Interview

Low

Low

Wednesday 6th October, 2010 10:13AM

Minnesota husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (along with numerous other members) have won an impressive live reputation for their work in the band Low. Such adulation can be surprising given the minimalist, harmony driven, 'slow' music they make. However, their brilliant music has won plaudits for decades now, and Sparhawk's prolific songwriting has spawned into numerous other projects, collaborations with the likes of the Dirty 3, and tours with Radiohead and Red House Painters. Luckily, they're also heading back down under, after their brilliant performance a couple of years ago and with a new album in the wings, the shows promise to be excellent.

I thought I'd start with a basic question, why music?

As a kid I grew up on a farm and listening to music and started liking stuff. I remember listening to the Clash's Combat Rock, when it came out I must have been eleven, twelve – and I remember really being attracted to that underground sound so to speak. The possibility of playing music – I don't know. My father was a drummer, and played in country bands when I was growing up and he was writing songs. The reality that real people make music was always there growing up. I don't know – teenage dream you know, that's what a teenage boy is excited by.

How did Low come about?

I was in a couple of different bands in the early '90s, late '80s just playing guitar. It was fun but it just didn't work out, and at a certain point when I quit this one band I said to myself 'I want to play music with my wife and I wanted to be minimal and quiet' and I had a friend who felt the same way and we started the band. Originally we thought it'd be interesting to do a show or two opening for a friend's band and it just escalated very quickly in the first year into a record and touring.

The story was that it was seen as a reaction to grunge at a time?

It may have seemed that. It was definitely very contrary to what was going on at the time and what people were listening to. We were certainly fans of Joy Division, the Cure, and different things like this. We were certainly not the first people to be playing minimal, mellower, quieter music, but at the time, it seemed very contrary to what was going on. And it was. I remember when we first toured, it was really funny how shocking it was to all of these clubs and different things; it was interesting to watch how assaultive it was on some of those people. I guess perhaps that's why it seemed like we were being contrary. I was just as big a fan of Nirvana as everybody.

Did you find Low's minimalist roots have helped pigeonhole you subsequently by fans and critics?

Yeah, definitely, we were a little more inclined to describe ourselves as minimalist than whatever title got laid on it. Minimalism has a couple of things that happen – there's a little bit of laziness that can happen, and it can be a cover-up for naivety, which is admittedly for sure what we had going on. We were very naοve, we just knew we had a few ideas about some things which unfolded from there. I don't think we had enough global vision to consider ourselves contrary or anything. How can you be contrary when there was obviously nobody listening?

Your music and sound has been very restless throughout your career – has it been a hard thing to maintain for over seventeen years and through your side-projects?

I like the way we've slowly refined and organised the way we tour and the way we work, we have children now and we schedule our lives differently – we have to be more specific and strategic about what we do. I think looking back, for sure, every side thing, every odd thing I've done here and there, I think play off each other and make the whole better. I'm not sure what the effect is on Low, and the way we do things now because of years of doing things.

Quite a hard thing to differentiate between writing for Low and for writing for side projects?

Sometimes. Usually I'm not an intentional writer. I don't sit down and think 'I'm going to write this about this for this band or for this idea'. I just write and sometimes the song when you've done the writing it's obvious where things go. Sometimes it works for both and sometimes it works for neither. I definitely want to avoid the idea of side projects because you start questioning loyalty and stuff. I just make music and I make a lot of music. 'Side project' just insults the main project and the side project (laughs). Those terms aren't up to me to define. It doesn't take as much head-scratching as you'd think. You just write and usually a song will tell what it needs to do and where you need to go.

How much of Low's studio work is improved or pre-planned?

It varies for sure. Some records we have gone in with certain ideas and changed things around. Sometime we've gone in with very little. Most of the time we usually have a song figured out and we have a good idea of what arrangements we want to try and how we want to try and record. A lot of it stems from early years when we just had a really small budget, where we'd just go in and make a record in three or four days. We're usually pretty efficient and get in and work on it. This year, we still go in with 75%, 80% of what we want and with it figured out. If a record has ten songs, we probably record eleven. I don't know if that really answers the question, but it gives sort of an insight into how it works.

How much space does that leave you when it comes to playing them live?

