Horse whispers

The strange and beguiling beast called Sparklehorse has been wandering the outer airwaves for over a decade now. Onstage – and at times in the studio – its body is given form by a band of musical friends. But its spirit is the sole preserve of Mark Linkous. With a new Sparklehorse album out on September 25th, Plug asked Steph Coole to rein him in. Linkous didn’t say nay… 

High above the globe-stretched ocean, beyond the rainbow, the animals waited. With no land to rest and spread out on, things were getting cramped. So the water beetle was sent to explore the all-consuming waves. After a while it reappeared, with a morsel of mud. Magically, the mud turned into land. But beyond the rainbow, the animals still waited. The land was too soft to inhabit. After a while, Grandfather Buzzard was dispatched to seek dry pastures. By the time he found an expanse of hardening mud, he was weary. So as his wings dipped and rose they dragged on the earth’s surface, carving huge valleys and mountain ranges. The Smoky Mountains. Home of the Cherokee.  It seems fitting that, according to Cherokee legend, such magical and natural forces created the current home of Mark Linkous. On his latest album – Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain – he illustrates the paradoxical powers of nature with an often-mesmerising bent. On the opening Don’t Take My Sunshine, he sings: “Your face is like the sun, sinking into the ocean. Your face is like watching flowers, growing in fast motion.”  From such vivid peaks it’s hard not to gasp for air, as Linkous casts sonic shadows in the direction of Dear Prudence. And the hazy, transient vistas are brought into sharp focus by his plaintive plea, “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” The hills are certainly alive. But from here, Linkous begins a languid descent into the fragile valley of Getting It Wrong. On melancholic chords, he cracks with barely audible emotion. Throughout the album, images of nature are used as symbol, simile and metaphor, giving the impression that Linkous is in complete harmony with his surroundings. It’s been five long years since the last Sparklehorse long-player – It’s A Wonderful Life. It feels good to have him back. 

Linkous responds to my greeting with uncertain warmth. “It feels pretty good to be back, I didn’t think people cared.” His voice trails off questioningly. And I pause, taken aback. Considering the amount of projects Linkous has been involved with over the last five years, it’s hard to believe that no one cares. The Cardigans’ Nina Persson. Beth Orton. Christian Fennesz. Goldfrapp. Cracker and Daniel Johnson. These are just a few of the artists that have benefited from working with Linkous. I ask if these collaborations were the result of a conscious decision to take a break from Sparklehorse. “It sort of falls in with a bad lack of ambition,” he answers. “The Daniel Johnson thing I fell into. And Christian Fennesz, that came about through playing a gig in Geneva, at an arts festival. Artists had to pair up, cross-pollination. I was already a big Christian fan. I think we’ll be doing a project together in the future.” It’s good to hear Linkous mention the future, because as we talk it becomes clear that dreaming in the belly of a mountain has not been the magical, free-flowing journey I imagined. “I moved from Virginia to North Carolina, this beautiful area in the Smoky Mountains,” says Linkous. “But it can get a little dangerous, that isolation. I got myself into a bit of a hole, became a serious recluse and things got really bad. I just fell into this vortex.” The Cherokees believe that the Earth’s surface, rather than rooted on crust, is suspended from the sky on rawhide ropes; a potentially fragile state. During the last decade, articles have often focused on Linkous’ fragile state-of-mind. In an interview with Magnet Magazine, he recalled living in a van on Venice Beach, strung-out on heroin. “I was at the end of my rope. I was ready to just walk out into the Pacific.” Thankfully the rope took his weight. But it frayed again in 1996 when, arriving in England to support Radiohead he collapsed, momentarily died and spent a long time learning to walk again. But it feels disrespectful to focus for too long on these aspects of Linkous’ life. Although disarmingly open in conversation, he is clearly an extremely sensitive and sometimes fragile man, something that comes across in his music, without the whiff of a rock ‘n’ roll whine. Sparklehorse albums are infused with a wonder and anguish that recalls the unbearable lightness of being; spend too long in the rarefied atmosphere of contented happiness and the soul will plummet. Somewhere between the peaks and troughs, Mark Linkous is able to craft a musical mainline that can transport listeners to an otherworldly plateau. The nearest reference point is perhaps Chris Bell post Big Star. But the Sparklehorse sound is not easy to categorise. “I was listening to so much stuff when I was growing up – Johnny Cash, The Stranglers – it was hard not to be influenced,” says Linkous. He has previously stated that his musical epiphany occurred whilst listening to House Of The Rising Sun. I couldn’t quite see where The Animals sat, between the melancholic, country harmonies and punkish rush. Linkous puts me straight. “Ha ha! When I used to go dirt biking in the mountains, there was a guy I knew who had a guitar and amp and played in this empty farmhouse. Just this sound, reverberating so loud. I was amazed at the size of it. It was even louder than my dirt bike. I mean he was playing House Of The Rising Sun really badly, but very loud!” 

Linkous’ passion for crafting sounds is apparent in the rich textures of his production. But in the smoky isolation of North Carolina, his passion foundered. “I couldn’t work for three years because of depression. I totally lost interest in recording songs and didn’t think that people cared.” But people did care. “When I started getting positive stuff down with Dangermouse, it gave me the confidence to get on with it,” reveals Linkous. “The stuff with Dangermouse, I think that was from people trying to help me get out of the hole I was in. I was loving the Grey Album but never thought that he would like Sparklehorse. We’re collaborating on stuff in December, with songs left over that we couldn’t really sing. Maybe we could call it Dangerhorse, or Sparklemouse! It’s bringing pop into a hip-hop background, I really like that stripped down sound of hip-hop.”  Other collaborators on Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain include Stephen Drodz, David Fridmann and Tom Waits. The fact that such established artists want to work with Mark Linkous should not be surprising. Although that’s not necessarily how he sees it. “Working with people like Tom and Daniel was inspiring and terrifying at the same time,” says Linkous. “When I was younger I worked as a chimney sweep and I never imagined I would be playing with…I still can’t believe it, it’s hard to comprehend.” Linkous is a Grandfather Buzzard of the soul, crafting majestic valleys and mountains of a sonic nature. Humble and self-depreciating, he is never likely to admit this. But he does admit to looking forward to leaving North Carolina for the forthcoming Sparklehorse tour. “I’ve got a totally new touring band. And my best friend for ages is the drummer so it’s going to be great having him around. I think I’m looking forward most to opening my eyes and seeing the audience, not walling it off. That will be new for me.” I finish by saying how much I’m looking forward to seeing the band at The Rescue Rooms. Mark Linkous simply and openly replies, “Please, come and say hello.” After spending light years in the belly of a mountain, Grandfather Buzzard no longer sounds weary. It’s time to watch him soar again. Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain is out on the 25th of September. Sparklehorse play The Rescue Rooms on October 3rd.


About this entry