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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of… Low
Daryl Worthington , September 7th, 2021 08:11

Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker go deep into their back catalogue, speaking to Daryl Worthington about everything from Christmas songs to dub versions, Misfits impressions, and their breathtaking new album

Low portrait by Nathan Keay

“Western culture is so tied to the backbeat, we think we’re so original. But familiarity is what we lean on when we’re afraid, like a security blanket. I’m just trying to make something interesting,” says Low’s Alan Sparhawk. “What do you want, another strum along backbeat and a white dude complaining about his problems?”

“We’re still doing that,” jokes Mimi Parker, Sparhawk’s wife and bandmate in Low since they formed the group in 1993. “We’re still doing that,” agrees Sparhawk, “but making it sound weird, trying to make something original.”

The pair are discussing Hey What, their astounding thirteenth studio album, soon to be released on Sub Pop. But, self-depreciating humour aside, they capture a tension between familiar and unfamiliar that has always been in Low’s music – whether it’s a disarmingly minimalist pop song like ‘Dinosaur Act’, or the searing slow ascent of ‘Nothing But Heart’ from 2011’s C’mon.

Though Hey What is anchored by the gorgeous vocal interplay that makes their music instantly identifiable, the songs are encased in stark arrangements of fractured electronics, mangled guitars and waves of distortion. Creating something equal parts claustrophobic, ecstatic, and always utterly moving.

The beautiful harmonies between the pair’s voices have been a unique constant since the early nineties. But everything around that core seems to perennially strive for a new form. Whether going to extremes of subtly or bombast, Low’s music feels like it’s scratching at the limit of what can be expressed through sound. A few times in our conversation both Sparhawk and Parker describe some of their older songs as “naïve”, but that sense of non-contrived innocence in a song like ‘Sunflower’ is what makes it just as startling as the visceral sonics of more recent albums.

“We’ve always tried to do something that isn’t connotative, that doesn’t lean on nostalgia,” Sparhawk explains. “Being content with the gifts of technology is really boring. You have to find the capability of what something can do, and then push against that – that’s when something interesting happens."

“Take synthesizers,” he continues. “What we think of now as synthesizer music isn’t the first stuff people played on them. It’s from when people started doing things with the synths the people who made them didn’t imagine they’d be used for. Hey What is an experiment in how to do the guitar without it sounding stupid.”

Over the band’s three decades they’ve tended to work with a producer across a run of albums, including Steve Albini, David Fridmann and most recently, BJ Burton – and speaking to Parker and Sparhawk it’s clear they view these collaborations as pivotal to what comes out on record. “You go as far as you can until you can’t see further, and then you trust the people you’re working with can help you bridge that gulf,” says Sparhawk. “On the last few albums we’d come in with ideas that don’t make sense on paper, and we’d figure out with BJ a way to make it happen. We knew when it was right and we could carry on moving forward.”

It reflects a restless spirit, not just in the evolution between records, but in the multiple versions of songs themselves. “Ben Watt from Everything But the Girl once told me he thought there was no such thing as a definitive song – it’s always in flux,” reveals Sparhawk. “I really resisted that idea for a long time, but over the years things started falling apart and we became more inclined to mess with things. It’s freeing to think there’s not a definitive version.”

'Lullaby' from I Could Live In Hope (1993)

Mimi Parker: “I grew up in a family that sang and played music, but not in a public way. My mum was an aspiring country singer, so I’d thought about performing in front of people. In my mind, I imagined it and thought I’d be great. But I was introverted, and I was very nervous, sometimes I’d struggle to get in front of people. The songs on I Could Live In Hope are very sparse, very minimal – it was even more naked than most music out there. It was challenging for me at times.

“Some people would hang out and talk to us after the shows, we met a lot of friends that way. But we kind of knew it wasn’t going to appeal to everyone. Some people would walk out from our gigs, it just wasn’t their thing. I learnt early on you shouldn’t take everything personally. The music could be difficult. The songs were slow, there was a lot of space. It’s introspective, sober music and a lot of people don’t want to be introspective or sober. They’re at a bar, they probably want to hang out and listen to loud party music. We weren’t that.”

'Just Like Christmas' from Christmas (1999)

Alan Sparhawk: “We probably recorded it in summer. We’d already done a couple of Christmas songs, like the cover of 'Blue Christmas', and thought, 'OK, maybe we can do some new songs.' I wrote it one night, and asked if Mim would sing it.

