Through The Sparks: Lazarus Beach 15th Anniversary Reissue
Fifteen years ago, Birmingham’s superb indie-rock band Through The Sparks unleashed the gorgeously quirky Lazarus Beach (via Birmingham’s legendary Skybucket Records) into the world, where it was quickly praised by a variety of national critics and publications (Tiny Mix Tapes, Pitchfork).
Led by Jody Nelson, this particular lineup of the band delivered an incredible collection of songs that could have found themselves included in the Elephant 6 “Recording Company” scene of the mid-to-late 90s, especially with its unapologetic use of lavish horns, synths, woodwinds, and other shimmering instrumentation. Heck, the saxophone solo on opening track “L. Roi” (an earnest tribute to a friend that Nelson had lost) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a peak-era Bruce Springsteen album.
Last month, the band reissued the album to commemorate its 15th anniversary. The new version of Lazarus Beach was remastered by Paul Logus (Anthrax, Pantera, The Notorious B.I.G., Wray) who had worked with the band on their final release, Transindifference (Communicating Vessels, 2016). Roy Burns III provided updated album art, and most exciting of all is that the record was pressed for the first time on vinyl.
We spoke with Jody Nelson via email, discussing the impetus behind the project, “remixing” the album art, his favorite memories from recording the album, his thoughts on how the Birmingham music scene has changed over the past 15 years, and what he is working on these days.
Chris K. Davidson for Magic City Bands: When did the idea for the reissue start to take shape? Was Paul Logus first choice for remastering? Was the remix of the album cover always an idea you had?
Logus had mastered the last Through the Sparks LP and we loved what he did with it. So, he was our first choice.
I was against an album-cover remix until Travis got Roy Burns on board. Wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to work with Roy. Shawn Avery, though he doesn’t drum Lazarus Beach, was a mainstay drummer who had been with the band in different musical roles since the early days. He was also our sort of de facto and rightly frustrated artistic director (he had to mitigate all kinds of crazy mess from the rest of us). Shawn designed record packaging and posters for most of the rest of the catalog. Roy’s design took cues from Shawn’s later TTS aesthetic and applied it to the design, which I thought was a cool way to tie things up.
I had taken the picture for the original cover in my parents’ weird front-room where nobody ever goes. There are a bunch of television-ordered dolls and a Bible in there the size of a Volkswagen. The figures/dolls on the original cover are Frank Sinatra and Princess Diana, pulled from a curio and set in the foreground, to look like they are observing something outside the window. The Bible sits on this glass table and I put a lamp under it that gave this really weird underfoot-stage-lighting effect. I’m not a photographer, but it was a lucky shot. On my version of the cover, I had replaced the dark window (photo was taken at night) with a picture I had taken from a plane of a bunch of baseball diamonds amid patches of farmland. Scott Gordon, who designed the CD package, replaced it with the oilfield scene. I was sold on the fire and I love Scott, so it stuck.
Roy’s design also worked in photos of the band taken by Wes Frazer. I was always against photos of the band, period, and certainly not on a record sleeve. Still am. But, I love Wes and the photos are great. They’re old enough now that the long arm of nonsense logic doesn’t reach. Might as well be baby pictures.
MCB: What are the songs that continue to resonate with you since releasing the album? Have you changed your view on any of them (lyrics, arrangements, recording) or do you feel like this is the album you all were always meant to make?
JN: Surprisingly, I still think the writing is very good, although I don’t ever play them live anymore. I can’t really pick one. I love the sound of the garage. I miss that piano. I miss the drum kit Thomas had… Lyrically, it’s dated, but that’s kind of the point when we write something down, or put it to tape… record it. It’s dated in my own timeline, not a grander scheme. We should all be a bit rosy-cheeked hearing something we said 15 years ago. But I was preaching to a tough choir. There were some terribly smart people in the band, so the words had to hold up against this kind of grandiose music. I revised a lot. There are a few lines that didn’t land… but I think they managed to fail gloriously.
All of those lyrics were taken from dreams/dream states, which doesn’t absolve me from ownership, but it makes them more symbols than signs if that makes sense. They’re interpretable. I still do it that way, and even more so lately, albeit in a more healthy way. My current batch of songs — each one is more like a little tarot card or something. The process was kind of inspired by revisiting this stuff. Fortunately for the words I was writing in 2006, the world was just a decade away from an unfathomable absurdity. The proverbial snake was just about to begin crawling up its own ass. My only regret is that I was maybe too safe.
