Interview: Bobby Dass and Alex Crowton
Sparklehorse’s music was heralded by his peers and critics as a mix of alt-country, discordant punk and psychedelic pop. And Linkous' impressive list of collaborators included PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips, Danger Mouse, David Lynch and Thom Yorke.
In new documentary; The Sad and Beautiful World Of Sparklehorse we learn about Mark Linkous' life through a range of interviews and an in-depth interview with the man himself.
Linkous was by all accounts a humble, modest man and the epitome of a Southern gentleman. But we also learn of his struggles with addiction and debilitating bouts of depression. The dual nature of his personality reflects the extremes of his music; beautiful, surreal, off-kilter pop contrasted with dark, distorted ballads and discordant punk-rock.
As long-time Sparklehorse fans, directors Dass and Crowton felt a duty to celebrate Linkous' life and music. Here the pair discuss their love for Mark and their motivations behind making the documentary.
Q. What was the motivation behind making a documentary about Sparklehorse?
A: Bobby: I had been a Sparklehorse fan since my teens when the 1st album, ‘Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot’, came out in 95. Music impacts on you in a much stronger way when you’re young and Sparklehorse became part of my DNA. Alex & I met at uni a few years later and bonded over our similar taste in music and films. Years later, the opportunity arose to film a short promo for Mark Linkous in 2007; we jumped at it. It was a great pleasure meeting him and he was so humble. When Mark passed away in 2010, Alex called me to tell me the news. We were both deeply affected by it. It was almost unspoken, one of the briefest conversations we’ve ever had; we had to make this film about him. It was almost out of compulsion.
Q. What were the difficulties of constructing a documentary around someone who had passed away?
A: Alex: It is very difficult. Stripping away Marks’s musical genius and remembering that he was a son, brother and husband were central to our approach. There are practical difficulties that we had to navigate too, despite a career that spanned some 15 years; there was limited archive of Mark performing and only a handful of interviews that we could tap into. Mark's loss had a profound effect on a lot of people, the ripple effects of his loss still effect people 7 years later. It became clear as we were shooting the interviews for the film that everyone agreed that Mark had left a beautiful body of work – we put that work at the centre of the film and using that as our compass I feel we managed to dampen some of those difficulties.
Q. The film skilfully navigates the tension between Mark Linkous' musical legacy and the nature of his death. How difficult was it charting a course between these two narratives?
A: Bobby: It was very difficult to navigate. We were always conscious that the film shouldn’t fall into tabloid journalism and neither should it be blind fan service that ignores the rougher elements of Mark’s life. We really wanted the film to represent his life and music in a more visual way. We used the re-current motifs of Mark walking down the hotel corridor, of going through a tunnel and TV static throughout the film until we combine them at the point of his suicide. It may not make literal sense but it made emotional sense to us, especially combined with Angela Faye Martin’s brilliantly poetic voice-over. Sometimes we would linger on one shot for a long time to make the audience feel uncomfortable. The music is so evocative that we didn’t need to over-explain the minutiae of Mark’s life. We were both adamant that the film shouldn’t be a Wikipedia entry, spoon-feeding the audience.
Q. The low-fi aesthetic of Mark's music is mirrored in the documentary footage, with home footage and 8mm film featuring prominently. Was it a conscious decision to mirror the D.I.Y and experimental approach of Mark's music. Or was this out of necessity?
A: Alex: When you make a film of this nature, you are always looking for the artist and the music to tell you how best to work. For Bobby and I it became very clear, very quickly that the Mark's ‘un-polished’ world would inform the form of the filmmaking. Angela (Faye-Martin) told us a wonderful anecdote about how Mark would take a piece of sandpaper to anything in his studio that had a ’sheen’ or a ‘polish’ he wanted to mute anything that he didn't find authentic. We absolutely loved that and had both always felt a connection to the world that Marks music created: Scratchy, dirty, broken, but equally lush and cinematic. The aesthetic of the film emerged from a direct connection to seeing the beauty in all of that, but similarly we make films like an artist might paint, we gathered the material together and what emerged, emerged and we trusted it. For us it really was a case of function and form working together and in that sense it is definitely ‘punk’ or DIY, and so was Mark.
