My introduction to the musical world of By Sunlight was in the winter of 2006. It was a particularly hectic Friday night with my band performing a show in Red Bluff that was immediately followed by a second gig here in Chico alongside touring act, Brilliant Red Lights. I also recall scrambling to catch a late night performance by La Fin Du Monde at a separate venue before reconvening with our touring friends at a party.
At the gathering, BRL bassist Evan Michalski and I discussed the latest and greatest music from our respective necks of the woods. At the time, it didn’t get any better for me than The Red Robot – a post-punk, indie-rock adrenaline rush out of Redding, California. Michalski informed me that there was also something very special happening in his hometown of Sacramento that I needed to hear – an indie-rock band called Bridges lead by a songwriter named Mike Sparks. Thus began my appreciation for the group of musicians who would soon be renamed By Sunlight. Six years later, the band remains one of the few from that era that continues to perform.
Their first album, The Underscore, was released in 2005 and defined the band’s sound – crooning vocals and somber lyrics supported by glassy telecaster guitar tones and wandering yet hooky bass lines, all guided by unpredictable percussive patterns. After two years of touring on the record, Sparks and his band agreed it was time for a change and relocated from Sacramento to Seattle.
“It was just time to go, ya know? What do you do? You leave your hometown, right? You have to,” insisted Sparks.
“It’s important at some point to go out there and do what the rest of the world is doing. I think Sac is a great city with great people and great bands and all that, but I don’t know…I felt like I was standing still.”
The attention to detail By Sunlight demonstrates within each of their compositions seems to distinguish them from other musicians in their genre. It’s rare that a track is arranged with a traditional verse/chorus structure and you certainly won’t ever hear any guitar solos – the songs don’t need them. I inquired as to where Mike’s interest in song crafting originated.
“Probably Mario Paint. I know that sounds silly, but when it first came out they had that music program and there was just something really fascinating – like some unknown language that I had no idea about and Mario Paint made it to where I could do that without knowing anything. I just became like, ‘Oh I need to learn how to do this.’ I know it’s really silly, but it’s totally true.”
Upon relocation to Seattle, the band produced a self-titled EP that they were able to tour on for years without losing interest in the material – a testimony to the meticulous nature of their song composition and its adaptation for live performance. And Sparks loves being on stage, but being a touring musician is something that he constantly struggles with.
“I don’t travel well. Some people were born for that shit. I’m just not like that. I get nervous, I’m high stress, I drink too much on tour, I get anxiety…The only part during the day I’m having fun generally is either when I’m with my friends that I don’t see very often or when I’m playing. So that’s like 22 hours in the day where I just feel like I’m waiting around or uncomfortable or thinking about how I haven’t pooped in the last day or so. The fact that I’m out playing music and seeing the world…It’s great on paper. But ya know I’m a mess, dude. I’m a complicated guy and I get myself all worked up in this shit.”
Come 2010, By Sunlight finally got a break from their rigorous tour schedule. The time had come to start writing and recording their latest album, Penumbra. An endeavor several years in the making, the album is their proudest effort to date. Mike broke down his artistic approach and how it manifests on Penumbra.
“What’s really important to me as a musician and as an artist is to be conscious of what you’re doing, to be doing things directly and coming from a place of intelligence.”
Sparks continued, “In regards to that and specifically in regards to Penumbra, there are a couple things that were consistent in the music and lyrics. I wanted it to be extremely vivid and extremely image-inducing, using a lot of alliterations and something that falls out of your mouth in this very specific non-descript eloquence.”
Sonically the album has a dreamy aesthetic that certainly could be described as eloquent, but what makes the listening experience especially memorable is the emotive weight of the lyrical content. A phrase appearing more than once on the record that caught my attention was, “I am here to disappear.” I asked Mike if there is any one major theme or idea happening throughout Penumbra.
“A lot of it is about making peace with disappointment. The title track is basically about the last 10 years playing in bands and touring and kind of becoming a victim to this thing that doesn’t make sense. With By Sunlight especially, we’ve felt like there’s no real place for our music. Musicians love our band, but it feels sometimes that’s where the story ends. So that’s a big theme on Penumbra. It’s broader than disappointment. It’s astral contemplation about purpose.”
After hearing this, I couldn’t help but think of all the bands I’ve encountered out there scrambling to survive on their art. It seems that it’s not enough just to be a good musician in this day and age, but it’s also become necessary to have some concept of business and how to “do the dance” of the industry to keep up with the competition. I asked Mike what his thoughts were on this and where he personally falls within this duality.
“I think that I am a bad businessman. I think I’m a great musician. And I say that with no ego involved. I just put the work in. I know how to write. Because I don’t know how to market myself, I don’t think I will be able to have great success in my life unless I become very lucky for some reason. I don’t think that’s fair and I know so many people who are like that…So many people who are brilliantly talented musicians who just kind of fall by the wayside.”
This got me to thinking about the unavoidable conflict an artist faces with the added responsibility of marketing themselves. If you’re funneling all that time and energy away from working creatively, then won’t that inevitably degrade the quality of your work? Or possibly even compromise the purity of one’s artistic approach? Should it even be the artist’s job to worry about all this crap?
“I fundamentally think no. I’m not saying the artist should be fumbling around taking LSD and just being carried around by people who believe in them. You have to have some concise idea of what you’re doing. Art is the most important thing and I feel that people who make it don’t always understand why they’re doing it and don’t always understand what they’re supposed to do with it. The collapse of the record industry and Bandcamp and Facebook…It’s become like now not only are you a diamond in the rough if you get picked up, but you’re like a piece of diamond inside of that diamond inside of another diamond inside of a fucking mound full of sand. So yeah I feel like it’s a goddamn shame and at the end of the day I don’t let it motivate what I do at all. All I want to do is make good music. I just love art and want to make it because so much art has made me feel so good. That’s very much my motivation at any time.”
It’s refreshing to encounter musicians that have been working hard at music for so long and still draw energy and motivation from the natural rewards of artistic expression, despite the many obstacles and struggles inherent in the lifestyle.
As the interview was drawing near a close, I asked Mike to talk about their live performance and why they choose to present their act in one seamless piece of music as opposed to engaging the crowd in conversation between songs.
“I don’t think I’ll ever not do that again. It’s just better. I don’t have to say anything stupid between songs and then it becomes more of this thing. It becomes like when you sit down and watch a movie – every 10 minutes the director doesn’t pop on the screen and say, ‘Cool, well I hope you enjoyed that scene…Now for this next scene!’ Ya know? That’s not how art works.”
Sparks concluded the interview by taking one last shot at explaining the goal of his band and what the people of Chico can look forward to at their show this Thursday.
“By Sunlight is far less resting on the laurels of spectacle-oriented rock and roll music and really all about vibes, dude,” said Mike with a trailing sardonic tone.
“We’re increasingly working towards that. I think the tour’s gonna be good and the songs are gonna be good. It’s like transcendental pop music – songs and then drone and then beauty. That’s what we’re into and I hope it comes across.”
By Sunlight will return to Chico this Thursday, December 6th at Café Coda with support act, Minot. Also joining the show will be locals Socorro and Surrounded By Giants. This all-ages show starts at 8PM and costs $5.