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.
Last time, I highlighted the amazing story of rapper Young Sim and his family’s escape from war-torn Liberia. This installment takes us out to the relatively peaceful and characteristically damp Portland, Oregon. Last year, my family travelled out to Portland to see my sister get married in the Portland Temple. There in the Celestial room, I was introduced to someone who plays in a garage band there and also is in charge of the 5th Friday Open Mic, an open mic at the Beaverton, Oregon stake center featuring LDS musicians.
Intrigued, but also realizing that the temple isn’t always the best place to discuss Rock ‘n Roll, I later found Mark Simnitt and his band Fossil Fools online and interviewed him for Linescratchers. This band is awesome, and Mark is a funny, talented, and nice guy. Such are the blessings of attending the temple.
Fossil Fools made my list because they represent a long garage rockabilly tradition here in America, and they’re the perfect mixture of great and funny lyrics, great image, and great personality. They don’t pretend to be anything they’re not, of course. They’re all members of the Church, they all have callings and day jobs, but they’re just a fun group of guys who write bombastic Rock ‘n Roll like they mean it. And to me, that’s what rock is all about anyway.
“Funny you should ask, I honestly don’t think I’m better than everyone else, just smarter and way more talented. And more humble, of course.” – Mark Simnitt, interview with Linescratchers
Mark Simnitt is above all else a performer, and a dang good one at that. Good-natured, creative, and hilarious, Mark and his friend Myron Smith put the band together in its current form about four years ago. He recruited Dave Greaves, a keyboardist, to play drums (he learned quickly), and eventually got his brother Knol on bass. In 2009, Knol was diagnosed with throat cancer, and during his chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Stuart Harris filled in on bass. Knol is now cancer-free. After some live experience and a small break between callings where he was able to write some music, Fossil Fools released The Fossil Record, containing 13 glorious songs.
This album is a fun, tongue-in-cheek nod to American rockabilly, early rock, and middle-class suburbia. There are some great tracks on it. There’s “Misery,” which describes a perfect guy with a perfect wife, kids, house, car, and job, who for some reason can’t be happy unless he’s playing Rock ‘n Roll. There’s “Perfect Eight,” a love song for a perfect woman. He’s not looking for a perfect ten, of course. He’d prefer a perfect eight:
“Perfect tens look good in string bikinis
And they don’t eat, so they never have to watch their weight
Perfect eights know how to steam zucchini
And they are not afraid of burgers, fries, and shakes…
A perfect ten will leave you for another
And if you take her back, buddy you’re a fool
A perfect eight will take you home to meet her mother
And convince you that she thinks your band is cool
Perfect eight, perfect eight
Wanna find that girl and celebrate all right
Don’t want a ten, say it again
Eight, eight, perfect eight!”
– Fossil Fools, “Perfect Eight”
Then check out “Never Saw It Coming,” a hilarious tune which tells the autobiography of a guy who seems to see misfortune coming around the corner. And the album ends on a sweet note, a vocal gospel tune called “Cast Your Bread.” It’s a unified, coherent, fun album that never takes itself too seriously. Needless to say, it’s on heavy rotation on my iTunes.
There is a point in every LDS musician’s life when they realize that in order to get anywhere in the music business, they have to play in bars. It’s an unfortunate reality. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with bars, but on the other hand, it’s hard to invite all your Mormon friends to a show at a bar. They’re dark, they smell like all manner of lasciviousness, there are occasional fights, and they’re designed to get people to spend lots of money on drinks. I think this, combined with the fact that a touring lifestyle takes a musician away from home, trudging across the country sometimes for months at a time, leads a lot of our musicians to question whether it’s even worth it to try to find success in the music industry. It also leads a lot of our parents to say things like, “You can’t be a professional musician and a strong member of the Church,” to their teenagers.
Unfortunately, the result is that those who are most passionate about music sometimes leave the Church to pursue it. I know personally a few talented musicians who, when faced with this choice, chose their art.
Mark Simnitt decided to take matters into his own hands. He started the 5th Friday Open Mic in Beaverton, Oregon. Every month that has a 5th Friday, Mark sets up a stage at the stake center for any musicians in the area to play. This isn’t a fireside, it’s a place to play “secular” music in the refuge of the church. It’s a fun way of showcasing talent in the Portland area while allowing musicians a chance to play a show outside of a bar for once. Of course, these musicians won’t make enough money there to make a career, but it’s a great vacation for the musicians and a great show for the listeners.
And there’s a lot more talent than just Fossil Fools. Portland rock band Lindsey Pool is often involved at the open mics, and smooth-voiced KaRyn Daley serenades the crowd there as well. And one of my personal favorites, Canoe, has been involved since the beginning. Canoe’s latest album will be coming up next month.
Fossil Fools would make a great addition to any album collection, but these guys go home after every show back to their callings, families, and jobs, so I think the self-conscious lyrics about American life pack a little more punch this way. But they’re not out to blow your mind.
“Music can be a pretty self-indulgent undertaking. I honestly feel like to have the Lord’s help with my music – and I really do want his help – it can’t just be about me. So from the message of the songs, to where and how I perform, I always try to think about how my music will affect other people.” – Mark Simnitt, interview with Linescratchers
I’ve never seen a Fossil Fools show, but one of these days, I’m going to make it out to Portland, and when I do, I’m going to make sure the 5th Friday Open Mic is on my to-do list. To find out more about Fossil Fools, you can visit their website, or their interview at Linescratchers.