The Top 10 LDS Musicians You’ve Never Heard Of, No. 9

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.

Low

“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!

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    For me Low was a bit of an acquired taste. I didn’t know what to expect at first. But I kept listening and did acquire the taste. I saw them at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and they put on a great show. Thanks for doing this terrific series!

  2. I had heard “The Lamb” about 10 times before I realized what it was about. I’m pretty dense when it comes to lyrics, so this isn’t unusual. When it finally did hit me, I had the same kind of experience you did. To me, it’s as powerful a tribute to Joseph Smith as anything that’s come through official channels of the Church.

    I got into low after hearing a review of The Great Destroyer on NPR. I got the album the same day I heard the review and I was hooked. I didn’t find out they were Mormon until I started looking up their other albums.

    There’s a sort of tour film/documentary out there called You May Need a Murderer that has a little vignette with them going to church and Alan talking about his faith. It’s pretty interesting. The performances are great. Alan’s got some sort of “out there” ideas, but so do a lot of us. I’m glad to call them fellow Saints.

  3. #1. You’re welcome. I can see them being somewhat of an acquired taste. For some reason I was immediately hooked like Tom.

    #2. I agree about The Lamb. I have been meaning to buy that DVD, but I’m pretty poor at the moment and even $20 is a significant portion of my budget. I can’t wait to see it though. And actually, I’ve never had the chance to see them live, so that will be awesome as well. Alan might have “out there” ideas, but included would be his idea that he could be a professional touring musician with his wife and still be a member of the Church. Many think that this is too “out there” to be taken seriously. Another “out there” idea would be to write music as slowly as possible while still keeping it melodic. So we need folks who can think outside the box I think. I love it! Thanks for your comment.

  4. I love love love Low. And they are an acquired taste–you really have to get into a different mindset to listen to their stuff. It’s so slow. You have to slow way down for it. Except their recent album is different–and it’s fun to see them trying new things.

    I highly recommend seeing them live. I’ve seen them multiple times and they’re the only band that can make me cry during an opening song just because of the vocal harmonies. So beautiful.

  5. You should watch the documentary, Syphax–in it Alan reveals that he has a pot smoking problem, and he also talks about his recent mental breakdown. He also makes some interesting comments about debt and the economy, well before the economic crisis.

    I can’t believe you’ve never seen them live. One of my all-time fave live bands. Really emotionally intense.

  6. Hmm, yeah, that really sounds interesting. I knew about the breakdown but don’t know the details. I haven’t seen them live because they seem to be scaling back Low concerts nowadays and Alan’s been focusing on the Retribution Gospel Choir. I’d be happy to see him in any band, but a Low show would seriously rock.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    Just pure wonderfulness. You maybe can’t imagine how different my life might have been if this kind of resource had existed in 1982. Great work, Linescratchers. I sustain this. ~

  8. Thanks Thomas. I was not yet born in 1982, and I think the general assembly of the Church has taken a while to warm up to popular music in general perhaps? But I hope to grow Linescratchers into something that can offer more than lip service to our musicians. Hopefully soon.

  9. When we moved to the Twin Cities, I was hoping to get the chance to see Low. I did get that chance — and in a great venue. It ranks right up there with seeing New York Doll in San Francisco in terms of the confluence of my Mormonism and my love of art and of “indie” rock to produce a rapt live experience. When all your buttons get hit like that, it’s pretty cool.

  10. I first saw LOW in 2000 in Provo. Had no idea who they were–I was just tagging along with a friend. For me, like you, that night completely changed my music-listening life, and has had tangible impacts on my life otherwise as well, leading me to continue artistic pursuits that I might not have otherwise. I would echo everything you’ve said, down to the embarrassing gushing fan letter. I’ll add just one thing: they are one of the very, very few bands that for me routinely sounds better live than in studio recordings. Every performance is unique and personal.

    They aren’t just good, they’re the best. U2 good. Sliced bread good. For me the fact that they aren’t the most revered band of all time is evidence of the Fall of Man. Fanboy much?

    RGC is also very, very good, although less established. Very intense stage show. I’ve never seen anyone sweat so much. Can’t wait to see where they take that project.

    I think You May Need a Murderer is still available to watch online from Dutch TV: http://player.omroep.nl/?aflID=6751556

    My favorite song these days is Murderer from The Great Destroyer, but by favorite image is from Dinosaur Act on Things We Lost in the Fire: And putting your foot down,
    a nail shot up like a bright red snowflake. I guess there’s a parallel there with Murderer.

    BTW there are lots of videos of them on YouTube and audio bootlegs at Archive.org. You don’t need to feel bad about downloading that live stuff since Alan has given permission to the guys who post most of it.

  11. #9. Have you had a chance to see The Hold Steady yet? Great Twin Cities band, one of the best I’ve seen live, if you’re into that kind of music. Not LDS of course.

  12. Nope. I don’t have the coin for many live shows. I make it to one about every 18 months since the move to Minnesota. Which means so far I’ve seen Interpol and Low. Of course, prior to that I averaged one every 5-6 years. I

  13. I first heard of them about 10 years ago when I came across their brilliant version of “Transmission” on a Joy Division tribute album. I’ve been following them ever since. Just a great, great band.

  14. I saw Low on the Great Destroyer tour in SF; Alan and Mimi have an amazing musical chemistry live.

  15. I loved LOW the moment I heard them and was absolutely stunned by the gorgeousness of their live performance in Provo–must have been 2000 or 2001. Their Christmas record is one of the best.

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