SOME SWEET MUSIC Mark Linkous/Sparklehorse

We say farewell to the North Carolina musician, who passed away this
weekend.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Ed. note: With Mark
Linkous’ suicide
on March 6, the music world lost another amazingly gifted
artist; as with Vic Chesnutt’s December passing, that loss seems a tragic
waste. It’s no secret, however, that Linkous had struggled with depression for
much of his adult life, and his family released a statement that said, simply,
“It is with great sadness that we share the news that our dear friend and
family member, Mark Linkous, took his own life today. We are thankful for his
time with us and will hold him forever in our hearts. May his journey be
peaceful, happy and free. There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you.”

 

At the time of his
death, Linkous had reportedly almost finished a new album for the Anti- label,
and just this past week it was announced that the Danger Mouse-Sparklehorse
collaboration
Dark Night of the Soul would finally see release following the resolution of a dispute with EMI. So let the following story stand as our
tribute to Linkous – it was originally published a little over a year ago by
Carolina music magazine Shuffle
, and Shuffle editor John Schacht (also a BLURT
contributor) has graciously allowed us to reprint it, below.

 

Reflecting on his
encounter with Linkous, Schacht observed, “I liked his [sense of] humor – nice
guy, very damaged, though. When I hung up the phone the last time, he was
walking into a therapist’s in Asheville,
and [I sensed] I’d never speak to him again. You could feel the weight of his
depression.”

 

 

*** 

 

Years ago, when Sparklehorse was just a
foal
in Mark Linkous’ imagination, he sometimes turned to folk art to help
make ends meet. “I’d make whirligigs out of wood and old pieces of tin,” he
says almost sheepishly. Then he’d take a sawed-off shotgun to them and Sharpie
the remains with random data — “the date it was shot and the wind-speed and
the temperature” — before selling his doo-dads to “snooty people” who thought
they were buying collectible folk art.  “Instead, it was just some
dumbass with a shotgun and a hammer.”

 

This is the point on the page where you’d expect to see the
analogy made that Linkous’ music is similarly constructed from random bits of
musical detritus that’s been shot gunned and hammered into quixotic sonic
shapes. But not here, and not this time, because there’s not much left to
chance in the carefully crafted art of Sparklehorse music.

 

Loyalists – including some rather prominent musicians – will
swear by it: There’s just something about the blend of fuzzy rockers and
summer-haze twang, meandering guitars and tape-looped cicadas, wheezing pump
organs and swirly synths, bruised vocals and haunted-farm vignettes, that makes
Linkous’ scattered releases treasured items.

 

The former Virginian, who’s lived secluded the last five
years in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, is the kind of musician who
finds other musicians practically campaigning to be on his records. Previous
Sparklehorse record guest-spots have included the likes of Tom Waits, PJ
Harvey, Nina Persson and Vic Chesnutt, and Linkous has been invited to tour or
record with Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, Portishead, Christian Fennesz, David
Lowery, and, on 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years In the Belly of A
Mountain
, with Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame.

 

The appeal? Linkous forges his music in the crucible between
sadness and wonder, destruction and renewal, and seems closer than most to the
effects of the process. Those polarities mirror the author’s own emotional
tenor, but it’s also culled from the natural world that Linkous, his wife
Teresa, and their menagerie of pets and farm animals encounter in the woodlands
surrounding their mountain home. Through Four Elements-metaphor and zoomorphic
imagery, Linkous creates a fantastical tableau where decay and rebirth haunt
the same space where the spirits of old horses roam and crows have “old souls,”
June bugs are “gods” and fireflies are “dying stars,” and we’re all “born to
return back to clay.”

 

Tuning in to those often stygian frequencies for inspiration
can exact a steep emotional toll. But unlike the creativity-killing depression
and addiction that resulted in five years of songwriting silence between
2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life and Dreamt for Light
Years…, 
Linkous has kept busy since his last release. In addition to
his own recent trio-tour in Europe he just wrapped a summer Euro-jaunt with
Daniel Johnston, and was joined in Johnston’s backing band by Scout Niblett, Yo
La Tengo’s James McNew, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, and Jad Fair of
Half-Japanese. (Linkous produced Johnson’s 2003 disc, Fear Yourself,
and curated a 2004 tribute to the lo-fi hero, The Late Great Daniel
Johnston: Discovered Covered.
)

 

Linkous is also writing and arranging material for the next
Sparklehorse record. He calls the new songs “Buddy Holly-like” with “simpler
chord progressions and lots of cool noises,” and has compared them elsewhere to
“suicide probes that send back as much information as they can before crashing
into the sun.” Unlike his last two releases, this time Linkous is trying to
streamline rather than obsess over the dozens of snippet-filled micro-cassette
tapes that he collects in the process of songwriting.

