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Gavin's Underground

Utah Arts Festival 2012: The Lower Lights

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2012-06-24 -
If you haven't noticed from the dozens of posts on our website today, the Utah Arts Festival is happening as we speak. The four-day festival showcases the finest in art, music, film, spoken word, performances, writing and many other areas as a chance to inspire and promote artwork throughout the community, and just have a good time. As you can see, City Weekly is all over it as far as the art goes, so while most of my fellow writers handle the visuals, I'll be taking on the audio.
Today is the final day of the festival, and I bring you the first of two concert interview posts, all complete with photos of Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 that feature bands such as Spell Talk, The No Nation Orchestra, Birthquake, Swagger, Rotten Musicians and the band we'll be chatting with today, The Lower Lights; not to mention hundreds of pictures from booths and other spectacles from around the festival the past few days.

The Lower Lights (Paul Jacobsen -- upper third from the right -- is the spokesman for this interview.)

Gavin: Hey, Paul. First off, tell us a little about yourselves.

Paul: We're a collective of musicians, all with our own individual projects/groups. We've all crossed paths in one way or another – playing shows with each other, playing on each other's albums, etc.

Gavin: What got each of you interested in music, and who were some of your favorite acts and musical influences growing up?

Paul: With so many diversely influenced members of the group, there's no blanket big enough to answer this question for everyone; I wouldn't dare try. But I do think that you'll find some touchstones in common or at least some similar tent posts that we lean on a bit as we make music together – stuff like the old Sun Records-era Johnny Cash, The Louvin Brothers, the Americana songbook with special emphasis on the Hank Williams chapter. But you're just as likely to hear somebody reference a Radiohead song or My Morning Jacket or Wilco or The Weepies or something. The end result doesn't sound that way because it then goes through our Lower Lights filter, whatever that is.
Gavin: As local musicians in the scene with various bands and projects, how did the original core members all meet each other and formally become friends?

Paul: I'd say Scott Wiley  -- our producer/engineer/guitarist/jack of all trades -- is probably the hub. Most of us have made at least one album -- usually more -- with Scott producing. He has a nice little black book of great musicians around here, and Scott's credibility/experience helped us rope in ridiculously talented -- and diverse -- players like Colin Botts, Ryan Tilby, Dylan Schorer, Mark Smith, Ryan Shupe, Pat Campbell, and the rest of what we call the varsity squad. Our JV is nothing to be ashamed of, but varsity is varsity.

Gavin: When did the original gathering take place of playing hymns together, and what influenced everyone to come together and play these?

Paul: We had a few false starts, as you might imagine, trying to wrangle the schedules of so many busy people. But, we finally got together for a few days in October of 2009, just getting whatever time we could from everybody. While most of us, in one way or another, have wanted to take a stab at these songs, just to see what we could do, I think if credit is going anywhere it has to go to Pat Campbell -- drums, percussion -- who probably planted the seed of the idea before the rest of us. He wrote a bit about his take on it all here.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to form a band to play these songs together, and where did you get the name from?

Paul: At first, it wasn't really a band in the traditional sense of "you sing, I play guitar, she plays bass, he plays drums." There weren't, for the most part, any real assignments. You start fleshing out the arrangements and naturally the songs start to tell you what they need, who should play what, all that. We never really know who's going to do what until we dive into the thick of it. And it's not a traditional band in that the lineup is constantly shifting. I don't think we really planned on playing shows, at first. It was more of a project than a band. The idea of trying to take the songs into a live setting came about later. We did, however, have to come up with a name, which everyone in bands knows is one of the necessary evils of being in a band. We compiled lists and lists of mostly unusable names before finally gravitating towards The Lower Lights, which is derived from the old hymn "Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy." The chorus goes, "Let the lower lights be burning..."

Gavin: From those sessions, you recorded the first album, A Hymn Revival. What was it like for you putting that album together, and how was it figuring out how each song would be composed?

