It's been a sad 13 years since the passing of Mark Linkous, the visionary behind the group Sparklehorse. In issue #12 of Tape Op, way back in 1999, writer Adam Selzer caught up with Mark after a move, and found him wiring up his personal studio, Static King. As Mark interestingly told Adam of his working methods, he was "in the context of a whole album, imagining the album is a galaxy and the songs are planets. Some of them don't orbit correctly and some of them are a little bit off axis."
After Mark passed, it took years for the dust to settle, but eventually Mark's brother, Matt Linkous, sister-in-law Melissa Moore Linkous, and a handful of friends and collaborators set out to archive Mark's recordings and assess the state of the album he was working on when he passed. With this release, Bird Machine, coming out this year, we all hopped on Zoom a couple of times to talk about Mark, his music, and the difficulty in finishing albums when the artist, brother, and friend is no longer with us.
Matt Linkous: Archiving was just something that had to be done. Mark recorded on so many different devices. Different types of cassette tapes, microcassette tapes, Hi8 tapes, [iZ Technology] RADAR, and 2-inch tape. There was quite a bit. Mark did a lot of work in his home studio all the time, from the moment he borrowed David Lowery’s [Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker] 4-track all the way up until the last record that he was working on. He would record on anything, from cassette to RADAR. He wasn’t stuck on one format.
Bryan Hoffa: He used a lot of microcassettes. Lots of skeletons of songs, like early ideas as he was working the song out. Matt had started talking to me quite a while ago, maybe 2014, about planting the idea of doing this archive work, although it wasn’t greenlighted for a while. He wanted to see how my schedule was and if I would be up for it. It gave me some time to get gear together to be able to play some of the formats.
ML: There were Hi8 tapes and different songs in the same sections, where Mark would only record, like, 8 tracks on one. But we were working off the same takes that were 24 tracks. Do you remember that part?
BH: Yeah. There was quite a bit of that. On a few DTRS [digital tape recording session] tapes, there would be tracks 1 through 12 from one song, and then he found some clean tape to use for something different that would be overlapping. Creating a cue sheet, putting markers in, and making rough mixes was a bit of a challenge to work around that. We had to make sure that we heard everything. We didn’t just want to go, "Oh, this is all part of that." We really wanted to pull out as much from the songs as we could. This project was something that Matt totally spearheaded. Matt and his wife, Melissa, had a big box of tapes and different media. It was fairly well-organized, because Melissa had a handwritten inventory of everything. She even numbered each tape and made a photocopy of it.
MML: He labeled his cassettes and his tapes.
Bryan, did you do all of the technical archiving work then? All the playback and capture?
BH: Exactly. I’ve been doing sound archiving for the last 14 years, working at a cultural institution. This was not part of that at all, but Matt knew that I did that kind of work. Richmond is a great community. I used to work at Richmond's Sound of Music [Tape Op #150], as did Alan, going back to the late ‘90s. I’d been around the Sparklehorse tapes at the studio for years. I moved them from one storage location to another several times! I did some session work with Mark in the late ‘90s. I have a small home studio, and I was coming up with a plan to play this all back. One of the main formats was RADAR. Mark started out in his home studio, Static King, out in the country in Virginia doing [Tascam] DA-88 – DTRS. As Mark progressed through the records, he started utilizing RADAR, because RADAR was a format that we were using at Sound of Music at the time. It sounded great and works basically like a tape machine. Around ‘99 we switched over from 2-inch primarily to RADAR. We had one of those early RADAR IIs, the Otari-branded ones. Mark’s machine was a RADAR 24, the following generation. They had made some significant changes and it wasn’t compatible with the RADAR that I had access to. We ended up finding one in Richmond at The Ward Recording Studio. Thomas "Rusty" Scott’s a big RADAR guy and used to be at Sound of Music too. He’s got the RADAR 23 and the new RADAR. After we finished the RADAR sessions there I started working on the rest of the media – like all the DTRS, DAT, cassettes, and CD-R ripping – here at my house.
