I’m posing with my newest toy – I’ve worked at a guitar shop since 2006 but have only now been able to take home a beautiful, prized possession: a Martin SWDGT with a Fishman pickup that I installed. I’m standing next to a painting that I did recently that was inspired by a song by John Wesley (the one who plays for Porcupine Tree) that I have decided to put on the cover of the album I’m currently recording.
I am scheduling this post to go up on June 28th, 2011, which is exactly three years and a day after the very first post of Linescratchers went up. I have told a little bit of my story to my contributors, and one of them mentioned that it might be interesting and useful to tell the story so far to our readership. Some of you have only recently discovered Linescratchers. Just a few of you – and you know who you are – have been with me since the very beginning. Our contributor Charles has eloquently explained why keeping records is important, so in that spirit, I’d like to tell you the story of Linescratchers from the beginning, complete with the controversial and the embarrassing details that make these things bearable to read. Hopefully it will give you an idea of what Linescratchers is for, why I started it, and where I want it to go in the future. Please forgive the long exposition on myself, but it should give you some context.
I adore music. I heard my first Beatles song when I was 13 years old while driving with my mom in the countryside of Eastern Kentucky (it was “Hey Jude”). I was inspired to begin secretly learning chords on my dad’s impossible-to-play Ovation, and finally my dad bought me my first electric guitar, a Yamaha Pacifica 112, when I was 14. Since then, I have written many songs, inspired by my favorite bands, picked up a street performing habit (I’ve played on street corners in Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Evansville, Lexington, and elsewhere), and have played in several bands. Though bands come and go, I have always performed with my two brothers and one sister. To the right is a picture of us when I was 18 playing in a little coffee shop in my Kentucky hometown. I’m the headbanger on the left.
Though I have gone through a couple strange personal ups-and-downs through my life, struggled with intense depression that kept me from going on a mission until I was 21 years old, and beaten a very unusual and personal spiritual path that oscillates between orthodox Mormonism, pragmatic Mormonism, philosophical theism, Christian Universalism, and somewhere in there reincarnation maybe, throughout all of this the one constant in my life was a striving to seek deeper meanings in my life, and music. Music is a constant companion much like the Holy Ghost for me. I have read in the writings of Oliver Sacks (I’m about to start grad school in psychology) that some people are more prone to “earworms,” or in other words, getting songs stuck in their heads. Sometimes I think it’s neat; sometimes it worries me. When I wake up in the morning, it’s playing in my head, unbidden. No matter what I’m doing all day, something is playing in there. Oftentimes I can control it. Many times I can’t. No matter how solemn or sacred the occasion, be it funeral, breakup discussion, or temple session, I have a constant reel of music on a permanent loop in my brain. I have also read that in some people who are prone to earworms, this music turns into full-blown auditory hallucinations, and often they just get louder and more excruciating to their sufferers as they age. I really hope that never happens to me.
I also have forged an unusual musical path. I spent my teen years wanting to be a shredder like John Petrucci or awesome style player like Steve Howe. However, in order to really become that good, you have to play at least an hour a day for like ten years. Unfortunately, when I was a kid, I had a bike wreck that resulted in a broken thumb. To this day, when I play guitar for longer than twenty minutes or so, my thumb just throbs. I was never able to play for long enough to really sharpen my skills. I decided to focus on singing (which I never really got the talent to do) and songwriting (which I do think I got the knack of). I would probably describe my music as a hodge-podge of acoustic and ambient music, prog, singer/songwriter, and metal. It makes sense in my head.
When I got home from my mission, I had a little bit of a personal crisis. All through my mission I received letters from my friend Matthew Ryan, who assured me as soon as this mission trial was over (he’s not LDS), we would be rocking out in a band and playing shows all over the Midwest and Southern United States. The thought of raging crowds and electric guitars got me through some of the darkest times on my mission. When I got home, reality struck.
