With year end best of lists being cluttered with The National, Spoon and Bruce Springsteen, there is a band out of Birmingham, Alabama, Through the Sparks, whose Lazarus Beach certainly deserves some attention. Through the Sparks is a collaboration of long time friends that involve James Brangle and Jody Nelson, who began writing and recording with longtime friends and collaborators Nikolaus and Thomas Mimikakis and Greg Slamen in early 2004.
With multiple songwriters in the band and a bunch of songs and ideas waiting to put to creative use, Through the Sparks pooled their pile of beat-up pianos and organs, 8-tracks and a Protools rig, and formed Alamalibu Studios, the band’s heavily fortified, though often transient, music-making space in Birmingham. The band released an EP titled "Coin Toss" and a limited edition collection of early recordings, "AudioIotas," during the first year and a half of its existence, both released on Skybucket Records.
Lazarus Beach was a year in the making and the record hosts many Birmingham guest musicians to round out some of the instruments. Like one of their main influences, The Band, Through the Sparks’ multi-dimensional guitar-and piano-rock sound makes them compelling, never allowing the musicians to be thrown into a genre limiting category. Jody Nelson said it best about Through the Sparks’ sound – “ like the Band trying to cover a Flaming Lips song using Wilco’s studio equipment if it were all slightly malfunctioning.”
Lazarus Beach has been out for a few months now and is considered one of the undiscovered gems of the year. Are you satisfied with the response to it or has it been frustrating that hasn’t been all over the radio/internet?
Greg: That’s quite a compliment – "undiscovered gem" – just that response alone is worth it. As for radio play and such, when your record is not being spun a lot, you have to remind yourself you didn’t write these songs to be played on the radio – at least as singles. Under my own admission, I was hoping these songs would be listened to as a collection, an album – namely the reason why the record is only 36 minutes or so. At this day and age, asking folks to commit even that much time is quite a favor.
Jody: The funny part is that it’s still getting reviews, like it just came out. I don’t know… I’ll just look on the bright side and say "Slowly, but surely, right?" It’s still new to people who haven’t heard it.
James: I’m very satisfied with the praise it has received. If it were all over the internet and radio it would probably not be the sort of work that would garner the type of praise it has received. Not to sound elitist, but I think most of us like the fact that some of reviewers almost begrudgingly liked it or had a hard time with it initially. Yet, the music is very approachable.
Thomas: We are always happy to receive a slap on the back when we work hard at something that we believe to be a creative foothold towards what Through the Sparks is becoming. For burgeoning bands like TTS, pushing their products through the give media channels, it can be difficult to reach the masses without major financial backing.
Provided with what TTS has to work with we are both fortunate and
Nikolaus: I think it’s great that people consider Lazarus Beach an undiscovered gem. It’s out there and people will discover it. I love that process and wish it happened more. When you find a band that you really like and have never heard before is quite exciting! And if enough people discover us then maybe one day we will be all over the radio/internet.
What’s the proudest complement you’ve received for Lazarus Beach and what is the harshest criticism?
Greg: The proudest compliment is now – answering these questions – mainly because this interview was spawned by an ongoing interest in our record. That’s why we do it. There are all sorts of romantic views of musicianship and artistry; most of them are out-dated, bohemian or pedantic – when it comes down to it – at least these days – it’s all about the reviews. Good and bad. Especially for band like us. We don’t tour at any length past a week due to our day jobs and mortgages and families. So our only real communication and feedback to and from people outside this town is through the internet and other media conduits. The only way to see how we’re faring in the eyes of the unassuming public is through reviews.
Thomas: The harshest criticism came from home. A small town guy who lashed
out at us for getting such great reviews and praise. Go figure. I thought you’re supposed to root for your home team? The proudest complements came from many reviewers that discussed the album in a way that made us say "hey, he/she hears it like we do…they get it". That’s a satisfying feeling.
Jody: Actually, "one of the undiscovered gems of the year" is enough to make me blush. Harsh? I remember someone remarking that my voice was unremarkable. It was really hard for me to understand how to take that remark.
James: I can’t think of anything in particular but the “among the best albums of the year” stuff really goes over well with me. The worst criticisms I think came from one of those people that hard a hard time with it and never really got over it after a second listen.
There is no shortage of bands that came to mind when listening to Through the Sparks, such as The Band, The Flaming Lips and Wilco. What artists do you feel most influenced your sound?
