2016 sees “slowcore” legends (although I hear they’re not particular fond of that characterization) Low entering their 23rd year as a band, having released their 11th full-length, Ones and Sixes, last September on Sub-Pop. The album received much critical acclaim from the likes of NPR, The Guardian, and our very own WXPN and had them on the road for much of the second half of the year (including a mega-gig headlining The Roundhouse in London). Well, the Duluth, Minnesota trio – comprised of husband and wife Alan Sparhawk (guitar/vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums/vocals) and bassist Steve Garrington – are back out on the road and will be playing an extra intimate, sold out show this Monday at Johnny Brenda’s. Last week I got a chance to chat with Alan Sparhawk about some of Low’s historical highlights and recent achievements and experiences.
Izzy Cihak: What would you consider to be the most significant influences behind your latest album, Ones and Sixes, which has been out for a while now? And I don’t necessarily mean just musical influences. How do you feel like it compares to previous releases?
Alan Sparhawk: This new record was definitely about dissonance and confusion, as related to everything from personal, intimate relationships to war, torture, violence, and the empirical dilemma. We swing back and forth from time to time, from record to record – sometimes quiet and comfortable, sometimes chaos and tension. We were interested in pushing the sonic boundaries the same way some people have been doing in hip hop – higher ceilings and deeper bass, simple and bold. We were lucky to work with someone who has experience with that and who was willing to see how it could be applied to a band like us. It’s our best so far.
Izzy: On a similar note. What music are you currently most into? I noticed on your Twitter that you “follow” a lot of my favorite acts of recent years.
Alan: I kinda follow random things. There are a lot of favorites that I don’t follow, not sure why. For if an artist fills his Twitter world with only other artists, it would get a little narrow and mess with your perspective. I like following the pig farmer who drives trucks, loves the ladies, and quotes Tupac, or the guy from Brazil who does random tweets mixing up languages. Most of the bands I follow are probably casual friends, first, like Geoff Barrow, or Rachel Gosswell, or Four Tet. I’m the worst at keeping up with friends, so it helps a little. I listen to a lot of reggae. Roots and dub, mostly. Some indie rock creeps in from time to time – Mimi and the kids like Father John Misty, Beach House, and such, but we also get a lot of Harry Chapin and Linda Ronstadt. I found this record that came out last year by a French woman named Colleen. It’s on Thrill Jockey. It’s cool – dubby, minimal, and a very not – “Hey, look at this!” tone. It’s my favorite from last year.
Izzy: So I dig the whole album, but I’m especially really “into” “Into You,” so I have to ask how that particular track came about?
Alan: Mimi wrote that on piano and just presented it one day when we were working on songs. We all work on things separately and then bring them in mostly finished – it’s humiliating enough to try to write something, let alone have another editor there to navigate around…
Izzy: I know you’ve spent a ton of time on the road since last September. What were some of the highlights for you? Were there any especially amazing audiences, rooms, or just bills to play on (You played alongside some really cool people.)?
Alan: Yes, it was most busy September through November, then it opens up a little and now we are doing shorter trips with more time in between through spring. We played a pretty big place in London, our biggest show ever headlining. It was a thrill, but I think too big for us. We have this film we project sometimes for visuals for the shows – we played a festival in Belgium that had a huge back-shot screen that covered the whole back of the stage, ended up being really ideal for the film. Met Lucinda Williams at one of our shows. I’m a huge fan. Shared a back-stage area with Sam Smith one time. Hard to remember anything too crazy…
Izzy: So you’ve been doing this for quite some time now and have quite a number of releases, so I’m curious if you have any particular favorite recordings or releases from your back catalogue, whether you’re especially proud of them or you just really appreciate the reactions they receive?
Alan: Picking a favorite is impossible. We always do the best we can and I can safely say that with every recording we’ve done, we always surprised ourselves and ended up with something better than we had hoped. We push ourselves to find new ground with every recording, and it’s never finished until we are satisfied that it’s all we can do. I don’t listen back to things, but when I’ll hear something from the past, I’m able to see it for what it was and respect that that was the right decision at that time. I can see that it was part of the journey, not something I should have done differently. I’m more proud of the records that we did that were taking more chances, pushing the vocabulary of what we could do, and maybe pushing the perspective of what we were capable of (Songs for a Dead Pilot, Drums and Guns, Ones and Sixes). The Christmas ep was fun and ended up getting us more attention than most of our other records (and some extra money right when we needed it…) By now our fans know to expect anything, and I think they appreciate that we don’t “listen” to them.
Izzy: And this is a super huge question, but I always feel myself inclined to ask it of longstanding bands when I interview them for the first time: What are just a few of the highlights of Low over the past 2+ decades? I’m sure there are countless things…
Alan: I mentioned some above. Seeing the world, after growing up on a farm, thinking I would never leave the state. Meeting and making friends all over the world. Getting to create something and have it be heard and written about by people way smarter than I. Having famous people who we love and respect take notice of what we do and take us under their wing in one form or another (Radiohead, Robert Plant, Mavis Staples, Michael Gira…) Every moment on stage where time stands still and the sound in the air is both powerful and delicate, everyone breathing the same air.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for the band, after this next batch of dates wraps up?
Alan: Some festivals and short trips this summer, we have some odds and ends coming out – split singles, compilation tracks (an awesome Al Green Cover that Mimi sings). We are thinking about doing some Christmas shows this year. It’s been a few years since we’ve done some Christmas shows.