Echo Sparks create extraordinary music by mixing folk, country and rockabilly into something truly original. Their eclectic sound is hard to categorize. They layer their music with beautiful male and female harmonies delivered by singer/guitarist D.A. Valdez and singer/guitarist C.C. Kinnick. Bassist Cindy Ballreich rounds out their sound with a ferocious Doghouse Bass. The band has been playing a regular monthly gig, the last Tuesday of the each month, at the Pike Bar on 4th Street. We had the great pleasure of interviewing them recently about their beginnings as well as what’s in store for 2014.
Can you tell us about how the band came together?
DA: I started writing with the Pontiac Brothers, a national touring and recording band, on Frontier Records. When the band broke up, I kept performing in different bands (playing bass, drums, and guitar). I started the Echo Sparks band as an outlet for some original music that I had been writing. I ran an ad to start an original band, looking for a singer to harmonize with (in the Craigslist ‘musician wanted’ ads) and CC showed up one night to audition. She did not know any songs that I did, so I played some campfire type songs so I could hear her sing and she won me over. We immediately started working together and learning original songs and working on harmonies. We were performing as a duo and looking for a bass player, when D.A. heard that Cindy B. (ex bass player for the Jackpot Club) was looking for a band, I invited her to a show that the duo was performing and Cindy showed up with her bass. And after listening to one set, she agreed to sit in with the duo, without ever having played together before. It was a perfect fit! We have been together ever since with various other musicians sitting in from time to time with the band.
CC: Craigslist! I was really just looking for someone to jam with – I was a hideously bad guitar player and was looking for other terrible guitar players to hang out and be awful with. I answered DA’s ad on a whim, and for some crazy reason he was willing to give it a try with a shy girl who had no solo singing experience at all. I was honestly thinking about giving up on it just before our prior bassist quit on us, but Cindy came in like a tattooed fairy godmother, waved her wand, and it’s just been pure fun ever since.
Cindy: I first met Dave when he was playing drums with The Rayford Brothers. The morning that I quit The Jackpot Club I came home to find an email from him telling me about Echo Sparks and saying that their bass player had just left. He asked me to come listen and maybe sit in on a few songs. I wound up playing two sets with them. That was August 2011 and I’ve been playing with them ever since.
Who are the bands/artists that influenced you all to become musicians?
DA: Basically the radio and pop music formed my background. I grew up listening to commercial radio, in a time when they played a huge variety of music on just one station. It was fortunate, because to have records, meant you had to have money, and I didn’t, so the radio was my first inspiration to play music. As I started to collect records I dug deep into pop music history, like listening to B sides, and my favorite artist’s influences. Anything off the beaten track. Even today, I still listen to all kinds of indie music and local artists, because they are what inspire me to play. It’s has always been my dream to play music!
Cindy: Dee Dee Ramone and Mike Mills got me started playing bass. I love listening to music and I learn from almost everyone I hear. I started playing double bass about 6 years ago. It’s a very physical instrument, but there’s nothing that sounds like it. I haven’t played electric bass yet with Echo Sparks, but that might happen some day.
CC: I grew up in Chino, which was this wonderful mix of old-school ranching and Mexican-American culture. My mother raised me on the Beatles and light opera, but then I’d go to friends’ houses and hear Hank Williams or Vicente Fernandez. I learned to sing by copying Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance. There are so many more amazing singers I’ve learned from – Siouxsie Sioux, Ella Fitzgerald, Paula Fraser (Tarnation), Melora Creager (Rasputina), Chan Marshall (Cat Power). DA gave me a Nellie Lutcher collection for Christmas and I’m head over heels in love with her right now.
What we really love about Echo Sparks is that it’s hard to categorize your sound. We hear so many diverse styles in your music. It really makes for a great listening experience at your live shows. Did you guys make a conscious decision to do this or did it just kind of happen that way?
DA: Being the main song writer, I am always influenced by all styles of music, so it really just came out that way. We love ‘Roots Music’ of all kinds, and the more primitive the better. The three of us all lean toward Punk Rock, Classic Rock, Country Roots, Rockabilly, Bluegrass, Gospel, Soul, R&B Music, Glam, Goth, early Jazz, and just plain old ordinary Pop Music. So why not play songs in those styles? However, the same way it can help, it can also hurt us too, if people don’t know what to make of it. One thing is for sure, we are all particularly drawn toward strong melody and harmony, and any style of music with heart. CC’s vocals are amazing and her creative style and flair add so much character to the songs and our live shows. She is not your typical lead singer. She is creating everything as she goes along. She is very brave to hang in there. We do a lot of improvising on stage! Cindy B. also has a great style and feel with her bass playing, she is very technical about gear and plays different instruments. She also is starting to write songs too. We call her “our secret weapon”. She is like the glue that keeps it all together. Each one of us have many different influences, and so I think it shows in our songs. Our talent as well as our limitations help to create our sound. We are musical, but we still don’t even really think of ourselves as typical musicians, but as a band of friends that love to express our selves through art and music.
