Low | Bending the Universe

The world is a big place. You’re just one part of big possibilities.


Low is a band that inhabits its own unique sonic solar system and orbit. Their minimalistic, shimmering, and melancholic sound has enraptured listeners and concert goers for 23 years and has seen a prodigious output of singular music: 11 full-length releases, 10 EPs, 3 live albums, numerous compilations, a song in a GAP commercial, the and single “Halflight” in the film The Mothman Prophecies. Even Robert Plant recorded two Low songs on his 2010 album Band of Joy. Low guitarist/vocalist/founder Alan Sparhawk, drummer/vocalist wife, Mimi Parker, and new bassist Steve Garrington, continue to tour the world and make great albums. I caught up with Sparhawk as he and his wife were preparing to leave on a new leg of their tour in support of their 11th release, Ones and Sixes, on Subpop. Sparkhawk was incredibly candid, and no subject was off limits.

I saw you in 1994 at your first show in Los Angeles at Jabberjaw. Do you remember when you started out and your impact on people?

I think you and four people. [Laughs] In those first years, we toured with anyone that would have us, and we often played in front of audiences that didn’t know what to expect. I remember playing there on the first tour. I remember Randy Kaye [Jabberjaw, Lobotomy fanzine, Slash Records], the guy that owned the club, and he was a really good guy and a fan. He died several years ago, and that’s a loss. It was so bizarre being there because it wasn’t long after the L.A. Riots. We knew that when we played our first few shows and began the band that some people wouldn’t get it, but other people would really get it.

You’ve been around for 23 years. What were your intentions when you began Low?

I remember being disillusioned playing in other bands and wanting to do something different. I thought maybe I’ll just play music with my wife and see what happens. When we first started, we knew that not everyone would be into it. We figured we’d do a few shows and make people uncomfortable. We knew that playing our kind of music—that’s so quiet and slow—that some might not get it.

Journalists have called your music “slowcore” or “sadcore.” What is the evolution or essence of your sound?

Yes, we were deliberate. We took a record or two to figure out how heavy or slow it could be. Our original bass player, John [Nichols], and I had discussions talking about what we liked and what our direction would be. We wanted to push those dynamic elements of our sound and ambient music, but we also wanted to enter unchartered waters. There’s tension to it and heaviness. Would it work and could we take it to the stage? Deep down inside, we liked what we were doing, but we didn’t think many people would get it.

Did any of your record labels ever try to push you into a different direction or change your sound?

No, labels came to us because what we were doing was so out there. Vernon Yard Recordings was putting out bands like us, but was still part of Virgin Records. We barely made enough money to make the next record and the contracts were still 25 pages long. [Laughs] Whoever came to us knew what we were about. Then, moving to Kranky Records, we were the Duran Duran of the label. They were further out of the mainstream than we were. Even with Sub Pop, they have a tradition of not telling artists what to do.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations, remixes, and tribute albums. What experiences stand out for you?

The Mothman Prophecies came about because [Mark Pellington] did a short film and the people at the channel that aired it knew us and thought it would be a great pairing. Mark was the director, and he liked our music. Six months later, I went to L.A. to visit someone, and I called him to see if he could go to lunch. He declined because he was too busy with editing. Then, he called back like five minutes later and asked me to come down to where he was doing post-editing. He asked me to come in and contribute some music. After I had gone down to see the footage and add some music, he asked Mimi to come to L.A. two weeks later to add some vocals.

Oh, and getting to meet Robert Plant was huge. It came out of the blue that he was doing some of our songs. Mavis Staples covering one of our songs was crazy, too. It was like bending the universe. Robert Plant was definitely what I imagined a famous person to be. It was weird to talk to him or to ask him a few questions. He was friendly and just a nice guy. It’s like Bob Dylan. Being Bob Dylan must be crazy. Robert came into the room, and everyone was amazed that they got to say hello.

Those records sold enough, and the checks helped me get a house figured out for my mother.

How do you balance being a father, a working musician, and married to a member of the band?

I don’t know. A lot of it was just ignorance and just jumping into the situation. It’s what saved it us, too. We’re both glad we did it. It’s intense with marriage crossing with music and family. Just like anybody else, you work through it and make sure you always communicate. Most people have a lot of unresolved, perceived dissonance, and that makes things worse.

Your kids are older now. Do they think you and Mimi are cool?

They’re 15 and 11 now. Yeah, they think we’re cool, but that’s all they know. They know what we do for a living and that it’s way different from what their friends’ parents do. They traveled with us all the time when they were young, but now, they don’t as much. If we were a bit more famous or successful, we could afford to bring a teacher on the road.

They’ve seen a lot of different places. I remember when we first started to travel, we realized that more people need to see the country and explore other cultures. The world is a big place. You’re just one part of big possibilities.

Your current tour is taking you to Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond. Do you think those countries inform your songwriting or music?

I wonder what people in other countries see in our music. I think travel probably opens your perspectives and answers the question, “How big is your world?” I recognize that it probably does get in there subconsciously. It’s beyond your limited reality and daily life. People show up in those countries, and it’s the same weird, different people that show up in our shows in the U.S. We even played in China. Rock ’n’ roll, underground music, et cetera, always pulls an interesting crowd. You resonate with them, or you don’t.

What was the impetus for starting your label?

We wanted to put out a Christmas record, and I also had a side project that I wanted to put out. At the time, the market was such that you could still do that. It seems like people stopped buying CDs. It was pointless unless you really promoted the music, and fizzled out in the late ’90s. We did put out a Kid Dakota release. In hindsight, I felt bad that I couldn’t put the money and time into it to play the game to be taken more seriously. It was cool to put out some music by our friends.

