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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Choose the Rock
News & Columns

Choose the Rock

Mormon rockers carve their way through a sea of stereotypes.

By Rebecca Vernon
Posted // June 11,2007 - Choose

I leaned against the counter at Kinko’s on a Sunday afternoon last winter, waiting for one of the employees to print out my ward newsletter from a Zip disk. The ward newsletter editor was my first LDS church calling in two years, and I was impressing myself by actually doing it. He handed the disk back after he was done, paused, and got a quizzical look on his face. “So, what’s that document for SLUG doing on your disk?” he asked suspiciously.


“Oh, I work for SLUG and that’s an article I wrote,” I said. SLUG (Salt Lake Underground) Magazine is an outspoken rebel rag that covers the local and national music scene.


“And you’re a Mormon?” he asked.


“Yeah,” I said.


“Oh right,” he said, and looked at me as if he had just caught me in the middle of a shameful lie.


He handed me my receipt.


“Have fun at church,” he said with the trace of a sneer.


As I walked out into the blinding sun, I felt a familiar blossom of anger start to grow.


About a week later, a couple of people from my ward were disconcerted about an article I had written for a local alternative newspaper called, “If God Were a Rocker.” It was a really funny, satirical article about an interview with God enumerating his favorite rock bands, standing up for rock music, stuff like that. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful at all, but I had a couple of people “expressing their concern” about it.


“Now, you know that can’t be true, God wouldn’t have said that, right?” they said.


“Well, actually, I don’t know what God would have said,” I replied. “It was for entertainment purposes only.” Then one girl insulted the paper I worked for. The other girl laughed. I felt the dark, angry blossom again in the pit of my stomach. But I worked on dispelling it like I always do and told myself, like I probably have way too many times, that some people just don’t understand. But it pays to be patient.


Labels Organize … and Inhibit


Sometimes labels can be useful. When you get a shiny, new can of Del Monte peaches, you know exactly what you’re going to get—peaches in heavy syrup, cut the way you want it, according to the label on the can. Every can identical. With identical stuff inside. That’s consistency, dependability.


But putting labels on human beings can become a problem—the labels can grow into insidious, destructive social forces that wrap around you like a suffocating anaconda. Labels pre-require you to act a certain way, appear a certain way, even think a certain way. The fallacy of that is that not everyone has the identical amount of peaches inside, cut the way you want it, according to the label on the can.


Sometimes people get the idea that Mormons—all Mormons—are identical, have never struggled with their religion, and live in a nightmarishly wholesome, unrealistic ’50s episode of Leave it to Beaver. And sometimes Mormons get the idea that other Mormons should speak, dress and behave a certain way to be a “good” Mormon. To say encountering these mindsets in my life has been frustrating would be an understatement.


I am an active Mormon and my biggest passion in life is rock ’n’ roll. Some of my favorite bands are Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, AC/DC, Metallica, the Melvins and classic rock greats The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. I subscribe to music magazines, I play several instruments and I’ve played in more than 10 rock bands since I was 19 (I’m 26 now). Most of my friends are not Mormon.


My experiences and those of the other Mormon rock musicians I interviewed are not always identical. But I can definitely see the traces of my own struggles in theirs.


No Middle Ground


Low is an impressive band in its own right, never mind that two of its members, Mimi—the percussionist—and Alan Sparhawk—the lead singer and guitarist—(husband and wife) are Mormon. Zak Sally, the bassist, “doesn’t like organized religion,” Sparhawk laughs, adding, “Do you want to watch Shrek?” I think he’s talking to me, until I realize he’s talking to his 2-year-old daughter, Hollis Mae, who is making “dirt pasta” in the front yard.


Low, based out of Duluth, Minnesota, is arguably one of the most prominent “slocore” bands in the modern rock world. They specialize in minimalist rock with spare hooks, lots of spaces and light percussion, weaving a spell of bittersweet, hypnotizing melodies. So hypnotizing, in fact, that some of their critics have labeled their music “snorecore.” Hardly unchallenging, however, their music stands out for its advanced, eerily mature sound even in the midst of its simplicity.


