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Gavin's Underground

Forest Gospel

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2008-11-14 -

For most cities you have to look up a local CD review in weekly publication.  But a local blog is making headway for music on a daily basis.

The Forest Gospel has been reviewing local and global indie music for a year and a half now, taking on music blog ideal that very few cities or countries have now.  Local reviewers giving an unbiased opinion on whatever comes their way, putting national reviews of the same music to shame, and a lot of local bands a chance to get another opinion along the way.  I got a chance to chat with the three incognito reviewers about the website, their reviews, thoughts on the music scene and some other questions that came to mind.

The Forest Gospel (Mr Thistle, Sassigrass and Wooly Mammal)
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http://forestgospel.blogspot.com/

Gavin:
Hey guys.  First off, tell us who you are and a little bit about yourselves.

Mr Thistle: I am a 24 year old Caucasian male, an English major at the U, a customer service representative for a vitamin company in West Valley, a beagle owner, a libertarian, a vegetarian/junk-food-atarian, a fake artist and a wizard.

Sass: I am a girl. I have an art degree that I don't use much.  

Gavin: How did you first take an interest in music?

Mr. Thistle: I have no idea really.  My parents are both completely ignorant in regards to music.  My older brother, Spruce Lee incarnate, really started getting into VH1 and a lot of old classics and blues and at the same time I kind of stumbled into indie music after reading a top ten list of albums from the now defunct cdnow.com.  I think I eventually bought everything on that list, including some of the following classics:  Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker, PJ Harvey – Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea, At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command, Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump.

Sass: My Dad was a music junkie.  He collected records and CD's from all sorts of genres.  From the day I was born I was exposed to classics like the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, and Pink Floyd at deafening volumes.  I would borrow his CD's when I was in elementary and jam out the The Beatles
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  In Jr. High I decided to rebel a bit and thought punk rock was the way to do that.  Good Riddance and Strung Out became my staples, and Kilby and Bricks became my new home.  I eventually moved into Hardcore, worshiping Converge.  Somehow I turned pretty wussy and started listen to wussy pop music in college.  Now I just like most everything.

Gavin: Who were some of your early favorites to listen to?

Mr. Thistle: I used to have a huge crush on The Deftones.  I latched onto Refused, Cannibal Ox, Deltron 3030, Dismemberment Plan and The Microphones pretty early on.  I still listen to all of those artist’s work regularly.  Also, Elliott Smith, Built To Spill and Modest Mouse were pretty influential for me when music first started opening up to me.  Pretty much everything, I just couldn’t help but listen to everything I could get my hands on.

Sass: My tastes have always been constantly evolving.  Some of my first CD's in elementary ranged from Mariah Carey to MxPx.  REALLY early on I am sure the soundtracks to School House Rock, Joy School, and Safety Kids were pretty important to me. 

Gavin: How did the two of you meet each other?

Mr. Thistle: Well, we actually first met in a commercial art class in high school.  Both of us were the type of kids to be walking around the halls at school with oversized headphones on so when I first introduced myself, Sassigrass asked me what I was listing to.  At the time I was absolutely in love with Avalanches’ Since I Left You (still am) and had “Frontier Psychiatrist” on repeat for about two weeks.  Sassigrass was the first person I had ever met who actually knew who that was.  We were from pretty different worlds back then – I was into “wussy” indie rock and she was into hardcore punk so we ended up discussing At The Drive-In a lot.  Once, I even took her to see Modest Mouse when they played during the Olympics.  She claims it was a date, but I’m pretty sure it was just a friendly night out (she had a quasi-boyfriend at the time).  Something that neither of us has been able to put our finger on happened and we didn’t really talk for the rest of high school.  After high school I moved to Colorado Springs for a couple of years to convert heathens to Mormonism and a few months after I got home I went to see Sufjan Stevens at Lo-Fi Cafe and saw Sassigrass there.  We pretty much decided to be in love and got married like, probably a couple days later.  The rest is history, as they say.

Sass: I guess that is fairly accurate

Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start a review site?

Mr. Thistle: Well, we obviously both have historied obsessions with music and we also both like to write, or pretend like we’re writers, so one day I just thought it would be fun to start a music blog and write about what we were listening to.  Sassigrass will probably agree that I am super obsessive compulsive and am constantly throwing a million ideas around that never come to fruition, so the fact that the blog is still around is a pretty crazy; just one of the thousands of ideas for a creative outlet that actually materialized.  I really want to do an art/music/culture zine next year, so we’ll see if I can convince Sassi to help me out.

