobody in the UK is like that too – but in America it’s so prevalent – everyone’s going around in their fantasy bubble with all these erotic voices chattering away in their heads – so when it happened everyone woke up for a second.

The new album “Once We Were Trees” has had some really good reviews, but a couple of them in particular said they thought it was a lot less of an optimistic record than its predecessor. Do you think that’s true, that it’s a less hopeful album than the first?

I think it’s not a less hopeful album, but it’s not quite as lighthearted, definitely. We just got a bit more serious between the times we recorded them both. And it has to do with everyone kind of changing and becoming more serious about different things in different ways – it applies to the production too, because we didn’t want to come off sounding so wimpy as the first record – that was the group consensus. But at the same time, I like the wimpiness of the first record – I would have liked it to have been more sonic and more full bodied, but it’s still a happy accident – I don’t have any regrets about it. The new record is definitely more of an aggressive trip – the last one, there’s songs that had been around for a long time and were morphed and developed and recorded about four times with different musicians and whatnot – so there’s that kind of element – but the new one, it was like writing stuff and in the studio fast and just going for it – we kept a lot more of the feedback and it’s not as clean certainly.

Did Tom Monahan, the engineer/producer (who’s also worked with Pernice Brothers) influence the sound of it much too?

He did in so much as every engineer has their own style of making something sound a particular way, and there’s nothing you can do about it, even as a producer, unless you’re totally an electronic wizz. But Tom I think of more as a recorder, and he knows all the equipment in the studio really well. We recorded a lot of the stuff in Jay from Dinosaur’s house, and he only works with engineers he trusts, like Tom, so it worked out perfectly when we were all in Northampton. And I’d played in bands with Tom for years – the Pernice Brothers, the Lillies – so there was that comfortable familiarity there. And then we remixed the entire album, but we only used half of the new mixes and kept half of Tom’s.

There does seem to be a big difference between tracks like, say, “You Take the Gold” and some of the later songs on the album. Do you have any personal standout tracks?

There’s definitely two styles of sound throughout – if you listen carefully you can tell which is which. I do like all the tracks but I think “The Hustler” is one of my favourite songs, and that song could have used a good year with us before we put it to record, because it could’ve been just so… you’ll just have to wait for those Peel sessions I guess [laughs]

What made you decide to do the cover of the Sade song too?

A friend of ours came by the studio for a week to hang out and he brought the CD, and we’d heard it before and thought that it sounded like a band song, like a soul song, but it had been done in this more modern techno style with programme beats and everything, so we thought we’d just do it with just normal instruments, in that organic direction – it’s a good song, we knew exactly how we’d play it, and literally we did it in a couple of hours from listening to it, getting the arrangement, playing it once through, pressing record and getting a tape within a couple of takes – it was a short process. And it was good because we didn’t really labour over it and think “We’re going to cover this mega-hit…” It was actually the very last thing we recorded and almost didn’t.

It says on your website that your music takes off from where Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito’s left off – do you see your music as routed in that kind of sixties tradition or somewhere else?

Well, I would say that the “Notorious Byrd Brothers” record was more of an influence, more so than Gram or the Burritos – the fact that Chris Hillman is kind of a Byrds offspring would make people say that, but we were more just plainly into California beach music or country music or rock and roll – there are good bits everywhere – old-timey country, pop, acid rock – there’s so much good shit everywhere.

It’s funny because the Guardian review the other day said that you do “alt-country for people who hate it” (!)

Basically, because we don’t like alt-country! I hate alt-country and [names we won’t mention] – they’re all so boring.

What music do you listen to then?

Oh, people like Fairport Convention, a lot of folk music and people like Otis Reading, Desmond Dekka… A lot of stuff – I could go on.

So do you have an idea as a band, finally, of what you want the third album to sound like when you get to it?

Better than the first and second. Seriously, that’s the only answer I could give. I don’t know but I hope that it becomes cosmically channelled whatever it is and that it’ll be a record that blows your mind every time you listen to it. Because if we didn’t hit that on the first two, then we definitely haven’t reached our potential yet – hopefully just something better, cool, fun, heartfelt, soulful and sad.

Thanks Aaron.

Originally published by Americana UK in 2001