(August 18th marks the release of Farmer Dave Scher’s (founding member of Beachwood Sparks) debut solo record, Flash Forward to the Good Times. To commemorate the release I asked Duke from You Set The Scene, a longtime L.A. resident and local music encyclopedia, to recount the genesis of Beachwood Sparks and their place in the fabric of L.A. music.)
In recent years, you’ve very likely seen Scher backing up some big names (playing lap steel with Jenny Lewis and Elvis Costello and keyboards with Interpol). For those of us in Los Angeles, Farmer Dave’s been a fixture on the scene for over a decade.
Pre-Beachwood Sparks Days
Remember those pre-Myspace, pre-Sirius XM, pre-MP3 blog days, when college radio was the best way for undiscovered bands to get their songs heard? Los Angeles’ KXLU was (and really still is) one of the most influential college radio stations in the country. In the mid-nineties, Jimmy Tamborello was the music director there. Not surprisingly, many of KXLU’s DJs were also musicians. It was there that Farmer Dave met fellow musicians Chris Gunst, Jimi Hey and Tamborello.
Strictly Ballroom was a band that came together as a direct result of these KXLU connections. Gunst and Tamborello, formed the band with Paul Larson and Ian MacKinnon in the mid-nineties (Jimi Hey did a brief tenure as well). They played slow building, edgy music along the lines of bands like Seam, Bedhead and Codeine. The band wasn’t in existence long enough to reach their potential, but their only full-length, Hide Here Forever, is worth seeking out for fans of those other bands.
Another popular LA band on the scene at the time was Further. Led by two transplanted Floridians, Darren and Brent Rademaker (along with Josh Schwartz and Kevin Fitzgerald), Further, influenced by bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., was already established by the time Strictly Ballroom started, but the two bands started playing shows together at venues like Jabberjaw and the Alligator Lounge. Further was starting to run its course a little bit and Gunst and Hey joining couldn’t save it.
The Beachwood Sparks Era
By 1997 Gunst and Brent Rademaker were becoming closer friends and were digging deep into Gram Parsons’ (International Submarine Band, Byrds, Burritos, solo) legacy. With the help of Farmer Dave Scher (organ, pedal and lap steel) and Jimi Hey (drums) they formed a new band called Beachwood Sparks. In very short order Hey was replaced by Tom Sanford and then Josh Schwartz (guitar/vocals) and Pete “Sleigher” Kinne (percussion) joined the band.
After their initial 7” (“Desert Skies”) came out on Bomp! Sanford was replaced by Aaron Sperske of the Lilys. As a six-piece, the band was a high energy, jangly, middle period Byrds meets Big Star band. They released another fantastic 7” (this time on Sub Pop with Schwartz’s “Midsummer Daydream” as the A-side) before situations got fucked up and Kinne and Schwartz left the band. There may or may not have been some issues with girls.
Now a four piece, the Beachwood Sparks released their self-titled debut on Sub Pop in 2000. It’s an accomplished, totally enjoyable slice of Laurel Canyon rock that sounds as fresh today as it did nine years ago. Heavily influenced by The Notorious Byrd Brothers, it would have had a really good shot at the charts in 1968 or 2008 (the year of Fleet Foxes). The band was making cosmic american music at a time when not many of their contemporaries were doing it.
Nineteen months later, the band released their follow-up, Once We Were Trees. The lineup remained intact, but featured guest appearances by J. Mascis and Ben Knight. Moving further away from catchy pop, it’s more stoned sounding, featuring darker lyrics. Farmer Dave’s vocals are higher in the mix on this record and he handles lead vocalist duties for the first time on “The Sun Surrounds Me.” It’s another impressive album that, in an era where Fleet Foxes is commercially viable enough to sell a few hundred thousand records, deserves another close look.
In the wake of the album, the Black Crowes invited the Beachwood Sparks out on the road as their opener. Neal Casal was added as an additional guitarist. The tour would prove to be difficult and Aaron Sperske soon parted ways. On a side note, the video for their cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” features footage from Sperske’s wedding to his ex, noted photographer Autumn de Wilde.
Their final EP, Make the Robot Cowboys Cry marks the return of Jimi Hey on drums. Lending a hand to production, and contributing electronic flourishes, was Jimmy Tamborello. It was a big departure from their two LPs, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the band split up after its release.
Side Projects / Post-Beachwood Sparks / Supporting Cast of Characters
After Further broke up, Brent’s brother Darren kicked around in a couple of bands. The one that ended up sticking was the Tyde. The band initially featured Darren’s wife at the time Ann Do (synths/organ/piano), his brother Brent (bass), Gunst (drums), Knight (guitar) and Farmer Dave (organ/lap steel). The band mixes influences like Felt, Dennis Wilson and Jan and Dean. The current incarnation of the band features Darren Rademaker, Knight, Ric Menck and Josh Schwartz.
Chris Gunst gave up the smog and pointed the compass on his VW bus north. He formed the band Mystic Chords of Memory with his girlfriend Jen Cohen (with initial help from Knight).They released their self-titled debut on Rough Trade in 2004. They followed that up by collaborating with Nobody (aka Elvin Estela – another one of those KXLU guys) on the 2006 album, Tree Colored See.
Brent Rademaker took a similar approach and also started a band with his girlfriend at the time. Frausdots released its only record, Couture, Couture, Couture, on Sub Pop in 2004. It’s a darker, colder record that’s heavy on the synths and keyboards. It’s quite a bit of a departure from everything that came before it, and while it is a bit uneven, there are some redeeming moments.
Farmer Dave and Jimi Hey banded together to form All Night Radio. They released their only record, Spirit Stereo Frequency, in 2004 through Sub Pop. It’s weird and psychedelic but still manages to convey Farmer Dave’s wide-eyed optimism. File it on your record shelf next to those early Animal Collective records. Elvin Estela helped mix it.
Josh Schwartz took the Gunst/Rademakers approach and started a band with is wife at the time. Fairechild self-released their only record in 2005. Current playing with the Tyde, Schwartz also has a new band called Painted Hills (formerly known as Bolero). Their debut record is set to be released next February. The guy’s an amazing guitar player.
Aaron Sperske plays drums around town with the Lilys, The Movies and Music Go Music.
Elvis Estella recorded two albums as Nobody for Ubiquity and one for Plug Research. He’s currently in the Long Beach band, Blank Blue.
Jimmy Tamborello has released records as Dntel, Figurine and James Figurine. His most commercially successful record was his collaboration with Ben Gibbard. The Postal Service’s Give Up remains Sub Pop’s second biggest seller ever (behind Nirvana). He live DJs around town and also does the on-air thing through Dublab.
Paul Larson currently fronts the orch-pop band, The Minor Canon. The band recently released their second full length, Emptiness is Form. Larson plays on a lot of Jimmy Tamborello’s records. Interestingly enough he was also in a band called Athalia with Michael Orendy (who currently records for Autumn Tone under the name Frankel). words/ duke