Sass:  We both read a lot of review blogs and websites.  Some of our favorites include Gorrilla vs. Bear, Raven Sings The Blues, Coke Machine Glow, Tiny Mix Tapes, and many more.  A lot of the blogs are city specific. They plug upcoming shows and local bands.  We thought it was about time someone started doing that in Salt Lake.  Also, we (mostly Mr. Thistle) listen to a lot of very obscure stuff from all over the world that we feel like needs a little more coverage. 

Gavin: Who came up with the title Forest Gospel, and where does it come from?

Mr. Thistle: Forest Gospel is the name of a song off of Animal Collective’s Hollinndagain LP.  We are pretty big Animal Collective fans and I wasn’t really feeling any of the names we came up with on our own so I just lifted from the album.

Gavin: You started off in June of 2007.  What was it like that first month?

Mr Thistle: I don’t know if it was that much different than it is now.  We still just write about music that  are interested in.  We really only do this thing for ourselves as is evidenced by our erratic posting, constant textual errors that we never bother correcting and the wide variety of music we cover.  That’s all we were doing when we started and all we are doing now.  The fact that a few people have taken notice is just consequential. 

Gavin: How do you decide what you're going to review on both a local and global level?

Mr Thistle: We just review what we are interested in and can get our hands on.  I don’t think we have ever claimed to be serious taste-makers or to be any type of comprehensive source for a particular sound.  As far as local music goes, we are always surprised by how much is out there that we don't know. A few local artists have been nice enough to send us their music and, generally, we have been super impressed by the music people in SLC are making.  It is unfortunate that we have such a maddeningly busy life outside of the blog because I would love to spend some more time finding good local music.  As it stands right now, we are kind of at the will of whoever decides to send their music on the local scale.  Globally, like I said before, we listen to what we’re interested in and post on what we like.  I think we are just interested in good music, no matter what genre it fits into.

Sass: Like I said before we also read a whole lot of other reviewers.  Through them and other sources we get turned on to different albums.  We always try to stay up to date on what is coming out and review things when they are the most relevant, but like Thistle said, we don't generally review things unless we like them so it has to be albums that we are interested in on our own before we will sit down and spend the time to listen and study the album enough to review it. 

Gavin: At the start you gave CD ratings, but now you do more of a verdict system.  Why the change?

Mr Thistle: Well, we started rating albums because it is a really simple way to generate enthusiasm for what we were writing about.  But, after awhile, we just started making fun of each others ratings and realizing how the ratings changed with time and things.  I don’t think that we are necessarily anti-ratings, I think that can be helpful sometimes when you are wading through a sea of music out there on the internet, but for our purposes it just seemed unnecessary.  We added the “verdict” or “file under” sections for a quick one line reference to the music, but we’re not very good at those either.  I don’t know why we even continue to try and do those, but for some reason we do.  It’s just there for those people, who, like us are too ADD to read our puny paragraph assessments.  Sassigrass admitted that she doesn’t even read my reviews anymore.

Sass: I read most of his reviews! Most of them... I think after we did our first "Year End Lists" we realized that some albums we had given really high scores to (perfect 10's) had fallen drastically in our top picks below albums that maybe got 7's or 7.5's because through time we had changed our minds or felt differently about an album after months of repeat.  We realized that the rating system is flawed and wanted to do something similar but would better give people a feel for what the album is like so they can decide if they want to keep reading or skip to the next review. 

Gavin: You've also picked up another reviewer along the way.  Tell us about them and how the decision came about to get more people in on it.

Mr Thistle: We’ve actually had a couple roll in and out of FG.  Early on my brother, Spruce Lee, helped out a bit.  Then we asked another friend, Woolly Mammal to write some reviews and we have also had another friend, King Cotton, help out on some reviews.  The only reason is because of community.  We have a lot of friends with similar, yet unique interests in music and thought it would up the diversity and reviews that get posted for those that actually follow the blog.  The whole process just seemed natural.  We don’t have a plan to build FG into some viable source of commercial income (since we don't even post ads), just a place to share music with friends.

Gavin: Has the idea ever come up of covering shows down the road?

Mr Thistle: We have actually covered a few shows in the past.  We have plenty of ideas for the blog and most are good ideas, it just seems like we run out of time or energy to follow through with them properly.  We used to run a weekly update of recommended upcoming shows in SLC, but quit doing it after we got too busy, or maybe just being too lazy.

Sass: We quit because with Thistle working full time and going to school full time and me working and us both being very involved in the local art scene we just were stressing ourselves out way too much trying to post things that had to be particularly scheduled.  When we posted upcoming shows lists we would post them on Monday mornings so people had a list for the week and when we reviewed live shows we always tried to get the review up the morning after, which means one of us was up until 4am writing and then having to wake up a couple hours later to get on with our lives.  Like Thistle said, this is just a hobby and at one point we had to realize that is was creating too much stress.  So we cut back on any self inflicted deadlines, thus making show reviews and show plugs a little more difficult.  We used to try and post every single day, but sometimes that isn't possible so now we post when we can.  We still post just as much, but it is a little more sporadic. 