Cindy: We never sat down and decided to be eclectic. I think our style comes from just appreciating and enjoying a lot of different kinds of music dating back hundreds of years. It does get frustrating when people insist on having a category before they even listen to us. “Oh, you have a stand up bass – you must be Rockabilly.” CC came up with the genre “Mexifolkabillyjazzbluesrock” which I think is perfect!
CC: As noted already, such a double-edged sword. People really don’t know what to make of us, and it’s always so great when somebody GETS what we’re doing. But yes, it just happens that way. DA or Cindy will introduce a song, and we just kind of decide what it feels like. Sometimes they have an idea, but sometimes they’ll play it for me and I’ll just know what the phrasing has to be, what that song is just asking for vocally.
You mentioned that you are working on a new album. Can you tell us a little about that?
DA: We are about 3/4 of the way into the recording process. We are working with Walter Clevenger, recording and mixing tracks at his home studio, in Costa Mesa. We have recorded 9 songs for the next album, and have many more, to go on the album after that. We play all the instruments ourselves on the recordings, except for keyboards, we have my old band mate, and LA studio musician, Danny McGough recording the keys. He has played with dozens of artists as well as keyboards with Tom Waits, Randy Weeks, Social Distortion, and most recently on Jonny Two Bags solo album. Not sure of a release date yet, hopefully this year (2014). We plan to have it out on a CD, as well as access to download the tunes. We would love to press some vinyl copies too. Song titles for the next album are:
Princess of Fresno
End of the Line
I Think It’s You
Broken Arrow S
CC: I know what I want the title to be, but I’m outnumbered. I’m just hoping we can settle it without fisticuffs!
Can you tell us about your monthly gig at The Pike in Long Beach?
DA: I contacted Chris, the owner and we were lucky he gave the band a try. It’s been a great experience for the band. Like Chris, I also have a deep connection to the old, original Doll Hut, in Anaheim, (The Pontiac brothers named an album after it). I was performing there in different bands since it first started as a live music venue till when it finally closed. The Pike has the same kind of vibe, they treat musicians with respect and support local artists and bands. The Pike has wonderful energy, friendly people, and some colorful characters for good measure, not to mention great food! I was also, like Chris, playing in bands in the Fullerton music scene back in the 80’s and got to do shows with the early line up of Social Distortion, so when I heard Chris owned the Pike, I thought, it would be a great honor to play there. From the first time we walked in, we felt right at home. We are always thankful for the opportunity to play our original music for such fun and receptive audiences, in one of the best venues around town! We are proud to be a part of it. We have been playing since April 2013, and it has been the last Tuesday of the month.
Cindy: The staff is amazing and we also love the food!! I start drooling for lobster tacos about a week before the show!
What do you like about playing in Long Beach?
DA: The people we meet are open to new things and are very friendly. They have no problem walking right up to you and telling you what they think. We feed off that energy!
Cindy: The people are so much fun! And it’s true, they’ll come up and start a conversation with you after the show! We love that.
CC: Long Beach has a lot of style. People-watching while we play is fun. And the Pike really has an amazingly diverse clientele, which I really enjoy. It’s like the perfect neighborhood bar. And OH! When people come up after a set and want to talk about music!?!? Heaven! I’m actually a pretty shy person, but it’s really wonderful to talk to other music lovers.
We like to have some fun from time to time and ask people the following question: What is the first record you ever bought?
DA: My first record purchase was a stack of 45’s at a yard sale. It included a bunch of songs from the 60’s and 70’s. It was like a jukebox in a shoe box!
Cindy: The first record I bought with my own money was “The Monkeys.” I probably bought it at TG&Y. Papa Gene’s Blues is still on my iPod, and is still in my top 50 all time favorite songs.
CC: Oingo Boingo’s “electric cat” EP, on vinyl. I may still have it!
You can find more about the band on their website: www.echosparksband.com