Greg: For Lazarus Beach, there were some influences that took rank among the others, i.e. Brian Wilson, Bowie, the Band. As for in general, we all bring our own long lists of influences to the table every time we get together to write a song.
Jody: These three bands are common among the ten or so that always seem to pop up in comparison. A better comparison might be that it sounds like the Band trying to cover a Flaming Lips song using Wilco’s studio equipment if it were all slightly malfunctioning.
But, seriously. I don’t think you can think about that kind of thing as a writer and not put yourself in danger of hurting your music. On one hand, you can’t just imitate things you like, but if you start throwing away ideas that are uniquely your own because they’ve been done in some capacity or another, then you’re kidding yourself.
Either way, chances are, the guy you’re imitating was ripping off someone else anyway. Then there’s that band Jet… and copyright infringement. So, there’s a line that has to be drawn.
So, in short… The Traveling Wilburys.
James: For me, it’s the Band. However, it’s really a matter of their music inspiring my perception and approach to a song.
Lazarus Beach was recorded in a garage with a finicky pool pump that flooded the space twice. The pump’s buzzing is audible during the album’s quieter moments – was this on purpose?
Greg: The pool pump was not on purpose. Neither was the scattered hiss from the air conditioning or vast sibilance from the cymbals and vocals. But alas, we were not in a professional studio by any means and I think that’s very reason why the record has so much personality. You don’t get the spontaneity when you are constantly watching the clock and paying someone to record you.
Jody: I forgot to turn it off on one of the quieter demos that ended up on the record. Oops.
James: No. Jody had dubbed that song together on his own and was only intending for it to be a demo. The rest of us thought that it was such a great little piece of music that he was convinced to let it go as-is. He initially had no intention of it going on the album.
Thomas – That ole pool pump gave us a few scares and earned it’s way on the record. We didn’t have a say in the matter really. If we tampered with it too much it would regurgitate all over our lively hoods….yeah not so good.
What other oddities can we expect to find in this studio?
Nikolaus: You can find strange instruments that people will give us. Some I don’t even know what they are called but they make nice noises. You can also find a washer and a dryer as well as all the lawn tools you could want!!
James: There is a vocal booth that used to be coal chute or something like that.
Jody: We moved the studio to my new house and I thought we were safe. It’s already flooded once from heavy rain. The same day I was vacuuming out the 120 gallons of water, a guy who was growing weed in his basement was electrocuted doing the very same thing a few blocks away. I’ve since waterproofed it, but I’m married now, so you might expect to hear my wife walking around upstairs on the next record.
It’s unusual for longtime friends to stay friends and form a band. What do you attribute this longevity to?
Thomas – The common bond we share is due to our natural affinity toward country & western dungarees. Or you could say "the secrets in the sauce!".
Nikolaus: Music. I think that if we did not play music together we would probably all drift apart. It’s only natural. We spend a lot of timetogether and have a blast. But I think music has created a bond that seems to be unbreakable and I love it.
Greg: I wasn’t aware that this was a rarity. Of course, there’s something very positive to say about our longevity as friends. I can’t think of it right now, but there’s something positive.
JN: There’s a sense of humor that you develop in adolescence that never goes away if it continues to be nourished into adulthood. So, I’d have to say that dick jokes have kept this whole thing alive.
How does Through the Sparks rank in the Birmingham music scene these days?
Greg: If there was such a thing a rank, I would not be the one to rank myself. The bias would overcompensate in either deprecation or immodesty. Either way it would not be accurate. But to focus more on the spirit of a music scene here in Birmingham, I would like to comment on the collective talent here in this town. Nevermind all the hype received on that puke called American Idol, the musicians here are among the most gifted anywhere.
Nikolaus: I think Birmingham has a pretty damn good music scene and we seem to be welcomed here with open ears.
Jody: We get along with everyone pretty well, but that might just be because I can never bring myself to charge anyone for studio time.
What can we expect to see or hear at one of your live performances?
Greg: We pretty much try to emulate what we did on the record and in past recordings. At the end of the day, good recordings or not, it’s about whether you can actually perform those songs live that matters, yeah?
James: Keyboards, Organs, Drums, Guitars, Percussion. Loud noises, etc.
Nikolaus: Well I guess you could expect to see us perform our music with a little bit of space between songs.
What’s next for Through the Sparks?
Nikolaus: We start recording the new album in January and I’m very very excited. I love the new material and really connect with it.
Greg: More time writing and recording new songs. I think we plan on releasing another record in the Fall of 2008.
Photos 1 and 3 courtesy of Wes Frazer