Paul: The first album was surprisingly easy and fluid. We'd have a bunch of people in the main room, recording a song while a few people in the hall started working on an arrangement for another song, and somebody else might be working up an idea outside. We only really stopped for meals or because it was getting late and people had long drives home. Part of the reason, I think, that it was so seamless was that all these incredible musicians were able to shelve their egos and try to get the most out of the song, rather than worrying about getting their fingerprints on it. It's inspiring to see such great players decide, "Maybe I don't need to play on this song" or "What if I just do a little thing in the bridge?" It takes confidence to do less. And even more to sit out.
Gavin: Once it was released, what was it like going around and performing live, and how did local audiences take to a show which is essentially church songs at night?

Paul: Like I said earlier, we made the album without really thinking about performing it live. One big challenge was learning how to make the group modular and make the songs work with whoever could make the gig. That often means divvying out parts during soundcheck, or during the show sometimes. And, for me, that's one of the big draws of playing with this group – getting to see how the songs change depending on who shows up. I like a certain amount of unpredictability. As for local audiences, we've had a great response. We've played a really wide variety of shows and have never really felt like we were doing anything but playing music. We try to approach it like you would if you saw Gillian Welch or Blind Boys of Alabama or something – nobody really flinches when Gillian plays "By The Mark" or when Tom Waits sings "I've Been Changed." We're just playing what we think is really great, timeless music that happens to be rooted in gospel and the Christian tradition. The hope is that folks can appreciate the show on a few different levels, coming at the songs from wherever they may be. We try to treat the songs with respect and play them with heart, and we've been lucky that people have responded to that.

Gavin: Considering the massive body of work to choose from, how do you go about picking which songs to perform? And how much of a challenge is it picking from really familiar material to the obscure?

Paul: We're lucky to have a lot of rabid music fans in the group, all influenced by a lot of different music. We just say, "Come with some ideas" and they do. Pat Campbell brought a lot of Hank Williams. Debra Fotheringham -- vocals, guitar, percussion -- brought the beautiful Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision." Dustin Christensen -- vocals, guitar, keyboards -- brought some great old stuff he heard on Willie Nelson records. And those are just three examples. At the end of the day, we kind of figure that the best song wins. If it's familiar, great. If it's not, we believe the song will win listeners over. The balance of familiar-to-obscure kind of happens naturally, as a lot of familiar songs are known because they're good.
Gavin: Over time, you've picked up several extra performers who rotate through, to where you currently have over 30 musicians who call themselves members. What influenced the decision to bring in so many people?

Paul: Part of it is just having a lot of talented friends. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but nobody's stupid enough to say they want to make an album with a bunch of talentless people  -- and if they are, who wants to listen? For me, I love how fluid it is. We love what each individual has to offer creatively and how that changes the dynamic of the group and of each song. Maybe we could do this with fewer people, but I sorta think it wouldn't be as interesting or textured or nuanced. What you don't really hear, from the outside, is that the lead vocal you love on one of our songs might be the ONLY time that person made it to the studio during the whole five days of sessions. And her schedule just so happened to intersect with that song. Same thing with a guitar solo or piano part or whatever. We're just capturing moments and trying to put ourselves in the position to make some great music.

Gavin: Considering how many are involved at any given point, how hard it is to coordinate live performances and recordings and work as an ensemble?

Paul: It's a challenge. We just have to accept it as a given that we'll always be missing someone. Colin Botts, for instance, was a huge huge part of our first album and then moved across the ocean to -- I think -- study, and maybe get a masters in Celtic music. Dominic Moore, who sings a lot and is a really important part of coming up with ideas for the albums, has never lived in Utah while the group has existed. And while their absence is a gaping hole you can see from space, we just sorta roll on and try to align our shows with their time in Utah whenever we can. We have had a comment or two from people who were disappointed when --Individual They Came To Specifically To See -- wasn't at a particular show. But most people get that this group is a fluid, modular, living thing and that that's part of what keeps the shows interesting and dynamic. We do have a few musicians who have played almost every show -- Ryan Tanner & Debra Fotheringham come to mind -- but not many.
Gavin: Over the last couple of years, you've released a B-side album, a live album and a Christmas album. Coming from what is respectfully a highly religious state, what is the demand like to have new albums out? And what kind of a challenge has it become to almost cater directly to that audience?

