Under Desert Skies – Beachwood Sparks, sons of the pioneers

by Erik Himmelsbach

Its trenches and soul were anchored in a decidedly less Life magazine¬ready location, however: over the hill in working-class North Hollywood. Lankershim Boulevard was the main drag, the asphalt wobbly under the Valley’s searing sun, with an endless array of low-rent saloons and auto dealers whose miniature plastic flags flapped like pigeon wings in the merciless Santa Ana winds. In NoHo, country rock was all about swirling your finger around the embroidery of a Nudie’s custom-made suit, or the crush of Frye boots navigating the gravel-strewn parking lot of the Palomino, where new-breeders like Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn and Richie Furay studied masters like Merle Haggard and George Jones from the club’s well-worn bar.

The sound was pure post¬Sunset Strip riot chillout, a yanking of the reins away from pop chaos. It was all sweet, mournful harmonies, the plaintive weep of the pedal steel, a simple beat that enabled you to hold your honey tight, with a dash of added trippiness to remind you that this wasn’t your old man’s country music. Tunes like Gene Clark’s "Tried So Hard," the Byrds’ "Old John Robertson" and the Burritos’ "Hot Burrito #1" helped transform L.A. from a psychedelic megalopolis to a lonesome, dirt-road-laden town.

Of course, like anything interesting, country rock’s purity became diluted, its blood sucked dry first by the bourgeois canyon cries of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and later by a band of carpetbaggers called the Eagles. Fueled by toot and tequila, they made gazillions with peaceful, easy MOR that picked at the carcass of the previous generation.

Flash forward 30 or so years. Like a blade of grass squeezing through a crack in the sidewalk, Beachwood Sparks have emerged to recapture that soulful, countrified domain, to reinvent the myths and retrace those Lankershim steps without a twitch of irony. Their self- titled debut album (Sub Pop) channels a timeless L.A. that exists mainly in our head and memory, drifting along like a breeze through Hollywood down Sunset, winding all the way to the beach. The album recalls the cream of cosmic country (The Band on the drunkenly rousing "Desert Skies"; the Byrds and Harvest-era Neil Young on "The Calming Sea"; even a mild Grateful Dead¬ish freak-out midway through the locomotive "Sister Rose," propelled by a garagey fuzz guitar and steaming organ), while weaving through dapper baroque dandyism ("Old Sea Miner"), sunny AM-radio pop ("This Is What It Feels Like") and, of course, lots of tears-in-the-beer Gramisms.

Sipping tea inside drummer Aaron Sperske’s Echo Park duplex, the band (also bassist Brent Rademaker, guitarist/vocalist Chris Gunst and keyboardist/lap-steel player Dave Scher) call their noise "traditional psychedelic music," which sounds about right. Formed in 1998, the Sparks came out of nowhere and, two years on, still function as a musical island. "It’s good to be able to stand alone in this city," says Gunst, in between harmonica blows. "I’d rather stand alone with what we’re trying to accomplish than be with some kind of scene, where we’ll lose our individuality."

But what exactly are they trying to accomplish? They say there was no master plan, no obsessive studying of the nuances in a Chris Hillman bass lick from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. "In the beginning, the first kind of talk was about playing American music," says Rademaker, at 36 a decade older than his bandmates and a veteran of Further and Shadowland. "This is just our version of soulful expression, and we happen to be on the West Coast, Southern California."

While the Sparks don’t hide from their influences, they scoff at the suggestion that they’re merely a musical time machine. "It’s like those things you hold dear that maybe’ll go in and out of fashion, but you’d better not try and chase that around," says Scher. In fact, the way Rademaker sees it, the Sparks’ brand of country rock is subversive. "Playing Clash or Joy Division songs comes real easy to me, because those are the groups I listened to when I was young," he says. "I’m able to play this music from a real honest standpoint, because I’ve never done it before. It’s punk — we’re singing four-part harmonies."

Unlike early punk rockers, however, Beachwood Sparks aren’t burning with ambition. They’d rather play golf, eat fish tacos or groove at home than change the world, or even get rich. Even so, "[The band] is a little bit beyond just something to do," Rademaker admits. "When we started the group, we weren’t thinking too heavy, except for ‘Let’s do something.’ It’s not mindless, but it’s not supercalculated." This is a good thing. It means Beachwood Sparks will never be the Eagles.

Originally published in LA Weekly in March 2000