Arthur Hatton is a connoisseur of music and the founder of Linescratchers, a site that highlights LDS musicians who play music other than LDS-themed music. We’re pleased to have him as our guest for a special series of posts.
In my last installment I took us all on a trip down to the American South, to hear the dark yet soothing songs of Jeff Zentner. This time, I’ll be writing about a band that changed everything for me. Many of you were probably expecting this one, so it’s a little daunting to write it.
I realize that this series has been called “The Top 10 LDS Musicians You’ve NEVER Heard Of”, and I also realize that many if not most of you are aware of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, but this essay is for those of you who are still not familiar with them. As I said above, Low changed everything for me, but I was a latecomer to finding out about them.
When I grew up in the late 1900s, I was mostly interested in classical and baroque music. It wasn’t till I first heard the Beatles around 1997 (I was 13 years old at the time) that I really began to be interested in popular and rock music. From there, I delved into prog rock like Yes and Dream Theater, jam bands like Phish, good songwriters like Chroma Key and Brian Webb, and experimented with heavier bands like Black Sabbath and the Scorpions. By the time I graduated High School in 2002 I was writing songs, performing them on street corners, and planning a future in music.
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t know what to think of my music. I had a little songwriting and performing talent, but, like many LDS parents, I think they worried that a musician’s lifestyle might eventually cause me to drift away from the Church. Furthermore, they were well aware how amazingly difficult it is to make enough money to support a family when you’re a touring musician, to say nothing of the time spent away from home, on the road, in sleazy bars, with sleazy musicians. I’ve discovered a lot of musicians in the Church go through the exact same trial. It leads many of them to think that they have to choose between their music and the Church. But why would God bless them with musical talent if He doesn’t want them to use it?
Many members of the Church who are unfamiliar with this mindset respond by saying, “There are plenty of musical opportunities in the Church!” I think most of you will see that playing piano in the Primary is simply a different sort of thing than performing a song you put your blood, sweat, and tears into in front of a loving room full of fans. Musical interludes in sacrament meeting don’t fill that emotional hole either. Not that those things aren’t noble in their own ways-God knows there is blood, sweat, and tears in the Primary-but it’s just different. Being a performer or songwriter leaves a permanent void within us that can only be filled through emotional performance, and this same kind of emotional performance is discouraged in Church settings, in my opinion for good reasons.
So I went on a mission (a bit late, but honorably) and returned home, and tried my hand at starting some kind of musical career, but for several reasons, I decided that going on tour wasn’t for me. My strengths mostly lie at the university. This sent me into a bit of a depression though, as I realized my dreams of rock stardom were beginning to slip away. It was at this time that I first heard Low.
Someone had recommended them to me, but frankly, the only LDS musicians I knew about at the time had a certain “sound,” and it wasn’t that good. To me, LDS music came on EFY CDs and could be found at Deseret Book, and it was not only a pale shadow of good music but it was ruining the musical ears of a generation of my Mormon peers. I wanted no part of that. However, the first song I heard by Low was called “The Lamb”. I was driving on my way to a gig with my bassist (who not only isn’t Mormon but doesn’t believe in God) to a gig in Nashville when the song came on his iPod. He said, “This is a band called Low, ever heard of them? I think you’d like them.”
He had no idea they were Mormon and had no idea what they lyrics meant, but by the end of the song I was shaking. Literally shaking. Low changed everything.
“All things are ultimately spiritual, so there’s really no line between faith/spirituality and everything else. We recognized the spiritual nature of the music right away when we started, and have tried to stay faithful to that. I’ve felt the spirit many times as we’ve written songs, and performed in front of people. I don’t mean to sound pious, but I know this is what the Lord wants us to do and I’ve felt His hand move us along since the beginning. We are of course not perfect and have stepped on our own gown a few times, but I hope it all winds up as a positive.” – Alan Sparhawk, interview with Linescratchers
Most of you know about Low, so I think the best contribution I think I can add is to tell you how they changed my life. I’d encourage you to tell your stories, too. I went straight home from that gig and went to Low’s Myspace page and listened to all their songs, and then I read their page on Wikipedia, then I read as many interviews as I could. Here were two faithful members of the Church, married in the temple, who toured and wrote music, and this would be less remarkable if their music wasn’t pure art. Low is a great example of the purity of an idea, and a complete unwillingness to compromise an artistic vision. As I listened for the first time to their songs online I felt like the room was bending and spinning at the same time.
Not only do Alan and Mimi have a beautifully slow, sparse, haunting sound, but they are able to express emotional, temporal, and spiritual themes seamlessly. They don’t need to write lyrics that sound like they were copied out of a Primary manual in order to write deeply spiritual songs. They don’t need musician or songwriting workshops to “craft” (aka overproduce and deaden) their albums like so many LDS musicians do. Their music easily and flawlessly depicts hope, despair, love, charity, peace, and a full spectrum of other human emotions in their refreshingly under-produced sound. They also own a home and now have children. Obviously they didn’t feel like they had to choose between their music and their art.
After I had listened to everything I could by Low (and then I wrote them an embarrassing and gushing fan letter that I hope they didn’t receive), I knew what I had to do. It seemed that my musical ambitions were slowly fading as I threw myself deeper into school, but I was determined to go out into the world and find and gather as many LDS artists as I could who wrote music as beautiful as Alan and Mimi did. I was going to help promote their music. I was going to help them find each other and collaborate. I was going to review their songs. I was going to do everything I could to help and inspire more musicians to “raise the bar.” I was going to try to encourage a Mormon Renaissance if there ever was going to be one.
After listening to one of the few songs on their Myspace called “When I Go Deaf,” I named my blog “Linescratchers” (the line is in bold on the sidebar of linescratchers.com) and began sending out emails. This was June of 2008. We have now over 40 featured artists that have done interviews with us about their music and their faith, and a regular podcast wherein I play their music and, on occasion, interview them. Eventually, my dream came true and I was able to interview the man who inspired me to begin with, Alan Sparhawk. When I asked him whether he ever felt like he had to choose between his music and his faith, he answered simply.
“No, and nobody has ever asked us to.” – Alan Sparhawk, interview with Linescratchers
It was music to my ears. I hope that this series has interested a few of you in our artists and given you an idea of what I’m trying to do with my website. I realize it’s ambitious, but I think that one of the problems thus far has been a general lack of ambition. I have mentioned in previous posts that we are always looking for new musicians, new people who would like to blog with us, new reviewers, and new fans. If you’re interested in any of that feel free to contact me.
As for Low, Alan Sparhawk remains one of my heroes, if only because he succeeded so well in doing what so many musicians in the Mormon faith wanted to do but didn’t know how. They changed the way I thought about music and musicians and faith and spirituality. For me, Low changed everything. If any of you haven’t read the interview that I did with Alan, feel free to find it here.
For more information about Low you can visit their website.
One more entry to go!