Last year slowcore legends Low released their 13th full-length, Hey What, to massive critical acclaim. The album, which came courtesy of Sub Pop, made year-end slots on “The 50 Best Albums of 2021” for NPR, Pitchfork, Paste, and The Guardian, in addition to their very-first Grammy nomination, after just under 30 years together (Hey What was nomiated in the category of “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.”) The Minnesota band (currently composed of founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker) kicked off a massive international tour, with dates scheduled through October, including a stop this coming Tuesday, March 29th, at The Music Hall at World Café Live. I recently got a chance to chat with Alan about Low’s new album and playing live. Check out what he had to tell me, in addition to their recent music videos for singles “White Horses” and “All Night.”
Izzy Cihak: Since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I have to ask your thoughts on the city, as you’ve played here quite a few times over the years. Any favorite memories?
Alan Sparhawk: Many memories. The food, the small streets, our bass player trying to walk out the hotel room window because he was sleepwalking, the Mutter Museum, the best set of the whole tour by Dirty 3 upstairs at a restaurant, punching a few holes in the ceiling at Khyber, staying with our pal Phil up in Germantown, cool DIY promoters who would find cool places for us to play.
Izzy: Last year you released Hey What on Sub Pop. Have you had any favorite reactions to the album, whether they be things critics wrote (or year-end lists), things that fans have told you, or reactions to the music in a live setting?
Alan: There is a bear on Twitter that does record reviews. The bear seemed to like it, so that’s all I need to know. It was weird having the record come out and not be able to play live right away, so it’s been nice to do gigs now and have people still show up excited to hear the new stuff. Maybe giving people time helped.
Izzy: You’ve released music videos for a number of songs from the album (I especially love the videos for “Days Like These” and “White Horses.”) and you often work with videos in your live shows as well. What kinds of things inspire the visual elements of your work?
Alan: Videos are fun to make and fun to have made. Sometimes we will have an idea of what we want, but most of the time we choose people we trust and are inspired by, and we let them go with what they come up with. Shane Donahue is our live visuals technician. He did the “White Horses” video. About 10 years ago we started messing with projections, keeping it simple and random, but now we have these LED light panels behind us and he can do some really dynamic things with them. I see other bands that have their visuals down and it really makes the show even more dynamic. It’s an art and if the LD is working with you and understands your aesthetic, it really can make the music even more fun to play because you know it’s doing something big for the audience. It also kinda makes up for how static we are, as performers. There’s a little jukin’ around but we are concentrating and maybe get boring to look at.
Izzy: I know the album was nominated for a Grammy, which I understand is the first in your career, so I’m curious how that felt? I feel like most of the artists I cover have sort of mixed feelings about the Grammys.
Alan: Yeah, grew up through the whole trajectory of the Grammys, so from Michael Jackson then Prince and then all the embarrassing stuff after that with Jethero Tull getting the heavy metal one and U2 getting the “alternative” one, 30 years into their career, etc. It’s still kinda weird and some of the nominations seem kind of dictated by people who don’t know anything about what’s going on, but there are cool things that happen. Our record is nominated in the engineering category, so it’s more of a shout out to BJ Burton, our producer/engineer, but we will put it on our resume…
Izzy: The last time we spoke you had recently released Ones and Sixes and you mentioned that you liked to, “swing back and forth from time to time, from record to record.” What do you consider to be the biggest influences behind Hey What, both musical and otherwise? How do you feel like the album compares to previous releases?
Alan: With Ones and Sixes, we were just starting to find our footing with what would become Double Negative and Hey What. It seems to just keep going in that direction. Not sure yet if there will be a pendulum effect. It just keeps getting further out.
Izzy: You seem to have pretty eclectic taste in music. What have you been listening to a lot of recently, whether you feel like it influences you in any direct way or just something that you especially enjoy?
Alan: Really like the twist that’s been going on in R&B/EDM even though I don’t follow that world very much. Artists like Tiara Whack and Lorainne James are breaking things up in their own way. Moor Mother is doing that too in their own way. The closer things get to Alice Coltrane, the more I am crushed.
Izzy: I know you recently kicked off your current tour, and you also played a number of shows last year. How have the shows been going so far?
Alan: It has gone well. Our fans seem to be on the cautious/considerate end of the spectrum, so it’s been mostly masked and cool with protocols. That’s been nice to see. I’m sure it with fade soon, but it’s nice to see people erring to the cautious side. I notice now that I don’t like driving as much. Maybe it was more of an adventure before, but I forgot so now it just sucks. I hear things a little different now after being off stage a while, but then there are some surprises where things you were afraid you would forget are just right there ready to go.
Izzy: Are there any dates you’re especially excited to play, or just cities you’re especially excited to revisit? You have a ton of dates both here and overseas through the autumn.
Alan: We have nice memories of so many places. Sometimes it’s a friend you have there, sometimes it’s the food, sometimes it’s the show that you didn’t think would be so hot ending up being the best show if the tour. More often than not, the shittiest weather in a shitty town, at a shitty bar ends up being magic, so it’s hard to judge any place, even in hindsight.
Izzy: Your sound lends itself to a lot of different types of venues. In recent years in Philly alone you’ve played places like Johnny Brenda’s (an intimate ballroom of sorts), Underground Arts (a basement club that normally hosts punk or metal acts), and you’re about to play World Café Live (which is often set up as a listening room). Do you have a particular favorite type of setting, or do you like different things about different setups?
Alan: Any type of space can work. We learned that early on as promoters struggled to find a fitting venue for us. Big, nice theaters are nice but so is the tension and intimacy of a standing-room-only 100 cap joint. We’ve played CBGBs and Manchester Cathedral and loved them both.
Izzy: Finally, what can be expected of the live show when you play World Café Live later this month, both in terms of the setlist and just the general vibe of the show?
Alan: We’ve been playing the new record, front to back, and then a bunch of older songs. Seemed a good way to start and get ourselves into a forward headspace before looking back with people. Maybe that will change as we go. Contrary to the way the recent records sound, we are a drums-bass-guitar-vocals band, live, so the versions you hear live are a little different. Making a record and playing music in a room with other people are two very different things for us, compared to most bands maybe.
*Get your tickets here.