We did create a band, of course, and it was glorious, but it was also a lot of work. It was called Killer Ellipsis – a grammatical joke that we thought was funny, but no one was able to remember let alone spell. My brother played drums for us at first, and my sister played the bass, but when Thomas went on a mission we were left trying to find drummers on Craigslist. THAT sucked. The first guy we auditioned showed up, played, and we thanked him and told him we could really use a drummer for a gig we had coming up. He asked if he could leave his drums in my garage. After a couple weeks we realized this guy wasn’t going to work out at all. We decided to invite him over and break the news to him as softly as possible. He showed up with our band name printed on a custom drum head. When we informed him that it wasn’t going to work out, he cried. To the right is a picture of me, again, doing something dumb on stage with Killer Ellipsis at a club in Lexington, Kentucky, that was torn town about a year ago.
But I digress. Enough back-story. Being in a band was hard work, and for me, being in a band meant cognitive dissonance. I realized that if you want to be a musician the rest of your life, the LDS world doesn’t really have a place for you. Sure, listening to heavy metal in the parking lot and having long hair make you a cute novelty at church – in fact, they made me gospel doctrine teacher – but being in a band is NOT considered a career, and good luck if you want to date anyone. It seemed like girls just automatically became disinterested in me when they discovered that music was more than just a hobby. What an irony, right? Anyone who says that playing music gets you chicks is obviously not Mormon. The church stresses industry, financial independence, supporting a family, and education. And yet, for me, music was and is a spiritual pursuit. Did God want me in a band? Or did Satan want me in a band? Was I just a musician because of my pride? Because I didn’t want to grow up? Should I just quit the stupid band dreams, find a nice Mormon girl, get married, and go to dental school like a Priesthood holder is expected to do?
I was in the process of getting a psychology degree, but I also worked at a music instrument retail shop. Since the music retail industry has been in a steady decline since 2006, I had some free time on the Internet at work. Every day. And certainly there was a website or support group out there for LDS musicians like me, right? Right???
Well… not really. Every search I did of “LDS musicians” online turned up a bunch of very unusual websites. These websites featured some very slick, vacuous, spiritual-lite devotional music that was strangely reminiscent of contemporary Christian pop except not as good. I wasn’t unfamiliar with this kind of music (I’d served a mission after all), but it stunned me that people listened to that stuff even when no one was making them listen to it! That music had little to nothing to do with what I was trying to do, and when I tried to find solace in these groups, there was just a deafening silence. They didn’t get me, and I didn’t get them. All my concerns about playing music were left unresolved.
Lonely, single, and feeling a bit isolated, I got my idea. Part of it was due to my first exposure to an amazing, beautiful, inspirational band called Low, and you can read my story with them here. My Uncle John was also part of the inspiration. He’s the creator of several Mormon-themed websites including Mormon Stories, Mormon Matters, and StayLDS. While I don’t hide the fact that I disagree with him in his approach to the church, I was very inspired by the fact that he did all the work, networking, and building of these websites himself, and recruited plenty of talented people eventually to help him. If a real website featuring real LDS musicians in the real world didn’t exist, then by golly I was going to create it. In my head, it was incredibly ambitious. It would be a support group, a network of professionals, a way of connecting musicians to their LDS fans, and a way of redefining what spirituality can be in music. But first, it was going to be a blog.
However, it couldn’t be anything like the websites I saw before. If THAT is “LDS music,” then I don’t want to play “LDS music.” I want to play my own music, though I am LDS. Thus: “LDS musicians who don’t write LDS music.” Furthermore, I didn’t want to seem like I was doing the website only to promote my own music, and I wanted to disconnect myself from my Uncle John’s work since I’d really like to make a name for myself. So I took the name Syphax as an Internet moniker.
But what should I name the website? I listened to an inspired song called “When I Go Deaf,” and Linescratchers was born.
From the Ground Up
Because I had a totally new and untried idea, I realized that I was going to have to start this from scratch. I wasn’t even sure that there WERE too many LDS musicians out there doing what I do. I was aware that Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were Mormon, I knew that Brandon Flowers was Mormon, and I knew for sure that Alice Cooper and Lionel Richie were NOT Mormon. I had a couple friends who were very talented musicians, but for the most part, not too much to work with really. As I’ve pointed out, there were no websites out there featuring LDS musicians, just small groups of Utahns busting their humps trying to get featured in Deseret Bookstores. So I started doing searches.
