FOREWORD: Could a northwest Mormon couple make substantial underground inroads by playing languidly mesmerizing minimalist mantras sung in whispered voices? The answer’s unequivocally yes. Though irked by the notion, Low takes the formative slowcore approach first made acceptable by Slint’s esteemed Spiderland and give it a deeper emotional resonance. ‘02s Trust continued on the soft-focus path initially unearthed for a few earlier successful endeavors. But ‘05s The Great Destroyer and ‘07s Drums And Guns (both produced by Mercury Rev/ Flaming Lips associate Dave Fridmann) opened the sound up a bit and blew open the doors for Low. I spoke to guitarist Alan Sparhawk in ’02 to promote Trust. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Hailing from icy Duluth, Minnesota, married parents’ Alan Sparhawk (guitar/ vocals) and Mimi Parker (vocals/ percussion), along with bassist Zak Sally, create soft-toned minimalist abstractions under the logical moniker, Low. Surrealistic post-mod chill out lynchpins inspired by Velvet Underground and descendent of slo-core pioneers Slint, Low debuted with ’94s dirgey I Could Live In Hope and truly hit stride by ‘95s impressive Long Division and ‘97s equally compelling The Curtain Hits The Cast.
By 2000’s more expansive Things We Lost In the Fire, they became the most consistent purveyors of mesmerizing neo-orchestral sublimity, seamlessly weaving transcendent harmonies through sustained 6-string ambiance and multi-textural serenity.
Strengthened by thicker arrangements and increased suspenseful grandeur, Low’s most irresistible batch of songs invigorate ‘02s Trust. The tender acoustic charm of “It’s In The Drugs” (featuring harmonies by Gerry Beckley of ‘70s soft rock icons America) and the sleigh bell jangle of “Snowstorm” approach a heightened state of nirvana. Before slowly evaporating into thin air, these intimate delicacies leave a bright afterglow not soon forgotten.
I spoke to Sparhawk over the phone about his latest endeavor.
I was impressed at how Low hushed the Knitting Factory crowd a few years back. It reminded me of the ’60s, when Dylan, Joan Baez, and other folkies received the undivided attention of their audience. Have you ever had to project over disinterested or disrespectful crowds?
Alan: When we first started doing shows, the audience would immediately be divided. Most people hated us, but there were always a few who “got” what we were doing. It was strange once we started headlining shows and people were so attentive. I’ve sensed something in the music that, given a chance, could transform an audience, but I figured we’d never see that happen. We still have shows every once in a while where the crowd isn’t cooperative. It doesn’t offend us as much as it’s frustrating knowing there are people who paid money to hear us and because of the noise, it’s maybe not as good of a show. It’s nice that people are quiet, but the minute we think we deserve it is a turn in the wrong direction.
Have your spellbinding, tranquil harmonies been affected by the mantra-like chanting or a capella singing at High Mass?
Mimi and I go to church. I suppose that may be some amount of influence. The slowness of the music makes the simple changes sound very large and mantra-like, but if you speed them up, they’re fairly indicative of hymns or even Country-folk harmonies.
Was Low influenced by the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions. That was recorded in a church and had such a minimalist vibe.
They were stylistic influences on us when we first started. Joy Division, The Cure, and Velvet Underground were also influential. However, we were trying to create something new to go against the grain of what was prevalent in the early 90′s. Now we just want to make good music. The Church recording, Parallel, is not one I had thought of, but perhaps there is a certain mood that certain space inspires. The space we did this in was certainly an influence.
What artists are you currently listening to or affected by?
Without oversimplifying things, we listen to all kinds of stuff. Sometimes we don’t listen to anything. Every once in a while we’ll get hung up on certain records, but I can’t say as to whether they’re influences on our own music. I’ve been impressed with the latest Pedro the Lion, Wilco, and Gillian Welch records. Each Low album has more introspective, poignant lyrics and deeper emotionality.
Is it easier creating harmonies as husband-wife?
You have to realize, I’ve known her since I was 9 years old. As we’ve written songs over the years and done so many shows, we’ve slowly become more confident. Most artists are very bold when they’re young. As they age they become more toned down and “artistic”, but I think we’ve become more pointed and less adorned as we’ve aged. I thought after becoming a father, I would be stressed out about the world and the future. On the contrary, I’m not scared of anything. We’ve always treated each record as the last thing we’d do. I always think any day now nobody will want to hear what we’re doing. I think this approach has put a little desperation in everything we do.
Has John Prine heard the song named after him? How does it relate to him?
I don’t think he knows about it, but I have a friend who is going to be tour managing him this fall. Maybe I’ll send a CD along for him. I need to get a copy to Gillian Welch, too. We sing about her on “Candy Girl.” I saw John Prine on t.v. one night and was impressed with his performance. Later that night, I wrote a few lines that ended up in the final song. I felt like his thing on t.v. was such an influence on the song that I named it after him. It’s my epitaph – and I don’t mean that in a morbid way. Even the “sha la la la la” part.
How’d The Gap find Low to do an ad based around “The Little Drummer Boy”?
Near as I can tell, someone who worked for the ad agency that pitched ideas to The Gap actually had the record in their personal collection and thought they’d give it a try. We were not “pitching” the CD to people. It was a strange surprise when we got the call. We’ve been around for nearly 10 years. At some point, the kids who were into us in college back in the 90′s are bound to get jobs where they wield a little power. You just wait – we’re going to rule the world any day now…
Give me the scoop on the Spring Heel Jack “Bomb scare” EP and the 7″ split with Vibracathedral Orchestra.
The “Bombscare” EP was basically Spring Heel Jack coming up with the music and Mimi and I coming up with the vocals. It’s more sample-based, sorta electronic music. It was fun. The Vibracathedral split is a song Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening/Pop Narcotic/K Records recorded several years ago. I feel bad it’s so short because the VCO song is long and great. We have done shows with them and we love ‘em.