Fifteen years ago, Beachwood Sparks recorded a debut album and put it on the shelf, unheard, as the still-evolving band settled into a stable lineup and sound.
But the band never intended to keep the songs hidden forever.
“They’re important pieces to the puzzle,” says Brent Rademaker, the band’s bassist and one of a trio of lead vocalists. The early songs point to the era when the band caught fire in Los Angeles, known for dynamic live shows that brought them from small clubs to opening slots for Beck and Lou Barlow. “We wouldn’t have gotten signed by Sub Pop if we hadn’t spent the two years in LA becoming this kick-ass band.”
Beachwood Sparks was first “conceptualized” in 1996, Rademaker says, with a few different lineups that never made it out of the rehearsal hall.
“Everybody was in like five bands, and Josh [Schwartz] just said we should take the best name and the best band and go with it. The recordings naturally came after that. Josh and I had the studio, the Space Shed, and we’d been recording there for years. We were really into creating at that space,” he says.
The goal for those first recording sessions wasn’t a set of demos to pass around, but an album ready for release.
“We were recording for an LP,” Rademaker says. “At the same time we had the studio, I was also running a record label, Christmas/xmAs, so that was the plan, to put this out. I really thought this would be the one that we were waiting for with the label. I knew the music was really good and the band was really good, and we were all really excited about being able to do our own thing.”
The original six-piece lineup of Rademaker, 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) recorded Desert Skies at a time when the band was an ever-shifting mix of styles.
Beachwood Sparks took the recordings to a publisher—whose roster included Elliott Smith and Lou Barlow among others—with a ready connection to major labels. The publishing deal helped finance some more equipment for the studio, but also led to interest from labels like Dreamworks, which actually financed the recording session that became the band’s contribution to the Sub Pop Singles Club (“Midsummer Daydream” b/w “Windows 65”).
“We got taken out to a lot of lunches and did some showcasing in rehearsal halls for some big labels, but it wasn’t clicking,” Rademaker says.
“It wasn’t a bummer or anything. One day I got a phone call ‘Hi, it’s Brendan O’Brien and I want to record you guys.’ But we didn’t pursue the other end of it much. It was exciting for one night, ‘Wow this is going to be cool. This is mainstream alternative. We could fit there.’ There were bands that were like us that had albums on major labels. But then nothing would happen.
“We’re really different, and I think we scared a lot of people. We were smart and were really into the DIY thing and we knew we didn’t want to get fucked over, so it scared people because they knew they couldn’t control us. They couldn’t use their same formula.”
Even as Beachwood Sparks was considering putting out the record on another label, the band was in flux and ultimately dropped down to four members: Rademaker, Gunst, Scher and drummer Aaron Sperske. At a show in Seattle, Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman offered the band a deal on the spot.
“Locally, I think we shocked a lot of people and gained some new fans and maybe lost some fans who’d been seeing us in clubs for a couple years and now saw a different band,” Rademaker says. “But outside, people identify us as a very West Coast country-rock band, an updated version of The Byrds or Flying Burrito Brothers. The Sub Pop years definitely gave Beachwood Sparks that identity.”
Desert Skies finally lets people know the full path Beachwood Sparks took, from the musicians’ former bands (Further, Strictly Ballroom) through 2012’s comeback album, The Tarnished Gold. And it’s a path that’s not entirely expected.
“The Byrds stuff that came out on Preflyte or Never Before, the earlier stuff before they recorded their first proper album, is kind of cheesy and really innocent. This stuff isn’t like that. If people are excepting this to be a raw sketch or some watered down version of what Beachwood Sparks became, it’s kind of the opposite,” Rademaker says.
“If anything, it’s more like the Buffalo Springfield where you had three writers and singers and a couple more genres of music to pull from: country, folk, psychedelia and we pulled a lot from indie rock too. We’re nowhere as good as Buffalo Springfield, but everyone I saw around LA who was around at that time says we reminded them of Buffalo Springfield. It’s poppy then bluesy rock then folky then country, and I think we tapped into that same vibe.
“We formed our sound by having a big healthy influence of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and Sebadoh and Spiritualized and then mixing that with The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers and The Kinks and The Who,” he says.
Beachwood Sparks first started thinking about releasing the shelved album five or six years ago, but the timing didn’t feel right. Regrouping to play the Sub Pop 20th anniversary in 2008 and then record The Tarnished Gold, the band decided there was an audience for Desert Skies. The band found a willing label in Alive Naturalsound, part of the Bomp! family that released the first Beachwood Sparks single.
“I was down there picking up some records and I hadn’t before met Patrick, who runs the label,” Rademaker says. “He asked me if there were any live recordings because they do a lot of live reissues and bootlegs and stuff like that. I said no, but we do have an album that was never released. We knew there was an audience, and we knew this stuff was good. It wasn’t just going to be throwing out some demos and capturing some money from it. It’s good.
“Fifteen years is a cool milestone. I think if we waited 20 or 25 years it wouldn’t be right,” he says. “You better do it now before everybody’s dead and the world fucking explodes tomorrow. I’d hate to die with all these tapes in my garage and people having to go look for them and not do it the right way.”
One of the big influences on Desert Skies was a release by The Action, an English mod band that had a short run on Parlophone. A rock album recorded right before the band broke up was bootlegged and only officially released in the 1990s as Rolled Gold.
“I always loved that record. There was something so cool about it,” Rademaker says. “I wanted to do something like that. This Beachwood Sparks album sounds a lot different from the records on Sub Pop, but it’s way more explosive and that’s exciting to me. Our other records have tons of cool shit on them, but this one is more exciting.”
“Now people know we didn’t just come around from nowhere and get signed to Sub Pop. We came from somewhere and definitely paid our dues. The biggest bummer about it is Josh and Tom and Pete didn’t get to play all around the world and meet the people we got to play for. So this is cool for them because it brings us all back together,” he says.
With Desert Skies now bookending the band’s early career, Beachwood Sparks has thought about a possible future project.
“We don’t live in the same house, we don’t see each other every day, so to bring us to create a Beachwood Sparks record together that is more than just individual ideas brought together, it would take a lot do that,” Rademaker says. “We talked about how we could record the next album and why we would even want to. One of the things that will help is if people hear this album and like it enough to generate some excitement that will push us in the right direction of recording a new album.”