When I say searches, I want you guys to know what kind of searches I did. I left absolutely no stone unturned. I had plenty of time and fairly decent Internet search skills, and I had returned from a mission that consisted of daily contacting and man-hunting, so I put all this to work. I searched Google, MySpace groups, LDS musicians websites, and even (dare I admit) LDS online dating websites. I looked through countless MySpace pages, searching only for “Mormon” and looking for profile pictures that featured people holding musical instruments. I sent out probably a hundred emails in the first month, hoping that I could find someone out there who could help me, and I asked each of the people who wrote me back for referrals for more. Soon, some interest began trickling in. My first contacts were cool and interesting.
Since I had a very strong vision of what Linescratchers was going to be, and a very strong vision of what it was not going to be, it meant I actually turned down quite a few offers. Instead of featuring every Joe Mormon in his basement with an acoustic guitar, I tried to raise the bar and only feature really good musicians with a semi-finished product; at the very least, it had to be something that could be featured on the radio or properly marketed. It didn’t have to be slick, just quality. I also had to turn down artists that were okay, but that I felt were part of the “LDS music” scene. It may seem elitist, snobby, or exclusionary, but in hindsight I really needed to properly define what Linescratchers was. If I let those “LDS music” people put their foot in the door, it was all over, and I was just another one of those websites.
The First Interviews
My first interview came back in June 2008. I had first seen Rebecca Watkins on MySpace and she was holding a guitar in her picture, so I pursued it further. What I found was a talented pop writer and singer from Missouri, not too far from where I was in Kentucky. I thought for sure she was going places – she had a decent voice and a nice pop sensibility – but I haven’t heard too much from her since then. She still has a MySpace with a number of listens on her profile, but I can’t tell if she’s done anything with her music since then. Her interview was cute and honest, and personable enough to kick off the website and make me less nervous about interviewing people (I have a bit of performance anxiety and get very star-struck by anyone well-known).
My next two interviews were friends of mine. Good Morning Passenger is the project of Ian Friley from here in Kentucky. As kids we used to run around Boy Scout camp and our little ward building in Ashland, Kentucky, but we lost touch when I moved away. When I looked him up again, we were both musicians (by trade he is a film editor), and his music was expressive, emotional, and, in a word, awesome. It was a simple interview. Since then, he’s released a wonderful album that we reviewed right here, and he and I will be working on some video interviews for our Linescratchers YouTube channel very soon.
Then I got in touch with my good friend Simeon Lawrence, AKA Young Sim. I knew Sim on my mission (he was my zone leader and then the assistant to the president), and he and I became good friends back then, probably based on the fact that both of us felt unique in a special way. He already had in his mind on his mission a plan to create a music franchise when he got home, and so we both planned on getting together again afterwards. Sim and I have had a long history since then, and I consider him a right-hand-man in my pursuit of quality music in the future. Or maybe, I’m his right-hand-man. If you’re not yet familiar with Sim, here is an article I wrote about him for By Common Consent, and here is an interview with Sim about his latest album.
I started the podcast on June 6th, 2009, but it really wasn’t much to listen to at the time. Inspired by my mother who is a professional radio personality, I just featured a little crafty editing, a few songs, and any jokes that I could think of. By this time I had gathered up a bunch of mp3s from various artists, and had interviewed some great musicians like Douglas Stambler, Ian Fowles (with whom I am now recording an album), Roxy Rawson, and Kristen Lawrence. This was around the time when Tim Valenta began helping me do the little technical things with the website, and Tim continues to this day as the Web Administrator at Linescratchers. Before Tim, I had generally turned people down who wanted to be a part of Linescratchers, because I wanted the idea to gain ground on its own. I was afraid someone else would subvert or change the idea that I had for the website. So for a long time it was just a solo effort. The podcast never really caught on like I wanted it to until the last few episodes, which have had a listenership in the hundreds.
