By Alexander Laurence
During all the deserved excitement in San Francisco for The Noise Pop 2004 Festival, Low was (oddly enough) one of the most anticipated shows. The band formed in Duluth, Minnesota in 1994. Low is perhaps the slowest of the "slow" bands such as Mogwai and La Bradford. During their shows nobody would even dare to whisper during one of their songs. Low is centered on the husband and wife team of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker. Bassist Zak Sally joined them in 1995. They started out working with the producer Kramer, who mostly known for the band Bongwater.
Their first record was called I Could Live in Hope (1994) followed by Long Division (1995) and The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996). Back then Low was all about minimalism. The "less is more" theory even applied to Parker's drum set that was only a snare drum and cymbal. When Zak Sally joined they recorded an EP of Joy Division songs including the most famous "Means To An End." In 1997, they merged with Kranky Records and started a rich relationship. On Kranky, they released the critically acclaimed albums Secret Name (1999) and Things We Lost in the Fire (2001).
In 2001, Sparhawk and Parker had a child. They released their sixth and most recent album Trust in 2002. In 2004, we will be seeing a box sex by Low, which will collect all their b-sides and collaborations.
photo by Keith Martin
I got to talk to Alan Sparhawk before their show. Mimi Parker and Zak Sally joined in before they all went to eat dinner. Low are nice, easy-going people. They were refreshing to talk to after having interviewed The Unicorns (who are, um, not very mellow) the day before. Since I have spoke to them they have released The Great Destroyer. They are playing at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles on March 31st, 2005. More dates are available on their website.
AL: Were you in other bands before Low?
Alan: Yeah. We were in rock bands. We were punk rock. It was a mix between REM and Jane's Addiction. I remember playing once with my shirt off. That would never happen today. With Low we tried to do something really different. We were very serious at the beginning. It was a little experiment at first. We ended up writing some songs that we liked. We thought it was good. We kept at it. It wasn't a joke as much as an experiment to see how slow and quiet we could play. We wanted to bounce that off a crowd and see how they responded.
AL: Were there a lot of bands playing slow music ten years ago?
Alan: No. There were not many of them. Now it is more commonplace. It's not as shocking to play slow and quiet. Back in 1993, most music was pretty loud.
AL: One of the members of the band Wire played the festival All Tomorrow's Parties a few years ago. He called the festival that year "a festival of slowness." I think bands like Mogwai were there.
Alan: Godspeed You! Black Emperor. We were there at the same time as Wire.
AL: Is each of your albums like a chapter in a book?
Alan: A little bit. We have slowly mutated without forcing it. Each record is a different phase. There are different things we were into at each time. On different albums we would steer things one way or another. On the first few records we were still exploring how slow and empty we could be. After three or four records, we were exploring textures. Then we got more pop. We were more into song arrangements and textures.
AL: Have you worked with a producer before?
Alan: Yeah. We had producers before in the sense that there was a person recording it. We never worked with a real producer who told us what to do with a song. Someone who would come in and say "let's try a different part here." We never did anything like that. But we have worked with some stylized people like Kramer. Everything he did had the same style. That was the same deal when we worked with Steve Albini. It's not like they enforce their sound on you. It's more like there is a way they work. It all comes out a certain way. It all depends on what the band sounds like.
AL: You found the sound of Low early on?
Alan: We are always finding it. I don't think that we have found it yet. We get closer. For a few records we would do a certain things and get to that point, but we would move on.
Zak: We are not consciously looking for a sound. It's just what comes out at that time. No matter what we do, it still ends up sounding like us.
AL: You sort of have a bunch of influences and interests, and write the songs. By the time you record them or play them all that is forgotten?
Alan: The influences are whatever we are into or whatever we are writing at the time. All that shapes where we decide to lean that time into. It could be a very different place than where we were at the beginning.
AL: Do you transform old songs live and change them because you have moved on as a band?
Alan: Sometimes. What we put on the record: that is what we decided how the song should be done. Sometimes by the necessity of playing live a song will mutate and we will play it differently. If we play "Violence" from the second record, we play it very close to how it was played on record. I don't feel that we have this desire to update or rehash something we did. When we are playing songs from eight years ago we want to do those songs justice. We would rather save the new songs what we are feeling in the moment.
AL: What songs are you playing on this tour?
Zak: We are trying out some new songs.
Alan: Half the set will be new songs. We are getting ready to record the new album so we have a bunch of new songs we want to try out. You learn a lot about a song by just trying it.
AL: You have a box set coming out?
