“One of the very best bands…”

A couple of months ago we, the crew at TheCalmingSeas.com, went to see Ryan Adams & The Cardinals play in our hometown of Göteborg, Sweden. After the show we got the chance to talk to Neal Casal, guitarist of The Cardinals and long time friend of Beachwood Sparks. We went to the only night open bar we could find and had a nostalgic conversation about his memories and experience with our favourite band.

We felt that Neal’s stories were something we wanted to share with our fellow Beachwood fans. Through some months of emailing we have now managed to turn the talk with Neal into a text based interview which we now hope that you read and enjoy. We’re proud to be able to give you this and send out big thanks to mr. Neal Casal for taking time and answering our questions!

How and when did your first hear of Beachwood Sparks and their music?

I first heard about Beachwood Sparks in the spring of 2000 while on a European solo tour. My friend Michel Pampelune, who also runs my label, Fargo Records, got me into them. We’re always exchanging records and turning each other onto new things, and when I arrived in Paris at the start of the tour he said “Hey man, you have to check out this new band called Beachwood Sparks, they’re amazing, you’re gonna love this”. He was right, and I had an immediate feeling that I was really going to dig these guys, maybe in part because they’d come up with one of the best band names in music history.

Whatever the reason, the record hooked me instantly, and by the time I got to “Canyon Ride”, it was all over. It was the only record I listened to for that entire spring/summer and I learned every word and every note to every song on the record, something I hadn’t done for a really long time.

I felt then and now that this record was an instant classic. It was the psychedelic country rock record that everyone had talked about making throughout the 90’s, but never did. A promise finally fulfilled. But it wasn’t some bullshit 60’s Burritos throwback that a lot of other bands were churning out. No, this was a truly great record by an inspired and intelligent band with their own distinct identity. There were certainly some Byrds/Springfield influences going down, but there was also the best of the 80’s and 90’s underground influences too.

The songwriting was solid, complex, and mystical. The arrangements were musical and adventurous, there were huge four part harmonies, and the personality of each member came through bell clear.

The record was also beautifully produced and recorded. You could sense a loving nod to the West Coast where they were from, but there was so much more going on under the surface. This was the first record of its kind that mixed country and folk rock with distinct indie rock and experimental underpinnings, with songs that were instantly recognizable and memorable.  And you got the feeling that these guys weren’t trying too hard to make this sound happen. It just seemed to flow from them naturally, as if they WERE the sound. They had everything down, from the songs, to the sound, to the singing, to the artwork.

I got to know them later that summer from a mutual friend who took me to see them play at the Knitting Factory in L.A. The live show was every bit as exciting as the record, and adding to the great sound they made, they were one of the coolest looking bands I’d ever seen. But this was no fashion show and it was not pretentious, it’s just the way these guys were. They had that genuine visual X-factor that only comes around once in awhile in a band. Something very natural and unforced.

Beachwood Sparks at the Knitting Factory, August 2000. Photo by Neal Casal.

I met them after the show that night, and we slowly developed a friendship over the next few months. I was just moving to L.A. from the East Coast, and they were kind enough to let me into their circle, and show me where to go and not to go within the scene out there. I think they might have been a little wary of me at first, not knowing if I was trying to latch onto their star for the wrong reasons. There’s a lot of mistrust in L.A. because it’s such a big town and it’s difficult to really know what kind of motives people have there.  But they soon realized that I was a legitimate musician with a strong history of my own, and things loosened up. They went off to J. Mascis’ place to make “Once We Were Trees”, and a few months after they got back, they asked me to help them out on tour, and I played my first show with them at the Sunset Junction Festival.

How did it come to happen that you went on tour with the band?

I’m not exactly sure when or how they decided to ask me to play with them. I’m pretty sure the impetus came from Aaron. Maybe it was Brent, maybe it was collective, I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter now. I guess it was just a natural extension of hanging out and having similar interests. It’s not like I was around them every day, but a certain feeling was in the air and we got along well. I think the thing they liked about me was that I understand where they were coming from musically, and I could actually play and sing in a way that could fit in well with their sound. I’m a pretty subtle musician, and I think my touch was helpful in that situation. They didn’t need someone to come in and make a big statement, they already had such a strong identity as a band. They just needed a bit of filling out, with some high harmonies here and there. I played some piano too.

Neal Casal with Beachwood Sparks. Photo by Dennis Kleiman.

But they sounded great on their own, with or without me. I was surprised when they asked me to join them, because I was so new to their world, and thought Ben [Knight] would be the natural guy they’d go to. Also, I was such a big fan that it seemed unbelievable to me that they would actually ask me to join the group.

I had the chance to play on “Cowboy Robots”, but by that time things had changed in the band and I was doing my own touring again. I stopped by the studio one night while Brent was there working on some things and heard a few songs in progress. It sounded great to me, although things were a lot different without Aaron around. No offense at all to Jimi Hey, who is a great musician and played really creatively on that record, but for me, as a fan, the true spirit of the band was the four original guys. As it were, I had to catch a plane the next morning, and by the time I got back to town, the record was finished. I regret not having played on it though, it was still a really good record. I really wanted to do it, and looking back, I should have made the time.

