Mark Linkous Remembered By The Artists Who Knew Him

Ahead of the release of the posthumous Sparklehorse album, Bird Machine, David Lynch, Steve Albini, John Parish, Angela Faye Martin and Jason Lytle talk to Brian Coney about the rewarding and often joyful experience of working and being friends with Mark Linkous

Portraits by Danny Clinch

"I’ve met a lot of people in my life but very few like Mark. I was struck by it right away. You didn’t even have to talk. I just loved sitting with the guy."

Getting to speak to David Lynch in 2023 is something of a rarity, but he has no problem taking time out from painting to talk about his friend, Mark Linkous, the late American musician better known as Sparklehorse. "Being with him was a great thing. He would drink whiskey and I would drink red wine, and we would just sit there and talk. Mark and my engineer, big Dean Hurley, would talk about recording consoles and all kinds of different things."

As if brought together by gravitational field, Lynch and other dreadnoughts like Iggy Pop, Black Francis and Suzanne Vega, came into Linkous’ orbit on his 2010 album Dark Night Of The Soul. Dreamt up with Brian Burton, the American producer better known as Danger Mouse, it was a genre-flipping feat of collaboration that shone fresh light on Linkous’ fantastical craft.

"I played the trumpet when I was little but I was never really in the world of music," says Lynch, who sang for the first time on record on the title track and ‘Star Eyes’ (he also created a 100-plus-page book of photos for the release). "Angelo Badalamenti brought me into the world of music but when Mark welcomed me to sing on his album, it was really huge. It gave fuel and inspiration to go forward with my own music."

Four months before it was released in July 2010, Linkous – who was struggling with depression and the breakdown of his marriage – made the sudden move from his small cabin in rural North Carolina to Knoxville, Tennessee. On the morning of 6 March, he stepped outside with a rifle and took his life. He was 47. In the wake of his passing, obituaries were quick to nod to the fact that Linkous’s death technically wasn’t his first. In a London hotel room on tour back in 1996, a cocktail of alcohol, heroin and antidepressants came close to ending a luminous career before it even began to burn bright. Passing out unconscious with his legs trapped under his body for 14 hours, Linkous was taken to hospital where he was declared clinically dead for two minutes before being revived. He spent the next six months in a wheelchair and was lucky to walk again, let alone live. Looking back, it’s remarkable what he achieved in those final sixteen years.

The deft and fevered dream world of Sparklehorse was introduced in 1995 with Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, a staggeringly beautiful debut where lo-fi paeans like ‘Spirit Ditch’ were inhabited by horse laughter and moved through burned-out basements. Layered with toy piano, mellotron, Wurlitzer, and thrift-store microphones; listening to it felt like listening in, eavesdropping on music like peeling bruised fruit. This was alt-country, under the canopy of indie-rock, but regardless of genre, Linkous’ transmissions cast some rare, imagistic power.

Beyond working with artists like Aldous Harding and Dry Cleaning, as well as his long collaborative partnership with PJ Harvey, John Parish is rightly celebrated for his work on Sparklehorse’s third album It’s A Wonderful Life. The aching glow of ‘Gold Day’ and the title track might summon images of stalking Coney Island on a late winter’s afternoon, but it’s the Parish-recorded ‘Piano Fire’ that perfectly captures how when Linkous transmitted joy, it often verged on jubilation.

 "It’s just really uplifting," says Parish, who played on and co-produced the album, which also featured Tom Waits. "That’s the thing. I hate to see someone retrospectively classed as a depressive and that becomes the overarching narrative. Mark was totally capable of experiencing joy. He could take joy from really simple things. For instance, when we recorded those tracks in Barcelona, my first daughter was 18 months old. She came into the studio a few times and Mark would be absolutely overjoyed and engaged. He was sort of like a toddler. He was really happy to have her messing around with his pedals and whatever. He was really good with kids."

The bigger picture might occasionally carry the heavy-hearted energy of a missed final call, but Parish’s memories align with Lynch’s own warm feelings on what set Sparklehorse apart. "I appreciate Mark’s music so much because it’s like the dream of a child," says Lynch. "It has the goodness of an innocent child. Inside him were two things: the hurt child and the innocent, good dream of a child. His music could have been made in a child’s room with little child’s toys. It was so happy yet so deep at the same time."

