start by stating this: Low is not a band that I like. Low is three
people who make music so engrossing, so meaningful, so expressive
and so perfect, that "like" isn't even in the vocabulary I use to
describe them. I love Low's music; I love it more than any other
music being made today.
I've been enjoying
their music - and writing and talking about it - almost as long
as they've been making it. They hooked me with their first album,
I Could Live in Hope, which was released within a few months of
the first issue of Milk. Dark and beautiful, it served as the beginning
of something special that has culminated, six years and much music
on, in their most varied and stunning record yet, Secret Name. It's
my favorite Low record, and that's saying something.
bassist Zak Sally, only half-sarcastic.
"It's our favorite,
too, and not just because it's new," adds singer/guitarist Alan
Sparhawk. "Looking back, I think I'm pretty happy with all the records
we've done, but definitely this one I think some of my favorite
songs are on it. And it's new!"
"We felt we
were a little more prepared," chimes in angel-voiced singer/drummer
Mimi Parker. "We had all this time off waiting for this other thing
to happen that we talked about before..."
thing" was the all-too-common squandering of an artist's time on
dealing with the music business. After releasing Low's first three
albums (...Hope, Long Division, and The Curtain Hits the Cast),
Caroline Records dropped the band. A fourth album, the short-form,
home-recorded Songs for a Dead Pilot was released by Chicago-based
Kranky Records, a label known for a decidedly more spacey vibe (Labradford,
Bowery Electric, Magnog, etc) than Low generally delivers while
the band sorted out their next business move. The Man came a' knockin',
"It was just
weird," says Alan. "It was some us, some them. The fact that it
didn't happen was partially us, partially them, and partially that
a year ago it became obvious to all the majors that this stupid
indie crap doesn't make any money. So we were definitely let off
the hook there. We're much happier to be with Kranky, who treat
us well and let us do what we want, and who let us make a record
we wanted to without it being a big psycho-drama."
Zak: "I thank
the stars every day that it didn't happen. We learned that all the
myths and things that you heard from bands along the way were to
a certain extent true."
part was waiting around for a year and a half, thinking it was gonna
happen and then realizing slowly that it was not happening," continues
Mimi. "I look at it like we got hit in the head so many times that
it became obvious, like, 'OK! OK! OK! We're not gonna do it!' That's
how it got to be toward the end."
In the meantime,
Caroline released the ill-advised Low remix album, Owl Remix Low,
featuring technofied versions of Low songs bearing little resemblance
to the originals and subtracting all magic. It was a bit like turning
William Faulkner over to Dr. Seuss in an effort to appeal to "the
kids." Although they're relatively reserved on the subject, it becomes
pretty obvious that the band didn't particularly care for the treatment.
"When we were
still on the label they kinda told us the idea and we said, 'sounds
interesting.' Then we got dropped, and about six months later they
said, 'We still wanna do this remix thing.'" says Alan.
"It became pretty
clear that they had a radically different idea than we did," says
Zak. "We suggested a bunch of names of people we thought would do
interesting things with the stuff we do and it just became sort
of apparent after a while that..."
had their own idea of who they wanted on there. [We suggested] John
McEntire, Richie from Rome, Alec Empire. The guys from Soul Coughing
really wanted to do one. We wanted to do one."
Zak: "Alan actually did one that got turned down."
Mimi: "Isn't that sad?"
Alan: "Isn't that terrible? I couldn't even do a stinkin' remix
on my own expletive record. There's actually some good stuff on
there. We just weren't involved with it, and it's kind of nerve-wracking
when people think we were. More people are curious and ask us about
it than actually bought it."
Mimi: "We're just not really into that stuff. I have no opinion
on it, really, because I have nothing to base an opinion on; I don't
really know anything about it."
"It's a youth phenomenon," laughs Alan.
Zak: "As my grandfather says, 'All they care about is the beat!
The beat! So they can dance to it and shut their brains off! The
beat!'" Mimi: "Your grandpa says that?" Zak: "Well, he actually
says, 'Yang yang yang! Down the crazy river, that's all those kids
This would be
a good time to state this, in case it didn't become overtly obvious
in the last couple of paragraphs: the three people who comprise
Low aren't as dark or mysterious as some fans might like to believe.
Their music may portray a full range of emotions - instead of the
usual sunny side prevalent in "pop" music - but they're not manic-depressive,
They are, in
fact, three down-to-earth songwriters who seem like best friends.
They complete each other's sentences, respect each other's opinions,
and realize the seriousness of their craft, all without being over-serious.
