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Digging Roots

The Court and Spark unearths country rock's past to find its future.

"We've been listening to British folk music way more than the country stuff lately," says Taylor. "I'm looking at some of the records I've got out right now, and there's some Richard and Linda Thompson, some Fairport Convention, some John Martyn..."

"And Bert Jansch," Hirsch adds. "Since we live in this house together, you'll usually hear one of the bands we're currently obsessing over being blasted down the hallway."

There are some other British bands from the days of yore that have influenced Hirsch and Taylor -- though you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell by listening to the Court and Spark. The two musicians first played together in a jarring mid-'90s outfit called Ex-Ignota that exhibited symptoms of being infected by such early English post-punk acts as This Heat and Gang of Four, as well as more contemporary, homegrown noiseniks like Unwound and Fugazi.

Strike up the band: Scott Hirsch (left) and M.C. Taylor 
are two-fifths of the Court and Spark.
Strike up the band: Scott Hirsch (left) and M.C. Taylor are two-fifths of the Court and Spark.

"We started out thinking we had to make music that rips your fucking head off," says Hirsch. "Not that Ex-Ignota was the heaviest band ever, but we used to go crazy on stage. But eventually we were like, wait -- we can make music that's just as powerful without having to jump around the room and scream. Going from that extreme to the Court and Spark was a real learning process."

"We learned all the basics of being in a band from playing punk," admits Taylor. "Even to this day, we do as much stuff on our own as we can. We still make our own T-shirts and book our own shows. We never have had any illusions about being any bigger than time is going to allow us to be, and I think that's definitely a mindset left over from the Ex-Ignota days.

"I also think those experiences gave us a certain out-of-left-field aesthetic," he elaborates. "I like a lot of country rock, but I never stopped listening to totally weird, crazy music. I think that's why people seem to like the Court and Spark; it's sort of rootsy, but we take it and play around with the formula."

One way that the Court and Spark tweaks the alt-country equation is by submerging its songs in icy washes of atmosphere. As waves of pedal steel, banjo, brass and mandolin wax and wane, guitars bob through the ether on upsurges of echo and reverb. Drums and bass carve out huge chasms where notes hang like lonely birds. The air reeks of emptiness and extinction. It can get pretty bleak.

"One day I think we all just asked ourselves, 'Why are our songs so sad?'" says Hirsch, laughing. "There's got to be something to it. I don't know why it happens, but we're all pretty deep thinkers; we're all kind of a little bit introverted in that way. We don't go on stage in clown outfits or anything like that, but we're not unhappy people or anything. When I write stuff, I try to make it emotionally charged, and I guess that comes out kind of heavy and intense instead of lighthearted and happy.

"There are definitely some heavy, solemn songs on Double Roses," he goes on, "but there's a little bit of fun, too. I know this sounds cheesy, but I think our new record is going to have some sort of happy, fun stuff going on."

And while common music parlance would have you believe that "dynamics" refers to how hushed or crushing a band can get within the space of a single song, Hirsch defines the word a bit differently: "A band that can write totally emotional, sad songs and totally inspiring, fun songs -- that's a band that understands dynamics."

The Court and Spark's masterful grasp of emotion has less to do with the sometimes shrill one-dimensionality of country and more to do with the rich, prismatic timbre of soul. In fact, when once pressed by an interviewer to categorize his band's style, Taylor responded by calling it "soul music."

"I'd still stand by that statement, I guess -- if someone was putting a gun to my head," says Taylor. "I think our goal from day one -- and it has become even more so as we've evolved over the past few years -- is to make music that's totally honest. There's no way to get around all these cliched statements I'm making here, but we just want to have a band where the music seems like a natural extension of the people making it. I think that's why a group like Ex-Ignota broke up: It was fun and cool to play in, but it was too one-sided for me. There wasn't enough color in the music to maintain my interest. As Scott and I started putting together the Court and Spark, we thought, let's make it as straightforward in terms of emotion as we can and yet not be cheesy or overly pornographic about the whole honesty thing. That's what I would mean by soul music.

" think the record we're making now is more of an honest amalgam of a lot of American music and a lot of British music and a lot of other things that we grew up listening to," he explains. "It's rootsy at points, but I also think it's way more rock and roll, more of an even mixture. Though there's a song or two with almost a bluegrassy feeling, it has less to do with country music than our other records, I think. But I'm sure it'll just get called alt-country."

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