Eventually, I began to feel like the number of artists I was having to keep up with was too great to handle. I realized I had something unique – I was still the only website online that did what I did – and my network of LDS musicians was, dare I say it, the largest of its kind in the world. However, my college classes were getting more difficult, I had gotten married, and I was growing weary of keeping track of it all myself. I also figured that I had established what Linescratchers was and getting people aboard wasn’t going to dilute that message. I decided to get some more bloggers on board. I recruited Gregg Hale (from Spiritualized and other space-rock bands), Jake Workman (from the Sweater Friends), Earl Kramer (Lime Colony), and a few more really interesting people to get involved, and over 2010 I kept recruiting bloggers.
At the beginning of this year we tried something brand new. We wanted to start a yearly awards contest that allowed us to recognize the best of LDS musicians and allow our readers to vote. It’s called the Linescratchers Awards, and this year was a complete success.
We also have some amazing columns that you’re probably familiar with. We have the Linescratching Post by Cody and the Archivist by Charles. We also have a full staff of hard workers including our Editor-in-Chief Dallin, our still-hard-working Web Administrator Tim, Copy Editor Colleen, and then bloggers Matt Mylroie and a host of others. I’m very pleased with all their hard work and can’t wait to see what will happen in the future.
I still think Linescratchers is the only website that does what it does on the Internet. We have organized all our Internet contacts into a Network where you can go to see what everyone is up to, and we are also actively trying to inspire other blogs to pick up the torch and do what we do. So far, we haven’t found anyone else, but LDS musicians aren’t going away anytime soon, and I wouldn’t at all mind if Linescratchers is around for a long, long time – longer than I am. What is the future of Linescratchers? Well, I have some lofty goals, but in the medium-term I want to keep growing Linescratchers into the premiere outlet for LDS artists to connect with their fans. One day I hope to have concerts, venues, record labels… well, who knows what can happen. For now, all my thoughts and efforts go into connecting with musicians and writing music of my own.
1. I “discovered” one of our musicians on an LDS dating website, before I was married. In hindsight I realize how creepy it was: “Hey! I just saw you were holding a guitar in your profile picture… I just started a website and want to interview you! Give me your email address!” Though I’m sure I was a little less creepy than that, I hope.
2. One time I spent about 3 hours searching for references and creating a Wikipedia entry for one of my favorite Linescratchers musicians. It was a lot of hard work, and when I was done, I let him know I did it. He responded by freaking out because I identified him as a Mormon in the article. He didn’t want record labels to know that, because he said it would somehow hurt him, and he promptly went to the article, cut it all up, deleted a ton of stuff, and removed a couple references. Unfortunately, the resulting mess was no longer worthy of Wikipedia and last time I checked it was scheduled for deletion. I lost a lot of respect for that guy when it was all over, and from then on decided to discontinue promoting him on the website. If he didn’t want people to know he’s Mormon, he shouldn’t have been on Linescratchers. I don’t mind if a person doesn’t feel Mormon, or doesn’t want to identify themselves as Mormon, or even leaves the Church – but I do mind when someone puts on and takes off Mormonism like a mask when it’s personally advantageous.
4. We now have three important centers for Linescratchers: Linescratchers.com, the Linescratchers YouTube Channel, and the Linescratchers Network.
5. Some failed Linescratchers projects that we’re not opposed to bringing back at some point are the Linescratchers Message Board and the Linescratchers Wiki. Also, I think we should start a pyramid scheme.
6. After I had made somewhat of a name for myself featuring “LDS musicians who don’t write LDS music,” I started wondering whether a quality faith-based LDS album was even possible. Eventually, the idea troubled me so much that I decided to just try it myself and see if I could do it. I am almost done producing that album, and I’m proud of it, but whether it’s good is up to you, I suppose. You can track my progress here.
For all those of you still reading this… well, I owe you a dollar.