Low has been together since 1993 and has put out nine albums, including their latest, Things We Lost in the Fire. They’ve toured Europe and have worked with respected people in the music industry, such as Steve Albini (producer for Nirvana, Bush, Rye Coalition and more) who recorded Low’s Transmission EP in 1996 and their Secret Name album in 1999. Low recently finished recording a song for the supernatural thriller The Mothman Prophecies—the director was a big fan of theirs. “The song doesn’t sound a lot like us,” laughs Sparhawk again. “It’s really rockin.’” Perhaps most impressively, Thom Yorke of Radiohead spoke glowingly of Low and Things We Lost in the Fire in a July 2001 interview with Blender.


Low’s success is considerable when one keeps in mind how hard it is to get any kind of attention in the music industry. But Sparhawk’s current success acquires even more meaning when one considers that it’s overshadowed by a darkened past.


“At BYU, I was just like, OK, I don’t fit in here, I just want to be my own guy and listen to my weird music,” says Sparhawk. “But sometimes around Mormon pockets, like at BYU, there are only two extremes, and if you don’t fit into the mainstream, there is a strong counterculture waiting to welcome you with open arms.


“Anywhere else in the world, if you want to rebel, you go get a beer or something, but there, there’s no casual deviation—it quickly became all about harder drugs. As one would suspect, along with that came the typical attitude. It’s like you had to go out of your way to denounce the church to be cool and part of the crowd. I sometimes think the creeping anti-[Mormon] attitude was more dangerous than the drugs.”


Sparhawk struggled with drug use his freshman year at BYU and then returned home to Duluth and Mimi, his childhood friend, to spend the next two years of his life recuperating, he says, “from stuff I had picked up at BYU.”


“Mimi and I always had a really strong relationship,” says Sparhawk. “She really helped turn me around. It was never her bag to go overboard with rebellion. I thought, ‘Here at least is sanity.’”


At first he was disinterested in returning to church, however, Mimi expressed an interest and she eventually chose to get baptized into Sparhawk’s childhood religion. They were later married and sealed in an LDS temple. They are both active Mormons now. Their beliefs are a driving force behind everything they do, says Sparhawk.


“It’s weird, but experiences I had under the influence kicked my ass, made me realize I was on a fast and dangerous road,” says Sparkhawk. “They made me realize that something heavier was going on, that there is such a thing as good and evil. It made me fall back on the things I learned when I was young, made me think, maybe this stuff really is true.”


You’ll Never Make it Straight


Randy Bachman stunned the entire rock world by struggling 10 long years with his band The Guess Who and then leaving it during the height of its popularity.


The Guess Who, homegrown in Winnipeg, Canada, had sold more records than the entire Canadian recording industry by 1970, even outselling the Beatles that year. They were initially big in England with one of their first singles, “His Girl,” reaching the Top 20. The Guess Who’s breakthrough single in the United States, “These Eyes,” grew to monster proportions, reaching No. 3 on the charts and selling 1 million copies. The American success backlashed into their native country and forced Canadian rock stations, who had initially rejected them because they were from Canada, to start playing the songs.


The Guess Who were most noted for their classic rock hits, “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “Shakin’ All Over” and “No Time.” So the big question, of course, is, why did Randy Bachman leave?


Bachman, who had a young family at the time, made the decision to take a break from music for a while and turn his full attention to his wife and child. His young son, Tal, who was later to also have a successful career in pop-rock, had just been born. He had another daughter on the way. There were also several more reasons.


Bachman was a convert to the LDS church in 1966, before the explosion of The Guess Who. In his teens and early 20s, everyone around him was partying, but Bachman always stayed curiously aloof. When he joined the church, he says, the Word of Wisdom was not a problem.


“When I first joined, you know, I was a new convert and I wanted to share with my bandmates what I had discovered,” says Bachman. “I was like, look, there really is a prophet on the earth today, tried to show them the Book of Mormon, encouraged them to cut down on drinking—I was enthusiastic, a little preachy. Of course they wanted nothing to do with it.”


He felt a bit outside the loop. “It’s hard seeing your friends suddenly change,” he says. “I could do the endless touring, all the hard work. But at parties, seeing my friends change, suddenly becoming abrasive, louder—it was like seeing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That was hard on me.”


He was also very ill with gallbladder problems. He parted ways with his bandmates and was immediately blacklisted by the rock community at large.