Traditionally not much. Low for the most part, not necessarily intentionally, we usually like to find the arrangement we're happiest with, record it, and then we usually stick with it. Certainly, with [the previous record, 2007's] Drums and Guns and the way it was recorded, it was probably the highest contrast from when you see us play live, playing those songs, it's very different arrangements as far as instruments go for sure. To a certain extent the last record, has been the biggest jump on that, usually we go from the tradition of having a low budget, we go in thinking this is how the songs sound live, we'll record them that way, we can do overdubs if we need to, but then it's a very slow process for us going from that to where Drums and Guns is. Having said that, the record we're working on now, felt a lot more close to how we play live. So far. Let's see. We haven't scrapped that idea yet.

You have toured extensively throughout your career, has it got easier to deal with background chatter and audience noise?

For sure. We had a pretty good sense of humour about it before, and the nature of what we're doing, it's going to happen a lot of the time. In some ways, it was surprising if it didn't happen. Now, nobody's going to pay ten, twenty dollars to drunkenly chat to their friends in the front row. And if they did, it'd be pretty obvious, and be ignored or got rid of. We definitely paid our dues and had shit thrown at us and all of that. It's not so much of a problem nowadays. When people go to a Low show, they know what they're in for, and they're not paying the ticket price to go be a jerk. And if they are – awesome. The day someone finally does that – I don't know, I've had some run-ins. I don't mind taking on the next guy but we don't have to put up with the distraction so much now.

As you said Drums and Guns sounds quite different to your other work – how much of a reaction was that to [2005's] Great Destroyer and some of your previous work?

It was definitely somewhat conscious. We went into the studio with the songs how we'd play them live, but at the same time we knew we were going in and try some different arrangements from what we'd do. We totally went there, and it was very freeing to do that. I don't know, in many ways, it's too much. I think the trick with the new record is to figure out what the new twist is. Unfortunately I don't think it's going to be as obvious as Drums and Guns.

The band's biggest success has been [2002's] Things We Lost on the Fire – has it been frustrating the way critics have almost drawn a line in the sand with that album?

I don't mind. I have to admit with that record, it was definitely a peak in that aesthetic trajectory that we were aspiring to for a few records, and approaching this element, there was a certain way we heated up that record. I don't mind, it's definitely a line. Not super obviously. I think in a certain way, our direction and vision as far as Low became 'what are the new possibilities?' After that record, my idea of what's possible changed. To a certain extent it always does. I remember Drums and Guns, it definitely did. And it's definitely changing with this new record. I don't mind that, it happens. I guess I feel settled enough with everything I've done that it doesn't bother me that there are 'lines' or people go 'I love this record, the others don't appeal to me'. It's not something I want to get upset about. It's out of my hands.

Your music uses a lot of contradictions within the sound, whether it's the harmonies or the lyrics or handclaps vs electronic sounds – how conscious is this pushing of the opposites?

I'm aware of that threshold. You're either stabbing at it, or respecting it. Pussy-footing in between is lying. You're either going to let it roar or respect it. It's one of the approaches to things.

You've collaborated with a number of famous artists and producers – is it hard maintaining a sense of self when you're working with people like Dirty 3, Dave Fridmann, Steve Albini etc.?

Oh yeah, as much as we like to kick around "DIY" and "punk rock" or 'we don't like anybody messing with our stuff', we really had great success with collaborations with bands. Obviously the Dirty 3 record [In the Fishtank 7], that was, not just because they're from your region, definitely a very fruitful collaboration and they're really great friends of ours. I think there's a certain amount of being able to let go and being comfortable with someone else – obviously everybody has a shortlist of people you can do that with. We've been lucky to do that. Initially it was about respect and being able to let go of my own ego just enough to say 'what are your ideas for the song', 'here I've put everything I can into this song, what are you seeing that I can't see'. Obviously I've had really good success with those sort of situations.

You've been playing with your wife for a while, and your harmonies with her are one of the best things about the band – how hard has it been working with your wife?

It's good. I definitely enjoy going into the studio and listening to when she goes in to sing her harmonies. It's definitely better and I'm reminded how lucky we are we've been able to work all of this time. It's great. I think anyone who's in a relationship would love to do something as satisfying and creative like we do. It's fun. It's hugely challenging, and it's sometimes very dangerous to a relationship, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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Low NZ Tour 2010

Monday 18th: Auckland, Kings Arms
Tuesday 19th: Wellington, San Francisco Bath House

Click HERE for tour and ticketing details.




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