Gavin: A little local, what are your thoughts on our music scene, and is there anything you think could be done to improve it?

Mr Thistle: I think Salt Lake’s local music scene is a lot more diverse than most people recognize.  Sure we have large pockets of alt-country and straight forward bar rock, but just about every genre of music is well represented in SLC in one form or another.  All it takes is an interest in finding it.  The improvement of that all depends on what local musicians are interested in accomplishing.  A lot of people are making great music with no expectations of “making it big.”  I totally respect that at an artistic level.  People are making great art just because it is in their blood and because they have to.  It would be great if more promoters were willing to take a greater interest in these artists by tacking them onto some viable shows, but, I guess you can’t really fault them for running a business.  Unfortunately, a large majority of people aren’t that interested in expanding their ideas of what good music can be.  I don’t know.  There has been a rise in DIY attitude among a lot of artists lately and as long as that continues, SLC’s music scene will grow.

Sass: Like Thistle said, good music is there. It just feels like the SLC scene isn't big enough to support it all.  Bands aren't going to get booked unless people show up to see them.  I think some genres aren't well represented here not because it isn't being made, but because it isn't properly promoted.  People don't know about it or don't want to put the effort into finding it.  Hopefully this is where we can help a little.

Gavin: What are your feelings about local labels, and do you feel they help or hinder musicians?

Mr Thistle: I have no idea.  I am really confused as to what local labels even do and what they are trying to accomplish.  I would definitely be interested in the individual inner workings of any of these labels.  I think there is a place for them, but at the level most bands are at in SLC, I think that self producing your stuff is the way to go.  I’m kind of a DIY purest though, so you should probably take my words with a grain of salt.

Sass: I think a few labels have accomplished a little and I think it is a good way to bring bands together and generally promote local music. 

Gavin: What do you think of the way local publications and zines review music?

Mr. Thistle: Meh.  City Weekly doesn’t really have any significant space for reviews and SLUG’s reviews are super brief and kind of all over the place.  Unfortunately, other than those and a few others, I’m not too familiar with any good SLC publications.  I’m interested to find some though.  I think there is definitely a space for a local magazine with a much more in depth view of both the local and global music scene.  It is just a matter of who is willing to step up to the plate and produce it.  It is definitely not an easy proposition.

Sass: I have always liked SLUG the best out of any local publication.  I have major respect for all that they have done and accomplished.  I like their music reviews because they are easy to read.  However, I don't like the music equations that they include.  Not because I think it's a bad idea, but because they seem to be soooooo far from true sometimes.  I think maybe they are trying to stick with bands that people are really familiar with instead of branching out to what the music is really actually comparable to and because of that every single indie album gets compared to Modest Mouse, every semi wimpy screamo band gets compared to Coheed and Cambia, and every mellow emo album gets compared to Bright Eyes. 

Gavin: What do you think of radio stations trying to play more indie and local music?

Mr Thistle: I haven’t really listened to the radio for about a decade so I’m not sure.  I would support it, but there definitely isn’t any radio stations in Utah that I’m aware of that are doing me any favors.  I would actually love to DJ an hour on the radio.  They’d probably kick me off for the crap I would play though or air it at 3AM or something.

Sass: The radio can only take us so far because for the most part it is all a corporate endeavor.  I have never been exposed to any new indie or local music on the radio that I wasn't already aware of because they only play the stuff that has reached a certain level of accessibility so that people won't change the station.  In that way it is super limited and I don't think it will ever be much different.  At this point all it does it get lots of high school and junior high kids into bands like Death Cab, Vampire Weekend, and Feist.

Gavin: What can we expect from you guys over the next year?

Mr. Thistle:  I don’t know.  I’m always threatening to just stop reviewing music on Forest Gospel because I am burnt out.  Starting the blog has caused me to listen to way more music than I used to.  In some ways that is great, but in others it is really bad.  Sometimes I just want to slow down and make some space to listen to old favorites and recent albums that I’ve fallen in love with without the little devil on my shoulder that wants me to continue to find something new to share with everyone else.  It is stupid really.  There is like this competition in the music world to be the first to break news on the next hip band, as if doing so gives you ownership of their music somehow.  Well. It doesn’t.  Only the band really has ownership over their music, and even then it is questionable.  So, to make a long answer that should have been short to medium – maybe we’ll take a brief hiatus in 2009 (but only until after we hear the new records from Andrew Bird, Animal Collective and Mount Eerie J ).

Sass: We will never take a hiatus. 

Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Mr Thistle: Everything we write about on FG.  That’s all it is: a plug for music that we like.

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