Low are one of my favourite bands, and have been since I was in college – but I’ve only ever gotten to see them live once. And that was last year, at Andrew’s Lane Theatre in Dublin. When I first got into them, they had just played Nancy Spain’s in Cork, but as I hadn’t known much of their stuff I didn’t attend. They haven’t played Cork since, and each time they returned to Ireland I was never able to go – exams, money, travel, you name it, there was a reason I couldn’t go. When it came to their gig last year, I was delighted I’d finally, finally get to see them live – and then my colleagues organised a work outing that night – you know, one of those events that’s extremely hard to get out of going to, and one I’d have loved to attend….but in the end, I chose Low, and of course it was the best choice I could have made. I don’t think I stopped thinking about the gig (and my brief chat with Alan) for days after…I only wish I could have made those early Irish gigs.
Low are playing Killarney, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, on 15th August. And guess what? I won’t even be in the flipping country. Ever wonder if you’re cursed….?
I was very lucky to do a phone interview with Alan Sparhawk (he, his wife and drummer Mimi Parker and bassist Steve Garrington make up Low) in advance of the Irish gig. He was a great talker and so the interview was far, far longer than the word count I was allocated, and I had to cut about half of what he said. I even turned the interview from my usual style into a Q&A style interview so I could save his quotes, but that still meant a lot had to be cut. I’ve always wanted to put the rest of what he said online for others to read, so I’ve decided to do that today.
Below is the original interview, and beneath it is the unedited transcript of the rest of the interview. I hope you enjoy it.
From the Event Guide
By Aoife Barry
Duluth, Minnesota-based band Low have been together for more than 15 years, specialising in their own unique brand of minimalistic, down-tempo indie rock. Over their last few albums, the band have expanded their sound and added heavier elements that, rather than alienating fans of their original lo-fi sound, have brought them even more international acclaim. The band’s eighth album, ‘Drums and Guns’, was released in 2007.
The core of the group is husband and wife Alan Sparhawk (guitars/ vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums/vocals), while newest member of the band is bassist Steve Garrington. Aoife Barry spoke to Alan Sparhawk as the band prepared to return to Ireland for what promises to be another very special performance.
You’re at home in Duluth at the moment – is Duluth somewhere where you can relax and get away with everything to do with the band?
Yeah, it’s sort of weird – it’s nice to be home, and obviously family and everyone’s here and you get some rest, but the weirdest thing about coming home is the adjustment. When you’re on tour, your mind gets used to kind of moving every day, you have a specific goal each day that you’re trying to get done, and then at the end of the day
you’re done. But when you get home it’s a little more amorphous, and you end up at the end of the day going ‘What did I do today? Did I get done what I was supposed to? What’s going on here?’ (Laughs) Hopefully it’s not like my ego is addicted to it. You get used to that small world.
Are you looking forward to playing Ireland again?
Our first few experiences playing Ireland, we played smaller cities as well because we drove around quite a bit. We went up to Cork and places like that. The first time we played it we played some crazy lodge. I guess being around the country is nice because Dublin is so big, it’s so good to get around the country. Yeah we really have nice shows [there] so it’s always kind of a good tone to the fans there I find. Every place has its unique feel to it. Dublin’s very distinct.
You played Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral a few years ago, which I’ve heard described by some who attended as a ‘spiritual experience’ – how does it feel when you hear things like that?
Well, I mean, it’s nice and you don’t want to let it – you don’t want to absorb it too much, because obviously if someone’s having a spiritual experience it’s more to do with them and the space and if you start thinking of yourself as part of the process that makes it kind of dangerous. It can be sort of more of a subtle experience, more of a visceral thing I guess. Especially it depends on the space a lot of times too. I really think there’s, I don’t know if you want to call
it like a power or a certain weight to places like that, especially with churches, where whether you believe what goes on in there or not, there’s certainly an energy of thousands and thousands of people coming in there with their concerns and fears and hopes. You know, after a while a space sort of holds that, that weight. So yeah, when you play in places like that sometimes you can’t help but feel like that, that is what often is setting the tone and music more so than
what we are. Obviously not every show can be like that, but from time to time we do get the right space and the right moment and people and it sort of has a bit of that indescribable energy.
Would I be right in thinking that with Low, there’s a certain way that things are done, that there are boundaries – and then with your other bands, Retribution Gospel Choir and Black Eyed Snakes, you can step outside of that and look at things differently?
From the beginning we [Low] were built upon boundaries. We sort of half-consciously set rules for ourselves, you know like ‘OK, let’s try to play this way’, or ‘Let’s push this song in this direction a little and see if it changes it in a good way’ or whatever. So Low has always in a way been about those boundaries and kind of working within…over the years it sort of became what it is naturally. It’s hard because there’s some songs that I do in different bands and there’s different crossovers and things, I guess I haven’t really thought about it too much as it unfolded, and unfortunately I find myself somewhere now where I have to answer for it!
At this point, Low very much to me – it sort of over-simplifies it – but to me at this point it’s just Low is the music I do with Mimi, and then [there’s] music I do with other people – whatever that it is, whatever realm that is. I guess at the
end of the day, I like playing music and sometimes I guess for the most part most of the time I do music with my wife and then there’s other stuff too.
There have been changes in your sound as a band over the years. With each album there are more elements brought in and things have gotten heavier as the years have gone on. Was that a natural progression for the band, or was it a more conscious decision than that?
