Turnin‘ Up The Desert Heat
By Arrissia Owen
Beachwood Sparks brings its indie roots to Pappy and Harriet’s
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Gram Parsons famously married what was then traditional, straight-forward Buck Owens-style country music with rock. Parsons called the offspring of that union “cosmic American music,” a hybrid that would go on to spawn alt-country bands of the 1990s like Uncle Tupelo, bands that preferred lo-fi production to the polished Nashville sound of the day.
Enter Beachwood Sparks. During the 1997 El Niño rains, bassist Brent Rademaker and guitarist Chris Gunst, holed up in Gunst’s parents’ home in Palm Desert. Gunst’s band Strictly Ballroom, which also included Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello, was coming to an end, and Rademaker’s indie rock band Further, which was on Geffen, had fizzled. They were two men in transition.
“We were really getting into the whole desert vibe,” Rademaker says. The duo ventured over to nearby Joshua Tree, setting out on a musical journey, moving one step closer to becoming one of a handful of heirs to the cosmic American throne. By chance, they came across a flyer for the upcoming Gram Parsons Festival, named for the artist who would inevitably be mentioned in every review of the band they were creating—ever.
Parsons’ music was still relatively new to Rademaker and Gunst back then, who both had grown up steeped in ’80s new wave like Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen, punk and later ’90s post-punk. They were just starting to dig deep into The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Parsons’ solo work with the Fallen Angels. They started working out songs to send to the festival to try and secure a slot.
During those early days, guitarist Farmer Dave Scher was added to the fold, along with a string of other members who have alternated over the years, including drummer Jimi Hey. They named the band after the intersection of Beachwood Drive and Spark Street in Burbank where Rademaker rented a rehearsal space, which was where Beachwood Sparks recorded the two songs that started it all.
“They never called us back,” Rademaker says humbly, punctuated by laughter. “They kind of rejected us. And now, it’s funny, because if you mention Gram Parsons, someone usually mentions Beachwood Sparks.”
The band returns triumphantly to the desert for Freaks for the Festival Saturday, July 21, at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. “I love biker and horse parking,” Rademaker says about the band’s inaugural visit to the famed roadhouse just west of Joshua Tree. “That is the kind of place we want to play.”
Undaunted by that initial rejection, they went on to sign with Seattle stalwart Sub Pop Records, which released the band’s first full-length in 2000, the self-titled Beachwood Sparks. The decidedly-psychedelic alt-country album overflowed with harmonies, shimmery melodies and twang purposely reminiscent of early Byrds, particularly The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
But by 2002, the band members were concentrating on other projects. Gunst formed Mystic Chords of Memory. Rademaker played in The Tyde and Frausdots. Scher and Hey released an album as All Night Radio, and Scher played keys for Interpol, Jenny Lewis and Elvis Costello.
In 2008, Subpop called on Rademaker and company to get the band back together for the label’s 20th anniversary show. A string of concerts followed, and in June of this year, the band’s third full-length album was released, Tarnished Gold, which SPIN magazine named one of its 25 Summer Albums You Have to Hear.
But for all the Parsons and Byrds comparisons, Beachwood Sparks is also uniquely indy rock, something that label Sub Pop picked up on early, before Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, et al made folky hipster music de rigueur. Rademaker, who once described the band’s sound as post-modern in its early days, still feels the description fits.
“You get looked to as someone who knows everything about the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and Gram Parsons, but really if you asked us about anything on the Dinosaur Jr. catalog and what guitars J [Mascis] played on what, or if you ask me about Joy Division, I really know more about that kind of music and those groups and the music that was created since I have been playing music,” Rademaker says.
Beachwood Sparks is more than a band reminiscent of ’60s California crooning—it’s family. “It’s about friendship, the lifestyle,” Rademaker says. “We really try to sing about it, and even when we are being tongue in cheek and referencing old stuff like the Byrds, and even old gospel, bluegrass, Carter Family type stuff, it all has meaning to us.”
The divergent influences help Beachwood Sparks’ sound continue to sound fresh, like the 10 years since their last album never happened. “People have said to me, ‘While you guys were away, your type of music got very popular. Do you feel like you missed out?’” Rademaker says. “But I still haven’t heard a band like us.”
Beachwood Sparks w/Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Howlin’ Rain and Matt Baldwin at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com. Sat, July 21. 2pm-1pm. $32.