 

“I always thought that I was just a conduit, that something
was coming through me and I was making music out of it,” he says in his hushed Virginia drawl. “It
seems like that got harder and harder to do, so I’m trying to do that again by
simplifying things. The songs are not quite as clever, and I’m not laboring
forever over every line, every lyric.”

 

He’s also producing twangy songwriter and Macon County
neighbor Angela Martin to “keep my studio chops up,” he says, adding Waits-like
Bone Machine twists” to the singer’s clever narratives. And his
much-anticipated collaboration with Danger Mouse – tentatively titled Dangerhorse –
is finally getting mixed for a 2009 release. The track-list includes guest
spots from the Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, the Cardigans’
Persson, and ex-Granddaddy guru Jason Lytle, among a host of others. Also in
the can is a joint effort with laptop wizard Fennesz for the In the
Fishtank 
series — though Konkurrent, the Dutch label that’s recorded
and released the previous 14 imaginative pairings, hasn’t released one in over
two years after typically dropping two a year.

 

Linkous’ music may inspire, but his release-luck hasn’t:
after his seminal 1995 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, won
him his cult following, 1998’s Good Morning Spider chronicled
a London hotel
room overdose-and-collapse that briefly stopped his heart and left him in a
wheelchair for six months (he still wears leg braces today). It’s a
Wonderful Life
 was released a week before Sept. 11, 2001, and
essentially died on the vine despite all the heavyweight guests and critical
accolades; one week after “Dreamt for Light Years… came out,
the EMI merger begat a Night of the Long Knives bloodletting, and any
Capitol/Parlophone/Astralwerks artist that didn’t sell at least 500,000
records, Linkous says he was told, was dropped “no questions asked.”

 

“The last couple of albums,” he sighs, “have been sort of
cursed.”

 

Still, sale numbers don’t reflect his records’ impact
(Authors’ note: In a decade of interviewing musicians, few peer-artists have
invoked more geeky-fan-like reverence when their name comes up). Much of the
credit for the Sparklehorse sound goes to Linkous’ fascination with vintage
gear and audio. But his isn’t a collector’s dilettantism; like any audio hound,
it’s all about sound. When he visited the Capitol Records building in Los
Angeles, Linkous was disappointed his tour didn’t include the fabled
subterranean echo chambers Les Paul built beneath the parking lot, where early
Beatles’ recordings deemed sonically unsuited for the U.S. market went for
equalization and sound-brightening.

 

Linkous seems mildly embarrassed by the geeky nature of gear-talk,
and concedes he isn’t mechanically inclined at all. Yet he has fallen victim to
the siren-like satisfaction of trying to build shit yourself. While in
Virginia, the self-confessed “carpentry retard” once tried to build garage
doors for the 150-year-old farmhouse he lived in, but miscalculated the actual
width and length of the wood, leaving a two-foot-wide gap when he shut the
doors he’d slaved over. “Two-by-fours and one-by-sixes aren’t two-by-four and
one-by-six at all, and I didn’t know that,” he laughs. “I mean, where the fuck
is the Bureau of Weights and Measures?”

 

Maybe it’s his admiration for those who are craftsmen that
draws him magnet-like to any rare or odd-ball instrument that might yield new
and fantastic sounds. The stories behind how he acquired them, too, seem to
infuse the instruments’ personalities: haunting regional thrift stores and
coming away with a $100 church organ or a rare Japanese electric accordion;
buying a classic old guitar in a Fuddruckers parking lot from some sketchy
dude; calling in to rural AM-radio party lines seeking – and typically finding
— vintage fare for sale (see the sidebar for more details). His home studio,
Static King, is practically a repository for the stuff, from the 60s’
Fleckinger console through all manner of jerry-rigged components, banks of
keyboards, and the requisite quiver of acoustic and electric stringed
instruments.

 

Yet Linkous is just as likely to insist that “sometimes you
don’t need any of that shit” and can accomplish what you have to “with just a
four-track.” And that gets to the heart of Linkous’ skill set anyway; more than
this instrumental coterie, it’s the care and thought that goes into his musical
alchemy — knowing when to a let a melody breathe on its own, or when to
shotgun the bejesus out of it with distortion, feedback or synth debris — that
defines Sparklehorse music. As long as that sonic aesthetic is intact and his
instincts remain true, Linkous will likely never lack for admirers.

 

 

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