Over the last two decades, the centerpiece and poster children of faithful Latter-day Saints in the world of Rock music have arguably been Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Minnesota Indie band Low. It’s hard to overestimate their influence on our culture and musicians. Living proof that the Church and a career in music aren’t mutually exclusive, Alan and Mimi have had their share of critical and fan acclaim, inspiring many Latter-day Saints, non-members, and even our very own Linescratchers itself.
Alan has more recently explored new sonic territory with The Black-Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir. Alan was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to be interviewed in this Linescratchers Exclusive, answering certain questions about being LDS in the music world for the first time.
First of all, did you know that the name of this website, Linescratchers, comes from the lyrics of When I Go Deaf?
A: No, but now I do.
When did you start writing music, and when did you decide to make it a career instead of just a hobby?
A: I started writing little songs as soon as I started playing guitar – maybe age 13 or 14. I had no lessons and learning someone else’s songs sounded impossible, so I started making my own patterns and chord changes. I wrote a few lyrics, but didn’t really take it seriously until we started Low. Before that, I had been in a band where I wrote some of the music, but the singer wrote the lyrics. As a teenager I dreamed of being a rock star – I’m not ashamed to admit it, however I soon learned that music is not a career – the best you can hope for is a chance to play your stuff in front of people.
Was your wife fully supportive at first or was she tentative about it? Most people think it’s the combination of the two of you that really make the sound of Low.
A: Mim and I knew each other since age 9 and we shared a common love of new music. She grew up in a family that would sing together a lot, and she played percussion in the high school band. As we became a couple, we would sit around and sing songs together from time to time, but she had no interest in being in a rock band. She is cautious, so it did take some coercion. Her minimal drum approach and vocal harmony really defined the band in the beginning and shaped how we grew.
What role does faith play in your life and in your music?
A: This is probably one of the most difficult things to describe, especially to the regular, secular press. I usually just say that our spiritual beliefs encompass our whole life and understanding of who we are and what we do. Most everyone in the Church recognizes that the gospel touches 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.
In the LDS community, it seems that most talented musicians and artists end up in more traditional careers due to their stability. The result is that there aren’t too many LDS musicians out there. Your song Death of a Salesman seems to touch on this idea of choosing stability over music. Do you think there’s a better solution?
A: I think the ratio is probably the same for people who are not LDS. People dream, put their heart into something, and eventually have to justify it with reality. It’s a fluke to be able to make a living on just music. I have many friends who are more deserving of a career in music, but for one reason or another, life has taken them elsewhere. “Salesman” is definitely about that, but also about the fact that no matter what, nothing can touch that relationship with music – not even time. Music is an eternal gift. I imagine that any celestial or millennial state will be filled with more musical opportunity than we can possibly imagine, and everyone will be glad for every moment they had with it on Earth – even just 5 minutes of nostalgic strumming by yourself.
Do LDS listeners make up a large segment of your fans?
A: I don’t really know. We do play Provo and SLC and it seems like the audience is mostly LDS, but I don’t think we are on the radar of the mainstream members. A friend from our ward says she gets flagged down by people on campus at BYU when she wears a Low t-shirt, so that’s kind of flattering, but it’s hard to say. A large majority of our fans are not LDS. I think there are things in our lyrics that members of the Church will recognize, so it’s nice to communicate that way, but I get into trouble if I think about that too much.
Have you ever felt like you had to choose between your faith and your music?
A: No, and nobody has ever asked us to.
In the last few years you have started doing work with other groups, such as The Black-Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir. Are these side-projects or are they bands in their own right?
A: I don’t look at them as side bands – it’s not a side band to the other people in those groups… the community here in Duluth is very incestuous. The scene fosters people getting together and trying out stuff – some works, some doesn’t. The Snakes started out of curiosity and common interests in primal blues. It unexpectedly caught on locally, so we’ve had a lot of fun with it and I’ve learned so much from the extremes we push in that group. We still get together and play locally. RGC started with a little more focus – I knew where it was going right away mostly because of the people in the band. I’m much more of a chameleon than I should admit – the other guys in the band really challenge my abilities and make me play in ways I didn’t know were in me. RGC seems to be catching on worldwide more, so it maybe looks more like a serious band, but it’s been life or death from the beginning, so I don’t know what to call it. The second RGC record comes out on Sub Pop in January, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s a very intense band, and people really react strongly to it.
Several online sources including your website have mentioned your work in Kenya. Tell us about your adult literacy work there.
A: A good friend of ours has been going to Kenya since high school, at first just to study and record the music of the Maasai. Eventually he became very close with the village of Namuncha and became their advocate. We did a couple local Christmas shows and dedicated the money to the village to build a small building to meet in for adult and children’s school. They had been meeting outside in the shade, when weather permitted. Because of the economy in Kenya, it takes very little money to build or do something there, a little went a long way. The credit really goes to our friend Hans Johnson, who is still organizing new projects. I got to go with him to stay in the village for a short time and I count it as one of the most beautiful, humbling, and spiritual experiences of my whole life. It was like meeting Jesus.
Low has a couple tour dates coming up soon, but nothing long-term. When can we expect the next Low tour?
A: Right now we are working on new songs. Probably record this Winter. Lately, with the kids in school now, we are a lot more frugal with our time away. When a record is new, it makes sense to tour more heavily, but on downtime we just do the fun ones. RGC will be busy for the first part of 2010. Until then, Mim and I are working with a modern dance choreographer named Morgan Thorson on a piece that we will be performing in Houston and NYC in October.
Do your kids think you’re famous?
A: As our our 9-year-old says, we’re “famous, but not as famous as Green Day.”
What advice would you give to young Latter-day Saints who want to be full-time musicians or songwriters?
A: Spencer W. said it best: “Do it.”