Were there any analog reels?
BH: There were very few, which I was surprised about. Some of those 2-inch tapes probably exist somewhere. Mark was so involved in the sessions that he did – in terms of taking it home and working on it some more – that when he would go to Tarbox Road Studios, or somewhere else to record, he was getting dumps of everything to his multitrack to be able to take it home. We had multitracks for a lot of the It's a Wonderful Life album, but just through the RADAR and DTRS. Not first-generation reels.
Mark had an adventurous sense of recording.
ML: Oh yeah.
Keeping track of that kind of session gets confusing.
BH: I’m a big believer in metadata. Describing everything as fully as you can. Obviously, the tracks are the most important thing, but if you only do transfers and go, "Let’s run these off and give you a hard drive," then you have so much less context.
Yeah. I always scan and take photos of everything, because even a couple of words on the back of a tape case can be really informative.
BH: It could actually change the whole plan, as far as what you’re going to do and how it relates to some other tapes. I did a pretty extensive spreadsheet with each format in a separate tab of the spreadsheet, as well as links to the image files (the scans) from there. I wanted Matt to have the next best thing to sitting in a room with all the machines at his disposal, with the actual tapes, to be able to recreate that in his house.
Were you doing rough mixes if it was an unreleased track?
BH: I wasn’t doing rough mixes as I went along. I gave Matt everything, and then he digested what was all there. When he and Alan made a plan to mix, Matt and I met over Zoom and did some listening of songs that he and I had flagged. It was pretty effective way to nail it down. From that point, I think there were about 105 tracks. They weren’t all songs, but some snippets of things as well that I ended up making rough mixes of so they could listen to and decide which subset of that to work with.
Right. I never counted how many rough mixes I did for Elliott Smith’s archive!
BH: I only remember the number because right before this talk I pulled up a Word document I had and was like, "Oh, it was a lot!"
ML: It was!
The other factor with that is trying to collate that against the released music. Did you do a lot of that, Matt?
ML: Yeah. Bryan helped too. It was a mutual effort; but you’re right, there was so much material. Mark would record different versions of the same song. It would be in different periods sometimes. We were like, "Where’d this come from?"
BH: Some of those versions of songs were the coolest. Hearing a totally different, rock version of a song that has a different arrangement; it’s like a totally different song with the same words. Matt knows the material really well. I’d be like, "I think this is unreleased." In a couple of cases, Matt really had to dig to see if it was released.
ML: Yeah, we’re looking at it like an archaeological dig.
ML: After we got the bulk of what Bryan had archived, we wanted to hear what was going on. Alan and I went into a studio here in Richmond called Montrose Recording that actually has Mark’s ‘68 Flickinger console. It’s been completely restored and sounds amazing. It's run by Adrian Olsen, and his dad, Bruce Olsen, ran that studio for years. Bryan came too. Alan really dug in, and we started doing mixes.
Alan Weatherhead: From the very last music he did to pre-Sparklehorse. Career spanning music from everywhere. Like Bryan was saying, some of it was mysterious as to when it was done. You could hear, "Oh, he’s got that keyboard now, so it must have been after this date." I think we got pretty close to probably figuring out when most of it was done.
ML: There was a lot of music to dig through. Mark did keep pretty good notes on certain things. We went into the studio and did this giant marathon. Alan was doing serious overtime.
How many songs?
AW: It’s hard to say. We worked on a bunch of stuff initially, and then eventually focused exclusively on the Bird Machine material.
Alan, had you mixed with Mark?
AW: Yeah. Mark and I started working together in 2000 on It's a Wonderful Life. That record had been pretty much recorded and finished. Then, we went back and recorded another song at Sound of Music for it. I played with him in the touring version of Sparklehorse for that record cycle. It was an intense year and a half. That was one of the only periods where Mark was producing for other people. We did a Daniel Johnston record [Fear Yourself], a record for Mary Timony [The Golden Dove], as well as a bunch with David Lowery [including Cracker's Greenland], and various other sessions.