I think every band changes, you know, there’s a certain evolution that you go through as you learn playing with each other. We’re unique in that we’ve been around a long time and people can look back and go ‘Ok, well this band started here and they kind of went in this direction, and then this and this and this – most bands don’t get more
than three records to show what they’ve been doing. I think [with] every record we’ve always challenged ourselves and pushed ourselves, and sometimes we knew what direction that was and sometimes we weren’t quite sure…with every record we’ve always quite consciously tried to push a little bit and tried to make sure there was something we were
pushing a bit more than we had done before, whether it’s new sounds or the dynamics. Some of the records sounded heavier and louder, more guitar, less guitar. To me, that’s sort of a nice conscious thing that you can sort of do to keep yourself on your toes and kind of a little bit out of balance. With every record you have to go in with sort of a
little bit of determination, a little bit of a plan, and then a lot of room for letting whatever happens, whatever direction it goes to go, making sure that wherever it does go that you are ready for it and have the right courage for it.
Do you have any more recording planned this year ?
This summer we’re going to start working on some things. There are thoughts of doing a couple of Christmas songs maybe, we keep going back to that, and we might do some Christmas shows this year. Every year for the last couple of years we’ve been doing little Christmas shows, a couple of years ago we did New York and Chicago but this year
we’re going to try and bring it overseas. We’ve a few things we’ve been experimenting recording with, but I dunno – I’ve got to write some more songs!
Last couple of years we don’t bring them with us as much because Hollis, who’s the oldest, she’s 8 and she’s in school, but she used to come with us quite a bit, pretty much all the time until she started going to school. Hollis grew up on the road and really I don’t know, it was a pretty unique few years with – we had to cross the country with a three year old and a bunch of dirty old guitars and drums.
On whether his children have an interest in music
The two kids kind of go back and forth. We’ve sort of had a bit of an argument between the guitar and the keyboard – one will play one for a while and the other one’s not interested.
She sings quite a bit but our boy, who’s turning four really soon, he is pretty fearless with music. Most of the time kids are daunted by it but he just dives in.
It’s more of an attitude, you can just sort of grab an instrument and start pounding on a keyboard and if the kid has the right attitude and the right ear they can make that music. To me that comes out as music. We collaborate. It’s funny, they kind of understand the concept and dynamics, the beginning of a song and how it’s supposed to end. They really like to keep track of those things, but everything in between is…the sky’s the limit. You gotta be careful – you don’t want to make music that thing your parents do!
I’m sure they’ll find something that will upset their parents.
Retribution Gospel Choir (his other band) versus Low
Playing loud has been something that’s creeped up on me over the years, playing with the groups and such. I don’t know, it’s more than just being loud, it’s something about sort of playing within the limits and certain elements the same ones that Low has worked on but. The Retribution Gospel Choir actually I’ve been touring quite a bit lately and it’s going good. It’s interesting to…after playing so many years of being very restrained and quiet it’s sort of interesting to see what jumps out when you do open up like that. Fun.
It’s definitely a louder band and heavier, I think some people will probably be surprised by that. I guess I’m hoping that it’ll be surprising to the point that after people think ‘oh, it’s louder!’ then I guess hopefully there will be a surprise where they think ‘oh and it’s not so bad’!. But we’ll see about that.
Initially he was sort of the one who encouraged me to record and do a record with Retribution Gospel Choir. We’d been playing around for a while and he had some songs and sort of, I guess, sort of waiting to see when the right moment would come along, whether we’d record or not. But he kept encouraging me while I was still sort of not confident with half of the songs. He encouraged us to come out and record and so we went to San Francisco and did it very quickly. It was just nice to have that sense where you could just concentrate on playing and doing it and let the vision or let the end product or what you’re trying to shoot for be in the mind of someone else.
So then I could just concentrate and was like ‘we’ll do the best with these songs, we’ll try some different things, try to play as well as I can, sing as well as I can and trust that this person who is handling all the other things will do a good job’. And that’s sort of what you know, any time you’re letting someone produce something or step in on that realm, you have to really let go. You have to 100% let go because if you’re holding on to a little bit it’s always going to be a source of tension for you.
He helped me with some of the arrangement on the songs – some songs I didn’t know how to start them or end them or you know different sections I didn’t know whether to move them or shorten them or lengthen them. He was really helpful with that, I think just having another songwriter that I respect come playing different possibilities out – it was really good.
From our angle, songwriting, and trying to work things out – it’s always a hard process. It’s always something you’ve really gotta invest yourself in and you end up being very discouraged most of the time!
Working with Mimi
I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like it’s just natural and everything kind of falls together easily, but I know there are parts of it that do, I mean, just the fact that I can kind of work on an idea and …usually it’s very natural, Mim will step in and come up with harmonies and stuff, and I guess we’ve sort of taken it for granted all these years, that there’s certain parts of the process that have always been very easy and very natural just because of whether it’s who Mim is, or the way we’ve been doing things all these years and stuff. It’s weird, it’s always a struggle, but it is nice, there’s definitely this whole history and this language that we’ve been speaking all this time that’s sort of there and I guess it’s probably a rare thing. From our angle I guess it doesn’t seem that special but I guess it is a rare thing, it’s not very often that you get people who have listened to each other speaking for so long that when they sing it’s sort of the same thing as well.
Evolving as a band
…That’s sort of the key – I think every band wants to seem that they’re evolving, and wants to seem like…everybody wants to go from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to ‘Long long long’ or ‘Sgt Peppers…’. We never really force it that much, it’s just a matter of listening to the songs and seeing where they want to go or just trusting that whatever naturally comes in during that process is just, is true, I guess, and honour it.