Low - Grip Monthly interview 4/97
L o w
the songs
tour archive
CKM label
Articles and Interviews

Low but not down

from Grip Monthly #5, April 1997

Interview by Brian Greene

Three critically-acclaimed albums (and one EP) into a pretty amazing recording career, Low recently found out their label-- Vernon Yard-- was dropping them (along with most of their roster), in anticipation of going under altogether. But Alan Sparhawk, guitarist / vocalist for the Duluth, Minnesota-based slow-motion trio, seemed easy going and not worried at all about finding a new home for his band's stark, mesmerizing ballads when Grip spoke to him over the phone on a late February afternoon.

Grip Monthly: How did the band originally come about?

Alan Sparhawk: I don't know. Mim (Parker, vocalist and drummer) and I have been married for coming up on seven years. And I was in bands before. I had been in a band that was more alternative guy-rock, and had gotten very tired of that. I'd actually given up on the music business, period. I quit the band and decided I was just going to mess around with some stuff that I enjoyed but nobody else did. Then I met up with John (Nichols, the band's original bassist), who was just a guy I knew, and we had some similar ideas about stuff, and we started getting together. And somehow it just fell into this really quiet, slow feel, and we invited Mim to come and play drums with us. Then we just started writing these little songs, and it felt good and made sense. And by the time we'd played a couple shows, we had something that effected audiences a lot-- as in, they either really, really hated it or really liked it, which is usually a pretty good sign.

Grip: What's the songwriting process like? Do you guys write together, or work separately at first then come together later?

Sparhawk: A little of both. I guess mostly I'll come up with an idea first, then we'll kinda hammer it into shape. But there are some songs that we'll work out together as a band. Or Mim will come down to the basement and we'll write a song together, or I'll just play something on the guitar and she'll sing something-- nothing too magical, we don't meditate or anything.

Grip: You did something that surprised me on both the "Transmission" EP and the "Curtain Hits the Cast" album. So many people are doing drone-rock these days that it's quickly becoming stale. . .

Sparhawk: Sick.

Grip: Yeah. I see you guys as achieving the same kind of effect as that stuff does, but without doing it the way everyone else is doing. Then, with the hidden track on "Transmission" and "Do You Know How to Waltz" (from "Curtain. . ."), you actually did those soundscapes. . .

Sparhawk:. . . it's something I'd like to explore a little bit, but we're very conscious of not wanting to get trapped into it. I think it's valid, and it's something we enjoy, and we try to delve into it and make something that's worthwhile. The drone thing that's on the end of "Transmission" was just a little song that came together, and suddenly I was four-tracking it, and it just turned out really good. At the time, we were talking about what to put on that EP, and I wanted to put (the hidden track) on there, but it was strange, and very long-- and very non-song. So we thought if we hid it, it wouldn't have so much weight. "Do You Know How to Waltz" was kind of a risk. It got longer and longer and became this amorphous sound thing. We thought, 'Okay, what're we gonna do with this-- if it comes out wrong, it's gonna sound real stupid, like, oh, we better put this on here so we can have a really long song, like all the drone rockers.' But it felt valid to me, and I thought we could pull it off and still be Low, so we kept it. I'm really into My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 and some of the early purveyors of that stuff. But for us to take a little stab off in that direction-- I'd rather write a really good pop song than record yet another drony epic.

Grip: Can you see doing your sort of thing forever, or do you ever have passing thoughts about different ways you could go?

Sparhawk: Yeah. . . it's not so much that you see an end of the tunnel as you become aware that there is one. I don't know, we usually take it one step at a time. We'll finish a record and eventually we'll say, "should we do another one?" And it's always been, "Yeah, it feels right, let's look toward doing another one." But I do wonder if three years from now we'll still be able to do a record that's still us and yet not redundant. It's kinda dangerous to think about that, though. I see possibilities for future stuff. I don't know if that means changing the sound, or what. . .

Grip: Well, I guess the hope is that something would naturally develop in your regular process. . .

Sparhawk: Sure, the hope is that it would naturally change like that. But there's very few people who can really make a change like that and pull it off. It's usually met with a lot of resistance from fans. I mean, what do you do, put out records for the old fans who just want more of the same? If it came to that, I would rather just put an end to it.

Grip: Do you ever get a primal urge to just rock out?

Sparhawk: Yeah, Zak (Sally, the band's current bassist) and I are more inclined to do that, but Mim is totally resigned to never rock out. She'll humor us for about ten minutes and then it's over. But Zak and I have been in other bands where we've done it, and we know the merits of playing loud and hard. We have little surf songs we play, and every once in a while he and I will pull out all our little toys and make a bunch of noise. On stage, it's constantly there, you just want to explode. But this band is very much about keeping a hold of that.

Grip: And that controlled tension probably gives a lot to the power of what you do.

Sparhawk: Oh yeah, it's a big part of it. The most satisfying times on the stage are where you think you're going to explode and you don't.

Grip: So, did you know that this was coming with your label, Vernon Yard?

Sparhawk: You always kinda knew it was coming, but you figured they were associated with Caroline, and they were funded by Virgin, so maybe it'd be alright. Six months ago, we were thinking that things were fine, and we were ready to do another record sometime this spring. Then, I guess it was in early December, we got the hint that things weren't going too well. They asked us if we wanted to negotiate our contract, and they offered us a fifth of what we were supposed to make. We felt that wasn't enough for us to do what we needed to do. A smaller company could offer us that much and still do just as good by us. But I don't want to slam them. I understand their position. When you're a band like us, that's not selling a hundred thousand copies, it's hard to pay like we're selling that much.

Grip: How have Low's records been selling?

Sparhawk: We sell probably between 10 and 15 thousand copies of each record, which is not good compared to Alanis Morrisette, but it's pretty good for a band like us. We were outselling bands on Vernon Yard that they were spending literally ten times as much money on. We were actually the closest thing to a money-making band they had. But not close enough, I guess.

Grip: Do you have any other labels in mind to approach, or are there some that have approached you?

Sparhawk: Our lawyer sent out probably a dozen or two dozen CDs to some of the bigger labels. And I know we have some people who like us at the bigger companies-- it's just a matter of them asking their boss if they can pursue signing a band. But certainly we're interested in working with medium-sized companies. We've talked with Rykodisc, we've talked with Touch and Go. We're doing a single with SubPop this spring. If someone came along who was really into us and had some great ideas about what to do with us, we'd probably go for it. Money would be great, but it's really not a big issue.

Grip: What are you listening to these days?

Sparhawk: (Long sigh) Oh man, 'these days,' as in the last couple days, I pulled out one of the old Luna records, and I just bought the new Make Up album and that's pretty amazing.

Grip: What about some of your all-time faves?

Sparhawk: Oh, I'll probably never outgrow Joy Division and the Velvet Underground. My Bloody Valentine-- "Isn't Anything" is, to me, probably one of the three best records ever made. I like a lot of old stuff, like Roy Orbison and some of the Phil Spector-produced stuff. Beat Happening shook my world pretty hard. I love all that Galaxie 500 stuff. People would probably expect me to deny any connection with them, but they were pretty stinkin' amazing.

(This interview originally appeared in Grip Monthly #5, April '97)


« Back to other articles from 1997