Production-wise: Maybe because of making records like this one and several after it — big lush things — I’ve become pretty dogmatic about recording things live and trying not to overdub anything. I’m at the point now where I just want to play guitar and sing a song into one microphone and call it done.
Unless given an enormous budget, and some sort of time wormhole, I couldn’t make a record like it either. The lineup of the band at that time was so good — and they all worked together. We had unlimited takes, but nobody really needed them. We taught each other to play, so our idiosyncrasies fit together. It’s the kind of thing that I love hearing in young bands. It’s what makes folk music/garage rock so exciting.
I think we paid the horns, but getting those guys now would cost more than what I’ll spend on a whole record — recording, printing and release — nowadays.
MCB: What were some of your favorite memories in the studios? What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
My wife and I bought a house in Crestwood North during the making of the record and I setup in that basement, which would flood for a few years until we got it fine-tuned. Before that, the bulk of Lazarus Beach was recorded in my parents’ garage. They had put in a swimming pool while I was away at school and the pool pump flooded a few times while we were recording there. The whole thing was a water-logged affair. I was still working pretty dismal office jobs — that I was lucky to get — too, the kinds that don’t really exist anymore (Fax this, would ya?) So, I remember lots of sitting around in dry-cleaning type clothes outside of The Nick. Seems like a lot of us got married around that time. There are definitely more pictures of us at each other’s weddings than there are of us playing music. When I see those pictures now, I have this guilt because I know exactly what I would’ve been thinking: “We are all at the same place at the same time. We need to be working on music.” I was kind of awful in that sense and I don’t think I appreciated that everyone else involved had a healthier relationship with it.
MCB: You released this record 15 years ago. How do you think the Birmingham music scene has changed over that past decade and a half?
Then there is this cool kind of boozy-songwritery scene that is happening around the bars in Five Points. James Mullis and his crew. It’s really pure… and they can all play their asses off. I still credit Taylor Hollingsworth with setting the bar so high for anyone walking in a room with a guitar. “Look, these people just heard Taylor Hollingsworth play a three-hour set at happy hour. If that’s a guitar in that box, you’d better know what you’re doing…”
The closest thing to a scene that I’ve ever been a part of was the Skybucket roster and being a part of the bunch of locals that would play Bottletree regularly in those days. I’m still playing guitar a lot and making new friends. They say you don’t notice a scene until it’s over, so, best not to look.
But, as long as we have things like people writing about local stuff (thank you!) and The Firehouse, and Brian Teasley/Saturn, a killer record store like Seasick that promotes local stuff, and an actual terrestrial local radio station (Birmingham Mountain Radio) that is supportive with locals-only shows and with deejays who will put good stuff in regular rotation (does anyone else have that?) — we have no excuse not to have something special here. We have people putting on shows and going out to shows. If you make something great, people will show up. And, in my experience, “great” just means putting something joyful on record or on stage. Any “successes” I’ve had were with projects that would be doing it anyway, because the thing is fulfilling or fun, either musically or because the people involved love each other. “That’s some hippie shit, Jody,” they’ll say. And they’ll be right, but so will I.
MCB: Do you all have any plans for shows to celebrate the reissue? What projects are you currently working on?
JN: Zero plans to resurrect a living, breathing Through the Sparks. That was decided when we first talked about the re-release. I love everyone who played in that band and there were so many great lineups that I wouldn’t even know who to ask. If it were possible/sensical for any of us to be playing together, we’d be doing it already.
I’m currently recording a solo guitar-and-vocal record. All of the songs were written as such. I’ve cut it live a few times now and plan on doing it a couple more times at a couple more favorite studios with some favorite all-analog recordists, funded by live shows along the way. I’ll pick a few favorite takes from each session and go with it. So far, my favorite session by far has been the one I recorded with Bronson Tew over at Dialback Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi. I was tired from two shows the night before and I had burned a finger changing an ignition coil on the way over. I can hear it wincing in a few spots, but the overall vibe is going to be hard to beat. Working title: Iced Cherries or possibly Man-dance and Other Station Wagons.
You can now order the vinyl reissue of Lazarus Beach by Through the Sparks via their