In June an unreleased Sparklehorse single entitled “Evening Star Supercharger” was released. The song will be included on a new posthumous album entitled Bird Machine, set for release on September 8th, 2023. In recognition of this event we are re-posting an interview with Linkous by Tim Thompson which appeared in Rick’s Cafe.
Signal to Noise: Sparklehorse
Story and Pictures by Tim Thompson
Over the past decade, Mark Linkous has been creating intense and unique musical visions under the pseudonym of Sparklehorse. In a move that has become tradition to this town, Smart Studios has welcomed the sonic pioneer into their facility to polish his new creation. After a career spent touring with bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, releasing albums featuring guests like Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and Nina Persson of the Cardigans, and establishing a stellar reputation as a singular talent pushing the boundaries of pop music, he found himself behind Smart’s vintage Trident A-Range console to finish his as-yet-untitled fourthh LP.
He completed his work here on Christmas day with local engineer Beau Sorensen. He was, however, kind enough to pull himself away from his own brand of madness to discuss recording and creating with me, allowing me to listen as he scratched away at his newest masterpiece, with multiple guitars solos played simultaneously in reverse over a simple pop progression. Thanks to Mike Zirkel and Smart Studios for introducing me to this innovative musical explorer.
Rick’s Cafe: Would you consider Sparklehorse a band or are you Sparklehorse?
Mark Linkous: I guess it’s more a collective and I’m the person with the final fingers on the fader. I didn’t want to play everything again, because I pretty much did that on the first two records. So on the last record I just got a lot of friends to play on it. And with this one it kind of went back more to the way I did it on the first two records. I played most everything, with the exception of the drums and stuff, which Steven [Drozd] from the Flaming Lips played on a few tracks.
RC: What is your process of creating? Do you write everything before you go into the studio and bring in people to play, or do you create as you’re recording?
ML: Every song starts really basically, with just a guitar and a melody or some melodic idea. Structurally it’s always pretty consistent in that it’s traditional songwriting. I guess the thing is just to make kind of normal songs just be interesting, you know. Maybe get the sounds all gnarly and stuff, if you can create that in an aural way, a tactile sound or emotion or whatever. It’s really hard to articulate. I just try to capture the sounds in my head, though 90% of the time it doesn’t make it to tape like that.
RC: When you bring people in to record with you, like on the last album when you had over a dozen people in studios all over the world working with you, do you have everything charted and conceptualized before you start or do the musicians bring in their own ideas?
ML: Oh, everybody did their own thing. I mean, if it wasn’t sounding like I wanted it to, I coached people. But everyone pretty much did what they wanted to do. And, again, if I didn’t like it later on, I’d just leave that fader down. It wasn’t really conscious. On the last one, when we went to Barcelona, it was never like I said “I want John Parish, Polly [PJ] Harvey and Adrian from Portishead, but it just kind of happened like that. It wasn’t really planned. Scott [Minor] and I were going to go to record in Spain and John was available and John knew Polly and I knew Polly and it just kind of happened. It was all sort of accidental. On this one, I really didn’t want to have a lot of famous people on it. It seemed to overwhelm the last record. Everyone wanted to talk about what it was like to work with Tom Waits or whatever. For this one I did most of it, with the exception of Steven and a laptop musician I know named Christian Fennesz, an Austrian glitch producer. Other than that, there hasn’t been a whole lot of collaboration like there was on the last one.
RC: When you’re in the studio, what do find to be the most powerful tool that you use, whether it’s a piece of gear or a way of looking at the process?
ML: I guess it’s anything that gives me the ability to, even just a little bit, make that picture of the sound in my head make it through the mixing board into the tape recorder. I think it’s being able to articulate what I’m visualizing.
RC: So whatever allows you to accomplish that vision is a necessary tool. When you visualize music, is it pictures or colors or what?
ML: It’s like both. It’s like slides of film and textures. It’s really hard to explain. But, basically, it’s just trying to get what’s in my head onto tape and the ability to pull that off sometimes is what I try for.
RC: Is there any one album on which you think you’ve accomplished that more than on others?
ML: Probably the second one, Good Morning Spider. I played almost everything on that record and it was very labored over. That was probably the best example of that. But I didn’t want to do that again, so I intentionally got lots of people to play on the last one and, with this one, I kind of split the difference.
RC: So you’re refining your process of creation and with every album it evolves?
ML: Yeah. I definitely try to keep things changing and hopefully evolving and metamorphisizing (sic) into interesting directions.
RC: Is there any one song that you’ve written that stands out as being the best representation of what you saw in your head?
ML: Yeah, the one I’m working on now. And there’s a few on this (album), though I can’t even tell you the titles right now. I did some stuff with Dangermouse, and there were a lot of things he did with re-sampling. He did some stuff that I’ve never really been exposed to before, where he’d take specific elements that I had on tape, specific tracks or images or whatever, and grab them from a part of the song that I didn’t play and import it into his computer, fuck with it, make it sound like it’s really small or something, and reinsert in a different place where I wouldn’t have done it. But his head, being in the hip-hop sort of thing but loving the Beatles at the same time… that was really cool to collaborate with someone like that. But between Dangermouse, Christian Fennesz and Steven (Drozd) just being a great rock drummer, I think there seems to be some really cool, diverse elements on this one.
RC: What advice would you have for songwriters trying to produce their own music? What’s a good first step? ML: I guess just getting it down. I used to say “Buy a four-track,” but these days, you can pretty much have a multi-track studio on your desktop. And the next step is getting it out there so people can hear it. Things have changed so much in the last ten years on the Internet, everything’s just so much easier to do. I mean, really – just record it and get it out there.