As a kid, Brent Rademaker went to see Rock ‘n’ Roll High School with his older brother and found himself staring at the poster, transfixed.
Amid the cartoon mayhem, The Ramones stand front and center, triumphant, like they were in the film, like they were in the minds of kids who grew up on rock ‘n’ roll.
Flash forward 35 years and Rademaker, best known as frontman for the psychedelic country band Beachwood Sparks, found himself with a new band, a new album and on the phone with William Stout, the artist behind that iconic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School poster. Two days after Rademaker had described the band, their personalities and the sound of the new record, Stout sent back the album cover: a runaway train in the California sunshine, carrying the cartoon version of GospelbeacH on their maiden journey.
The playful tone of the artwork perfectly matches the fun-loving rock ‘n’ roll of GospelbeacH, another in a series of fortunate coincidences that led to the band’s debut record, Pacific Surf Line.
“There’s nothing more fun than sitting there listening to a record and staring at the cover and finding little things. That is the rock ‘n’ roll vibe,” Rademaker says. “As I get older, I just want to connect with fans and people who listen to music the way I connected with music when I was younger.”
Joining Rademaker in GospelbeacH are singer-guitarists Neal Casal and Jason Soda, bassist Kip Boardman and drummer Tom Sanford. The new band, Rademaker says, just sort of happened, tracing back two years ago when Rademaker and Alive Naturalsound Records were prepping for the release of Beachwood Sparks’ long lost debut album, Desert Skies.
“I had to revisit the guys who were in the group back in ‘97 and Tom was the original drummer,” he says. “They were all jazzed on it and that brought us back together. Tom and I started hanging out again. He came to me and wanted to jam in my little studio, the Crabshack, and do some of my old songs, but I had some new ideas and then we started writing these songs and he brought Kip in one day and then the three of us turned it into something.”
Still with no real intentions or band name, they invited Casal and Soda to join in the fun. Casal, best known for his work in Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, has also played alongside Grateful Dead founders Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in their all-star outfit Furthur and recorded the set break music for the Dead’s Fare Thee Well concerts this summer.
The individual talents gelled into a sound not entirely unlike Beachwood Sparks, but with more rock in the mix, some wilder impulses and no worries about what the outside world would think.
“I just wanted to grow a mustache, play some rock ‘n’ roll and have fun,” Rademaker says.
In a way, the experience with GospelbeacH mirrors the early days of Beachwood Sparks, when the still-evolving band caught fire in Los Angeles’ clubs and caught the attention of Sub Pop Records, which released the band’s three full-length records.
“When we started Beachwood Sparks, there was no plan. ‘Let’s have some fun and play rock ‘n’ roll.’ We could play anywhere, biker bars, indie shows, open for anybody from The Sea and Cake to The Black Crowes,” Rademaker says. “Beachwood Sparks was a little more magical and ethereal. Once a band is together a while and starts releasing records, there’s a danger that the fun can come out of it.
“[With GospelbeacH] I wanted that good vibe to be there, but with none of that seriousness. I just wanted it to be fun, celebrating being in a band or being in love. This isn’t on Sub Pop, so we don’t have to worry about sounding kitschy. Beachwood Sparks could never quite go that far.”
As the musicians began working on the songs, the album and the band itself began to take shape and appreciation for older rock ‘n’ roll, California country of the 1970s and psychedelic jam bands started rising to the surface.
“I listened to a lot of classic rock when we were making this album and I let it kind of influence us,” Rademaker says. “With this album the stuff I was listening to wasn’t telling me what to do, it was telling me what I could do. It’s the spirit of a band loving music from the past and just going in and celebrating it rather than getting all precious about it.”
The songs too look back to the past, to an often-weirder America, but one that seemed more real, in both its flaws and its treasures. Rademaker started with some concrete subjects to explore in the lyrics, which informed the album from the top on down.
“We wanted to follow some concepts. I definitely had this imagery in my mind of a steamer train. I’ve taken the Pacific Surfliner before,” he says. “The train gives you this traveling vibe, but also this sense of tradition and how people traveled and how music was.”
“Sunshine Skyway” skips across the country, to the ever-strange Sunshine State for a breezy country-rock song about yearning to get away.
“Growing up in Florida in the ‘70s, you’d go to a pancake house on a Sunday and all the brochures for the tourist attractions would all be stacked up in the lobby. We’d pick one of the smaller ones and go to it sometimes and one time we chose Monkeytown USA,” he says. “Turned out it was super grim, just a place they experiment on monkeys, so it got me thinking about what it must’ve been like to work there, basically a carnie at all these tourist attractions.”
The nine songs on Pacific Surf Line are everything GospelbeacH has come up with so far, the first-impulse songs of a project too fun to say no to.
“There are no outtakes,” Rademaker says. “We worked a lot and tried some things and edited out some things, but most everything stayed true to the original inspiration because it came together that way. If we labored over it, you could tell. I really didn’t even want to do this. I’m working and I’m older and I’ve had a couple do-overs. Being in a band is super fun, but it can fuck up your life if you put too much into it, if you reach too high and then fall. The world doesn’t wait for you to make money.”
Even the band’s name is a bit of off-the-cuff serendipity. The label inadvertently named the band, asking Rademaker if the new songs have the same “beachy gospel vocal” character as Beachwood Sparks. Rademaker flipped the words around and everyone liked what the phrase conveyed.
“I have a feeling that GospelbeacH is already in that charmed area,” he says. “If you think about actual gospel music, it’s got a lot of the characteristics that we have, like harmonies, some organ. But I also think about the phrase ‘gospel truth.’ You should be able to put this in your car and drive to a surf trip and love it. Or listen to it at the beach while you’re drinking margaritas, or while you’re road-tripping to the coast. This is music that’s perfect beach music.”