Paul: On the demand side, I think if the quality is high -- and we try to hold ourselves to a pretty high standard -- people, religious or not, will always want more music. If Leonard Cohen put out an amazing album every year, I don't think anybody would complain. We don't have an exclusive music/marketing algorithm we plug in to figure it out; we just make albums when we feel like it's time. It's extremely uncalculated, actually. As for catering, I'm firmly in the camp of never trying to cater to an audience – just make your music with some heart. I'm guessing you're asking if we make any effort to cater to the LDS audience, and the answer is we don't, beyond the obvious fact that we are recording hymns and Christian songs, some of which have roots in Mormonism. But the truth is, we are just trying to find a way to make these songs that for many of us have been wallpaper since we were young, come alive for us. If it resonates with us, if it makes us wanna stomp our feet, or gives us the chills or whatever, then it's good enough.

Gavin: This month, you have a brand new album, A Hymn Revival: Volume 2. What was it like recording this album compared to the first, and what issues did you have to deal with?

Paul: We tried very hard to maintain the approach of the first album– be open to ideas, trust instincts, work fast, keep it simple, free up our musicians to do what they do best. If anything, the issues we had to deal with were worrying us if we could do it again and not allowing our expectations get in the way of just making music. Otherwise, I think we did a decent job of keeping the process organic and open. We're not without our internal challenges and debates and all that, but I think we do a pretty good job of at least trying to get out of the way of the songs.
Gavin: This year, you're playing the Utah Arts Festival for the first time, even though some of you have been here with other bands. What are your thoughts on playing the Festival?

Paul: We can't wait. Pat Campbell really pushed for us to apply, saying the group was made for this kind of show, and we all tend to agree with Pat. It should be really fun and a good way to get in front of some people who might not have thought they'd like what we do.

Gavin: Moving on to local stuff, what are your thoughts on the local music scene, both good and bad?

Paul: We're all musicians in the local scene and, obviously, if you look at the group, we think it's important to create community. We try to support each other in our individual projects and think the whole scene would be better if we could all do that. We're lucky in that people will come out to see us, partially because they are in some ways already familiar with the songs, so we don't have to worry about getting people over the "Will I Like The Songs" hurdle. It can be tough to get people out to shows in Utah. But I think community is really important in making good music, spurring each other on.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?

Paul: Quality. If the music is good, it does a lot. It challenges other musicians to be better. It inspires us to push ourselves. It battles the ridiculous stigmas of "local can't be as good as national" and "if I haven't heard it, it can't possibly be any good." The gimmicks will wither. Good music doesn't.

Gavin: Not including your own projects, who are your favorite acts in the scene right now?

Paul: Ha. That's excluding a lot of our favorite music. And, again, I can only speak for myself. But I love the music -- and hard work -- of the one-two punch of The Trappers -- who rock! -- and The Folka Dots -- who sing each and every light out. Libbie Linton and Spencer Harrison are gonna come out with a great album soon. The Devil Whale are awesome – Brinton is a fantastic writer and those guys have all really gelled as players. The Poorwills put out a great album last year that didn't get enough love – unbelievable harmonies and I've loved Glade's voice/writing for a long time. A few of us play with Jay William Henderson so that's cheating but, man, his new album is phenomenal. Cory Mon is a good dude who doesn't get enough love for his leprechaun hippie blues funk. I could go on forever.
Gavin: What's your opinion on the current airplay on community radio and how it affects local musicians?

Paul: KRCL has been great to a lot of us. We love them and wouldn't even have a shred of a chance of airplay without them.

Gavin: With so many sources out there to get music off the Web, both for publicity and sharing, what are your thoughts on putting out free tracks for anyone to listen to?

Paul: That there's a Pandora's Box of a question. To keep this under essay length and to avoid a "get off my lawn" rant, I'll just say that I think you sort of have to give some music away nowadays. As a music fan, I will always buy my music, but it is nice to get a taste, when you are less familiar.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?

Paul: We'll be playing out quite a bit with the new album, maybe even doing a bit of touring. In October, we close out Provo's Rooftop Concert Series again for the third year – it's becoming a bit of a tradition. We'll be doing two Christmas shows at The SLC Masonic Temple in December, after having a really great experience there last year. And we're talking about going back to the studio to record the next album.


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