Best Of ’99: Sparklehorse Survive Setbacks, Trot Out New LP

Group leader Mark Linkous' recovery from drug overdose inspires much of Good Morning Spider.

[Editor’s note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999’s top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, March 8.]

Sparklehorse singer/guitarist Mark Linkous spent three months during 1996 in a London hospital recuperating from a drug overdose. It was the worst of times for the singer/guitarist, but it wasn’t the end.

Rather than letting this become a tragic postscript to a promising career, Linkous translated the experience into new music.

Though he’s still recovering from the trauma, the dark, life-changing period inspired some of the material and much of the tone on his recently released album Good Morning Spider — an acclaimed collection of introspective, rootsy rock.

“I was on anti-depressants and took a bunch of pills and passed out in a hotel room in London,” Linkous said. “It f—ed me up. I had to have a bunch of operations done to my legs, and I had a cardiac arrest for a few minutes.

“I was so pumped-up on morphine and having operations all the time, I didn’t know where I was for two months.”

As harrowing as that sounds, the Virginia-based Linkous, 34, has been off the ward for a while and is back in business. He’s even on the verge of a U.S. concert tour. It’s set to begin March 12 at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C., and will promote Good Morning Spider — the follow-up to the band’s 1995 debut album,
Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.

Still, his medical nightmare has clearly left an impression on the artist. Two tunes from the new album that were inspired by his stay at St. Mary’s Hospital are
“Pig” (RealAudio
excerpt
), an angry fuzzed-out punk song, and “St. Mary’s,” a hushed acoustic ode to the nurses who helped him back to health.

“I was lucky in a way,” Linkous said. “The nurses were really compassionate. I don’t think doctors and nurses over here are that compassionate.”

According to Linkous, a couple of cuts that were completed for his first LP were left off it and have ended up on Good Morning Spider. He explained that they were album-quality, but he decided to wait for the right time to put them out.

“I think that this [new album is] more elegant than the first one, a little less guitar-based,” Linkous said. “Some of the pop songs, like ’Sick of Goodbyes,’ I intentionally held back [from] the first album …. I think I wanted to establish my thing for the first record and that it would be safe to put more poppy stuff on the second one.”

Mostly recorded at a small studio behind Linkous’ Virginia home, the 17-song Good Morning Spider blends tunes such as “Pig” and
“Sick of Goodbyes” (RealAudio
excerpt
) with quiet, piano-laced acoustic songs such as “Hey Joe”
and short instrumental interludes such as “Box of Stars.”

Sparklehorse is essentially Linkous with the help of hired hands. They
won a number of high-profile fans with Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.
Among them were Cracker frontman David Lowery, who plays on three tracks
on the new LP, and Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz, who praised the
first release for its multi-dimensional qualities.

“[It’s] the combination of all the different sounds and melodies,” Duritz, 34, said of Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. “[Acoustic] sounds and electric sounds and heavily distorted electric sounds and melodic and not-melodic things. It was a real three-dimensional sculpture of a record.”

Linkous maintained a similar blueprint for the latest record, saying
that he took his cue from records that inspire him, such as gravelly-voiced songwriter Tom Waits’ Bone Machine and Swordfishtrombone.

“I’m really intrigued by records when they inspire film in my head,” Linkous said. “A lot of music seems completely one-dimensional and only affects my brain in an aural sense. I don’t really think music has to be that well-defined. I think it’s good when music inspires film, inspires images.”

It’s this imagery that made touring with Linkous appealing to Jonathan
Segel, former violinist with the whimsical, rootsy art-rock band Camper
Van Beethoven, who will be onboard when the Sparklehorse tour begins
March 12.

“His imagery is very Southern, very Southern Gothic, very dreamlike,” Segel said. “It appeals to me in the way it’s applied to [his] music. He’s meticulous about his sound. [Nothing is] haphazard or rote, and a lot of the sounds or samples he gets … are very forward thinking and futuristic. He synthesizes old music, where he comes from, and what’s available in the modern world.”