"I ask myself every day if depression is necessary for creativity," says Mark Linkous, sounding characteristically withdrawn, speaking from his home atop the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. The founder and driving force behind Sparklehorse, Linkous is a well-known loner with a history of substance abuse who has managed to release only four albums in a decade-long career. Now clean and sober, Linkous talks calmly and freely about his reputation and past indiscretions.
"I am definitely a recluse, probably too much so," he says. The multi-instrumentalist is preparing for a tour in support of Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, the first release from Sparklehorse in five years. The new effort is decidedly more upbeat than 2001's melancholy opus It's a Wonderful Life, yet Linkous finds it ironic that he produced his most polished effort amid some of his most difficult times.
"I had these pop songs left over from my last record," says Linkous. "And now I put out a pop record at one of my worst times ever."
Sparklehorse performs Saturday, February 3, at the Gypsy Tea Room Ballroom.
Using music as a sounding board for his depression, Linkous has quietly created a body of work as influential and challenging as any in alternative music. Starting with Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot in 1995, each successive release has deepened the emotional well, producing music of a rare and ghostly beauty. Related to both alt-country and atmospheric electronica, Linkous' songs reflect influences as diverse as Tom Waits and minimalist composer Philip Glass. The former has had a profound impact on Linkous' work.
"Waits' songs, especially on albums like Swordfishtrombones, sounded like they were recorded in junkyards and mixed through car stereo speakers," says Linkous. "Listening to his music is like watching a cool documentary on TV."
The same could be said for all four Sparklehorse releases. Good Morning Spider and It's a Wonderful Life are full of cinematic themes, recorded and played on period machinery, invoking the sounds of cracking vinyl looped with disembodied voices and topped with Linkous' distorted whisper of a voice. Songs like "Pig," Sea of Teeth" and "Apple Bed" play like tributes to a past most would gladly forget, excursions into a dark, rural experience, a world of solitude that Linkous literally lives out at his North Carolina home.
"Sometimes I just don't come off this mountain for ages," he says.
But when he does, it's always in the service of quality material. Featuring melodies and quickened tempos that would have seemed out of place on previous releases, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain is packed with surprisingly hummable fare. "Don't Take My Sunshine Away" and "Some Sweet Day" are just two of the songs begging for release as singles. Unexpectedly, and despite critical kudos, Linkous does not have the highest opinion of his latest work.
"I'm not wholly satisfied with this record," he says. "I had to compromise on a couple of songs, and I let them out not exactly like I heard them in my head."
It's not often that an artist shares such a subdued assessment for a new release, but Linkous is not your usual anything. His soft-spoken demeanor is actually disconcerting, like the quiet neighbor who has a basement full of dark secrets. Linkous is still affected by a drug overdose that occurred nearly a decade ago. The story of Linkous collapsing in his hotel room while on alcohol, valium and antidepressants and nearly losing both his legs has become part of the artist's lore. After many surgeries, he can walk without assistance, but the sad tale sticks to him as much as any esteem his music may have provided.
"It's a morbid sense of curiosity that everyone still asks about my past drug use," says Linkous. "I'm guilty of the same thing when it comes to Daniel Johnston. When I turn people on to Daniel Johnston, I always mention that he's a manic depressive and that he spent time in a mental hospital."
Linkous shares a connection with the legendary but troubled Johnston. He produced Fear Yourself, one of Johnston's more focused efforts, in 2003, and the Austin singer contributed a lovely version of Linkous' "Most Beautiful Widow in Town" to a European Sparklehorse tribute record.
But where the songs of Johnston can come off as childlike, Linkous' work is much more mature, for better and worse. Despite being a tribute to his grandmother Maxine ("My biggest fan," says Linkous), the lengthy instrumental title track of the new effort ends the proceedings with a vague whimper — a far cry from the meticulousness of his previous recordings.
"Every song on It's a Wonderful Life went under a microscope," says Linkous, "but I just got by on this new one because I just had to get a record out."
While it would be difficult to describe songs as poignant as "Ghost in the Sky" and "Knives of Summertime" as just getting by, it's impressive to see an artist so honest in the appraisal of his own music. Linkous has a harder time explaining the lengthy time between each release.
"One of the reasons that it took so long to make a new record is that I just got so depressed. I mean, I couldn't even function at all."
Claiming his emotional state has improved, Linkous is eager to get out on the road with a new collection of sidemen and face an audience that once petrified him. Always strapped with a notorious case of stage fright, Linkous feels empowered by the fact that his music is making the same inroads in the States that it has long made in Europe.
"After four records, people in America seem to be coming around to me," he says. "Enough people here accept what I do and appreciate it, and I'm not as terrified to tour as I was in the past."
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Featuring songs from all of his releases, the set lists on this current tour should include the same kind of loud/soft, scary/beautiful dichotomy that distinguishes the studio works.
"I try to write songs that don't all sound the same," says Linkous. "I always want my music to sound like a compilation of places and times."
Promising a coherent display of musicianship has not always been easy for Linkous and whatever bandmates he chooses to use. But this time, he sounds confident that he'll keep things together.
"Sometimes I feel like half the audience comes just to see me fall apart," he says with a laugh. "Maybe the audience will be bored just seeing me play the songs well."