After The Gold Rush:
Beachwood Sparks Uncover the Tarnished Gold
California might seem like an unlikely venue for country music to have taken root, but, then again, everything grows better there. It’s found an unlikely but happy home on the opposite coast, thanks to the legions of Dust Bowl victims and exiled Southerners who fled westward in the Depression years with their banjos and fiddles in tow. Buck Owens and the Maddox Brothers and Rose visited Western swing upon the blue-collar dance halls and rough-and-ready honky tonks of Bakersfield. Merle Haggard’s bungled robbery of an establishment there earned him three years of lockdown in the San Quentin clink, not to mention a spot in the audience when Johnny Cash pulled into town in 1958. Then the Summer of Love happened, whiskey and beer were shoved aside for joints and blotter papers, and a new wave of sunshine supermen strapped harmonicas to their necks and bowed before pedal steel guitars. Los Angeles, epicenter of psychedelia, surf and sunshine pop, welcomed its rambunctious new bedfellows with unbridled enthusiasm. The Byrds rocketed eight miles high above Laurel Canyon, Buffalo Springfield held court at Whisky a Go Go when they weren’t in police custody, and Gram Parsons blew it up (literally) out in Joshua Tree.
Decades later, Beachwood Sparks traverse many of California’s musical vista points, and are one among few standard-bearers of the rich legacy of West Coast country. Eleven years after they released the brilliant Once We Were Trees, the sweethearts of the rodeo at long last ride again. The inspiration for their recent activity owes as much to the Far East as it does the Far West, namely in the story of the Golden Buddha.
“It was covered in clay,” explains singer and guitarist Chris Gunst. “They have to go up and repair the clay ‘cause it was always cracking and falling apart and breaking. One time this monk was up there and he was cleaning it, and there was a light and it shined back at him. He pulled some of the clay off and underneath it was pure gold. The whole statue! So they restored it to its original goldness.”
To this day, the guardians of the Golden Buddha keep it polished to a glorious luster in a temple in Thailand. The miracle of uncovered truth is hardly lost on Beachwood Sparks, even after 11 years of silence. “To me, it’s the idea that our innermost nature is good and shining and aware,” Gunst says. “In the context of the group, it’s uncovering what was left off by us for a while, the inner gold of the band. We needed to tend to it.”
The joy of finding enlightenment in unlikely places is a meaningful touchstone for Beachwood Sparks now, and one that emphasizes the importance of a connection to it – and to each other. “I trust them as friends and trust them as people,” Gunst reveals. “I can trust what they’re going to be like. I don’t know if I know the inner workings of their psyches!” he laughs. “That’s a complicated business.”
That may be so, but Gunst might be the best judge of anyone in the band in that regard, for he spent its hiatus earning his master’s degree in psychotherapy. He and his wife, Jen Cohen – formerly of the San Francisco indie-pop fivesome Aislers Set and currently an occasional backing vocalist for Beachwood Sparks – make their home in the Los Gatos mountains southeast of San Francisco. Theirs is no gilded palace of sin: He’s a therapist specializing in Buddhist psychology; she’s a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher works at a Venice Beach surf shop and sells snack food products called Farmer Dave’s Hot Nuts. Aaron Sperske resides in Hollywood and drums for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and co-founder Jimi Hey leads energy-healing sessions at a Los Angeles Reiki center. In short, they’re consummate Californians.
That which makes them even more so is Beachwood Sparks’ original catalyst: KXLU-FM, the student-run radio station of Loyola Marymount University. A longtime mecca for musicians in and around the Los Angeles area, it attracted Gunst and Scher during their tenures as students. Both hosted shows, and Scher served as program director, fielding late-night demands for Ready for the World and Six Finger Satellite from a teenaged Hey. The origin of his “Farmer Dave” handle is the stuff of legend: Someone thought to gift the future Farmer with, of all things, a mail-order ant farm. The farm itself arrived intact, but only a handful of ants, delivered separately, survived the trip. “They built a few tunnels and then morbidly began to kick the bucket, burying their dead in elaborate pyramid mounds,” he remembers. “I set the last one free.”
That tragedy aside, KXLU supplemented the future Sparks’ cadre of left-coast songwriters – Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Doug Dillard – with the punk and indie that dominated the college circuit at the time. “We came from that world, indie and punk and stuff like that,” Gunst reminisces. “The ethic was like, ‘Wow, it’s really fun to listen to all this California music. We could do that. We can do anything! Fuck it – let’s try it!’”
And they did, two albums, an EP and a handful of singles over five years. But after their back-breaking tour with the Black Crowes in support of Once We Were Trees, it suddenly disappeared, and it seemed that Beachwood Sparks had ridden into the sunset forevermore, never to return. “It ended on such a weird note,” admits Gunst. “We really just kind of drifted away. There was no real concerted thing, like, ‘We’re taking a break’ or ‘We’re breaking up’ or ‘This is over.’ Everyone was, to me, a little bit tired. It was like everyone took a collective sigh for like seven years.”