To give you an idea: their running joke, before and after truly
moving live sets this March, was repeated use of the non-word "S'mints."
"Snacky mints!" proclaimed Mimi at one point. Witness also their
latest tour shirt: a powder-blue number with a menacing skull and
cross-bones and a tiny, barely noticeable "low."
me back to Secret Name, the beautiful new Low album. It's the sound
of these three nice folks from Duluth growing perfectly into their
musical skin, polishing something that was already pretty perfect.
Certainly their most varied record to date, Secret Name effortlessly
slides from mood-to-mood, demanding attention at some points, lulling
you inside at others. It's not something you'd necessarily associate
with Steve Albini, unless you'd studied Bedhead's spare, emotional
Transaction de Novo. (And you should!)
"We worked with
Steve again because we wanted our record to sound warm and punchy,"
Alan states. "He's always kept the door open for us... Every time
he'd see us he'd say, 'If you guys wanna do something one weekend,
just give me a call.' It made sense; he's really good at working
with bands that have no money. And at working with bands that have
a lot of money!"
"He had this
fancy new studio, and some nice cats in his house," says Mimi.
Zak: "He didn't
build the cats, though."
What he did
help build is the sound of Secret Name, which is something of a
departure for Low. They move gently away from the mostly guitar-bass-drums-vocals
of their prior records and stretch out with piano, strings, and
"There was no
conscious effort," says Alan. "We just had a collection of songs
that we knew we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to try and spread
out the possibilities and try not to have spreads in the record
where there are three or four songs that sound the same. It wasn't
so much to have a variety as to try and show as much as we possibly
can stretch with what we're trying to do."
"The time we
had made us think about every song that we completed in really specific
terms, like about how we wanted to present it on the record," adds
has been the opening song at recent Low concerts, and it opens Secret
Name. It's a bold way to begin both an album and a show, as it asks
for, rather than demands, attention. Mimi (rhymes, by the way, with
"Jimmy", not, umm, "Premee" - and to her bandmates she's just Mim)
begins tapping away its unchanging beat; Zak sets aside his bass
in favor of a lingering keyboard passage; Alan sings forlornly with
both guitar and voice about a time long past.
"It can be
deciphered from the title," he offers, with a reticence typical
of good lyricists. "It's about high school." The song ends exactly
as it begins - slowly and sadly. It's gone before you know it, but
not before you miss it.
track's quietude makes the next track, "Starfire," that much more
jarring, especially to the studied Low enthusiast. While by no means
fast, the song chugs along, culminating in a series of "La la las"
triumphant enough to make Low fans...stand up. Almost. The song
provides the first in a series of contrasts that help set Secret
Name apart. It's also the rare song with a definite story behind
a friend of ours from Duluth who's a paramedic, ambulance-riding
paramedic guy, but he also runs a pirate radio station, or he used
to," explains Alan of the lyrics. "He calls himself DJ Starfire.
So this song is kind of my first attempt to connect with the dance,
ummm, mixmaster crowd. I should have called it 'DJ Starfire.'"
Mimi: "I'm glad
you didn't, because I would have had a hard time living with that."
Pardon the pun,
but "2-Step" steps back into more familiar territory; a simple guitar
line accompanies Alan's voice for a while, until Mimi's voice and
drums glide in. There's a reason this one looks back on Low's earlier
"We wrote part
of that song in '94, when we were still living in that little house,"
Mimi reminds Alan. "And we just kind of put it on the backburner.
We thought about recording it for Curtain, but it never got to that
Zak: "When we
were recording it, that was the Steve referred to as the 'old school
Low' song on the record."
that was one of his favorite songs. He liked that song, or so he
said. Maybe he was lying to us."
showcases the two voices of Low intertwining best, "Weight of Water"
belongs to Mimi. Every Low record has at least one song where she
sings alone, with only the slightest accompaniment, and manages
to captivate every time. Its mournful, religious-tinged lyrics kept
the song from completion until it was perfect. Add strings to the
mix, and it's complete. "Mim shines like a diamond on that song,"
"We didn't know
what the strings were going to be like on that one until we were
there," says Alan. "We just told them what to play, and it turned
out nice. That was the last one we finally put together before we
went to record. We couldn't finish the lyrics."
Mimi: "It was
pretty ridiculous. All but three lines were done, then all but two,
Alan: "One month
it'd be like, 'I got one more line!'""Some lyrics just come like
nothing," she claims. "I prefer that. But there are some that I
labor over. There's no rhyme or reason to it."
spelled like the place but pronounced like the state (huh?).
