Life begins after hitting rock bottom

Sparklehorseman Mark Linkous died last year. But it didn't stop his band from making a classic album. By Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture
If you know only one thing about the new American band Sparklehorse, it will be that their singer-songwriter-guitarist and all-round supreme being Mark Linkous died this year. There are other things you might have heard: that Sparklehorse are responsible for one of the most moving, visceral and just plain startling rock albums of the decade, a 16-track monster that goes by the radio-unfriendly, sales-assistant-befuddling name of Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot; that they are Radiohead's preferred listening; that there is currently no American band who sound quite so beautiful, or so driven. All true.

But these things have been overshadowed by the strange death of Mark Linkous. So let's get it out of the way right now. On 23 January, Linkous was in his London hotel room, when a collision of anti-depressants and Valium in his body caused him to pass out, crushing his legs beneath him. Fourteen hours later, he was discovered by a maid and sped to hospital, where the rush of potassium released by his body killed him, technically.

"I'd been doing all right until that point," Linkous says sadly, rolling himself a fat cigarette. Indeed he had. His childhood might have destroyed lesser souls - as his parents split up, he was pinballed around the state of Virginia, before he dropped out of school and hotfooted it to New York. Darker times awaited him. High on punk, and higher on heroin, he joined a band and started living out of a van, shooting up five or six times a day. He saved himself by summoning the necessary strength and clarity to scramble back to Virginia.

"When I was growing up, all I wanted to do was get out of there," he remembers. "But returning after being at rock bottom, I discovered new things. I came to appreciate nature. It's hard to do that in the city - you have to keep a sharp eye out for beautiful things."

On the 1,200-acre plantation which he shares with his wife, three dogs, two horses, one cat and a gang of lizards, he found peace for the first time. Life was dandy (or as dandy as it can be for someone who writes lines like, "The parasites will love you when you're dead/ La-la-la-lala"). Then he mixed his medication. The next thing he knew, he had three months of hospital food to look forward to.

Despite having lived a life that could reduce a bailiff to tears, Linkous is learning to look on the bright side. His baseball cap is tugged down over his brow, and his pale skin is almost transparent, but there's a deep, beguiling warmth in his sleepy eyes which suggests great vitality.

"I felt like a victim for a while," he admits. "But then the wall opposite my hospital bed became completely covered with cards and letters from fans, rock stars. It's overwhelming, the power of love. It kept me alive. I hadn't realised how much my album had touched people."

Anyone who has spent the night in a candlelit room with only a bottle of whiskey and Sparklehorse's debut for company will attest to Linkous's humility. And his eclecticism. He sweeps through so many genres that your local megastore should feel utterly inadequate for lazily lumping his album in the Rock/Pop racks and not giving it a section all its own. Which is not to suggest that the record lacks consistency. From the haunted, slow motion waltz of "Homecoming Queen" to the rhythmic grind of "Hammering the Cramps"; from the poignant pop rush of "Someday I Will Treat You Good" to the Gram Parsons ache of "Spirit Ditch", every song is informed by Linkous's crisp melodic sensibility, his love of raw country music and some eerie and evocative imagery ("Snakes eating their own tails", anyone?).

But what would the younger Mark Linkous, the 16-year-old tough who was racing dirt-bikes and turkeying to The Damned and Subway Sect, have made of it?

"I think about that sometimes," he smiles. "I probably would have thought Sparklehorse were so boring. I read a review by a 17-year-old high school kid who just hated Sparklehorse. He said, `This guy is obviously obsessed with the Smashing Pumpkins.' I wonder if he was listening to the right record. It made me kinda depressed 'cos I'd love to appeal to skateboard kids."

Whether or not you own a skateboard, there is only one thing you need to do right now: find the nearest music shop and buy two copies of the Sparklehorse album, one for you, one for your closest friend. Ask for Vivadixiesubma - forget it; just ask for the best album of the year. And if the kid behind the counter gives you Smashing Pumpkins, you have this writer's permission to deck him.

n `Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot' is out on Capitol/Parlophone