Low: Facing the Changes

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“Sorry, I’m getting all worked up here,” Alan Sparhawk says with a laugh. I’m talking to the Low singer and guitar player on the phone from his home in Duluth, Minn., about the band’s new album, The Invisible Way (Sub Pop). The topic has turned to themes that inspired the songwriting, and he’s become quite emphatic. “There [are] songs that are sort of saying, ‘wow, I’ve been around for a while and I’ve seen all this shit,’” he tells me, his voice rising vehemently as he explains his mindset. “It’s still stupid! It still doesn’t make sense. Hey, wait a minute, by now I was supposed to know what the hell is going on with God. And I just realized that I don’t know shit!” He pauses for a moment to consider. “I hate talking about this shit. I always feel disappointed later on when I let any of that out of the bag because I feel like it’s counterproductive.”

This dichotomy between brash and subtle, loud and soft has always been a key element of Low’s music. Often dubbed “slowcore” by fans and critics, for two decades the band has built songs, albums and live shows around softly repeated musical and lyrical phrases, creating a hypnotic, minimal, slow-burn version of rock music. From the first Low album, I Could Live In Hope (1994), this has been the band’s modus operandi. Though there have been moments of distorted crunch and guitar feedback caterwaul, especially on some of the band’s later albums, for Sparhawk repetition and musical austerity is an almost spiritual endeavor. “As far as the aesthetics,” he says, “it was minimalism, drone elements, lengthening things, repetition, almost meditative or transcendental music… My favorite tunes when I was a kid spinning my dad’s records were [Iron Butterfly’s] ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ and the full version of ‘The End’ by The Doors. The idea of the length and the power of something, that’s always been a factor.”

The Invisible Way, the band’s 10th studio album, is especially meditative, even for Low. Piano and acoustic guitar abound, and Sparhawk doesn’t even turn the distortion pedal on to full blast until halfway through the second to last song, “On My Own.” He also cedes lead vocal duties on five of the album’s 11 songs to his wife, Mimi Parker, who frequently harmonizes but usually only sings lead on one or two songs per album. This was partially due to the fact that these were songs that she wrote. But Sparhawk also believes that Low fans want more of this. “Within the band circle, it’s in the back of our mind, when do we get to do a record where Mim sings all the songs?” he says. “I know for a fact there’s a lot of fans out there who would like that more than hearing another record with me mumbling about the world.”

Sparhawk and Parker have been together in a band as a couple for 20 years, and he reveals that it’s sometimes been a struggle. “Believe me,” he says, “our marriage and this band could have been derailed many times.” They are on their fourth bass player, Steve Garrington, who has played with them since 2008. But Sparhawk takes responsibility for much of the challenges of keeping Low together. “I’m a really difficult asshole when the chips come down,” he says. “Mim can tolerate me and can deal with me for two reasons—number one, she’s married to me and invested in it, and number two, she’s not so into it. She doesn’t wanna be in a damn band, she doesn’t wanna be a rock star.” This is a surprisingly candid admission, and he even goes on to say that if Parker had her druthers, she’d be a chef. But this is not necessarily an admission of turmoil within the band or imminent implosion; it’s the honest words of a career musician with two kids who has been in a band with his wife, whom he has known since he was nine years old, for 20 years.

Low traveled to Chicago to record The Invisible Way, where they worked with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced the album. Over the years the band has recorded with strong personalities at the helm like Steve Albini and Dave Fridmann. Sparhawk says he felt very comfortable working with Tweedy, whom he trusted both as a musician and producer. Tweedy knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the console. “Jeff’s made a lot of records,” Sparhawk says. “He’s sat behind the mic figuring out how to do takes… sat with his band working through what’s the best take… You’re not gonna choose some idiot who’s gonna fight with you and tell you everything is wrong and force you to do something… I wouldn’t be against that,” he chuckles. “Someone like Phil Spector being like, ‘OK, you guys suck, get out of here. I’m gonna bring in some session musicians and real singers, here’s your fucking record.’”

Near the end of our conversation, Sparhawk asks me to hold on as he says goodbye to his children. They are headed to a friend’s house to stay while he and Parker travel to Europe to do promotional interviews. I hear them murmuring to each other, exchanging “I love you”s, telling his kids to be good. It’s another example of the continued success of Low, 20 years into a career in indie rock. Sparhawk simultaneously sounds like a grizzled, jaded vet and a humble musician who is thankful for being able to make a life out of music as he talks about the band and his relationship with Parker. The bottom line seems to be an ability to deal with change, because it’s inevitable. “That’s one thing you learn after 20 years,” he says. “When you got out of high school and you’re listening to The Cure and you’re thinking there’s no way in the world anyone would wanna listen to The Allman Brothers—you were wrong, man. Because 15-20 years from now, you’re gonna be listening to The Allman Brothers, [and] you’re gonna love that shit.” For Sparhawk and Low, the key to longevity as a band and continued creative output seems to be to embrace and adapt. “At the time, it makes your soul cringe to even think about those bearded bastards, but you change, man.”

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