Alan: Yeah. That is going to be all the odds and ends. We have been on a lot of compilations. We have a lot of b-sides, split singles, and demos. We have different versions of songs that never saw the light of day. There are a bunch of songs that we recorded that never came out.
AL: Did you write the liner notes?
Alan: Yeah. That's the last thing we are waiting on. There is going to be a booklet with a lot of photos.
Zak: We are putting it out ourselves. It will be on Chairkickers Records. It's pretty massive.
AL: How many songs will there be?
Zak: It has 57 songs. It will come with a DVD.
AL: When will that come out?
Alan: It will be out in June 2004. It will available in stores. They can go to our website.
AL How did you do the collaboration with The Dirty Three?
Alan: The people who did this EP series in Holland asked us to be part of this series. We had just finished recording Things We Lost In The Fire. We were tired of looking at each other and making music. So we thought what would happen if you brought in some other people? The Dirty Three were going to be on tour in Europe at the same time. We asked them if they had a day or two off so they could record with us. That went really well. There was no preparation. Nothing. We came in there with a few ideas and threw them around. It was one day and a half of work. That's it. That was in Holland.
AL: What other bands have you played with in the past two years that you have liked?
Alan: We did some shows with Radiohead this last summer and fall. That was really fun. We opened a bunch of shows for them in southern Europe, and in New York at Madison Square Garden. It was really bizarre. We like Radiohead and respect them. There are a million bands that would like to open for them. But they chose us for a few shows. We would like to do more with them but that is wishful thinking. They are busy.
AL: Is there going to be a split CD with Radiohead?
Alan: Yeah. Thom Yorke might produce our next record.
AL: Are there any other bands you listen to?
Alan: Isis. We listen to so much stuff.
AL: When will you start doing the next record?
Alan: We will record in March and April. Mimi is going to have a baby in May so that will take us out of commission for a while.
AL: How does the family life, having kids around, go along with the band?
Alan: It goes all right. It's hard work. But it's just as hard as any other parent's life.
AL: The kids come on the road?
Mimi: One does.
Alan: Hollis comes. The other one has too because it's still in Mimi's stomach.
AL: What music does Hollis like?
Alan: She likes Weezer and Gillian Welch. She's four. What else?
Mimi: She likes the "Hey Yeah" song.
AL: Hollis likes Outkast.
Alan: She likes to jump on the bandwagon.
AL: Are you reading any good books?
Zak: I am reading Charles Dickens right now. I am reading about Henry Darger. Those books go good together. I read Tale of Two Cities before and now I am reading Great Expectations.
AL: How about you?
Mimi: I got this book of Sam Shepard short stories.
Alan: He lives near us in Duluth, Minnesota.
AL: Have you seen any films?
Zak: We just got the Cramps DVD. It's where they play at the mental hospital. I highly recommend it.
Alan: Spellbound is good. That is the most interesting thing I have seen in a while. We don't have a lot of good theaters in Duluth. I saw The Elephant Man.
AL: What do you like best: writing songs, recording, or playing live?
Alan: Each part has its pluses and minuses. They vary wildly. Writing is fun, but sitting in the basement all the time and not coming up with anything is horrible. Playing songs is fun when it works. Touring and the stress that comes with trying to coordinate things when you are bringing along a child can wear on you after a while.
Mimi: Touring is more stressful for us. It's the only time I have a vacation.
Alan: It's a vacation for Mimi and hard work for me. I tend to more of an asshole when on tour.
AL: Do you think the whole idea of slow music, since it is psychedelic and spacey; it encourages people to smoke marijuana?
Alan: Sure. Doesn't all music. Every band is like that. People, who are going to do it, are going to do it anyways. It doesn't explain to me why at one point in my life I thought Bob Mould was the devil.
Mimi: People who don't smoke pot attend shows too.
AL: It's like trance music.
Alan: "Introspective" is the word people use. Some music appeals to the physical interactions of the brain. Physical experience makes your body come alive. Some stuff is like more taking it through your mind, or whatever. We are just playing our music. If it's something nice and pretty that they go to sleep to at night. If they get an altered reality or revelation that is great.
Zak: I would be spooked. I don't smoke pot myself.
AL: What is Duluth known for?
Alan: It's cold and it's on the tip of Lake Superior. It's like a mini San Francisco. There are water and bridges. It's like an arts community of one hundred thousand people. Bob Dylan was from there.
AL: Who does your website?
Alan: Catherine Lewis keeps track of it. It's getting re-designed.
AL: Do you have any advice for people who want to form a band?
Alan: Don't be like Low. You'll be fine.