The myth that artists must suffer to create meaningful work has long
been the most damaging ever foisted upon rock 'n' roll, and it's led to a
long, sad list of talents who've self-destructed much too soon. Mark Linkous,
the singer-songwriter and cult hero who's recorded four brilliant albums as
Sparklehorse, knows this all too well.
"It's one of the reasons I'm apprehensive about talking about
depression," Linkous says in his languid drawl. "But it has gotten to be too
much of a drag doing interviews and beating around the bush." Now, when he's
asked why "Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain" is the first
Sparklehorse album in five years, he answers directly: He was suffering from
a depression so deep that he couldn't bring himself to write or record for
"Maybe I had just become too much of a recluse for too long and convinced
myself that I couldn't do it anymore -- that I couldn't write good songs and
I couldn't make interesting records. Most of it was just having depression
really bad. So when people started asking me, I just started coming out with
that, thinking that maybe it would help people or inspire some people to get
over their own depression. But I was really apprehensive about talking about
it for that reason -- maybe some people would think that this was necessary
to make art, instead of an obstacle to it."
Tracing the arc of Linkous' career, it's easy to see why he'd be
concerned about being portrayed as "the long-suffering artist." Signed to
Capitol Records in the mid-'90s on the strength of a demo, he released the
critically acclaimed Sparklehorse debut "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot"
in 1996, scoring a modern-rock hit with "Someday I Will Treat You Good," and
landing high-profile tours opening for Radiohead and R.E.M. While on tour,
he passed out after mixing Valium with prescription antidepressants, and
wound up partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for several
Linkous chronicled his surgeries and his recovery on the 1998 album "Good
Morning Spider," and followed that with another strong effort in 2001's
"It's a Wonderful Life." Often described as Southern Gothic or the darkest
strain of alternative country, the sounds on the latter weren't nearly as
uplifting as the title suggested, but things did seem to be looking up for
him -- until the bout with depression that delayed the release of his fourth
Relocating from his native Virginia to rural North Carolina and slowly
recovering his ability to make music once again, Linkous recorded
"Dreamt..." in his own home studio, initially playing most of the
instruments himself. (On the current tour, Sparklehorse is completed by
guitarist Chris Michaels, bassist Paula Jean Brown, drummer Johnny Hott and
pedal steel player Matt Pleasant.) As in the past, however, Linkous also
attracted contributions from some impressive guests, including Steven Drozd
of the Flaming Lips, who drummed on "It's Not So Hard"; Sol Seppy, who added
backing vocals to "Please Don't Take My Sunshine," and one of his heroes,
Tom Waits, who added piano to "Morning Hollow."
Linkous' fragile, introspective tunes convey emotional depths that are
rarely heard even from the most revered songwriters, and his peers recognize
that. Another who contributed to "Dreamt..." is producer DJ Danger Mouse
(Gnarls Barkley, the Good, the Bad & the Queen), and he enjoyed the
experience so much, the two have already begun collaborating on a new album;
Linkous jokes that they might call the project "Danger Horse."
"I'm not sure exactly where it's going to go yet, we're still just
experimenting and trying to do different things."
Linkous is clearly enjoying the attention that "Dreamt..." has garnered;
he's happy to be performing live again, and he's looking forward to
recording a lot more and in a more timely fashion. "I don't believe that I
don't have anything to worry about anymore," he says. "But I do think that I
established enough confidence, song by song, until I got a record together,
and that it hauled me out of the hole. I think that I have enough confidence
since I did the record to keep from slipping down into the vortex again and
not being able to keep my head above water.
"I'm not saying I'm safe now -- that I might never be depressed again --
but it's not as dangerous as it was. You know, there's a great line in that
show 'Deadwood,' where Calamity Jane says, 'Every day, you have to figure
out how to live all over again.' Well, that's how I feel."
REASONS FOR LIVING
When I first came to Chicago in the early '90s, the first band I saw in
my new role as the Sun-Times rock critic was the late, lamented Trenchmouth.
I was blown away by singer Damon Locks' frenetic energy and Wayne
Montana's sinuous bass lines (not to mention future "Saturday Night
Live" star Fred Armisen's polyrhythmic drumming).
Fifteen years later, Locks and Montana are still making my eardrums ring
and my brain melt as I try to follow their serpentine rhythms -- and I mean
that as a heartfelt compliment.
Mainstays of the local underground rock scene, Locks and Montana formed
the Eternals in 1996 with percussionist, guitarist and keyboard
player Dan Fliegel. They haven't exactly been prolific in the years since,
but it's always been worth the long wait between albums, and that certainly
holds for their third release, "Heavy International" (Aesthetics), which
arrived in record stores last week.
As in the past, songs such as "Patch of Blue" and the aptly named "The
Mix Is So Bizarre" combine the band's roots in post-punk rock with funk,
disco, hip-hop and dub reggae influences, all thrown into a Cuisinart set to
"pulverize," and resulting in complex and ever-shifting grooves that suggest
the sort of sounds Lee "Scratch" Perry might have crafted if he'd had access
to ProTools and a sampler, and if he'd preferred speed and Ecstasy to his
The Eternals celebrate their new release tonight at the Empty Bottle,
1035 N. Western. Watchers and Low Down Brass Band open starting at 10 p.m.
Tickets, $10. Call (773) 276-3600.
SPARKLEHORSE; JESSE SYKES & THE SWEET HEREAFTER
• 9 p.m. Wednesday
• Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
• $16 in advance, $18 at the door
• (773) 489-3160