An Interview with Low
Duluth, Minnesota trio Low, formed in 1994, started out as pioneers of the 1990s "slowcore" movement but have, over the course of numerous full-lengths, eps, and collaborations, come to completely transcend that tag. The trio – comprised of Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Zak Sally – have received wide critical acclaim for their chilling harmonies, slowly unfolding tempos, and nuanced attention to sound; their essentialist approach to music defies minimalist categorizations. Low's new record, Trust (Kranky), recorded by the band in a church in Duluth and mixed by famed engineer Tchad Blake, is perhaps their most diverse and rewarding listen yet, a thirteen-song collection that swings between fuzzed-out rockers and lengthy, textured compositions with consummate skill. Dusted's Nathan Hogan and Emily Wanderer caught up for a chat with the band before their show at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts. Low's tour continues through late November.
Emily Wanderer: How is the tour going so far?
Alan Sparhawk: Good. We're one week into it and we're still trying to figure out how to play some of the songs, but for the most part it's going alright.
Nathan Hogan: We recently spoke to a friend from Duluth who saw your opening night show, and he said it was played at the Sacred Heart church where you recorded the new record. Do you perform there often, and is it regularly used for shows?
AS: We've played there two other times, I guess, over the last four or five years.
Zak Sally: It's a great place to play as far as Duluth clubs go. It's the place probably most suitable for us, the place "least rocking". It's this beautiful church that we get to play in, so it's pretty great.
AS: It's very, very spacious and ambient so it's not ideal for certain types of music – anything that has any volume starts getting lost in there – but it's kind of a nice challenge.
EW: What's the Duluth music scene like in general? I know you're involved with local bands through your Chairkickers label.
AS: The Duluth scene's pretty good for a town of only about 100,000 people. There are a lot of bands and a few places to play and some people who run weekly arts papers who are pretty in touch with what's going on. There are so many factors that go into making a music scene or an arts scene work, and Duluth seems to have all of the parts and enough people who care enough to go out and see bands. It's nice because the town's isolated just enough so that people aren't jaded about the number of shows that come through, and everybody just kind of shows up for whoever's playing on a given night. For a small town I think it's very good. I don't think it will be the next Olympia or anything, but it's good.
NH: Let's talk a bit about the new record. What are you excited about in terms of the progression you've made since Things We Lost in the Fire?
AS: We're excited about being even more out of touch with what's cool.
ZS: Yeah, I'm excited about that. It doesn't make other people more excited, but in terms of you asking how the tour is going, it's kind of strange how excited we are about playing these new songs. We definitely feel like the record is some kind of progression.
NH: How long ago was it recorded, exactly?
AS: The early part of the year. We started at the end of February and worked on and off for four or five weeks.
NH: How many of these songs are new to you? I remember reading somewhere that some of them you had been playing awhile and others you worked out in the recording process.
AS: Yeah, it's exactly that. It kind of spans over a whole year and a half, I mean a couple of songs we had when we made Things We Lost in the Fire but they were just so new and we weren't quite sure if they were there yet. Which is a good thing, because later on, through playing them live for awhile, they ended up being the songs that are the most confident and straight-forward songs on the record. But, in general, we write from time to time and it all sort of happens as it goes, and luckily there's enough for a record when it comes time to put it together.
NH: Do you ever consider revisiting old material after playing it live for so long, and revamping it or renewing it?
ZS: We think about thinking about it. It's a really difficult thing, though, because what are you going to do? Are you going to go back and completely rethink a song in the same context as what you're doing right now and try messing with it? I mean, it's valid, but it somehow seems more valid to just make new stuff. We're not Wire, but that was great how they'd go out and make a new record and before anybody had heard it, they'd play the new stuff. People would ask, "why don't you play the stuff that we know," and they'd say, "why would we play that? We recorded it, and you can listen to it all day on your stereo." But I would like to state for the record that we aren't Wire.
