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Beachwood Sparks Frontman on Finally Releasing ‘Lost’ Debut Album + Their Future

Beachwood Sparks by Yasamine June
Yasamine June

Beachwood Sparks is the great ’90s band that never was. They were founded in 1997, but the lineup that recorded the heretofore-unreleased debut album ‘Desert Skies’ was a far cry from the one that debuted to critical acclaim on Sub Pop three years later.

Initially, the band was a six-piece, consisting of Brent Rademaker (bass/vocals), Chris Gunst (guitar/vocals), “Farmer” Dave Scher (lap steel/organ/vocals), Josh Schwartz (guitar/vocals), Pete ‘Sleigher’ Kinne (percussion/vocals) and Tom Sanford (drums/vocals). Their sound was decidedly more lo-fi, DIY-style alt-country — with shoegaze-style guitars, heavier alt-rock leanings and plenty of cap tips to indie contemporaries and classic rockers like the Byrds and Beach Boys.

Case and point: title track ‘Desert Skies.’ Recast on the 2000 Sub Pop debut as an upbeat, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’-type rave-up, the tune originally burned with pure late-’90s alt-rock fire, offering a preview of the sound that would make bands like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses famous throughout the early aughts.

But by the time Beachwood Sparks had signed to Sub Pop, road weariness had taken a toll, and Schwartz, Sanford and Kinne had left the band. (Kinne died in 2005). The remaining members would record three records for the Seattle label before going on semi-permanent hiatus in 2002 and focusing their energies on other projects.

With ‘Desert Skies’ finally hitting stores this week, Diffuser caught up with Rademaker from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s currently working for Ikea and doing dribs and drabs with music. We got Rademaker thinking and talking about the good old days.

Beachwood Sparks formed in the late 1990s. What’s the one part of the music industry, music venue, or person you wish was still around in 2013?

[long pause] Oh man. Probably the Jabberjaw club we used to have out here. Everybody played there — everybody gathered there. It was the closest thing L.A. had to a cool indie scene, because L.A.’s got a bunch of major labels and everybody’s showcasing all the time, and Jabberjaw was really pure, really cool. It’s the thing that sparked Beachwood Sparks. It was on Pico Blvd. in a really sketchy part of town. It was really small, it was all ages and it wasn’t full of industry people for awhile. I miss that.

We hear a lot of ’70s country-rock in your sound, which made its way back into the American music conversation in the early ’90s with the rise of ‘alternative country’ bands like the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo. Are you a Son Volt or Wilco guy?

[laughs] That’s funny. [long pause] You know what? Wilco, because John [Stirratt], the bass player, came to our show the first time we played in Chicago and bought a t-shirt and rapped with us for awhile. Then when we just played our very last show last month up in Big Sur, he was there with his band the Autumn Defense, and we talked after our show, and he had nothing but great things to say. So definitely, Wilco. The funny thing is, I never saw Son Volt or Wilco, but I did see Uncle Tupelo in Long Beach at a club called Bogart’s.

So your new album, ‘Desert Skies,’ is actually not new at all — it was supposed to be released in 1998. Why did it get held back?

Well, it didn’t come out because the lineup that recorded it kind of fell apart. We were going to go on a West Coast tour, and then we lost a couple of members. Then we went on tour and met the folks from Sub Pop, because we were in Seattle. Plus, we were going to release it on the label that I had been running for most of the ’90s, and then the band got really busy, so it was hard to do the label and be in the band at the same time. I think the real reason was that we lost the members, and we shelved the tapes, because Sub Pop signed us and we wanted to record something that represented the four-piece lineup.

Do you feel a little bit of pressure that you have all these new/old songs that you’re dusting off in front of a public that knows your band one way versus the ’90s lineup?

Yeah, it’s weird. The thing about it is, 1998 is so long ago. I look at it like it’s kind of a reissue — there’s a couple records that I have that were just like this. Like ‘Preflyte’ and ‘Never Before’ by the Byrds — that stuff never really came out. This is that kind of release. It’s not something that’s going to get toured; and due to circumstances, we can’t even really tour this material, and that’s a whole other story.

Is that due to legal issues with the former members?

No, one of the guys passed away, and one of the guys hasn’t played music for a few years. It’s really weird. In Beachwood, to even go back and play these songs this way, I don’t even think we have it in us.

That’s an interesting thing to say. We’d think that releasing an album would almost be a sort of cathartic thing — those songs have been sitting around for awhile. It sounds like you’re just saying, “Well, here they are!”

I can’t speak for the other guys, but I really have been dying for people to hear this since we recorded it. I love everything in Beachwood Sparks, but [‘Desert Skies’] really represents a time in the band that made the rest of the band possible. Because this was the time in the band when we had no label, no managers — nobody helping us. We were doing it totally on our own. We recorded it on our own, we were going to release it on our own, and we were really popular in L.A. We did some of our most fun and triumphant things back then with this lineup. Beachwood Sparks played a lot of our own shows, we did a lot of touring on our own, we headlined in L.A., and sold out places without even having a record out. Beachwood Sparks came to be known as a band that really loved the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield, and you know, country-rock, but this album predates that. It’s more its own thing. You’d have to surprise me with what you thought some of the music sounded like when you talk about other bands.