"I don't know
if I started singing 'Missouri' or 'Misery' first," says Alan, "but
when I started singing 'Missouri,' I liked the fact that it sounded
like 'Misery.' That one was written in about five minutes about
a week before we recorded it. It's our little tribute to Bread.
It's got the guitar sound from Bread's 'If' on it, that little 'ping!'"
you going to write that?"
while not particularly miserable, leads into what is certainly the
most upsetting song on Secret Name, a mid-album dirge called "Don't
Understand." Jarringly angry, the song revolves around a weird loop
which is cut into by a pounding guitar and cymbal. Alan repeatedly
sings the title at top volume, until the song's close, when he fades
into a voice more acquiescing. All he offers about this one is that
it's "about a relative of mine."
If "Don't Understand"
is the painful dream that wakes you up, "Soon" is the lullaby to
soothe you into pleasant dreams. The acoustic guitar makes a rare
appearance; Alan and Mimi harmonize until they're overtaken by a
brooding string section and timpani.
quietly, fading slowly into nothing. And when another dirgey song
might not be a surprise after such a sweet song, out jumps "Immune,"
probably the most obvious brush with a pop song Low have ever attempted.
It's absolutely stunning. On that mythical planet where things are
fair and beauty is always appreciated, it's on every radio station.
Alan: "We struggled
with that one for a long time because it's..." Mimi: "So damn poppy!"
"We have a handful
of songs like that, and every once in a while we'll rattle them
off," Alan continues.
to the point where if we play too many of those songs, we start
feeling silly," says Mimi.
"It's just something
that was happening within the band, something we had to get used
to and actually sort of accept the fact that this is the way those
songs sounded, and we shouldn't slow them down," adds Zak. "We should
just play them how they want to be played. Which isn't fast, but
it's at a decent clip."
Alan: "We said
'naked' in it; that's why people like it. I like those kinds of
songs. I'm a big fan of sappy pop songs."
is the most stark arrangement on Secret Name, and that arrangement
proves that at the core of every Low song is just that - a great
one that we have several versions of, and since we've gone through
so many versions, we thought we'd go for the most extreme one on
the record, just piano and e-bow," says Alan. "I was actually surprised
when we got it done; it reminds me of Eno, one of his pop records."
The lyrics are
served well by the songs nakedness. "Are you a lion or a lamb? /
Are you as guilty as I am?"
"That song is
taken from Jeremiah," says Alan. "Remember that from Ghostbusters?
'We're talking real fire and brimstone here! Dogs and cats sleeping
together! End of the world stuff here!'"
either Jeremiah or Isaiah, one of the Old Testament guys. 'Lion
and lamb will lie down together."
of "Days of" probably confirms the techniques that fans may have
suspected of Low: "We were trying to play as little as possible,
to see if we could do a song where we were just barely playing and
try to capture that sound of the amp up really loud, but you're
barely touching the strings. I'm not sure how successful it was,
but it kinda does that," says Alan.
"Will the Night,"
although apparently the same song as its namesake on Songs for a
Dead Pilot, is transformed from that album's wash of noise into
Secret Name's torch-ballad. A brief, two-and-a-half minute crooner
with only a string section accompanying the voice, it wouldn't sound
out of place as the final slow-dance at a 50's prom.
us a lot to get the vocals up," says Alan. "I can go back now and
see what he was talking about, but at the time it was really hard.
The vocals were really dry and we were trying really hard to sing
this song that's in the style of like the Righteous Brothers or
Roy Orbison, and I'm telling you right now, those people can sing.
And I can't. That's a song that I really wish someone who could
sing would sing. I'd like to hear someone amazing sing it. It's
one of my favorite songs we've written, so we really wanted to get
it right. I'm pretty happy with it, but it was really nerve-wracking."
ends as perfectly as it begins, with "Home," a short and touching
companion to "I Remember." Alan jokingly sells it short: "It's just
a Zak noise and me singin' like a damn girl," he laughs.
As has always
been their plan, Alan, Mimi, and Zak aren't thinking too far into
the future, aren't planning a world domination. Touring rarely stops
for long; their home studio keeps them busy in Duluth. A Christmas
album may be released late in the year, but beyond that, Low has
no great scheme. They're content to write and record their songs
their way, with no regard for what's popular. Like all great bands,
they occupy a space that is completely their own, and they fill
it with a sound so remarkably beautiful that others are drawn in.
It's a wonderful place to be.
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