Out from the belly of the beast

Mark Linkous

Still trotting along: Mark Linkous walks a lonely road to fame. (c) Tim Saccenti

“For a while there, I just gave up,” says Mark Linkous. “And I was sure that everyone had given up on me and moved on.”

It’s as heart-rending as it is perplexing to hear such self-doubt from Linkous, the creative maestro and instrumental jack-of-all-trades behind Sparklehorse’s graceful, off-kilter beauty. Loyal fans may anticipate Sparklehorse releases with what amounts to religious fervor, and critical hosannas may greet each record — four over the last decade, including the new one, Dreamt for Light Years In the Belly of a Mountain — but after 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Linkous had become convinced that his work was “insignificant.”

Even the public adulation of peers like Radiohead, Califone, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, and the Cardigans’ Nina Persson no longer made a difference to Linkous. He retreated to his secluded North Carolina farmhouse about an hour outside of Asheville and, with the exception of a few cameos and production credits, simply left music behind while he battled a crippling depression for three years.

“When you’re down in that vortex, it’s just all-absorbing,” he says. “But if you can do something, or someone happens along just to inspire a little bit of confidence, it can go a long way.”

It was a chance encounter with production wizard Danger Mouse’s outlaw mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles, The Grey Album, that helped Linkous out of his creative funk. Linkous was already an accomplished home-studio alchemist whose previous records buzzed with sonic gauze — field recordings, reel-to-reel tape loops and glitchy samples — but he’d only worked with old-school analog. After touring with Radiohead in Europe after It’s a Wonderful Life, Linkous wanted “as much electronic influences as [on] Kid A and Amnesiac,” only without sacrificing traditional pop-song structure. Linkous was hearing his music through a digital filter, but it was one he couldn’t access because, as he puts it, “I can barely do e-mail.”

Enter Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, aka one half of 2006 sensation Gnarls Barkley. It turns out Burton was yet another musician fan of Sparklehorse, and eventually the two set up shop in Linkous’ Static King home studio. There, Burton performed his cut-and-paste computer magic on four songs Linkous had been at creative impasse with, kick-starting what would eventually become Dreamt for Light Years ….

“He’s like the Jimi Hendrix of the laptop,” says a still-enthused Linkous, adding that he and Burton plan to collaborate on a future project tentatively titled Danger Horse. “He would grab things from tracks that I’d already recorded, flip them over, run them backward, and make them fit in other songs as if it was an instrument being played. I was very impressed.”

The results are intoxicating. Linkous’ Southern-inflected pop and wistful folk-rock melodies — crafted into seamless arrangements from a vintage-music-store coterie of pump organs, optigans, strings, vibraphones, Wurlitzers, lap steels, acoustic and electric guitars — are coated in Burton’s computer-generated swirls, static and rhythmic hiccups. Burton’s much-sought-after ear serves him well, as he instinctively knows when to lay out so that the songs never feel cluttered.

Linkous then ventured north with some of the remaining tracks to the Upstate New York studio of Flaming Lips’ sound guru Dave Fridmann, even enlisting the Lips’ Stephen Drodz to play on a couple of cuts. Fridmann had produced It’s a Wonderful Life, whose slower-paced compositions Linkous now wanted to replace with a mix of poppier and more rocking tunes, harkening back to Linkous’ seminal 1996 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot — a record that one reviewer wrote “has even more sad, beautiful, weird moments of spacey, rural folk-rock than it does letters in its name.”

And, as has been the case since that debut, Linkous forges his songs in the crucible between sadness and wonder, destruction and renewal. It’s a process mirroring their author’s own struggles, one culled from the elemental lessons on display in the natural world surrounding Linkous, his wife, the menagerie of animals they live with, and the wildlife they encounter in the woods. Through those verdant metaphors and animal imagery, Linkous creates a fantastical tableau where the spirits of old horses roam, crows have “old souls,” fireflies are “dying stars,” and we are all “born to return back to clay.”

“Images like fire, or watching a horse run, are very compelling to me,” Linkous says. “That’s one thing that I try to get across consistently in my records, is to try and remember to notice the little things every day if possible.”

Perhaps the most ironic element of Linkous’ story is that the new record’s best songs may well be the trio he recorded and played entirely on his own. Echoing the DIY nature of Vivadixie …, they match anything Danger Mouse or Fridmann helped produce, and suggest that Linkous’ crisis of faith in his musical ability was, like most horrific aspects of depression, simply a phantom of the mind.

[John Schacht is a freelance music writer who still fondly remembers the day he stumbled across his first Sparklehorse record in the used-CDs bin.]

Sparklehorse plays the late show at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Saturday, Sept. 9. 9:30 p.m. $10/$12. 232-5800.

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