EW: Besides for Wire, what other bands are you listening to these days?
AS: Oh, I don't know, nothing very new. Which is nothing against anybody who is doing new stuff. I'm sure they're all nice people. Let's see, what did we get excited about buying recently, Prince's Greatest Hits, An Iggy Pop record…
Mimi Parker: You all liked that Pedro the Lion record, right?
AS: Yeah, that one that came out six months ago, or so.
ZS: That's a fantastic record.
AS: And the rest are, I'm sure, nice people.
MP: You're being bad.
AS: I'm in a terrible mood right now. It's because I was looking at music magazines.
ZS: That's the kiss of death. (In Rock Star Voice) "Aw man, so last night I was up and you should have seen the drugs I was doing. It was insane. And this girl came knocking on the door so I jumped out the window, so I was six flights up, it was so crazy, but anyway, what were we talking about?"
MP: What was that from, who said that?
ZS: That's what's going to get people excited about us because we're not normal people who just go out and make music. We "do exciting stuff".
AS: We're really, really irresponsible.
EW: So, are you guys tired of just being referred to as a "slow, quiet" band because it's so reductive? On this record you even rock out!
AS: I don't know, it's fine.
MP: Oh, it's old, you know?
ZS: Yeah. It is just reductive but I guess it kind of still describes what we do so I don't think it's insulting.
NH: Can you talk a bit about the change of producers between Steve Albini and Tchad Blake?
AS: We worked with Steve Albini for a couple of records and it went really well. We liked working with him, but we thought after doing a couple of records we should move on. It wasn't as much about not wanting to work with him as it was knowing we needed to stir the tanks a little bit, to kind of help ourselves think differently. We know what we have to do to put ourselves in a different mode to write and to work in and we thought we'd try tracking more or less on our own, and closer to home this time. It turned out, last minute we were able to work out mixing with Tchad Blake who has a completely different approach to mixing than Steve. Well, not completely, but kind of a different approach. So that was kind of exciting. I guess it's kind of nice that we're confident enough in our music that we're comfortable with moving from place to place and person to person. We're confident that whatever turns out, even if it's different from one person to another, is still something we can work with.
NH: So Blake was involved with the mixing, but did you record it yourselves?
AS: We recorded it more or less ourselves. We had Tom Herbers who's worked with us a lot over the years engineer it, but in essence we were sort of left on our own and to motivate ourselves to get things done.
EW: I really liked your collaboration with the Dirty Three for Konkurrent's In The Fishtank series. Can you talk a bit about how that came together?
ZS: Oh, thanks a lot. They're one of the bands that we really like.
AS: That was a really fun record. That's a really good example of putting yourself in a different experience in an effort to come up with something different. Creatively that was just great. We fell into making music right away, as soon as they got there, and it was really, really fun.
ZS: It was surprising on a lot of levels because they are so purposefully loose and we're so particular. Even though they were friends of ours and we felt there were common elements in the music, we realized we only had a day and a half and we were worried whether it was actually going to work.
NH: What ideas did you have going in? Did you enter knowing, for instance, that you wanted to cover "Down By The River"?
ZS: We had that idea, yeah. They had a couple of ideas and we had a couple of ideas, Alan had some guitar figures. Everybody just kind of sat down and ate some bread and when the bread was gone....
MP: It just kind of fell together.
NH: Is that something you would do again? Maybe not there and in that context, but a quick collaboration of that sort?
ZS: I guess. I mean it would have to be like what I just said about the Dirty Three. It would have to be someone that we knew right away, or we would have to have some idea that there were enough common elements for it to work, otherwise… well, we wouldn't go in with Helmet.
(At this point Mimi pulls a World Weekly News with a picture of the world's fattest cat out of her purse for all to see, officially concluding the interview)
LINKS OF INTEREST
Kranky Records: brainwashed.com/kranky
Low's Official Site (includes choice links): Chairkickers.com
By Nathan Hogan