MP: “We’d already recorded [Kranky debut EP] Songs For A Dead Pilot ourselves, and we thought we had enough experience in the studio, and seeing how people work, that we could do it again. That’s how the Christmas record was born.

“From the beginning it became a gift that keeps us on giving for us. It felt like the universe was telling us it was a good thing to do. It seems like every few years someone will use one of the songs in a movie, especially ‘Just Like Christmas’, or we’ll walk into a store and we’ll hear it. Once, a friend of ours was in Saudi Arabia and called us to tell us she’d heard it. Really crazy stories like that have come from that Christmas album. It’s genuine, it came from a real honest place.”

AS: “A naive place”

MP: “Yeah a naive place, and that’s what gives it its life, its longevity. We’d only been together five or six years. We were still young enough or naive enough to do something like that.”

'Will The Night' from Secret Name (1999)

AS: “We’ve done a few of versions of ‘Will The Night’, the one on Songs For A Dead Pilot was really different to this version; it had more reverb and distortion. At this stage we were just trying to write good songs, and take advantage of the opportunities we’d been given and the people we were working with. We were still just trying to write music, and hoping people would turn up to shows.

MP: “I think the live version is dearer to my heart. I can’t remember the last time I listened to the recording. It’s one of those songs, that when we play it live, I’ll hear people gasping, people are excited to hear it. I think Alan has certain types of songs he writes. I’d put this one in the Roy Orbison category, alongside ‘Cue The Strings’ [from The Great Destroyer], 'Stars Gone Out' [from Curtain Hits The Cast], 'Little Argument With Myself' [from Trust]. They’re really dramatic songs, they all slowly build into the crescendo with the vocals.”

'Sunflower' from Things We Lost In The Fire (2001)

MP: “It’s been one of our most requested songs over the years, it’s hard to know why.”

AS: “It’s because it’s nice.”

MP: “Yeah it’s a nice song, the harmonies are nice. The first line is kind of bleak, [When they found your body, giant Xs on your eyes] but basically it’s a love song. Maybe they pick up on that?”

AS: “It’s imagery of someone dying and someone being left behind to live. Eventually that second person dies, and ends up in the same place in the universe as the first person. It’s not a pessimistic song. It’s two people talking under the assumption that they’ll both live forever – I guess that’s what it is.

“We were having kids for the first time around that time. I had a naive desire to ramp up my grappling with the universe. Trying to understand what’s worth saying, the permanence of what you do and say and the impermanence of life. I think that song is pretty simple – it’s two people talking to each other who are on the same team.”

'Venus (Time Stereo Dub Mix)' from A Lifetime of Temporary Relief (2002)

Alan Sparhawk: “We did it with Warren Defever [from his Name Is Alive]. It was a song we’d already recorded [On ‘Venus/Boyfriends And Girlfriends’, a standalone single released on Sub Pop in May 1997]. We decided it’d be interesting to record it differently with Warren, because he’s really into dub. We wanted to do a different version, in that tradition. We just went to his place and did it in an afternoon.

“I listen to a lot of dub reggae. There’s a few Lee Perry records which are great, but I prefer King Tubby. Even though there’s not a lot of stuff that’s actually Tubby - just someone recording at his studio – someone using his reverb or tracks he originally recorded – it kind of gets patchy. King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, with Augustus Pablo, is the most definitive, that’s a King Tubby record. I really love Heart Of The Congos, which Lee Perry did, that’s a thick record. I love Horace Andy’s Dub Box as well.

“The idea in dub reggae of breaking things up and not holding any part too sacred, is key for us. Sometimes you only need fragments. You can abstract a song and the heart and soul is still there, you just have to trust the song. When we did this version we were pretty naive in the studio, we just let Warren run as far as he wanted.”

'Words (Misfits Style)' from A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief (2002)

AS: “It was Halloween and we had a show in LA. We thought it’d be fun to play part of our set as the Misfits. It was something we decided on the drive into town.

It was a typical indie rock crowd – they just sat there, not wanting anybody to know that they’re feeling something. It was early on, before the internet, so we were just playing bills with anybody, and people were just turning up to see what was going on. I don’t think anybody knew enough about us to know that something different was happening. I met Dez Cadena from Black Flag that night though, that was cool.