Do people in Duluth know who you are?

Yes, sometimes, unfortunately. [Laughs] There’s Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, and they’re good friends and doing pretty well in their circles. We get a lot of waves, and it’s pretty nice. I also have some hate mail that seems to think that I’m a chump or that we don’t deserve to be famous. I sometimes get weird, drunk, cryptic comments from the angry guy at the bar.

Does the internet or social media play a role in your music?

I was pretty resistant to it in the beginning. Our managers convinced us to do Twitter, which unfortunately plays into my personality flaws. Don’t give a schizophrenic, drunk guy a Twitter account. [Laughs] I’m glad I wasn’t doing it a few years back. Facebook is a pretty good clearinghouse, and it’s simple. I don’t even like keeping track of calendars. It’s the way it’s done now, so that’s the way it is.

What do fans say to you when they meet you?

Most of them approach us with a very serious look in their eyes, and they tell us our music helped them get through a tough time, and that’s priceless. I understand, because music was the same for me growing up. When a person comes to you, it’s a lopsided relationship, and they want you to understand their experience. I want to give them acknowledgement, and that’s all they want. They want you to know that your music was there for them when they went through a tough time.

Are you looking to collaborate with any new artists?

Sometimes I do think of it, but then I rethink it because it’s a question of what I do with my thing and what they do. I’ve had a Panda Bear resurgence. I remember a few times where I tried to approach a few people then dropped it. I always joke that we’ll back up Morrissey someday. Collaborations typically come randomly, and it’s usually more about schedules. We do see people that want to collaborate with, but they don’t always have the time or get back to you.

I don’t know if you want to discuss this, but I read in another interview where you said you went through some rough times and issues. Have you come out of that?

I went through depression and bipolar issues that had been nagging at me for several years. I ended up picking up some new habits: One was jogging, the other was smoking a lot of pot. I don’t want to get into any arguments with people, but it worked for me. I had seen enough therapists and whatever. It keeps me on an even keel, and it keeps me in the right place. I’ve known people with real substance and alcohol problems, and their situations are a lot more desperate. I’m sure not saying pot is harmless, but there are different dynamics. I don’t live under the title of an addict because that’s insulting to people with real addiction problems. I didn’t take it up until I was in my thirties. It’s interesting how society reacts and the ignorance of certain people that condemn it.

Do you still enjoy touring and making music after all these years?

Yes, I do. I’m pretty hopelessly romantic about what it means to play music. That experience to me is still alive and complete. Having kids now and having to leave them, that’s one thing that dampens it a bit, but I still like new experiences. Getting in a van, driving around the country, staying at some dirty place—but even after 22 years, we’re still a DIY band that rolls up, plays, looks for a cheap motel, and moves on. Being away from the kids and home is the toughest part. I realize in a few more years they’ll be gone.

We still get that feeling of being excited, and if I keep working on music, it can always get better. Don’t fixate on things too much. We had an idea early on, we were given the opportunity, and we did it. Kramer [legendary indie musician, producer, composer, and owner of Shimmy Disc] invited us to record and passed us onto Vernon Yard.

Who have you met that made a big impression on you?

I met Michael Stipe. We were in Olympia hanging with Calvin Johnson [owner of K Records and front man for the Halo Benders]. Michael was there working on some film at the time. We attended this potluck dinner thing that Calvin hosted. I went up to him, and I was about to speak to him, but then I decided there was no real way to express what his music meant to me. Maybe the best thing I could have done for Michael Stipe that day was not to speak to Michael Stipe that day. We did end up talking, but it was one-sided because I was trying to explain what his music meant to my life and hey, the potato salad is awesome. [Laughs]

When did you first start to notice music and think it might be something you wanted to do?

Early on, I remember really being into Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I was at the prime dude age. It was my first big thoughts of life, and that was the record for me. I also vividly remember seeing an article about punk music; it was in something like People. That one picture said it all to me. Whatever they’re listening to and makes them dress like that, I want to know more. I remember thinking that Sex Pistols sounded just like they looked. I really liked it. At the same time, Ziggy Stardust, not exactly of that era, but that was very interesting to me at 14. Eighties metal was OK, but I went more in the punk and alternative direction: the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure. I heard Joy Division and the Velvet Underground in the same night at the home of an older guy with a great record collection. Those two bands made a huge impression on me, too.

What kind of music are you listening to these days?

I still listen to a lot of reggae and some modern rap artists. I occasionally listen to Kendrick. I listen to some of the new pop, like Drake and Rihanna, and there are some interesting things out there.

Why do you like reggae so much?

The vibe, and it’s a weird lesson in music and rhythm. It’s turning the music upside down in your head, and you’re noticing where things hit. It’s another world of language and great singers, production and it’s just a twist on the theme. I like hearing each musician do something simple, but it adds up to a big whole. The Heart of the Congos is the best thing; King Tubby, Prince Jammy, and The Abyssinians are favorites, too.

You’ve played St. Louis more than a few times. Any memories?

We had a friend in St. Louis that always seemed to be moving into a different place every time we stayed with him. I think he kept moving for the cheaper rents. [Laughs] That was one of the first cities that I remember seeing and thinking it was unique and stood out. It’s amazing the amount of stuff there, but also, there’s the history and a slow rhythm to it. Our [former bass player] Zach’s uncle was the announcer for the St. Louis Blues, so that made him a celebrity. | Doug Tull
Low will be appearing in St. Louis at Off Broadway on Saturday, February 13.

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