BH: A Camp [A Camp] was a good one.
AW: Yeah. That was the first thing we worked on and, I believe, one of the first things Mark produced for another artist. It was a project featuring Nina Persson [The Cardigans] working with Nathan Larson [Shudder to Think] and a Swedish songwriter named Niclas Frisk. We went into it very nervous that we could be let go at any time, but it turned out to be a great experience. Amazing people! Between touring, and until Mark moved from Virginia, for that year and a half we did a lot of sessions. Later, I went down to western North Carolina and worked on the Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain record with him. We mixed some songs and finished some of the recordings for that.
It’s always nice when you’ve had the experience of sitting at the console and being in the studio with the person before versus when you don’t have them there. Did you remember some of his working methods or things he would say?
AW: Oh, yeah. I would say we know Mark’s taste pretty well. It’s just trying to stay true to that. For anything recorded at Static King, we always referenced Mark’s rough mixes – if we had them – for panning, arrangement, and content. If something was unfinished, we tried to respectfully finish it in the spirit it was created. We fell back on various things he liked to do, like certain kinds of distortion, or which sounds needed to be clean. His preferences. Over the course of doing this, I remembered a lot of things we used to do that I hadn’t tried in a while. Like, taking a stereo source and compressing it completely differently on each side of the stereo field. Techniques that I don’t know if I’ve ever used on anything other than Mark’s music. The further we got into it, the more those ideas seemed to pop into my head. They often helped us figure out, "What should we do here?"
ML: A lot of thought went into that. We were looking at enhancing what was there.
AW: Mixing with Mark, there was never a set notion of "how it’s going to be" in the end. It was the journey and the discovery. Those fleeting moments of electrical chaos, batteries dying, and "found sounds" were usually culled from larger blocks of audio. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a thing that happens when those more disparate elements fall into place. They start to communicate with each other. There will be moments when that happens and you have to find where they are. There’s usually enough content that they’re in there somewhere, but you’ve got to find them.
Were you adding new instruments at all?
AW: Just building on what was there. Matt, Melissa, and I had all played in Sparklehorse at one point or another. If we ever did add anything, it would be like the sort of thing Mark would ask us to do if we were playing on a song. You can’t recreate what Mark would do – it’s impossible. Nobody was trying to do that role. It’s about getting the unreleased songs to a state that it can be heard. When Matt and I started, we were hesitant to add parts. But when it got to the final stage sometimes the musical solution would be the best solution. Instead of turning up one guitar, why don’t we just put another guitar that’s a different tone? Which, if I were working with Mark, I’d have him do that. "Why don’t you double it with this guitar and this amp?" There were definitely some parts like that, where we’re up against the wall thinking, "How do we make this bigger?" Just add something. We were trying to let the songs speak for themselves while having some musically impactful moments along the way.
Joel Hamilton: Especially when you’re adding something that sounded great and was additive, in the sense that it wasn’t replacing Mark’s guitar with a new one. Playing a guitar just like it on the left channel gave us the ability to widen it out in the chorus.
AW: Yeah. Going back to what we were saying before about remembering stuff we used to do, it’s like, "Oh yeah, when he would play through that fizzy high distortion pedal, I would switch my guitar to the back pickup, roll off the treble, and go straight into the console through a Big Muff." That happened every so often!
AW: Yeah, he plays bass.
ML: Great bass player.
The drummer who played on that also has dropped by Jackpot!
ML: Stevie Nistor. Fucking great drummer.
