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Beachwood Sparks

The California group Beachwood Sparks weren't the first band to combine psychedelia and country music -- the Byrds and others beat them to the punch by a few decades -- but in the 2000s, their concoction proved immensely enjoyable and not a little influential. Made up of seasoned indie rockers, the band spiked their psych-country mix with a confident sonic power that endeared them to Sub Pop Records, which issued their initial trio of records in the early 2000s. Other bands definitely found much to love (or borrow) from their tuneful mash-up of styles and sounds, though few pulled it off with the same amount of artistic success. The group ran out of steam too quickly, though they did reunite for 2013's nostalgic album Tarnished Gold. Beachwood Sparks formed in 1997 when bassist/vocalist Brent Rademaker and guitarist/vocalist Josh Schwartz (both formerly of the noise pop band Further) joined up with guitarist/vocalist Chris Gunst of Strictly Ballroom, pedal steel player/keyboardist Farmer Dave Scher, and drummer Jimi Hey. The band started off playing a take on the jangly power pop of groups like Teenage Fanclub, but quickly delved deeper into the kind of cosmic country music earlier L.A. artists like the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Mike Nesmith pioneered in the late '60s. The band added elements of psychedelia and indie pop to the mix, coming up with a unique sound that caught the ear of legendary talent spotter and label head Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records. He released their debut single, "Desert Skies," on his label in late 1998. By this time, Hey had left the group to be replaced by Tom Sanford. Percussionist Pete "Sleigher" Kinne also joined as the combo's sound grew more expansive. The group's next move was to collaborate with Kurt Heasley of Lilys, essentially working as his backing band for a short spell. That band's Aaron Sperske took over the drum duties after Sanford left. This lineup recorded a single for Sub Pop; "Midsummer Daydream"/"Windows 65" was issued in April 1999. Schwartz and Kinne bowed out of Beachwood Sparks after this and the slimmed-down lineup began working on their debut album. The self-titled record was released by Sub Pop and Bomp! in March 2000. Produced by the band and Michael Deming, the record confidently updated the cosmic country sound with a lightly trippy feel. The group found many takers for their brand of country-rock and spawned not a few imitators. They launched their first tour of the U.S. and Canada, entering the studio upon their return to work on album number two. Decamping to a studio in Massachusetts to work with producer Thom Monahan, the band dialed down the psychedelic influences in favor of a woodier, more mellow sound. Featuring a guest guitar solo from J. Mascis and a dreamlike cover of Sade's "By Your Side," Once We Were Trees was released in October 2001. Augmented by guitarist Neal Casal, the group went back on the road, where they scored a slot opening for the Black Crowes and headed to the U.K. for the first time. When they returned to the studio in early 2002, the band's lineup had shifted once again. Sperske was replaced by original drummer Jimi Hey and DNTEL's Jimmy Tamborello -- a longtime friend of the band -- signed on to add electronic textures to their sound. Also at the sessions were sometime tour guitarist Ben Knight and vocalist Mia Doi Todd. The result of their work was 2002's Make the Cowboy Robots Cry EP, a sparse and trippy record that showed some acid folk influence. They hit the road once again, playing with the Shins and expanding their reach into Europe. This was where their story seemed to end. The bandmembers split off in different directions, Gunst forming Mystic Chords of Memory, Rademaker joining with his brother Darren in the Tyde, and Farmer Dave establishing himself as a first-call sideman as well as releasing a record under the name All Night Radio (Spirit Stereo Frequency) for Sub Pop in 2004. After years of not being in contact, Beachwood Sparks reunited at Sub Pop's urging to play the label's 20th anniversary concerts in 2008, then did a few select shows afterward. Sperske kept in touch with the rest of the band afterward, letting them know how interested he was in continuing with the group. His efforts got a boost when their cover of "By Your Side" was included in the film Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Eventually, the band decided to make another record, signing up with Sub Pop and heading back to the studio. The group's core of Gunst, Rademaker, Sperske, and Scher was abetted by a crew that included longtime satellite members Knight and Casal as well as pedal steel player Dan Horne, Darren Rademaker, Jen Cohen, Jimi Hey, and Ariel Pink. The album's melancholy warmth captured the sense of time gone by and friendships rekindled. The band went their separate ways soon afterward, with Scher going on to play with Interpol and cut solo albums and Rademaker starting GospelbeacH. Beachwood Sparks never completely faded away, though, and in 2013 Alive Records issued Desert Skies, a compilation of songs the band recorded in 1997 and 1998. In late 2020, Rademaker's own Curation Records label released an expanded version of their debut album and Beechwood Deluxe, a set that included the bonus tracks from the expanded edition and a live show recorded in 2000.
© Tim Sendra /TiVo

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