MP: “We were on the road a lot – hitting places twice a year – back then a band our size could do that. I remember putting make up on our faces, and we just ripped through those songs. I was terrified I was going to mess it up. We hadn’t done anything like that before. We’d usually stuck pretty close to the same set. It was an out of character move for me. It’s these kinds of moments that you remember though, everything else ends up blending together.”

Was hardcore important to you?

AS “Definitely. It started the scene that told me I could do something – it gave you permission to do it even if you didn’t know what you were doing and you didn’t have any money.”

'(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace' from Trust (2002)

AS: “Trust – I was probably losing my mind – I was struggling to find dynamic within the envelope we’d put ourselves into.

“I was frustrated a lot at that time, I was writing a lot of songs about dying, and people dying. I was mentally ill, and mental illness is frustrating."

MP: “There were good things too. We’d just had a baby. That’s stressful at times, working out how to tour with her, bringing nannies along to care for her. Anytime you’re touring with a child is…"

AS: “Touring amplifies the stresses.”

MP: “Yeah, but lots of people were pitching in and helping out. We had someone with us who was working as a nanny. I remember we were soundchecking for a show in Madison, we were playing ‘(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace’, and she was there with our daughter. It was a really sweet, beautiful moment. And I remember being in the studio with our daughter as well. There were a lot of wonderful moments, but also a lot of challenging things – but that’s par for the course.

“We were out touring as a family, that was amazing. The fact we were still doing it felt amazing. Ever since the first record we’d been thinking ‘can we keep doing this?’ We got to go to amazing places, we met a Pop Idol winner, it was a crazy time, but we were focused on the family and keeping everyone fed.”

'Breaker' from Drums And Guns (2007)

AS: “I put on a military uniform, I ate a cake, and I threw up. People do that everyday.”

MP: “Well, most people don’t eat a whole cake everyday. It was an idea we had, that through the video Alan would eat a whole cake. So, I got up that morning and made the cake. We knew we only had one shot, as he wasn’t going to be able to eat another cake. We had a friend who recorded it, and we got through the whole thing with the help of a lot of rice milk."

AS: “The uniforms were representative of military aggression. People in power making decisions – ‘Our bodies break and the blood just spills and spills, yet here we sit debating math’."

Sonically Drums and Guns marked a big change in direction – were you worried how people would respond?

MP “I don’t think we’ve ever feared how people would react to our music. We’d already recorded Great Destroyer with Dave Fridmann, so we knew he was someone who was willing to go all the way with our sound. Drums And Guns was our first venture into what we’d explore with BJ Burton [producer Ones & Sixes, Double Negative and Hey What]. At that point we’d made enough records that we were willing to try new things. Drums And Guns is dark at times, at least in my mind. Maybe that was the first time we decided we weren’t going to replicate the record live.

'No Comprende' from Ones & Sixes (2015)

AS “The song has that weird half time thing at the end, which we just figured out playing it live together. A couple of accidental things made their way into the final version of the track. When we did the demo, we tracked the bass and the drums at the same time in the same room. When Mimi comes in and hits the tom, with that drop, the drum is hitting a note, and the bass is hitting a note as well. It means the drum starts at one pitch, and then it’s forced to bend down to the note that the bass in the room is forcing it to – and makes that doosh sound. I remember showing the demo to BJ and saying to him ‘I want to make sure that this happens.’ And yeah, we achieved the dream.”

'Days Like These' from Hey What (2021)

MP “With [previous two albums] Ones And Sixes and Double Negative we ventured into more electronic territory. When we started Hey What we were really curious and excited about working with BJ Burton again. ‘Days Like These’ was one of the first songs we did. It kind of became obvious that the vocals were going to be up front. Once we found that, everything else could be what it was. The vocals were the cornerstone, so to speak.”

“We were being safe about recording the album, as we recorded it in 2020. Alan would go in a bit, do some stuff. Then I’d go in with him. It worked out fine, even with people having to quarantine here or there. We weren’t really under a deadline – we felt we could take our time.

AS: “Writing is always hard. It’s different now, but it’s always hard. When a nice big, obvious influence comes along like the pandemic, it doesn’t mean it’s easier. It’s just something else to figure out.”

Hey What is out this week on Sub Pop