AW: Everyone who played on it did a remarkable job. Everything that led up to when we started with it, everyone playing on it. Scott Minor – long-time Sparklehorse drummer – is playing keyboards on that session. Andrea Morici played really nice organ and piano as well. Steve Albini’s recording is so good. You know, he’s done it before! [laughter] Tracks were so in phase it was ridiculous. It always put a big smile on my face any time I would check that. Those recordings are a different thing compared to other Sparklehorse sessions. It’s very much four or five people in a room playing. For Mark, to go to Albini with the songs that he did was a very conscious choice on the kind of record he wanted this to be. This is meant to sit on the continuum as the next Sparklehorse record. That’s what it is – it’s different. Every Sparklehorse record is different from the one that came before it. A lot of times he would build off a drum machine, and then add and take away and arrange it from there. The Static King songs follow that model, but the Electrical Audio sessions are people in the room playing the songs, which is really great to hear.
I got the feeling from Paul that they were unfinished.
ML: Some songs weren’t finished. The songs from this album are Albini sessions and Static King songs that he was doing in the studio around the same time. It’s basically the same format – the way he would do every record. It was surprising to hear how far along it was. Remember, Mark would take sessions, bring it back home, and then he would do vocals or another guitar, because he had Static King set up. That’s how he worked. When he would record with Joel Hamilton, [Dave] Fridmann [Tape Op #17], or [John] Parish [#45], it would usually always end up back at Static King, where he would do something with it. This is how he operated.
BH: It was never done until he got to play with it more.
ML: Yeah, it’s true.
AW: When we were at Montrose Recording, most of what we were doing was finishing the tracks. We were getting good working mixes with the idea that we could go wherever it ended up. For a variety of reasons, we couldn’t go to New York, so we ended up mixing it with Joel over the internet. He’s at Studio G, and we had Audiomovers Listento links, where we’d all be listening on our home setups.
Yeah, I’ve used that plug-in before.
AW: It’s a very different process, but it was cool. I think we eventually got into a groove with it.
JH: For sure. I think Alan's mixes brilliantly set the intention of the tracks that you all had to work with. It showed exactly, "This is what we intend these things to do." For me, it became the world that you all had created with the tracks that Mark had done, and what you had subsequently overdubbed. It was like, "Let’s make that more 3D or technicolor." I think if somebody listened to the working mixes, and then listened to what comes out on the record, they would see how it’s the idea that lived throughout the process. The idea was there from the get-go with what Alan and Matt delivered to me as a reference. I got the benefit of that. I would never discount the fact that I got to stand on the shoulders of what all these people did before I got my hands on it!
It’s always nice to have that outside opinion, where Joel's not as close to the tracking and the “figuring out” part of the process.
MML: We were able to, thankfully, save some of Mark’s journals. He put down, in his own hand, lyrics and chords. "Move this chorus over here." He, in a way, was really good at archiving and curating his own work. Going through these notes, we were able to see where he wrote Albini’s [recording] dates down. Then we turned a page, and there’s Joel Hamilton’s name for mixing this record.
MML: Yes, he put it down on paper.
How was it mixing remotely for you, Alan?
AW: For this record, I found it very helpful not to be sitting at the console and doing the mixing. When you’re ultra-familiar with the material, mixing can become like taking a headcount and just making sure everybody gets on the bus. People say, "Let’s hear this louder," and you do it, and it just registers as, "Okay, yes. Now that’s louder, but it’s still on the bus and everybody’s happy. Great!" With this process it was more like, "Well, was that good or was that bad? What’s the net gain from doing that?" Having Matt, Melissa, and I all giving notes put a lot on Joel’s plate, but he was able to facilitate that on top of the incredible work he had already done. I couldn’t be happier with the results. For me, that was a great way to work that I’d never done before.
ML: I hadn’t, either. I didn’t even know you could work like that. Once we got into the groove of it, it was wonderful.
JH: It was great that we knew we had something close when it was working in three different listening environments simultaneously. From a technical standpoint, it must be "right" because it’s working in Matt’s and Melissa’s room, it’s working in Alan’s room, and it’s working in Studio G. It must be right, because we’ve got a lot of variables at play, and it still sounds good to each person. That felt good that we landed on something in real time.
