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Alan Sparhawk

Low

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Low

Low are a fragrant blooming, their music often opening slow like petals at sunrise, but once fully flared a brilliant scatter of color and life. It’s patient rock that requires a pinch of patience to really comprehend, though in the nearly twenty years since they began in Duluth, Minnesota (where they still reside) things have grown considerably less elusive, the band seeming ever-so-slightly more ready to take the hands of those on the other side of the conversation with each year. Given the splayed open nature of many Low pieces, one can empathize with their reluctance to simply leap – a healing wound still smarts rubbed by loving arms. However, Low’s ninth studio record, C’mon (released April 12 on Sub Pop), balances the band’s mixture of retreat and advance in a lovely, deeply felt way to produce one of this year’s most moving song cycles.

Without even knowing that married songwriting core members Alan Sparhawk (guitar, vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums, vocals) are practicing Mormons, there’s a resonant spiritual bent to C’mon that bypasses religiosity, tapping into the far deeper ache to understand one’s place in the scheme of things, to perhaps know the true capacity of love and terror within the invisible world behind the one we can see with human comprehension. The directness and unwavering truthfulness of songs like “Especially Me” and “Nothing But Heart” bursts through ingrained cynicism – hymns for the faithless and confused as much as any convert. Combined with the churning, slightly psychedelic soundscapes Low employs – an utterly successful, indica-ready descendent of great 80s trippers like Rain Parade and Galaxie 500 – the tone and texture of C’mon creates a most welcoming and still thought provoking entry point into Low’s layered musings. And the performances throughout, where Parker and Sparhawk are aided by bassist Steve Garrington and guest contributors Wilco’s Nels Cline (lap steel, guitar), Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Caitlin Moe (violin) and Trampled by Turtles’ Dave Carroll (banjo), carry a rare depth of feeling.

Toss in a recent nod from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who covered two Low songs on 2010’s Band of Joy album and has kept both tunes as regular parts of his setlists since, and Low may be entering a phase where more and more hands will be reaching out to them.
Alan Sparhawk was kind enough to spare a few minutes for the Impound before Low heads to Europe, a tour that hits the U.S. in late summer. Check out the itinerary here.

new album

From the cover art and title of C’mon it seems like Low is reaching out in a way that’s almost uncharacteristic of this band.
Maybe. The songs are reaching out but more in a one person to one person way. The last couple records we were experimenting more with pushing it harder and there was a bit more ego involved, twisting the songs around and distorting them. This time, we went in more relaxed and just let the songs be beautiful. The tone of the lyrics is more personal. Maybe because we were sort of not trying, it ended up inadvertently being more accurate.

One doesn’t always have a sense of the human beings behind music. It’s disembodied in a way, but C’mon resonates with a human presence.

That’s a weird thing. I go back and forth between thinking that songs where you can’t hear the writer are better than songs where you can [laughs]. In certain beautiful ways, there’s something challenging about making a song that doesn’t depend on the person singing it to be good, where you don’t hear them putting themselves into the music. “What A Wonderful World” is a totally perfect, intimate song but you don’t necessarily hear the singer on a personal level. As much as it’s a goal of mine to write songs like that, I think we have, over the years, developed a tone about us that comes across as effortless, honest and easy to listen to.

There’s an ease that’s developed with Low in both the flow of the music and the way you lay out ideas. A song like “Nothing But Heart” is very exposed [Sparhawk interjects: “Yeah it is!”]. A refrain like that is very humanizing. I’m more in touch with my own heart and humanity when I hear a song like that.

Ultimately, that’s the best way for it. Maybe the goal is to create room for someone else to feel they own it as well. I really go back and forth about whether I like hearing myself in my songs though [laughs].

You don’t do a lot of character songs, which is where many songwriters go if they want to obfuscate their own personal voice. That’s the classic Dylan approach: throw a crazy circus of characters at the listener so it’s unclear where the author is in the melee.

