California Dreamin’ With a Cosmic Connection
– Beachwood Sparks has a trippy link with some classic bands of the ’60s.
by Natalie Nichols
You meet the members of the psychedelic country-rock band Beachwood Sparks in a charming little complex of bungalows tucked behind a tall hedge in Echo Park. The day is overcast, but it shimmers with that surreal clarity the city gets after a rain.
You look out the picture window of drummer Aaron Sperske’s living room at the buildings and streets sprawled across the hills like a black-and-white movie backdrop and you think, with a view like this, it’s no wonder these guys believe in the magic of Los Angeles.
Although they look as if they could have stepped from the ’60s heyday of such L.A. acts as the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield, the members of Beachwood Sparks are careful not to put themselves on a par with those groups. But when their self-titled debut album comes out next month on Sub Pop Records, it’s sure to draw comparisons to those pioneering bands’ acoustic-electric arrangements, evocative harmonies and melodies, and distinctive musical atmosphere, which is as identifiably Californian as the Beach Boys’.
“It’s not what I came out here looking for, and it’s not what I even listen to,” says bassist Brent Rademaker, 36, a 12-year L.A. resident who was in the indie-rock band Further, and who, like the late Byrds member and Burritos leader Gram Parsons, spent part of his youth in Florida. “It’s real natural out here. It just happens. There is something mysterious about [Los Angeles], and it definitely comes across in the music.”
Neither Rademaker nor his bandmates – Sperske, 26, singer-guitarist Chris Gunst, 25, and keyboardist/steel guitarist Dave Scher, 24, who all grew up in the L.A. area – listened to those classic ’60s groups as kids, but they were drawn to the style together. “Why we do it, I don’t know,” he says. “We’re definitely not saying, ‘Let’s cash in.’ ”
Despite its lack of commercial viability in a world where rock is getting harder and country is ever more slick, the 3-year-old band has a loyal local following that fills such clubs as Spaceland and Dragonfly. Beck, a longtime fan, has had Beachwood Sparks open his L.A. shows three times, most recently last spring at the Wiltern Theatre.
After releasing a couple of 7-inch singles on Seattle’s Sub Pop and the L.A. indie label Bomp! (which will put out the vinyl version of the upcoming album), the group even drummed up some major-label interest. “They were really big, and we were really broke,” says Rademaker. “We were thinking, ‘Maybe this is the way to go.’ ”
After signing with music publisher Margaret Mittleman, Beachwood Sparks was considered by Interscope Records, where Mittleman is an artists and repertoire executive.
But with Interscope involved in the huge Seagram/PolyGram merger, the band decided it didn’t want to wait out the inevitable reorganization period.
Now the Beachwood Sparks’ members are perfectly happy to be on an indie label. “When Sub Pop came around,” says Rademaker, “that was like a dream come true.”
The quartet intended its album to evoke a traditional ’60s West Coast vibe, but the players–perhaps a little too steeped in trippy tradition–speak of their music as something they don’t entirely control.
“We’re just tapping into the cosmic vibe, the endless circle of energy,” Gunst says with a straight face.
When they hit their stride, the songwriting becomes a combination of meditation and conjuring. “It has a lot to do with whether you’re all jittery, or you’re able to relate to your comrades well enough,” says Scher. “If everyone is calm enough, and relaxed and attentive, then you really hear something.”
That flow is important and exciting for them.
“To stretch out musically is what keeps it interesting,” says Sperske. They also tend to embrace whatever comes through the ether. For example, a pair of song snippets on the album, “Singing Butterfly” and “Sleeping Butterfly,” sprang up spontaneously in a recording session.
“Something just took us over,” Rademaker says. “It was like writing songs on your own, it just came out.” Another time, he continues, “The guys were doing some vocal harmonies, a double part on ‘The Calming Seas,’ and they just tapped in. The harmony wasn’t written, and it wasn’t discussed. They just did it. That was a magic moment, and that’s the song forever.”
For all their fascination with random cosmic moments, the players also admire the virtuosity of bands such as the Burrito Brothers, and they joke about their own ineptitude.
Yet the members of Beachwood Sparks succeed in capturing that old-fashioned spacey rapture largely because, like their heroes, they focus so intently on group dynamics, harmonies and instrumentation.
“It’s a giant compliment [when] someone says, ‘Oh, you guys sound like an old band,’ ” says Gunst, “because to me they’re the greatest players.”
Originally published in L.A. Times in February 2000