Mystic Chords of Memory


“My grandfather was the first Portugeuse guy in California,” smiles Chris Gunst, softly. “He rode to the US on a workship, on the understanding he’d serve as indentured labour when he arrived, but he jumped ship and swam to shore somewhere near Monterey. The missionaries found him and took him in.”

There are some precious things in this all-too-real world imbued with a very genuine magic; it could be a morsel of family history passed from generation to generation, it could be a treasured memory or sliver of imagination, it could be a piece of music. Mystic Chords Of Memory, a new project from Christopher Gunst of California’s psychedelic country angels The Beachwood Sparks, conjure up all these elements with their homespun jewels of fragmented, gentle pop – shards of Americana sliding alongside passages of deliciously effervescent psychedelia and pockets of impossibly intimate folksiness, all imbued with a timeless and personal touch. Homebaked, and proud of it.

Late in 2002, Christopher Gunst was sensing that he needed a change. Unable to make a living from his band, the Beachwood Sparks, despite dedicating all of his time and energy to the three sublime albums they released in their lifetime, he felt the expectations of success hovering above them (feted by Beck and Black Crowes and any number of music lovers) and attendant pressures were souring his love for making music, which he had been pursuing through a number of legendary Californian underground bands (Strictly Ballroom, The Tyde, Further – all of whom contributed members to Beachwood Sparks). As the band wound up what would be their final tour, the bandmates agreed to an extended hiatus, and Christopher quit the road and the studio for Graduate School, to study teaching Special Education classes.

It was another weird twist in a career which had graced him with many magical memories, not least meeting his partner, Jen Cohen, when Beachwood Sparks played with Jen’s band The Aisler’s Set at a Track & Field party in London. It was a given, however, that turning towards academia wouldn’t mean turning his back on music, not totally anyway. While chilling out watching television, Christopher would find himself idly goofing around on the guitars and keyboards strewn about the apartment he shares with Jen in Santa Cruz. Sometimes those little strums and doodles would grow into something that intrigued him; he’d call Jen in, and she’d begin adding parts to his initial sketches. Soon, they were laying down these ideas on their home-recording equipment, and piecing together lyrics that might tell whatever story they felt the melodies evoked.

It was around this period that Rough Trade Records honcho Geoff Travis contacted Christopher and asked him if he wanted to record an album.

“We thought, that’ll be perfect,” remembers Chris now, “Because it meant that, if we went on tour, we wouldn’t have to be apart, because we’d be touring in the same band!

”In many ways, Mystic Chords Of Memory don’t differ hugely from Christopher’s contributions to the Beachwood Sparks; the fragile, lilting charm of his vocals and the chiming sunshine sounds of his tunes still ring through, but the atmosphere is much more relaxed and informal, reflecting the project’s genesis.

“We could build tracks, take our time, because we weren’t recording in a studio and therefore time wasn’t an issue,” recalls Christopher. “I definitely didn’t have a goal in mind when I started writing these songs. The last big tour Beachwood Sparks did, with The Black Crowes, felt like Groundhog Day – every day was the same, you know? Relying on making a living off your music is too hard, takes too much out of you. That kind of pressure is a real turn-off.”

For Christopher, Mystic Chords Of Memory marks a return to the impulses that fuelled his earliest experiments in music-making, simply for the pleasure of making music and having fun with friends, as opposed to any careerist desires. And the opportunity to collaborate with Jen has been an experience in of itself.

“When you’re in a band with four people, you have to compromise, to find a middle ground where you can agree,” explains Christopher. “With this project, whatever was in my head could just spill out, I didn’t have to try and explain it to anyone else. My communication with Jen is so good, we can just communicate together through music. I trust her totally, whatever she plays and brings to the table is better than anything I could’ve imagined.

”As for the future of Mystic Chords Of Memory, Christopher hopes the band will tour (Ben Knight of The Tyde, who helped record the album, will be on hand to provide extra guitar) around his college and work commitments, while material for future releases continues to seep out easily, without needing to be forced. This attitude is key for the Mystic Chords, and fits their unhurried, beautiful music perfectly.

“I don’t make party music,” he grins. “I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental music lately, lots of Alice Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, and all these Indian records I’ve been buying second-hand. I meditate a lot, and I don’t want other peoples’ words intruding! I like to groove on quiet music, its quiet here in Santa Cruz. In LA, I felt like I had to drown out all the other noise! Now I try and become one with the silence…”

Why did you choose the name?

“I saw the quote etched under Lincoln’s face at Mount Rushmore. I love it, alluding to this idea that music is like a memory, a fantasy, or maybe something real. I think a lot of the music I make comes from some imaginary world…”

Biography taken from Rough Trade Records

Chris Gunst – vocals, guitars, keyboards, drums, samples, melodica, autoharp
∙ Jen Cohen – backing vocals, bass, keyboards, drums, dingers, harp
Ben Knight – guitar, backing vocals
∙ Scott Coffey – violin
Broaden a New Sound
Mush Records
Nobody and Mystic Chords of Memory present Tree Colored See
Mush Records/Rough Trade Records/And Records
Broaden a New Sound
Rough Trade Records
Broaden a New Sound/Memory
Earsugar Jukebox
 Mystic Chords Of Memory
Rough Trade Records
Golden Dome (from Mystic Chords Of Memory)
Broaden a New Sound(single mix) (from Broaden a New Sound 12")
Mystic Chords Of Memory’s myspace profile
Mystic Chords Of Memory e-card
Mystic Chords Of Memory interview by Splenid Magazine
Chris Gunst interview at Dark Side of the Radio
The Aislers Set
Mush Records
Rough Trade Records