By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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"I don't know what that was about," Gunst says with a shrug. "We went over to the [Interscope] office once during the day. It was all pretty meaningless."
Instead, the band opted to sign with Seattle's Sub Pop, recording and releasing its self-titled debut in March 2000. "Mellow" seemed to be an adjective that cropped up frequently in connection with the record, a stark contrast to the group's live sets, which mutated its material into a dense assault of focused noise (the Sparks' turn at the 2000 South by Southwest music conference served as a blistering 45-minute slap in the face of those who'd dismissed them as peaceful, easy feelers).
By the time the touring cycle for its debut drew to a close late last year, the band had decided to make a conscious shift with its impending follow-up--not to toughen its approach so much, but rather to give the music, as Scher puts it, "more edges and texture."
"We set to it last Christmas, trying to come up with all new songs," he says. "The stuff was written and then tightened up by this March to go in and record."
With a batch of fresh material ready, the band reunited with producer Thom Monahan (Chappaquiddick Skyline, Scud Mountain Boys) and headed for Amherst, Massachusetts, and the home studio of indie rock godhead J. Mascis. With the frigid Northeastern winter still lingering, the band settled into Mascis' warm, comfortable digs for nearly a month. Alternately working, playing and hanging out, the clubhouse vibe of the sessions proved pivotal in shaping the album.
"It was a lot different than the first one," offers Gunst of the process that yielded the forthcoming Once We Were Trees. "We wanted to make the recording of the songs a bit more natural. We just set up in the living room and went for it like that. It wasn't so much of a studio, more like hanging around in a house and playing music with your buddies."
"We were really bouncing off the fact that we were in J. Mascis' house with all the snow falling down outside. That was really kind of magical and inspiring," says Scher.
"It was an organic environment," adds Gunst. "There wasn't even a talk-back button into the control room. For us to know the tape was rolling, Thom [Monahan] would bang on the floor with a broom. That's how we knew when to start," says Gunst, laughing.
The resulting 15-song Trees--set for release on October 9--is an achievement of roots-rock alchemy that immediately recalls The Band's famed "Brown Album" (coincidentally enough, it, too, was recorded in the home of a music celeb--Sammy Davis Jr.). While the Sparks don't approach the grand Americana themes or sharp narratives of a Robbie Robertson, they do achieve the elusive "white soul" feel--a combination of country rollick, spiritual fervor and bucolic blues--that The Band (and Parsons) were hailed for.
In doing so, Trees moves several steps beyond the stylish L.A.-canyon cool of Beachwood Sparks' debut, also allowing the band's post-modern side to seep to the surface as well. And though still clearly worn on their faded denim sleeves, the band members' seminal influences have been blurred together, merging fleeting snatches of the past into a single familiar barrage. To wit, "The Sun Surrounds Me," which manages to pack in a funky Garth Hudson organ riff, a chesty Stephen Stills vocal, a Brian Wilson lyric and a string-searing coda worthy of Mission of Burma, all in just less than three minutes.
Tying the album together are various bits of what Scher deems "incidental music. Stuff we just kind of came up with in the studio and left in the songs or on their own."
Opening with the instrumental apéritif "Germination"--a 30-second acoustic enticement--the disc is rife with musical passages that leap from ominous psychedelic shudders to galloping banjo breakouts, dark keyboard drones to bright, breezy harmonyfests.
It's an aggressively experimental bent that's sure to have the band drawing fresh comparisons to an earlier generation of West Coast revivalists--'80s Paisley Undergrounders like the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. Unlike those groups, though, Beachwood Sparks' brand of jamming isn't about artistic precision--it's more Moby Grape than Velvet Underground, less amphetamine bender than lysergic dream.
"The first time we didn't push many limits," admits Scher. "It might seem a little freer, the music on this album. We weren't as tested as a band when we recorded [Beachwood Sparks]. The whole machine was a little more subdued. With this record, we worked to change that."
Another departure evident on Trees is the band's decision to excise some of the softer sonic touches of its debut, replacing them with gospel overtones--holy-roller piano fills, moody church organ--and heavy doses of fuzz, echo and reverb, which results in far more urgent-sounding fare.
"We didn't want to compromise excitement for fidelity demands," says Scher. "We were more willing to use ridiculous amounts of echoes and to have overt effects, whereas that wasn't happening the first time. We wanted it to be exciting on the ear. I really think we wanted this one to sound crazy--literally." And it does, as the band manages to approximate the cracked hippie melancholia of Skip Spence's landmark Oar on the acid waltz of "Let It Run" and the wandering lullaby "The Good Night Whistle."