I think there are a lot of possibilities even in simple song structure where one can be more honest. That’s the area where interesting inner shapes happen. The first conscious creative question is, “Who am I in this song?” I guess [Low] has always tried to be honest with what’s going on, but putting on a character is definitely a tempting trick. I’ve done it. For years I’ve played with these guys in a band called the Black-Eyed Snakes, where as much as it’s still me, in that band I allow myself to use certain tools and characters.

When you play genre stuff like the blues though it’s much easier to immerse yourself in mythology.

Right and you don’t have to put on a role to respect that and be able to grab onto the tools that have been there and make them your own. The power of that music and allowing yourself to sometimes go to the extreme of it will create an honest character, in and of itself. You don’t have to think about it too much if you just let yourself go that direction. Musically, it’s so strong, so deep.

Retribution Gospel Choir

It’s probably helpful to have multiple outlets to pour different aspects of yourself and your creativity into. The tone of Retribution Gospel Choir is similar to Low but gnarlier, more bare skin and rawness perhaps. And it honors one of my favorite things in rock, the classic power trio.

It’s always been my favorite mode. You can be very selfish in it [laughs]. You can also be very spontaneous with it, so that works well.

Coming back to Low after a couple years in RGC, what did you find being in that band did for your main group with Mimi?

It loosened up my songwriting a bit. In the last few years, between the Low records and Retribution Gospel Choir, I’ve been able to experiment with different versions of songs, and that made me realize how to stretch the capabilities of a song way more. That was pretty vital going into [C’mon]. That made it a little more okay, in my mind, to relax and let the songs do what they need to do. I could be comfortable following a certain vibe and not feel I had to counter it with something dissonant or ugly or noisy. Something about playing in Retribution Gospel Choir, something about the extremes we’ve been able to touch, lets me experience what those possibilities are. Even if I don’t use those things in Low, there’s a perspective that comes with them. And sometimes, it’s as simple as the reassurance that I’ve been to that extreme and seen what’s there and don’t need to use that tool right now.

I liken that to the understanding I have in my forties that all the recreational experimentation I did in my twenties & thirties has taught/shown/revealed to me most of what it’s capable of. More power to those still experimenting full force, but I don’t need to come at things the same way anymore.

There’s a depth of perspective you have that you don’t necessarily need to revisit again. It’s funny how the path to reaching those peaks is so unpredictable and once you’ve been there you know there’s no way to recreate it [laughs].

Low's 1994 debut

How do you feel about the ‘slowcore’ tag that’s been attached to Low since its earliest days? It’s a textbook example of soundbite culture at its most facile.

It hasn’t served us as badly as some tags would have. The name isn’t completely contrary or negative or anything. It sort of describes what it is, a little bit, though we’ve never tried to perpetuate it and it’s stuck around. The kind of people that are going to use soundbites are people you need to give soundbites to [laughs]. They’re not going to spend more than a couple seconds trying to find out what it is. I admit, I do the same thing when I skim through magazines, and unfortunately bands get knocked down to two or three words. What are you gonna do?

I suspect that now that Robert Plant has covered two Low songs, that detail is going to be added to your soundbite. He’s a name everyone knows, so it will tinkle a familiar bell. The upside is he’s done pretty good versions of “Monkey” and “Silver Rider,” and the songs are evolving with the Band of Joy as they tour them.

This was great – a huge surprise, a huge honor – but that’s definitely one of the soundbites for the new record. It is the most exciting thing to happen to us for a few years now, so it’s pretty cool. There’s certainly something about it, and maybe the reason people are talking about it is it’s such a coup, such a twist on what you’d expect. “Robert Plant is covering that?” It was an out-of-the-blue surprise to me, and it’s fun to see people slap their head and go, “What!?!”

That’s got to be gratifying as Low approaches 20 years together.

We always do okay. In America, we’ve always been this indie slow band from Minnesota. We get a little more artistic cred in England and Europe. In America, rock ‘n’ roll is still something kids do and adults aren’t really acknowledged. Nonetheless, maybe the Robert Plant thing will make a few people think, “Hey, maybe a few bands from the 90s were okay” [laughs].

One thought on “OMG Interview: Low

  1. great interview…somehow i missed plant’s covers of monkey and silver rider, thanks for letting me know!

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