Q. In your investigation and research, how willing were your interview subjects to attribute Mark's demise with anxiety and depression?
A: Bobby: We were very aware that we were talking to close friends of Mark, so only went as far as they were willing to go, never pushing them too far. As you can see from the film, some interviewees are quite candid about Mark’s life was towards the end. Others didn’t want to go there and we never pushed the point. Alex was very tactful when asking the questions. Anxiety and depression has touched most of us. I think a lot of media would focus more on the darker aspects of Mark’s music and life. I always found it quite warm and comforting. Without exception, all of the interviewees in the film convey how kind and funny Mark was when you got to know him.
Q. How significant do you believe Mark's early life experiences were to his perspective in adult life?
A: Alex: I think we are all profoundly affected by our early life experiences, I think the key thing is, that whether those experiences are good, bad or indifferent, you use them or more importantly find a way to use them positively. Mark poured all of that experience into creating art. The body of work he produced is a result of that. I think truly great artists live what they do. His adult life was music, it was his float for a world that he was sometimes at odds with - however when he found the beauty in his adult life, it really shone. The fact that he was capable of writing a perfect 3-minute pop song like Hammering the cramps but could also create something like Maxine (Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) speaks volumes.
Q. For you, what is the importance and message of this particular story - namely the journey and end of Mark's life?
A: Bobby: I think Mark’s journey, the one of a genius largely unrecognised in his own lifetime, is a story that comes up time and time again in the world of art and music. It’s a real shame so many great artists fall through the cracks because the music industry doesn’t really know what to do with them. Another theme is that, if the health care system was better in America, Mark would likely still be with us. Say what you will about the NHS, but I think it would have helped someone in Mark’s condition a lot better than the US healthcare system.
Q. How important was it to give an insight into Mark's geographical environment?
A: For us it was really important. The Southern United States is often quite miss-understood here in the U.K but has an amazing literary heritage that has always fascinated us. We spent a bit of time amid our hectic traversing of the USA at Angela’s home in Franklyn North Carolina near to where Mark lived for the last few years of his life, you can totally hear that landscape within Dreamt for Light Years, we had to depict it, you cannot separate that music from the Southern highlands of the Appalachian mountains. Growing up in the West Midlands both Bobby and I were fascinated with the U.S and particularly alternative America. Mark really tapped into the iconography of people we both loved like David Lynch and the writing of Cormac McCarthy, for us it was essential to give a flavour of that, and a sense of place.
Q. How did celebrity gossip columnist and channel five presenter Matthew Wright get a gig as a talking head in the film? We enjoyed the documentary but were a little surprised when he popped up!
A: Bobby: We were looking at different journalists who could be our ‘expert’ voice in the film. We were aware that Matthew had interviewed Mark Linkous for the BBC. I also remember watching ‘The Wright Stuff’ many years ago and Matthew singing the praises of Sparklehorse. He is a mega Sparklehorse fan and a lovely man who always kept an eye on us during the long, slow process of making the film. The slight moments of discontent we’ve had on Twitter were people questioning why we interviewed Matthew, but we liked that his appearance takes people by surprise! Anybody who watches the film can see how eloquent and knowledgeable Matthew is about Sparklehorse.
Q. What are your favourite music documentaries?
A: Alex: I really love ‘The Future is unwritten’ I love how Julien Temple managed to use Joe Strummers voice to narrate a film about himself posthumously, I felt that was very clever and very even handed. I really like ‘Man in the Sand’ which is a fantastic insight into the up’s and downs of the production of the Billy Bragg/ Wilco album ‘Mermaid Avenue’, anything that places Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg together in the same room is good with me.
Bobby: I would say three music documentaries that I admire are ‘The Devil & Daniel Johnston’, ‘Meeting People is Easy’ about Radiohead and the Flaming Lips documentary, ‘The Fearless Freaks’. I think all three of those films capture the essence of each band and artist in a very visual way, really reflecting the aesthetic of the music.
The Sad and Beautiful World Of Sparklehorse + Live Q&A (feat. Co-Dir. Alex Crowton) shows at FACT, Liverpool on Sunday 2 April at 2pm as part of the Doc'n Roll Film Festival. Watch the trailer below. Tickets are available here.