"I can't remember the last time I listened to a country record."
For most people, that would be a pretty innocuous statement. But for someone who plays in a band that has been shoehorned into the alt-country pigeonhole for the past five years, it's almost antagonistic. M.C. Taylor of the Court and Spark must be feeling kind of ornery -- or at least as ornery as one can feel at nine-thirty on a Sunday morning. Speaking from the house in San Francisco that he splits with fellow C&S guitarist Scott Hirsch, Taylor sounds as sleepy-eyed and bedhead-stricken as the songs he sings. "I think since we're always fighting this country tag" he continues through a fog of yawns, "I really stopped being into country rock per se, that whole cult of Gram Parsons."
Fighting words, for sure. Gram Parsons, the nearly mythic hero of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, overdosed in 1973 at the age of 26 after two solo albums that solidified his place as the once and future king of all that is country rock. At least that's the party line; it's been argued that guys like Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt were equally as seminal -- they just weren't lucky enough to have had their heroin-bloated cadavers burned in the middle of the California desert and hence ushered into the halls of alt-country Valhalla.
" like Gene Clark a lot more than I do Gram Parsons," admits Taylor, verging on outright heresy. (Clark, the original frontman of the Byrds, left the group in 1966 for a lengthy solo career that was as brilliant as it was ignored.) " People get so hung up on Gram Parsons. He's not that good. I like that stuff, but I don't really ever listen to it anymore. It's our feeling that there's a lot of richer music, especially from the '60s and '70s, to draw from."
Accordingly, the Court and Spark's newest release, Double Roses, has its roots sunk firmly in the soil of decades past. An eight-song mini-album thrown together almost as an afterthought, it may be the act's best work yet. " The new EP was made all by ourselves at home," says Hirsch, whose supple, soulful lead guitar work is as commanding as Taylor's vocals. "It's mostly acoustic. The whole idea of it was for it to be kind of a freeing experiment; we just wanted to record in our own time without the confines of a studio -- just coming home and hanging around and making music."
Although the home recordings were originally intended as mere demos for the upcoming full-length Witch Season, the group was so pleased with them that the players (including drummer James Kim, bassist Dan Carr and pedal-steel guitarist Tom Heyman) decided to package it for sale on its current tour. Featuring covers by Fred Neil and John Fahey, Double Roses is immersed in the heritage of vintage songcraft. " Take a Rest, Driver" could be a long lost Harry Nilsson track, and the whole disc swims in the rarefied, space-cowboy vibe first exuded by the Byrds in their masterpieces The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, the cut " Titov Sang the Blues" is an elegy immortalizing Gherman Titov, the Russian cosmonaut who became the second man in space after initially being passed over in favor of Yuri Gagarin. " You could not be the first cosmonaut in space," twangs Taylor amid a storm of steel strings and ionospheric vibrato. " Your poetry rings true/There was no match for Gagarin's face."
Taylor's typically cryptic lyrics came under scrutiny a couple of years ago by -- oddly enough -- a member of the Byrds. Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) was the longest-running player in the legendary group besides founder Roger McGuinn, and he also served time in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Taylor sent Parsons an e-mail after finding out that the venerable guitarist lived only three hours from San Francisco. " I told him that I was in a band and that we were making a record and wanted him to play on it," recalls Taylor. " One thing it hinged on was the lyrics; he really wanted to see them before he'd agree to play with us. It turned out he was a pretty Christian guy. I sent him all my lyrics, but I guess there was nothing in there that was too blasphemous.
"Actually," Taylor says, chuckling, "he told me he couldn't even understand them."
The resultant album, 2001's Bless You, was a huge leap forward for the Court and Spark. The band's first record, Ventura White, was certainly promising, but Taylor's voice had grown since then -- widening, deepening, eroding its craggier edges like a river over the course of centuries. On the song "Fireworks," he drowsily yodels the lines "All the matches that you lit upon the stove/Are leaving sulfur trails," as Parson's acoustic guitar peals and sparkles around him like struck glass. During solos, Hirsch plucks high notes as if they were daisies; elsewhere, he brushes his strings like a lover's hair. Kim's hissing cymbals in the beginning of "To See the Fires" are loose wiper blades slithering across a rain-swept windshield. Through it all, the group's country-hued sunset succumbs to an almost folky moonlight.
"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.
"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."
As ever, the tag is hard to shake. In the middle of the huge buzz that surrounded the release of Bless You a couple of years ago, NPR featured the band on All Things Considered, where reviewer Sara Bardeen applauded the record as "country music in the truest sense of the word. Everything about this album evokes America."
"But there's this whole other side of music history that you can lock yourself out of if you pay attention to strictly American music," contends Hirsch.
"I think that at the same time we're embracing a lot of elements of American music, we're pushing them away," Taylor concurs. "I love Bob Dylan, but the type of people we're playing for and that are buying our records certainly don't need to hear another Bob Dylan cover.
"There are a million horrible country-rock bands out there," he adds, summing up the whole philosophy behind the Court and Spark. "Who wants to be one of them? It's totally boring."
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