Joel, how much time did you spend mixing before you looped them in?
JH: I would go in at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., because I like getting into the studio when it’s quiet. I would work until 11 a.m. or so. If I took it off in some direction I would think, "Oh right, that’s one interpretation!" Then we would loop back in after lunch. We made time for it. Again, with the reference mixes as a guide, we didn’t get too far off into the weeds once we developed a working method. I took off and ran, and then we did some course corrections. From that point, we were on Zoom with Audiomovers. The revisions happened in real time, essentially.
Did that feel like it sped up the process for you, as opposed to emailing out a version?
JH: Absolutely. It’d be laid out on the SSL [8048 G+ console] at the studio. We’d be patched and ready for that particular song. Then I'd do stems for recall. If we could get in there and wind up with something that’s finished by the end, except for a few little tweaks in the stem world – like a vocal up or down – that felt really good. I liked that we could get it while I was still laid out on the console and had everything patched through "real" gear. For this particular record, it felt cool to be able to use some of the compressors that had actually been used on It's a Wonderful Life. It felt good to stay running through an old Maxson [CA-1589] compressor, or something from the ‘50s, and do the guitar panning on the console.
MML: This way of working together is so different from being physically in the studio. You’re face-to-face, which is a different experience. Usually you’re at the board, someone’s sitting on the couch listening, or you’re standing side by side. But the beauty of working face-to-face – even though it’s virtual – on such an important project was really incredible. The communication and the way that everyone worked together was really nice.
JH: That’s an amazing observation. We never would have sat down at a round table and discussed whether to turn up the guitar, or not, nor would we have necessarily given each other the space and time to discuss it with eye contact. It wouldn’t work that way.
Did you go back and revisit his back catalog, as far as guideposts for what to do?
ML: For vocal placement and such.
AW: Yeah, certainly. I think all of us have a deep awareness of the music. That is always close. Little things come up, like, "What about just muting the bass here for one note," or whatever it is. Incredibly, making those decisions by committee got us a little closer to creating moments that were a little more like what Mark would do.
JH: I think the consistency in Mark’s vision, and the way that he seemed to present himself to the world, is such an indelible set of guidelines. It’s laid out for us so indelibly that we have an idea of what Sparklehorse sounds like. There were moments where I felt lucky to have all these people face-to-face. It was an emotional moment to think of such a mark that it left on me in 2001, working on a record [It's a Wonderful Life] that ultimately – looking back – became a turning point for me in the way I thought about music. I started to recognize that when you do have a vision, it extends out beyond the release. It’s like you are creating this world, and within that world there are very specific rules. It’s not just like, "You can do anything, man." It’s as if all of a sudden that subjectivity seemed to leave the room, and objectively we were not just saying, "What would Mark do?" Rather, we were asking ourselves, "What does a Sparklehorse record sound like?" Then we'd pursue that. The rules came from outside of the compressors and outside of the faders. That was the part that ultimately, weirdly – for some reason for me – was the most melancholy aspect of it; the impact that this human being had that was ultimately so deep, specific, and focused.
ML: Totally, yeah.
JH: It had so much focus that it was like, "Holy shit. This is what the sum of all of that is." It’s something that you can sit down and say – without any question in your heart – that this is the right move, and this is the wrong move for a Sparklehorse record. That was catching me off guard again and again as we navigated through the tracks.
ML: Everyone involved knew Mark and cared deeply, not only about his music, but for him as a person. It’s a heavy process and I’m thankful for this team, and Anti Records, for working to make this happen.
MML: As humans, we all just want to be understood and try to express ourselves however we can. Thankfully, Mark was able to share so generously and humbly who he was and what he wanted to share about himself. To be able to try to honor that, and work on what he left, is important. He left a lot of good, beautiful things.