To mark the supremely sad occasion this week four years ago (March 6, 2010 to be exact) when we lost Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous to suicide — he had battled depression and other serious health problems over the years leading up to his death — here’s the full-length “Director’s Cut” of a feature profile I wrote on him back in 1999 for Rolling Stone.
This interview was done in the wake of Mark’s (presumably) accidental overdose that led to a near-death experience and a lengthy, harrowing recovery (to hear Linkous tell it, he actually died for a brief time). All of which he chronicled on his masterpiece/second album, “Good Morning Spider.”
I still remember calling him at his home in rural Virginia (the state where he grew up and then returned to many years later), and our luxuriously long conversation about his life in music to that point. He struck me as keenly thoughtful, droll, and somewhat shy, with a reclusive predilection for hiding in plain sight and big, open-air spaces. In the years following this interview, as his iconoclastic reputation grew, and his music found a wider, devoted audience, Mark would go on to collaborate with wildly varied, equally enigmatic artists such as Tom Waits (his idol), PJ Harvey, Danger Mouse, and film director David Lynch.
When he died of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the chest in Knoxville, Tennessee on that early March day, Linkous had released four albums with another nearly finished. He was 47 years old and left behind a relatively brief but brilliant body of work that continues to find new listeners.
The first thing Sparklehorse songwriter Mark Linkous wanted to do after he died was ride one of the four motorcycles he keeps at his farm in rural Andersonville, Virginia. Well, that’s not exactly true. The first thing he wanted to do after he died was to learn how to live again, and (here’s the really scary part) to see if he could still write a song. “For awhile there,” Linkous says, “I was really scared that when I technically died — which I guess I did for a few minutes — that the part of my brain that allowed me my ability to write songs would be damaged.”
In 1996, an overdose of “a whole lot of Valium and anti-depressants” in a London hotel room very nearly cut short Linkous’ career before it had really even begun. Sparklehorse had been finishing up a European tour in support of its debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, when Linkous keeled over in his hotel room. It was 14 hours before the singer was discovered unconscious, his legs pinned underneath him with their circulation cut off. When medics attempted to straighten his legs, the procedure triggered a heart attack. A three-month stay at St. Mary’s hospital in London and no less than seven operations were required to save Linkous’ legs, which doctors initially told him would have to be amputated. Even so, the singer says he was in a morphine-medicated state for two years after the accident.
“I don’t even remember flying over there to London,” says Linkous. “I just remember waking up in the hospital with fucking tubes coming out of my nose.” Though he’s understandably reluctant to rehash the episode, Linkous knows he has little choice but to talk about it. For one thing, despite having to wear braces on his legs, he’s getting ready for a two-month U.S. tour that begins in March with a band that includes cellist Sophie Michalitsianos, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan E. Segel, drummer Scott Minor, and bassist Scott Fitzsimmons (the band just finished playing a series of dates in Australia and New Zealand). For another, much of the material on Sparklehorse’s just-released second album, Good Morning Spider (Capitol), is in large part a product of the accident and its tortuous aftermath.
Linkous’ introspective, impressionistic songwriting style reaches new heights, or depths as the case may be, on Spider. Tracks like the cornet-laced “Painbirds,” the gathering storm of “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man,” and the nursery rhyme prayer of “Saint Mary” all examine the fragile, fleeting quality of life, and the tangle of emotions — frustration, resignation, wonder, and gratitude — that wrestled for position inside the stasis of Linkous’ helpless physical state. But even during his darkest days, Linkous held out a hand to hope. He didn’t have to reach very far. “The power of love is what saved my ass,” he says. “My walls were covered with cards and letters from people who said how much the first record meant to them, and that got me through it. It was amazing.”
Jonathan E. Segel, who’s been tapped by Linkous to play guitar, keyboards, violin and glockenspiel on the tour, first met Linkous a decade ago when his employer’s old group, the Dancing Hoods, was opening for Segel’s band, Camper Van Beethoven. It would be years, however, before Segel heard about the strange outfit called Sparklehorse from his ex-Camper bandmate, David Lowery (now of Cracker), a frequent Linkous collaborator and fellow Virginian. In fact, one of Lowery’s and Linkous’ songs, “Sick of Goodbyes” (which first appeared on Cracker’s 1993 album, Kerosene Hat), has been tapped by Capitol as Spider’s first UK single.
“The thing that’s so great about Mark’s music is that it’s got this timeless quality,” Segel says a couple of days after the band’s return from Australia. “There’s definitely an old-time sound to it, but at the same time I think the sonic nature of what Mark’s doing is very forward-thinking.” Segel’s job on tour holding down the “multi-instrumentalist” spot means that, more than anyone else save Linkous, it’s his responsibility to set the specific moods dictated by Linkous’ emotionally charged, intensely personal songs. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but I can relate to a lot of what he’s saying,” says Segel. “The way Mark puts things is very poetic, and there’s a universality to his songs. And that’s what makes a good songwriter. So I’m not just acting in this band. I like Mark and I believe in what he has to say.”
