Country Pop Reborn under the Desert Sky

If you kept up with the US indie scene during the 1990s, chances are you’ve come across at least some of the Beachwood Sparks members’ previous bands. Do Further, Strictly Ballroom, Lilys and Miracle Workers ring any bells?

Listening to all of those bands, however, doesn’t quite prepare you for the country pop delights of Beachwood Sparks’ debut album. The 90s lo-fi influence is still discernable — even more so when you see them live — but there is also an instinctive understanding of what made the early country rock experiments of people like Gene Clark and Gram Parsons so special. Consequently, the resultant sounds go way beyond mere pastiche and become a thing of great beauty.

I met up with Beachwood Sparks in Leeds at the end of their truncated tour of the UK in August 2000. They had been due to play as support to Hank Williams III on a handful of dates. Unfortunately, those dates were lost when Williams cancelled. Their gigs at the Leeds and Reading Festivals did go ahead and they appeared on the same bill as their old friend Beck (drummer Aaron Sperske even came out as one of the robots at the end of Beck’s set). I found the band in surprisingly buoyant mood, considering the cancelled dates, and they were already looking forward to forthcoming shows in Spain and Germany, as well as beginning work on the sophomore album.

I began by referring them to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph on the US psychedelic pop underground. What did they think of the journalist’s description of them as being country through a kaleidoscope? “That’s a good description”, said Dave Scher (pedal steel and keyboards). “Because the kaleidoscope part means you don’t have to go any further with the classifying business because the kaleidoscope has parts of everything.”

As for being lumped in with bands like Apples in Stereo, the Wondermints and Outrageous Cherry, Dave added “We’re not in real communication with any of the groups listed but they’re definitely taking off from the earth, you know, and getting spacey.”

Beachwood Sparks’ pre-history is a complicated affair. Chris Gunst (guitar and vocals) explained it to me. “Me and Dave were college radio DJs at KXLU, and that’s how we met Brent (Rademaker, bass) because he was in a band called Further that we played a lot on the station.” Chris went on to play with Further, as well as his own band Strictly Ballroom.

Beachwood Sparks came together in 1997 as a sextet which included Tom Sanford and Josh Schwartz, and it was this line up that recorded the debut single “Desert Skies” for the legendary Bomp label. Label boss Greg Shaw was their neighbor and quickly became a fan of the band after seeing them play live.

Things really started to move for the and when they reduced to a more manageable and focused four piece. The nucleus of Chris, Dave and Brent was joined by drummer Aaron Sperske, who has played for a number of bands over the years, including the Miracle Workers and, most notably, Kurt Heasley’s Lilys. The Lilys’ “A Nanny in Manhattan” was picked up by Levi for an ad campaign and Aaron got to enjoy fifteen minutes of fame on a number of television shows, including “Top of the Pops” and “TFI Friday.” “Actually it was two weeks,” said Aaron. “It blipped on the charts and blipped off again. The highest it got was number 9.”

Does Aaron envisage working with Kurt Heasley again? “I’d say that I’m kind of on the long list, as opposed to the short list. But yeah, sure, I’m still up for it. And these guys played as Lilys. They were the West Coast Lilys.”

“That’s how we met our label Sub Pop, who put the CD out,” said Brent. “We went out supporting Lilys and playing as the backing band… we should do a tour of England with Kurt – Lilys and Beachwood Sparks – that would be fun.”

The CD version of their debut album is, as Brent says, on the Sub Pop label, but the Bomp connection has continued with Greg Shaw releasing the vinyl version. Dave: “Bomp just put out the vinyl, and the relationship is friendly but not confirmed to anything further.”

So the future looks bright for Beachwood Sparks. If they can keep the momentum going, and record a killer second album, Sub Pop’s faith in them should be amply rewarded.

Originally published in No Kind of Superstar Magazine in October 2000