With folk music back in the mainstream consciousness via acts like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, the timing for Beachwood Sparks' reunion is right. “I think we were one of the bands that paved the way for that,” founding member and bassist Brent Rademaker tells us. He's excited to talk about their new album The Tarnished Gold.
Formed in the mid-1990s, Beachwood Sparks gained speed alongside folk-influenced bands like Wilco and Neutral Milk Hotel. Other founding Beachwood Sparks members included guitarist Chris Gunst and drummer Jimi Hey, who met while working as DJs at KXLU and formed the group Strictly Ballroom with Jimmy Tamborello, who later produced Beachwood Sparks' Make The Cowboy Robots Cry EP and collaborated with Ben Gibbard on the acclaimed Postal Service album.
On occasion, Strictly Ballroom shared the stage with Rademaker's band Further at gigs around LA. Gunst and Hey eventually joined Further and bonded over their love for the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons at Rademaker's apartment on Beachwood St. in Burbank. Further soon split up, but with Beachwood Sparks, the three were able to successfully merge their indie roots with a shared passion for artists like Neil Young and The Byrds. The result is a spacey, lo-fi mix of country and rock that Rademaker refers to as “the Beachwood Sound.” Lap steel player Farmer Dave Scher rounded out the original lineup.
They initially formed with only the intention of recording a submission tape for Gram Fest, a festival in Joshua Tree honoring their idol Parsons. The submission was rejected, but Rademaker takes joy in reminiscing about Joshua Tree, where Beachwood Sparks was preparing to headline Freaks For The Festival alongside The Chris Robinson Brotherhood a couple weeks back. He tells me that Robinson and The Black Crowes were early supporters and gave the band their first big tour.
Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis also befriended Beachwood Sparks early on and produced their second album, Once We Were Trees, which features a swooning cover of Sade's “By Your Side.” The song recently accompanied a scene in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Rademaker says he knows of several people that have played it during their wedding, including Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner.
Beachwood Sparks' biggest tour — with The Shins in 2002 — was also the one that Rademaker says ultimately drove them to split. “We were touring under really harsh conditions. We really tried to live what we sang, but when you're stuck in a really torturous situation of traveling and playing shows that don't support that kind of peaceful thinking, then it becomes a struggle,” he explains. The perpetual pre-internet cycle of releasing an album and touring the entire country had backfired. “It just wasn't translating into record sales,” Rademaker says.
The split was amicable, but during their lengthy hiatus, each member took an interesting path. Three of the members got married; Gunst, Rademaker, and Farmer Dave Scher played together for a brief time in The Tyde. Rademaker then started Frausdots and released an album on Sub Pop, before retreating to his native Florida and landing a job in IKEA's corporate office. Gunst formed Mystic Chords of Memory and released two full-length albums, while Farmer Dave formed All Night Radio and toured with Jenny Lewis, Elvis Costello and Interpol. It wasn't until the band reunited for Sub Pop's 20th Anniversary concert in 2008 that they realized the potential for a reunion.
In 2010, Rademaker, Farmer Dave, Gunst and his wife Jen Cohen convened at Gunst's home in Los Gatos, taking just a few days to write the bulk of their new album. The Tarnished Gold was recorded last year in Eagle Rock with producer Thom Monahan. Taking a more subtle approach than previous efforts, the album picks up right where the band left off in 2002, albeit with a more mature and balanced tone. Rademaker says all of the songs were recorded in one or two takes and hints that the lapsed time during their break made for a stronger ability to communicate between members.
The release has seen strong sales in its first month, which makes Rademaker hopeful about the band's future. But what excites him even more is the younger generation of fans that have discovered them through the internet. He explains, “These kids are starting to come out to the shows and I'll ask “How did you even hear about us?” and they're like “Pitchfork dude!” Asked if the new fans make him want to commit to future Beachwood Sparks albums, Rademaker coyly replies “We could make nine albums after this. You never know.”
Beachwood Sparks perform at The Echo Friday, August 3rd and at the New LA Folk Festival on Saturday, August 4th.