Next month, a posthumous Sparklehorse album, Bird Machine, will offer a precious chance to grasp the essence of this exact quality. Mark’s brother Matt Linkous and his wife Melissa plus audio restoration specialist Bryan Hoffa began sorting through and archiving Sparklehorse recordings after his death and found that many were close to completion and others needed minimal input from other musicians. The result is a wonderfully skeletal album that lays the Linkous sound bare. Steve Albini, who was working with Linkous on a fifth Sparklehorse album just prior to his death, remembers him having a pragmatic approach nixed any risk of self-indulgence.

"Mark had a process he liked to pursue in his music, which is different from some of his contemporaries, who genuinely seem baffled by the process and at the mercy of people executing it for them," says Albini. "Some of them also attach mystical significance to the music, waiting for the muse to alight, channeling ‘energy’ from some place or another, setting the mood with the correct fuel mixture of drugs, lighting, incense or whatever. Mark wasn’t like that at all. He just cracked his knuckles and set about making the record."

Aside from Albini, North Carolina singer-songwriter Angela Faye Martin was one of the last people to work closely with Linkous. In Static King, his North Carolina studio tucked away in the small little town of Andrews, Linkous helped Martin record her debut album, Pictures From Home. Going as far to quit her job in the local library in order to spend time with Linkous, Martin soon became a close confidante, and later wrote and narrated Bobby Dass and Alex Crowton’s definitive 2022 documentary on Linkous and his music, This Is Sparklehorse.

"Mark called me towards the end and wanted me to understand that this whole thing with Albini was a departure for him," says Martin. "It was a minimalist endeavour compared to all his other projects. He said he was looking for a Buddy Holly tone. He would always talk about the perfect song and he was really going for economy at the time. I thought Spencer [Linkous, Mark’s nephew] was singing on ‘The Scull Of Lucia’ but I found out it was Jason [Lytle, of Grandaddy]. I thought it made m sense as Jason is on ANTI- and this will be on ANTI- so that’s a good thing. And Jason’s vocals are great."

In a similar vein as Lytle’s band Grandaddy, Linkous’ music imbued mid-1990s American indie rock with deeply-mined melancholy and – maybe above all else – a keen attention to detail. Years before working on Dark Night Of The Soul highlights ‘Jaykub’ and ‘Everytime I’m With You,’ Lytle and Linkous regularly traded emails about what the former calls "super nerd level gear talk. Microphones, pre-amps, compressors". ‘The Scull Of Lucia’ feels like a natural reunion between kindred spirits.

"This was about as homespun and comfortable as you could imagine," reveals Lytle, speaking from his home in Modesto, California. "It was all posthumous at the request of Matt [Linkous’ brother, who co-produced the album with his wife Melissa Linkous and Alan Weatherhead]. He asked if I would be into it and I loved the idea of singing with Mark. I had to feel comfortable about it. I think the conversations that we had beforehand and hearing the music helped me answer that question. It was something else to hear the multitracks and be able to dig in and really find my space in there. In this weird way, it felt like hanging out for one final time."

It’s all too easy to take the simple power of another’s company for granted but it’s something that runs like a golden thread through the thoughts of Mark Linkous’ close friends and collaborators. For all the otherliness of his music – Bosch-like seas of teeth, eye-pennies, pain birds – the relative ordinariness of the man helped to set him apart. Naturally, that often revolved around a deep-set appreciation for the tools that could manifest the images beneath the surface. 

"Mark had a great ear for the eccentric," says Steve Albini. "And he had a collection of fucked-up, off-brand microphones that sounded awful by any technical measure, but had the effect of abstracting his voice automatically, which he responded to with enthusiasm. He was terribly self-conscious and insecure about his ‘adequacy’ as a vocalist, and often used pitch-correction, the hardware version of Auto-Tune, as a default, just to be certain he didn’t fall off-pitch. Over time, this method became a subtle signature of his songs, the occasionally odd, filtered sound of his voice, precisely – academically – in tune, with an impenetrably personal lyrical text. More than anything else though, he knew what he liked, and like a lot of singularly-talented musicians I’ve worked with, he was relentless in trying to get to the sound in his head."

John Parish had first-hand experience with this single-mindedness working on It’s A Wonderful Life. Used to record vocals and lead guitar on ‘Piano Fire,’ a $25 novelty spy device, the Whisper 2000, holds some deeper significance for Parish. "I think it reflects what every good artist should do, which is not to judge a piece of gear by how expensive it is, but what you can use it for," he says. "Mark was great at getting something amazing out of a really expensive piece of gear or a piece of absolute tat like the Whisper 2000. It might seem ridiculous when you’re in a fancy studio with a choice of many fancy mics but it totally worked. Using a piece of gear like that immediately gives you a sound and sets an atmosphere. That was what Mark was looking for. As soon as he heard it he knew it was right."