During Beachwood Sparks’ hiatus, Scher and Hey paid homage to their KXLU antics in the short-lived but nonetheless-excellent All Night Radio; no sooner did it release its 2004 outing, Spirit Stereo Frequency, than it abruptly splintered over “creative differences.” Gunst and Cohen formed Mystic Chords of Memory with Ben Knight, who plays guitar on The Tarnished Gold. Aaron Sperske drummed on Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, and founding singer and bass guitarist Brent Rademaker retreated back to his native Florida. Everyone continued on divergent paths that seldom intersected, and it wasn’t until SP20, the 2008 festival held in celebration of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary, that they found an occasion ripe for renewal. Have twangy guitars, will travel. “Since we had gotten together to practice, we went, ‘Well, we might as well play some other shows,’” Gunst recalls. Which they did, with Jenny Lewis, Mia Doi Todd and Rademaker’s former side gig, The Tyde. “After that we were totally like, ‘Hey, it’d be fun to record again.’ It just took us kind of long to do it,” he laughs.
There’s always been a cosmic magic to what Beachwood Sparks does, and the energy of The Tarnished Gold [Sub Pop], their third full-length, teems with a rejuvenated sense of purpose. Their togetherness is their strength. “We were always friends in the interim and always kept in touch, so that part wasn’t weird,” says Gunst. “Getting back to playing music together in the room recording and stuff – it was pretty easy as far as finding that same sort of chemistry that we have. That’s kind of rare to find with people. When it’s there, it’s there. There’s not much you’ve gotta do.”
More American stars ‘n bars than incense and peppermints, The Tarnished Gold is a welcome reunion for this sunny, happy, trippy band of brothers. “Maybe this batch of songs has fewer overt psychedelic textures, but I think the songs themselves and the music being played comes from a deeper psychedelic, cosmic place than ever,” Scher ponders. “Part of this might entail a calmer appraisal of our place in the universe.”
Of all the songs on The Tarnished Gold, none captures the band’s collective mirth at making music together again more than “Sparks Fly Again.” It’s easy to imagine the broad grin on Scher’s face as he revels in being “back together with my friends.” The music, as he puts it, is the home to return to. (The song’s “gonna roll it, we’re gonna spark it” chorus and its variants, meanwhile, are a tongue-in-cheek reference to their region’s number-one cash crop. It’s always 4:20 somewhere, isn’t it?) Guest player Dan Horne assumed the pedal steel when Scher hit the road as Interpol’s touring keyboardist, and the results are a glory to behold, especially paired with banjo, organ and vivid Byrds-and-Burritos vocal harmonies. “We’re definitely inspired by all those groups as well, all singing at once, and that kind of brotherhood mentality,” Gunst confides. “I was admiring that more than, like, ‘Let’s be retro.’ It was never a goal of ours to be pigeonholed into some kind of retro revival.”
In short, you’re unlikely to see the men of Beachwood Sparks decked out in Nudie regalia anytime soon, even though they’d look positively smashing in it. The look would fit The Tarnished Gold’s country-folk vibe just fine, too: Hints of Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash abound on “Talk About Lonesome,” on which Rademaker observes, to a wandering soul, that “everywhere is where you’ve been and nowhere is the place you’re from.” It’s a theme that runs through the album: finding a place of belonging and contentment. “To me there’s a hopefulness and a connectedness, a vibe of connection that comes out of it,” muses Gunst.
True to their Golden State roots, the band’s natural surroundings abound – California sage, waves upon the golden sand, the warmth of the spring that melts the winter in your heart. The gentle acoustic guitar and organ of “Nature’s Light,” ideal for nighttime beachside bonfires when the embers shoot skyward into the darkness, resonates with a deep and quiet presence. By contrast, the mariachi-flavored ballad “No Queremos Ono” celebrates their region’s Mexican heritage with passion and vigor. “Driving around in L.A., there’s so much great, romantic, really strong-willed Spanish-language music,” Gunst enthuses. “We wanted to do that song to honor our past, and honor California, and honor the heritage that comes from California.”
It’s that heritage, and the band’s connection to it, that makes The Tarnished Gold a work of such extraordinary clarity. “The Tarnished Gold is an idea I like the listener to have their own relationship with,” Scher says. “I do see in it a few meanings, one being a spiritual alchemic process of birth and renewal through undergoing a transformation, or immolation, or purification in surrendering to the flames of love and acceptance.”
The tender ballad “Goodbye” makes for a happy farewell, if there is such a thing, and reminds us that goodbye doesn’t necessarily mean forever. The sparks fly again for us all, and the gold within Beachwood Sparks’ hardy soul glows as intensely as ever. “It’s always there,” Gunst assures. “It just got a little bit grubby.”
Photo by Jim Goodrich.