The Chemistry of Cowboy Robots
Two hours late for sound check, the members of Beachwood Sparks amble in through the back door of Athens, Ga., bar Tasty World, clad in worn-out T-shirts and blue jeans, each carrying his own equipment from the back of the band’s aging Ford Econoline van. It’s just after happy hour on a Tuesday night and the place is almost empty. Bar owner and local scenester Murphy Wolford gets up from reading the latest issue of Athens’ free weekly, the Flagpole, to greet the band.
About an hour prior to Beachwood Sparks’ arrival, the pretty blonde bartender, Robin, plays a CD of the group’s Sub Pop label-mates, The Shins, who are headlining tonight’s show. When it ends, she puts on the Sparks’ second album, Once We Were Trees. The spacey opening twang of "Germination" fills the room before segueing into the heavily psychedelic echoes of "Confusion is Nothing New." Even though there are only a few people in the club, all of whom are either tucked away in corner booths or lounging quietly on wooden barstools, there is a definite anticipation permeating the humid air.
"This is going to be one of the best shows of the summer," says Wolford. "This and Sonic Youth. It should be pretty packed tonight."
After a few more songs, Robin decides she’d better turn off the Sparks’ CD since the band might show up at any minute.
"I don’t want to have it playing when they get here," she says as she begins to smile, "That wouldn’t be very cool."
It’s about two hours until show time. The soundman frantically begins setting up microphones on stage. Bass player Brent Rademaker rides his skateboard across the hardwood floors of the club, coming to a stop next to singer and guitarist Chris Gunst.
"Do you want to get changed for the show?" Rademaker asks him.
"No, it’s too hot here," Gunst says of the Georgia weather, which is a far cry from the climate of Southern California, where the band was formed in late 1999 by L.A. indie rock veterans Gunst, Rademaker, pedal-steel and keyboard player Dave Scher, and drummer Jimi Hey, who was replaced by Aaron Sperske for two years before returning for the band’s latest EP and current tour. From the beginning, the quartet’s members were interested in playing country, which they felt was the "white man’s soul music." As Beachwood Sparks, they brought their experimental and punk rock tendencies to this traditional southern genre, and when blended with the influence of early ’70s California-country groups like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, a new sound was born.
Seattle’s Sub Pop, the underground label that launched bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney in the early ’90s, signed Beachwood Sparks shortly after its inception. The band has come to appreciate its relationship with the idealistic record company over the past few years.
"It’s really great to be involved with people you can relate to on a friendship basis and still get things done," says Gunst, "I don’t know of any labels that can get you to the level Sub Pop can that aren’t weird. First and foremost they’re about music. Money doesn’t matter to them."
Sub Pop representative, Steve Manning, offers his view of the label’s relationship with Beachwood Sparks over the phone from his Seattle office.
"We hate them. They’re not very clean people," says Manning in a whisper, "Seriously though," he continues, "everything’s been great. The band seems to be content."
After a few minutes of loading in, and checking out the venue, the band members wander up to the stage and begin tuning their instruments. When the soundman gives them the OK, they launch into loose versions of "Close Your Eyes," and "This is What it Feels Like." Twenty minutes of pedal-steel and haunting harmonies echo across the room as the setting sun beams in through the club’s dusty windows. Finally, everyone seems satisfied with the set-up and the band vacates the stage, heading across the street for some soul food at the Five Star Day Café.
"Someone who works here said they like our music," says Rademaker, "and that makes the food taste even better."
In the café, some of the guys sip on Red Stripe and others feast on chicken and dumplings and Riviera salads. After the band’s last appearance in Athens, opening for roots-rock giants the Black Crowes at the University of Georgia’s homecoming celebration, it isn’t surprising to see that they’ve developed a solid local following.
Though the subtleties of the Sparks’ reverb-drenched sound were a bit lost in the enormity of UGA’s Coliseum, the band got some great exposure, not to mention a first-hand look at the arena-rock experience.
"It was definitely fun for us to be able to play the big places, to have that much space to play into," says Gunst.
Rademaker chimes in with his own take on opening for the Crowes.
"It was like eating a Riviera salad on a Denny’s budget. We were a little out of our realm. We’ve always played smaller venues--like tonight at Tasty World. The clubs where they have punk rock and stuff like that. That’s where you know it’s going to happen. We never dreamed we’d play places as big as the UGA Bronco Bowl."
In spite of their being thrust into the spotlight on such a large scale tour last year, the members of Beachwood Sparks have returned to their roots with this summer’s tour of small clubs. "We’re living the indie dream," says Rademaker of the band’s success.
For this tour, the Sparks have added friend and guitarist Ben Knight to round out the sound on stage. Knight also appears on two tracks of the band’s third release, the new EP, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry.
"We can’t usually get Ben because he’s teaching all year," Scher says of Knight.