“Nobody wanted to play with me anymore,” says Bachman. “I was the loser that left The Guess Who. Rolling Stone and Spin both said I would never make it as a straight rocker. I was laughed at in rock circles.


“I made a vow right then and there that I was going to rise to the top again, and I was going to do it straight.”


With a lot of hard work, he was able to surpass his previous fame with his new project, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. In 1975, BTO had the No. 1 album with Not Fragile and a song that stayed in No. 1 for weeks, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” Other hits were “Let it Ride,” “Takin’ Care of Business” and “Roll on Down the Highway.” Their fourth album, Four Wheel Drive, peaked at No. 5 on Billboard, becoming certified platinum.


Today, Randy is the ultimate anti-washed-up rock star. He still writes and records his own stuff and produces other acts regularly. He’s currently in his third summer of touring with The Guess Who—the first reunion in 30 years. He’s in his second marriage and he has eight children and 13 grandchildren. He has a daughter at BYU.


“I have always kind of felt like I am in this weird limbo,” says Bachman. “I go to church and sometimes feel like a biker. But it is wonderful to be welcome wherever I go to church in other cities and countries.”


Bachman used to teach LDS firesides in Canada during the ’70s when Thomas Monson and Russell Ballard were young men and leaders of the LDS church in Canada. Monson was the East Canadian Mission President.


“They were friends of mine, I knew them,” says Bachman. “They used to always tell me, it’s OK to look like you look and to have a beard and long hair because you bridge the gap. You show people that it’s OK to be Mormon and ‘hip.’”


Bachman continues, “Mormons are a lot more open than they used to be, things are more open and accepting now towards rock music. People back then were more uptight.”


Sometimes he gets asked by other Mormons if he feels guilty playing in bars and clubs. He responds, “No, not at all. I don’t have anything to do with the alcohol. I’m not serving it. I’m there to do a job, to make music. That’s what I’m there for.”


Living in Two Different Worlds


A large picture of Che Guevara hangs in the bedroom where Gift Anon practices, along with a poster of Kurt Cobain smoking and holding a guitar behind the drumset. There’s a copy of Lord of the Rings on the coffee table. Sparkly chips glitter in the basement ceiling of a house that looks like it came straight from the set of ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons.


“The funny thing is, none of us live here anymore,” explains Ryan Honaker, Gift Anon’s bassist. “I moved out a week ago. The guy who bought my lease lets us still have band practice in his room.”


He’s cut short by Brett Anderson, the lead singer, shouting, “OK, this next song is called CTR!” into the microphone. He’s kidding.


“It’s too bad you came early,” says Honaker. “We were all going to be sitting around in a circle reading our scriptures when you walked in.”


Gift Anon make themselves comfortable on the roof of the house, from which you can see a clear view of BYU campus, the white “Y” on the hillside and Cougar Stadium. The night darkens. Honaker scrounges around for a lamp extension cord.


Gift Anon has been together for about a year and a half, playing shows in Provo and Salt Lake. They just released their first EP, Missing the Magic, about a month ago. Gift Anon’s music fluctuates between dreamy, smooth swells of guitar, bass and keyboards to rockin,’ epic emo-ish pieces with complex drum beats. Lori (Brett’s wife), a yoga and exercise physiologist in Provo, plays keyboards, Ben Webb plays drums and Mark Alexander plays guitar. All are active Mormons.


Last year, one of Gift Anon’s songs rose to No. 7 on MP3.com out of thousands of other songs submitted by bands across the nation in the “emo” category and remained there for a couple weeks. A second song, released several weeks later, rose to No. 5. They’ve played over 30 shows in Salt Lake and Provo and just came back from a West Coast tour.


“The only thing ironic about Mormons playing rock music,” says Brett, “is that people think it’s ironic. It’s not ironic at all.”


“I think it’s surprising to people sometimes that we’re normal and that we can rock,” says Lori.


“It’s more of an issue here, in Utah, that you’re Mormon and in a rock band,” adds Brett. “Everywhere else, Mormons are people who don’t do certain things on Sunday. There is a divide here, but there shouldn’t be.”


The biggest disparity Gift Anon encounters has been between themselves and the world at large.


“I don’t tell people at work I’m in a rock band,” says Lori.


“We don’t really tell the ward, either,” says Brett. “If you tell them what you do, they think you’re immature.”


