Low - Milk Mag feature 4/99
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I'll 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.

"Yay!" says 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..."

"That other 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', of course.

"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."

"The worst 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..."

Alan: "They 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 listen to!'"

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, trenchcoat-sporting Goths.

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."

Which brings 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 more.

"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 Zak.

"I Remember" 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.

The opening 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 it.

"It's about 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 albums.

"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 point."

Zak: "When we were recording it, that was the Steve referred to as the 'old school Low' song on the record."

Mimi: "And that was one of his favorite songs. He liked that song, or so he said. Maybe he was lying to us."

If "2-Step" 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," says Zak.

"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, then one!"

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."

"Missouri" is 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!'"

Zak: "How're you going to write that?"

"Missouri," 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.

"Soon" ends 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.

"It's gotten 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."

"Lion/Lamb" 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 song.

"That's another 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!'"

Zak: "That's from Jeremiah?"

Alan: "It's either Jeremiah or Isaiah, one of the Old Testament guys. 'Lion and lamb will lie down together."

The recording 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.

"Steve pushed 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."

Secret Name 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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