Funny you should mention that, because when we heard the title track we immediately thought Teenage Fanclub, and we hear Yo La Tengo in ‘Time.’ Do you remember some of the bands you were into back then when you were writing the album?

Oh, cool, that’s funny. It was definitely more of our coming from Jabberjaw, an indie club, so there was … I don’t know. The sound was more pure, and you could name other bands besides every review [that] mentioned Gram Parsons or the Byrds. Josh was a rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar player and the songs that he wrote, that kind of spirit never got represented on the Beachwood Sparks albums of the 2000s. His songs are about girls and driving in a car. He loved Ray Davies and Neil Young. That’s where he was coming from. So it’s not really just like, “Here it is. It’s out there.” There is something satisfying about having to believe in this. The problem with going on tour is that that’s the thing that broke up the old version of Beachwood Sparks. We’d still be making records if we were able to tour in a fashion that didn’t just burn you out.

Do you have any interesting backstage or tour stories to recount from those times? You toured with Beck, for example. What kind of guy is Beck?

Oh man, he was amazing. We had our band Further — Josh and Darren [Brent’s brother] and I — and we were playing Jabberjaw and Raji’s and Al’s Bar and all the top indie places, and Further was also signed to a publishing company — that’s how we’d get our money to build our studio. We helped Beck get his publishing deal and helped him get a couple gigs. So a couple years later when Beachwood started, he heard us — he was huge then — and asked us to open for him all the time. And that was because not only did he like the band, but also he remembered what we had done for him. That kid was f—ing cool. I gave him a Poco record for his birthday — ‘A Good Feelin’ to Know’ — and when I saw him a couple years later when we both played the Reading Festival together, he was like, “Thanks for that Poco album.” That album’s amazing. It’s their best one.

What are some of the modern bands that you’re interested in these days?

Primal Scream has been good — they’re modern, but they’ve been around longer than the two incarnations of Beachwood Sparks. And Spiritualized, they’re still around. They influenced the early Beachwood Sparks [lineup] a lot. There’s this band called Tomorrows Tulips. They’re just great. They do, like, ’90s indie rock like Yo La Tengo and Galaxie 500 and Beat Happening. It’s two professional longboarders — two surfers. King Tuff — he’s my neighbor. These are kids who play shows anywhere in the country and can draw 500-1,000 people. It’s like the new underground. And they all have a respect for what Beachwood Sparks did, which is really funny, because we came around and we toured with all the bands like the Jayhawks and the Black Crowes, and you’d end up having long conversations about bands from the ’60s or ’70s. Now these young bands love bands from the ’90s, so these guys will say, “Whoa, you know Lou Barlow from Sebadoh?” That’s their Gene Clark, do you know what I mean? Beachwood Sparks is going to help them one day buy a Byrds album, because they just think we were a California band, but they didn’t know that we were specifically in love with that type of music.

Are you at all jealous of those young bands that are out on tour? Do you ever get nostalgic about the old lineup?

Yeah. Not jealous, but I get nostalgic about it. But it’s funny; that’s what makes Beachwood still do stuff, because we have so many friends and we get so many offers to play, and we think, “Oh yeah, we can still do it!” And then we get together and do it, and even though the show’s really fun, all the shit that leads up to going to the show and afterwards, it’s like it’s not worth it. For me. We still love music, and everybody’s still doing music in some way — some more than others. I don’t do as much as I want. I play solo shows, and I just played a Gram Parsons festival in Joshua Tree, but it’s not the same as it was.

So you’re a bassist. Does that make you a bigger Chris Hillman or Gram Parsons fan?

Well, I worship Chris. I worship his bass playing. But you’ve just got to be honest that Gram’s solo albums will last forever, the two that he did. Chris is my hero, because he was the sensible one in the band. His stuff on [i.e. ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’] is phenomenal.

We were just talking about that album with Matthew Sweet the other day. Sweet’s recorded with Ric Menck, and Ric wrote a 33 ⅓ on the ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ album. Have you read it?

Oh yeah, I’ve read it. It’s amazing. That’s the best one of those books. I know Ric, and the way he wrote about his musical career and the way he got started … that’s just a great book. I told the last guy that interviewed me to go buy that book and read it, because he knew who Ric was but he didn’t know that Ric had written that book. Yeah, I play in band called the Tyde — Ric is the drummer. To tie this all together, Ric’s [1996 album] ‘The Ballad of Ric Menck’ was one of the early influences on the early Beachwood Sparks lineup that recorded the ‘Desert Skies’ album, and Ric was going to do the liner notes for this thing, because he was around at all those early shows — he was a fan. He actually told me when he did the 33 ⅓ that he wrote a big thing on Beachwood Sparks, because he thought we were the closest band that came to the ‘Notorious’ sound, and it actually got edited out.

What place has the best Beachwood Sparks fans?

I would say Spain, but in America, I would say San Francisco, with Chicago being a close second. London as well, and Glasgow, Scotland. That was probably be No. 1 now that I think about it. You’re making me think about how fun it is to go play.

Well, maybe we can talk you into going on tour again.

I’d love it. It’s not just me that stopped. It’s hard. But it’s just not going to happen.

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