Despite his well-documented struggles in the past, Linkous’ search for the sound in his head was so acute, and seemingly without end, that it made his sudden death in 2010 doubly hard to understand. But like fresh burial soil cast in warm morning light, Bird Machine is a reminder that the sad and beautiful world of Sparklehorse is ultimately ours, too. With songs like dandelion spores, soft and delicate yet almost defiantly radiant in bloom, it’s a farewell transmission that imparts that, for all the darkest nights of the soul, things can and will be ok.

When the subject of Linkous’ passing comes up in conversation, David Lynch pauses. "He had a wife but something went south and it just devastated him," he reflects. "I’m sure everybody who was a friend would say they wish they could be there to stop him, that they would do whatever it would take to talk him out of it. But then it’s too late. I just feel so bad that it got to be so bad to be in the body that he had to get out. It was an overwhelming desire to get out – there was that dark, horrible pain. I only knew Mark sort of at the very end of his life but I really liked him. I could have had a friend, a real friend, and then it was gone. You feel so bad that you couldn’t have helped him in some way. I was so sorry that it came to that because the memory is what you’re left with."

Blessedly, for many of closest friends and collaborators, Lynch included, the memories that linger most are happy ones. It should dispel any sneaking suspicion that Linkous and his music was somehow monolithically sad, without reprieve. "Mark was so fragile and he was in a crazy amount of pain but I can’t emphasise enough how unique a person he was," says Angela Faye Martin, who last spoke with Linkous on the phone the day before he died. "Just his bearing and how fun it was to be in presence. He called me the first day he ever hung out with David Lynch. He called me to tell me what David’s assistant got him a double macchiato and what it was like to just hang out. I was sitting out in my far-flung house and he went to the trouble to call me from LA to tell me every detail. He would say the sweetest, big brotherly things. But it was an intense time and it was an intense relationship. I had Lyme disease at the time so we were both in a lot of pain."

"Mark was instantly likeable, very open and frank, which makes conversation comfortable and productive," recalls Steve Albini. "He and I knew a lot of people in common, and his experiences in the 90s music scene were parallel to that of a lot of my friends, so we had shared experiences as well. I had no problem communicating with him and his demeanour was warm and his humour was good. If you take artists seriously and give them room to be normal, they will be normal. If you treat them as freaks, superhuman or fragile, then depending on their ego and immediate needs, they will reciprocate by being preposterous on a superhuman scale or delicate and easily bruised."

Having first met Linkous when he invited Sparklehorse to play a show in support of PJ Harvey in 1998, John Parish fondly remembers an artist whose conviction and humility never seemed to suffer when the man himself did. "My first impression of Mark was that he was really shy but confident in what he was doing," says Parish. "He was very humble about what he was doing. He always was but he suffered badly from depression. When you’re depressed, those kinds of things become very, very difficult to do. But when he wasn’t in that state of mind he was totally confident about making decisions with his music. I strongly believe that it will last for a very long time and will continue to find new generations. The material is so strong and timeless that I’m sure it will outlive me and far beyond."

"I’ve had to talk about Elliott Smith on occasion with different people," adds Jason Lytle. "I have found, and I see this in myself sometimes as well, that the more introspective, sensitive people are not walking around trying to find reasons to be down on the world. It’s just a role that you’ve kind of fallen into. I always remember Mark being really pleasant and lighthearted. For me it was kind of fun, too, because from the part of the country that he was from he had the kind of manners that aren’t always typical where I’m from. He’d be very cordial and very polite and I always loved that about him."

As we round up our conversation, touching on how Mark Linkous once practiced transcendental meditation (a technique whose contemporary popularity is often linked to the David Lynch Foundation) the 77-year-old is the sound of pure love. Coming to the surface once more is the much-missed goodness of his old friend. 

"I bet the new album is great and I really look forward to hearing it," says Lynch. "I just wish he was here to take it around on tour or whatever and keep making music, and come by and sit with me to have a whiskey and a glass of red wine. Mark was a very special human being. He was like a child but he got hurt. That deep hurt turned into a depression but when I was sitting with him that part was buried. I didn’t see it. I just saw a pure, good human."

Bird Machine is released by ANTI- on September 8

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