What was touring with The Sparks like? Is there any show or incident that you remember in particular?

Touring with them was incredible. Sometimes it was really hard because of the schedule, but it was always worth it. There were nights when I knew we were the best band on the planet. There just couldn’t be a better sound than this anywhere, that’s what I was honestly thinking. There was never a dull moment, ever. Someone was always getting up to something, getting in or out of trouble, and every feeling was extreme. Some days everyone hated each other and wanted to go home right then and there. The next minute everyone is rolling on the floor laughing uncontrollably about some stupid thing. The touring we did was fucking hard but so visceral and unforgettable.

Right: Aaron Sperske and Brent Rademaker with Sam Jayne. Left: Chris Gunst with Jen Cohen. Photo by Neal Casal.

We opened for The Black Crowes on this insane US tour right as the whole 9/11 thing was happening and it’s almost beyond description now. We crossed the country three times over on that tour, and came away with a wide perspective on what everyone was going through at that time. I’ll never forget driving all night across the desert to make it back to L.A. in time to play the Greek Theatre on the 11th. Of course we woke up to the country going insane and the show being cancelled. Had to turn around and drive straight back across the entire country to play four nights at the Beacon Theatre in New York a few days later. Pulled into town and the smoke was still billowing, dust not yet settled. Not to get dramatic, but it can be a heavy thing playing music in the face of something like that. You really learn something and it gets under your skin in a much deeper way.

Beachwood Sparks was often described by critics as a renewer of the Californian-psychedelic-country-rock genre. How strong is your connection to this musical tradition?

As a fan, my relation to this tradition you speak of is quite strong. I collect the records, I’ve read the stories, I do my homework. But as a musician, I don’t feel it at all. I write songs and make records every year but I don’t feel as if I’m a part of any special club, group, or scene and I never have. I don’t have a country rock membership card that gets me any special privileges. I love and study all kinds of music and the whole psych country thing is just a small piece of a much bigger puzzle.

I’m guessing that all of the guys in Beachwood would agree with me on this. We’ve all made different kinds of records and when we’d drive across the country in that old blue van, we’d be listening to all kinds of music, not just country/psych/rock or whatever it’s called. We’re into just about everything, and tend to look at music on a much wider horizon.

How would you describe the "scene" that Beachwood Sparks was a part of (with bands like The Tyde, Brian Jonestown, Lilys, Warlocks, etc)?

I’m not the best person to ask about that scene because I was never at the center of it and came rather late to it. Obviously, Beachwood, Lilys and The Tyde certainly had strong connections through the years and I was witness to a bit of that. They shared band members, producers etc. I even played a show as a Lily’s guitar player once in 2002, which was amazing for me. As for the Jonestown and Warlocks guys, they were always around and I’d go see them at Spaceland or wherever, but I never really knew them. You’d hear the stories every week about someone doing some crazy shit, but I wasn’t involved with them. Beachwood, Tyde and Lilys, were my favorite bands on the scene anyway.

Musically, it certainly seemed that there was some common ground being shared, but each band had very different ideas about what they wanted to sound like, and that’s what made it so interesting and worth talking about now.

What do you think that Beachwood Sparks’ legacy will be? What’s their "status" among other contemporary artists and bands?

The Beachwood Sparks were so far ahead of their time, and the legacy grows greater with every passing year. They were one of the very best bands to come from any time period and this fact becomes more obvious every day. They predated this so called new psych folk movement by at least five years and their songwriting still outshines just about anything I’ve heard from that scene. I see their influence creeping into so much new music I hear, and even though they never got really popular, you’d be surprised to know how many younger musicians know those records backwards and forwards, studying every sound from Chris’ space echoed 12 string, trying to figure out Brent’s amazing way with a chord sequence, a shimmery Farmer Dave organ passage, or trying to cop Sperske’s swing on the drum kit. But it’s impossible to duplicate, because each member is so unique and brings so much diversity to the table. There’s no way to get that sound other than to bring those particular people together. That’s the mark of a truly great band.

It sounds like I’m speaking of all this in the past tense, but the story isn’t over. They’ve gotten back together this year with Ben [Knight] and Jen [Cohen] and I’m sure they’re sounding amazing. They’re going to make another record at some point and I can’t wait to hear it, it’s gonna be incredible.

What are you up to at the moment? When we met we talked a bit about your next solo record…

I just finished a new solo record, best thing I’ve ever done by a mile. Beachwood/Tyde connections continue, circles unbroken. Farmer Dave and Darren Rademaker each make vocal/instrumental contributions.

Cardinals making a new record this summer, we’ll be back on tour in the fall

Published 2008-07-11