Still, Linkous confesses not to much care for that first single, “Sick of Goodbyes,” one of the new album’s most straightforward songs. Linkous calls it “a misrepresentation” of the album. He prefers “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man,” a track which would have been straightforward had Linkous not filtered its otherwise catchy-as-hell chorus through what sounds like a shortwave radio and treated his vocals as if he were singing them from an underground airport terminal.
“People don’t want to stick their necks out and take a chance on something different. Radio programmers like ‘Happy Man’ but they think it’s been sabotaged,” he says. “So I guess I need to play the game a little bit, but find a way to retain some integrity. It’s hard because (Capitol) wants me to sell a lot of records but I just don’t want to contribute to all the bullshit that’s on the radio.” The compromise, Linkous says, will be another, more radio-friendly version of ‘Happy Man’, remixed by PJ Harvey/Captain Beefheart alumnus Eric Drew Feldman.
For a guy who once headed to L.A. with dreams of rock stardom, Linkous’s rural existence residing at the marginalia of pop is a radical departure from where he first imagined he’d be. “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was escape,” says Linkous. “But in moving back here, I’ve since come to appreciate different things, like the holes and rests in our music. You know, the other night, I listened to a cricket for an hour. That’s the thing I’d like to contribute — making people remember those sounds.”
Nothing — not a guitar, voice, crickets, not even his dog Sweet Pea — is safe from Mark Linkous’ fetish for subverting the familiar. Even those acquainted with Linkous’ approach might be taken aback by what greets them on his answering machine: a guttural growling, industrial sawing noise that’s a trifle disorienting and disconcerting, but mostly funny. “Oh, that’s the dog snoring,” Linkous says, by way of explaining his ongoing experiments with a new audio sampling machine.
In fact, Spider is rife with a clutter of precisely those kinds of peculiar, improbable sounds that, when placed next to each other, conspire to create a kind of restless dreamscape that flickers in and out of focus: pockets of shortwave radio static (Linkous hasn’t called his home studio “Static King” for nothing) and whispered asides bump up against toy instruments and symphony hall strings. Strange sounds seep from every nook and cranny of Linkous’s cracked cosmos and the fractured filter of his imagination.
Ultimately, Sparklehorse’s music is as old as it is new, as bare as it is busy. For every buzzing burst of mid-fi pop, there’s an ancient Appalachian echo or a woozy detour into what might be described as a kind of rustic, art-damaged folk.
Linkous’ accident may have robbed him of his chance of running a four-minute mile (though his motorcycles allow him to cover that distance much more rapidly), but it hasn’t stripped him of his gift for composing cryptic, elegant lyrics about boxes of stars, hundreds of sparrows, and ghostly smiles.
It’s a strangely beautiful world that even Linkous couldn’t have possibly imagined when, as a teenager, he left his home in Richmond, Virginia and headed out to New York City and L.A. with dreams of punk rock stardom dancing in his head. But it didn’t take long, he says, before “I was as bored as shit with the idea of trying to make a rock record and getting signed. And then somebody played me a Tom Waits record.”
That was all he needed to hear. Linkous moved back to Richmond, joined a band that played nothing but “300-year-old Irish songs”, and basically discarded everything he thought he knew about music. “That period was about abandoning a lot of things and just starting from scratch and learning how to write again — learning how to make art out of pain or clay.” Linkous says he hears an honesty, an innocence and a purity of purpose in those old-fashioned sounds that’s missing in much of so-called modern rock.
The same might be said for why he eventually left the hurtling highways of the cities for the winding dirt roads of the country. He and his wife recently bought a farmhouse at the outskirts of a town that he says boasts little more than a post office. Perhaps in a sense, Linkous himself had to first lose the qualities he talks most about — honesty, purity of purpose — before he could, ultimately, reclaim them. For all its haunted reflections, Good Morning Spider sounds, finally, not like the work of a man who’s fallen down to die, but rather like a man who somehow, against all odds, has gotten to his feet to live.
Check out my Boston Globe concert review (published 2/28/07) of Sparklehorse at the Paradise in Boston two days earlier, on Feb. 26, 2007, here (video and audio from that very show follows below): http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2007/02/28/a_revived_sparklehorse_is_particularly_bright/
Live concert audio from Sparklehorse’s February 26, 2007 show at the Paradise (see my review for the Boston Globe above if so inclined):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzc8kDbViGo&list=PLFD573E67E23868B5
Listen to the full album, “Good Morning Spider,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kemZzBHcDRU
Check out “Sick of Goodbyes” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbDzob84Tok