“Well, in a lot of ways it’s like we live a double life,” says Lori. “We go to work every day, and then at nighttime we go to shows, sometimes three nights a week—most people our age aren’t like that.”


“They don’t take music that seriously,” says Honaker. “Our parents are usually like, ‘You’re 26, when are you going to grow up?’”


“See, everyone’s in a band when they’re young and in Provo,” says Alexander. “But most are not that serious, they’re actually pretty bad. They all end up breaking up.”


“I’ve Always Felt Different”


Provo-based band Coastal has enjoyed quite a bit of success despite their secluded location nestled, like Gift Anon, in the heart of a mercilessly dull town. They’re signed to Words on Music in Minneapolis and have released a 10-inch record through the Dreams by Degrees label in San Francisco and a 7-inch record through Becalmed Records in England. Following in the footsteps of Low, Coastal specializes in slocore even more toned down and slowed down than their predecessors. The same elements apply, however—an incandescent atmosphere of floating melodies, ethereal guitar and barely-there drumming.


Coastal has achieved more widespread attention in Europe than the United States, thanks in part to their song being played twice in two months on the BBC’s John Peel Show.


“It was by far the crowning moment for Coastal,” says Jason Gough, lead singer and guitarist for the band. “They get thousands of demos a day and one of the people from his office requested our single. We felt really honored. Also, getting played on national radio in Spain was kind of a big deal.”


Coastal’s music has been well received on college radio and became the No. 1 record played at the University of Washington radio station two weeks in a row last year.


The band also includes Josh Callaway, bassist; Luisa (Gough’s wife, completing yet another husband-and-wife team), vocals and keyboards; and Jim Harker, drums and guitar. All are active Mormons.


Coastal has toured to L.A. twice and played with several established bands like The Autumns and Parlour. “I wasn’t aware of any Mormon rock movements outside of Utah until a few California bands pointed it out to me while I was on tour. The Shelf Life label in San Francisco is run by an LDS guy with several Mormon bands on the roster. One of the bands is putting out a compilation of LDS artists and we’ll be on it, in addition to Low,” says Gough.


Gough’s past in carving out his own identity was a difficult one, which came to the forefront, like Sparhawk’s, at BYU.


“I’ve always felt different from other Mormons,” says Gough. “Growing up, I had more friends that weren’t Mormon. I was a skater with red hair, so I was made fun of a lot—I was an outcast. Some of the jock types at church, though, told me they were kinda jealous that I could have a more unrestrained existence and other friends outside the church. I got the sense that a lot of Mormons wanted to express themselves and be different without breaking the rules, and I guess I was proof to some that you can.”


Gough kept all the basic Mormon “rules” growing up. He says he “always felt the church was true,” but started to gain a strong belief in it after reading and praying about the Book of Mormon during his freshman year at Ricks College in Idaho. He even served an LDS mission to Paris, France, which he considers one of his greatest accomplishments. It’s also where he taught himself guitar.


A dark brew of questions began to rise, however, when he started attending BYU. “It kinda brought out the rebel in me,” he says. “My second semester back I kinda went slightly inactive and questioned a lot about the church, but that was more due to the people I was hanging out with at the time. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was being untrue to myself.”


Not before he had plenty of run-ins with faculty, though. With his metallic fingernail polish, pixie-cut red hair and flowered bell-bottom jeans, it wasn’t hard to attract the attention of authorities.


“I knew I was going to stick out at BYU,” says Gough. “So I played it up.”


One teacher thought he was smoking pot because of some patchouli oil he was wearing and confronted him.


“What, does that mean people who smoke pot are bad?” Gough yelled at the teacher.


“That experience kind of threw me,” says Gough.


Gough was involved in local Provo bands, most notably Loomer in ’95 through ’97, but says, “Although we were successful as a local band, it was unfilling.” After getting married, he left music for about a year, but then, missing it, returned, forming Coastal. “I would say ultimately, that BYU intensified my identity,” says Gough. “Rather than roll over and submit to the Gap, I was able to form my own ideas about things. Some people around here want discipline and conformity in their life. But there are some of us that have the same religious beliefs that are a little more open-minded. Like, wanting to go to BYU but not wanting to look like everybody else. Wanting to be in a band, but not wanting to live all facets of the rock lifestyle.”