When he’s not on the road with Beachwood Sparks, the soft-spoken, curly-haired country-rocker is often busy imparting worldly knowledge to his eager kindergarten classes.
The return of drummer Jimi Hey and the addition of Knight on guitar have markedly changed the chemistry of the band as well as its general mood on the road.
"Chemistry is the fundamental guiding principal of the whole universe," says Scher, "so naturally it applies to us."
Rademaker recalls the difficult time the band went through last year before Hey returned to the line-up.
"We found out that the chemistry was going awry, not through the fault of any one person, but through the fault of the four of us interacting together. So now we have five people instead of four. There was a chemical imbalance and we tried to take some band Prozac."
"It was time," says Gunst of drummer Aaron Sperske’s departure, "You could kind of tell by the music, which is what it’s all about. The album we made right before he left, and the album where we have a new group…it’s different. It was just time, otherwise who knows? The whole thing might have stopped dead in its tracks."
"I feel like there’s a certain veil of despair that’s been lifted," adds Hey. "It’s a lot more silly and light-hearted and fun now."
Gunst eats a forkful of salad and jokes about how the band members used to torture each other. Everyone is laughing and Scher eggs them on, launching into a brief monologue about the tears of rage they’ve all cried.
After a few minutes, Hey returns to the subject, but this time with a newfound seriousness. He stresses that he doesn’t mean to paint a picture of the band as having been in a state of sheer misery. "All I really meant by the whole veil of despair thing," he says, "was that it was just a little different back then."
Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, produced by Jimmy Tamborello and spontaneously recorded at L.A.’s Lifelike Studios in early 2002, marks another point in the steady evolution of Beachwood Sparks’ music. "On the first album, we were just a blueprint," says Scher, "On the next one, we were amoebas, and by this third one we’re at least at a frog level."
More experimental than the band’s self-titled debut, as well as last year’s Once We Were Trees, Cowboy Robots offers a glimpse into the strange conceptual worlds the band creates in its songs, water-color landscapes in which the future is nothing but "cold grey squares," and where talking bears poetically explore the trappings of their own biological process. "The words come from experiencing watching something in my own mind," says Gunst, "In my head, it sort of looks like an electrified cartoon."
Scher and Gunst begin discussing the genesis of the third track on Cowboy Robots, the spacey lullaby, "Ponce De Leon Blues."
"Remember those two frogs," says Gunst. "What was it they were singing to you?"
"Was it Jay-Z?" Scher says trying his best to recall the scenario.
"No," says Gunst, "it was Dr. Dre."
"Yeah, that’s right," says Scher, "they combined Dr. Dre with "Old Man River."
Gunst carefully explains that, on the chorus of "Ponce De Leon Blues," the two of them were the frogs that Scher saw.
"I always like to have a story that I’m thinking about while I’m singing," says Gunst.
Typically, the band members work together when writing songs. Sometimes one of them will bring in a new idea more or less finished, talking over the structure and arrangement with the rest of the group, and other times they will all write together spontaneously.
"It’s a collaborative effort because we’re a band," says Gunst, "There’s no solo trips or anything."
At this point in their musical journey, the Sparks are searching, trying constantly to arrive at new artistic junctures. You can tell by listening to their three albums, and by witnessing their live performances, that the band isn’t content to keep rehashing the same old sounds.
"We’re looking for something that I don’t think any of us has ever seen or experienced," says Gunst, "We’re hoping that one day we’ll be playing and everybody’s ears and eyes will start glowing the same color or something…I don’t really know."
"It’s this unobtainable, mysterious thing," says Hey, "I want to make music that transcends the time that we’re in, that transcends influences and experiences."
"We want to make our music into a flux capacitor," says Scher. All of these aspirations may seem like a tall order for a bunch of Southern California skate-punks turned avant-garde country experimenters, but the Sparks seem to be on the right path, at least for the time being.
It’s just before midnight at Tasty World. By now there is hardly room to breathe. The Sparks take the stage as the jam-packed crowd cheers them on. Slowly-building since earlier in the evening, the wave of anticipation has finally crested. Gunst blows out the first few syrupy harmonica lines to "Drinkswater," and they reverberate throughout the room as the rest of the band joins in. The song is slow at first with hypnotic harmonies. This creates a warm tension that’s begging to be broken. With Hey’s superbly executed drumming leading the way, the song finally explodes into its first post-chorus instrumental break.
The band’s live sound is rawer than its studio work. The music drifts from surreal melodic tangents to sporadic outbursts of noise that elicit tremendous responses from the expectant crowd. Slowly deconstructing itself, "Drinkswater" comes to an end with a lyric that seems to be directly addressing all of the people in attendance tonight. As the crowd stares up at the band, sharing in this particular moment in time-the words, which had seemed distant and cryptic at first, suddenly take on a new depth of meaning-
"We are now in the sky, watching you watching our dreams come true."