Alex Crowton, director of a new documentary about Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, admits it would be easy to sensationalise the life of the troubled musician, who took his own life in 2010. “But we tried to shy away from that,” says Crowton. “We wanted to focus on the music and make it about his amazing records.”
Prior to his death, Virginia native Linkous had built up a unique body of work. Elements of gothic country permeated his five studio albums, as did a love of melancholy rock, lo-fi sensibilities and a punk spirit – all combined with a voice that was as ghostly and delicate as it was weathered and rusty. “He was an incredibly talented writer and musician,” says singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes, who appears in the film, alongside Linkous collaborators David Lynch, Mercury Rev, John Parish, Grandaddy and Adrian Utley.
Linkous’s proclivity for using cheap, broken or junk-shop instruments added an often eerie tone to his work. “He seemed to see life in what most people would describe as dead things,” says Hayes. “This made his music very profound, strange and darkly beautiful.”
This Is Sparklehorse is a labour of love for Crowton and co-director Bobby Dass. It’s a documentary that emphasises the poignant beauty and unsettling sadness of Linkous’s music. “We are fans but it’s not a fanboy film,” says Crowton. “It’s an appreciation of the music. We knew the way his work had spoken to us would speak to others.”
Underscoring Linkous’s story is a lifetime of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and the after-effects of a near-fatal overdose while on tour with Radiohead in 1996. Linkous took a cocktail of alcohol, antidepressants, Valium and heroin and passed out in a hotel room with his legs trapped under him. This caused a build-up of potassium, which, when freed, entered his bloodstream and stopped his heart. “I guess it did kill me for a few minutes,” Linkous reflects at one point in the film, in an interview Crowton and Dass did with him back in 2007. He nearly lost his legs and had to use a wheelchair for some time after. Some friends believe he was never the same again, becoming even more withdrawn and reclusive.
This Is Sparklehorse captures Linkous’s duality: a kind, gentle soul with a clear talent but also one prone to bouts of “vulnerability and not a lot of self-worth” as David Lynch observes. Lynch worked with Linkous on his final album, the Danger Mouse collaboration Dark Night Of The Soul, as did producer John Parish, who saw these complexities up close: “His self-confidence would take a dive and he needed some coaxing to recognise the value and beauty of what he was doing.”
The suicide of close friend Vic Chesnutt in 2009 hit Linkous hard. “It had a profound effect on him,” says Crowton. A year later Linkous sadly followed his friend’s path. However, despite the tragic end to a difficult life, Hayes’ memories of Linkous underline his unique and enduring qualities as an artist. “Mark lived outside the confines of ego,” she says. “He was pure and open and so was his music. That calibre of art just stays fresh forever. I’ve never come across someone as brave as him.”
This Is Sparklehorse is available to stream at sparklehorsefilm.com