The “Evils” of the Industry


Many people believe that the music industry is one huge canker sore of corruption and depravity. Its bad side is probably most evident in its greed, though, and most Mormon musicians say it isn’t that difficult to live any lifestyle you choose within its domain.


“Sometimes,” says Tal Bachman, son of the aforementioned Randy, “other Mormons will come up to me and say stuff like, ‘Just remember, keep paying your tithing and don’t commit adultery.’ That’s really irritating, to presume that I would cheat on my wife! Or when I’m introduced to folks and they say, ‘I don’t envy you, battling against the evils of the entertainment industry.’


“It always makes me feel like retorting, ‘And aren’t you a lawyer that feels happy when your guilty client gets off?’ or ‘Aren’t you in the military surrounded by Hustler centerfolds and guys cursing at you all the time?’ My job seems pretty tame, comparatively.”


Tal, who had the hit radio song “She’s So High” three years ago, is a counselor and a Gospel Doctrine teacher in his ward and he went on a mission to Argentina.


“I am actually kind of an independent proprietor. I’m self-employed—I do what I want whenever I want. I have pretty much total control over my environment from the ground level to superstardom, so it is not hard to maintain certain standards,” he says. “What’s the big deal?”


Says Sparhawk, “About 95 percent of the people that we encounter on tour are completely nice people who aren’t pushing drugs on us when they find out we don’t want it, etc. The only hard part is getting to church on Sunday when we’re touring.”


Bloody Fingers and Prayers


“Whenever people in the music scene find out we’re Mormon,” says George Brunt, the bassist for Sunfall Festival, “they are surprised. Most musicians tend to assume that if you’ve made a serious commitment to the rock, then you must have left the church or something.”


Sunfall Festival won local and national fame after winning a now oft-mentioned $250,000 recording contract from Garageband.com. Because the terms of the contract, however, were “average for the industry—which is to say, that they were not good,” says Brunt, they turned the offer down. They recently got a request from Plymouth to use Sunfall’s songs in radio spots, which they accepted.


Sunfall is probably the most prominent rock band in Provo and one of the pillars of its music community. When they play shows at venues in Utah County, they pack the place with audiences in the hundreds.


Chris Peterson, Sunfall’s drummer, says, “We do get people commenting on how our live shows (at least recently) exude such emotion and rock, like a guitarist on his back getting feedback, and the bassist bloodying his fingers, and Amy screaming, and then we get off stage and we’re this nice little Mormon group of kids that went to BYU, go to church and say our prayers.”


Says Brunt, “I really don’t think Mormons react adversely to Sunfall Festival music any more than any other segment of American society. We don’t aim for abrasion, but there are plenty of Mormons and people who aren’t Mormon that think we’re too rambunctious for them. I think it’s really more about personal taste.”


Rock & Roll is Not the Devil


Among mainstream Mormons, sometimes one senses that there’s this strange, unspoken idea floating around that the only “acceptable” kinds of music are classical, or bland LDS piano arrangements, or non-threatening music like folk or soft country. Some Mormons rave over pop musicians with overtly religious messages, like the boy band Jericho Road.


But Mormons expressing themselves through rock music shouldn’t be such a stretch. Just go back to the raw, basic roots. The Book of Mormon is a book of extremes. The LDS church was founded by an outcast who questioned entrenched mindsets, even if a lot of Mormons fail to do that now. Sometimes the Mormon label can be restrictive, leading those who believe in the Book of Mormon to feel angry without wanting to desert their beliefs. Rock & roll then becomes a great outlet for expression. And of course, most times rockin’ has little to do with religion and more to do with the overall human experience. But should there be a limit to self-expression?


“Politically, I think we should be very careful in imposing limits on artistic expression,” says Brunt.


Says Randy Bachman, “One thing you should remember is that you’re going to be accountable to your children someday. But ultimately, if you’re born with a feeling to act, you should act. If you were born to be in a band, go and do it.”


Sparhawk says, “If music is speaking to you, you have to listen to it. Life isn’t all flower-filled fields; there are brutal, ugly stories to tell. Express what you have to express. Everyone uses the English language, and with the same words, I can destroy you and I can lift you up. Music is the same way. People have used music for the wrong things, like manipulating people to make a lot of money. But rock & roll is not the devil.”

 
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