Neal Casal is at the wheel of a fifteen-passenger government baby blue van. It is a late grey morning just before autumn’s official reign begins. The dog days of summer appear to have fled early. Gear has just been loaded out of a motel room in Lebanon, Tennessee, and stowed into the attached trailer. The members of Los Angeles band Beachwood Sparks are crumped into the van, hurtling down the highway toward New York City. The following night, they will begin a three-show stand at the Beacon Theatre opening for the Black Crowes. They will contribute their take from the door and merchandise to the September 11 fund.
Exactly one week earlier, New York City and the rest of the world as we knew it changed forever. Here in Tennessee, by telephone, me in Nashville, the boys pulling out of neighboring Lebanon, we are to be speaking about Once We Were Trees, the band’s second full-length album for Sub Pop. But as Dave Scher, who plays guitar and keyboards, somberly notes, “It [the terrorist attacks and their aftermath] dwarfs anything we’d normally be concerned with.”
Beachwood Sparks — Scher, vocalist/guitarist Chris Gunst, bassist Brent Rademaker and drummer Aaron Sperske, plus multi-instrumental touring member Casal — have already been on the road for a couple weeks. Just before Casal takes the wheel, as the guys begin pouring into the van, Scher surveys the lay of the land and reports, “We’re leaving a Comfort Inn right now. There are American flags planted into the grass around the area. There are a lot of food chains — Taco Bells and Ponderosa Steakhouses and Shoney’s. Flags at half mast, you know. But there are a lot of pretty trees and such here, as is befitting the Tennessee landscape. It looks like a lot of places we’ve stopped so far. They all have this look to them. The hotel lifestyle.”
The wash of sameness. This is indeed the America of the interstate traveler. In real time. Homogenized detail bleeds one into the other. This is the land of what Gram Parsons called cosmic American music, and the precursor for what this traveling band of players does with a freshness and dedication altogether surprising.
As it stands, Beachwood Sparks has made a cosmic cowboy fairytale of a love letter to their country. Once We Were Trees is full of beautiful, densely orchestrated psychedelic country songs; where their self-titled debut of last year was an admirably pleasant, if lightweight and derivative, open-sky elegy, Once We Were Trees is the very peculiar and beautiful music of a lush and deep forest. A map of the human heart. The songs themselves — gentle, ever hopeful, and space-cake far-out — are the breadcrumbs leading home.
From the rolling van on a cellular telephone, vocalist and guitarist Gunst takes a deep breath. He has just weeks ago relocated from his native Southern California to West Seattle’s expanse of hilly homes near the ferry crossings off Alki Beach, to “practice what I preach,” leaving behind sprawling city skyscape and smog for “more trees and cleaner air.” Gunst exhales slowly. And in the same slightly squashed dulcet voice in which he sings, he says, “You know, maybe music can save us.”
It is not an idle statement, nor a grandiose gesture to make light of the horror which we have witnessed, been impacted by, and continue to reel from. It is clearly a tender and humble offering, the intoned intention of which says: This is what we have. If our songs be balm, please take them; hold them close.
As each of the band members explains, Once We Were Trees was written and made during troubled or dark times for the individual players, for reasons that are as different as fingerprints, private as dreams. And too, for reasons as universal as the yearning for a love that’s real, rooted in truth. Yet tempered and tendered by the hard-won wisdom of untold mistakes, and the infinite hope and faith in the possibility of transcendence, as is sung on “Close Your Eyes” in resplendently imperfect harmony: “Close your eyes to see/A better place for you and me/Imagination set us free/Where we could be/Better versions of our ourselves.”
As Scher tells it, “Chris ends up coming up with so much of the music, and it end[s] up we look to him to write a lot of the words for the songs. But there are a couple other ways it happens. Brent also writes really well, and we all actually write together; we make a concerted effort, at least once. Like the song ‘New County’ on the first album. And ‘The Hustler’ on this album, you could see everyone pitching in. Yeah, that was a good one because everyone was going through some heavy experiences they were able to bring to it and work together to turn all that into some music that would have some heavy magic to it.”
Formed in 1997, born of friendships centered around Los Angeles radio station KXLU-FM, Beachwood Sparks was simply an outlet to get together at Rademaker’s house to play country music. The guys, moving away from indie and post-rock bands Further, led by Rademaker, and Strictly Ballroom, headed up by Gunst, became inspired by the music of Gene Clark, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead, leading them into territory they hadn’t previously explored.
Exemplary of their punk ethic, Scher hopped up a lap steel before the first practice and made his initial run at it in the company of his friends. Likewise, he moved on to “an old battleship” pedal steel just prior to recording Once We Were Trees, and rolled right through the learning curve with natural musicianship and sheer enthusiasm.
In fits and starts, the band moved through a few members, and the heavy magic Scher mentioned began in earnest when the sextet dropped to a quartet. Drummer Aaron Sperske, who returned home to Los Angeles after a few years playing with the Lilys and the Pernice Brothers, rounded out the foursome of today. Not long after, Sub Pop signed the band for a one-off. They served as Kurt Heasley’s backup band for the Lilys, and continue to do so for his West Coast dates. Rademaker, Gunst and Scher also play with the Tyde, Rademaker’s brother’s band, whose retro Brit-pop shimmery Once has received much praise.