Low - BurningInk interview 11/99
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Chatting Low

from BurningInk.Com, November-December 1999.
by Stephen Dohnberg

Duluth, Minnesota's Low have been hypnotizing a growing number of converts for almost eight years.  Married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, along with Zak Sally, have been crafting their inadvertent and accidental musical essentialism [more on this below] with growing success after some hard world-wide touring, meticulous production choices, and dazzling albums. 

From the humble openings I witnessed almost seven years ago in a damp Vancouver bar attended by two dozen of the adventuresome and curious, to the electric atmosphere of their most recent sold-out Toronto landing, they have brought minimalism to new heights. 

"I guess we had our concept or vision right away in that we wanted to see how quiet and sparse we could get.  Then fairly early on we saw the value of a good song, so we've been trying to put those two concepts together ever since."

That is an understatement.  

Stephen: "Low"?  

Alan: "The name seemed the simplest description of what we were doing."

This "...definite desire to do something different from what was going on at the time..." led to work with Kramer, whose pioneering work with his own band Bongwater, intensely esoteric label Shimmy Disc, and majestic style of production heard via the likes of Galaxie 500 make him a fringe dwelling Merlin easily recognizable by the indie intelligentsia. Considering the sonic capabilities of Low, this partnership seemed natural.

"We were fans of Galaxie, so we figured Kramer would at least listen to our tape."

Hearing 1993's "I Could Live In Hope", one heard the shimmering tones evocative of early Cure.  If it stopped there, so would have most other people.  Other things were apparent, like the weight of each note in each song.  Sound literally surpasses structure, but there is definitely no tendency toward formulation. 

After seven years and five albums, there still exists a common thread to the music.

"...I'd like to think we've become better songwriters. I think we are always getting more minimal or focused, while also trying new things such as strings or keyboards." 

The symbolic and spiritual nature of the lyrics charts depths, but the band are quick to deflect pretension laid on by rabid fans.  

"There's no magic to our writing...the songs...get finished at least, as a band." 

There is even a hint that songs are providential gifts...a sentiment I'm ready to accept.  Pressing them for views on the state of the current music scene, I paraphrased Jon Spencer's reflection that no scene exists at all since the grunge aftermath. 

Alan countered with some very definite thoughts... not necessarily conceding that no scene was apparent...

"That's what's nice about how things are now:  there's the big stuff [Backstreet Boys, Kid Rock etc.] and a very obvious line separating them from bands like us...nobody's there because they heard about that 'alternative' music scene and since they liked 'that  Nirvana song', figured they'd check it out."

Stephen:  Do listeners seem to be getting more sophisticated?  [I just HAD to ask]

Alan:  "It seems there has always been a small group of people who are willing to search out music that is off the beaten path. Even in the early 90's when it appeared it had all gone mainstream."

A relief.  I have a tendency for believing that the major labels have shifted toward their newest sound trend.  Hopefully bands like Low, Labradford and US Maple, have inadvertently redrawn the line between corporate and independent. Others may share this. A quick peek on the net and literally dozens of Low related sites offer tapes, reviews, and videos.  With Deadhead-like attention to detail, the fans seem to be broad in scope, sharing only a fiery enthusiasm for the band. 

"We do have some very devoted fans. it's flattering, but I think most people who come to see us just enjoy listening on cloudy Sunday mornings or to relax before bed."

But this only makes me curious about Low's European fan base. Alan describes it as

"...a bit more volatile...Europeans treat pop music more on the level of other forms of art.  Often you get paid better and you get taken more seriously as opposed to America where rock 'n' roll is viewed as a kitschy thing the kids do."

Low as "kitsch"?  Maybe.  The only inconsistency in their discography was the "Owl" remix album that found those sitting on the electronic fence playing with some early Low masterpieces.  A move some journalists likened to "turning over William Faulkner to Dr. Seuss".  Which is not meant to lead one to the conclusion that Low are dour, nor that the comparison to Dr. Seuss is entirely inaccurate.  It was just a bad idea on the part of Vernon Yard, their previous label before finding their new home on Kranky Records.

For those of you who missed Low's recent travels, their may be a wait.  Alan and Mimi expect the birth of their child in March, while Zak continues to work on his art illustration. They do plan a few "small" tours before the new year, along with a record slated for early December.  

Although, "...after 7 years of often hard and not-so-good touring", the band may at least take a deserved break.

Will the follow up to the head-turning Secret Name LP offer much in the way of experimentation [violins, voice, keys], choice of producer, or musical direction?  Will they continue to use producers who bring out the unique plane their music exists on [Kramer, Fisk, Albini]?  Will being parents add a new dimension to the band's approach to sounds and themes?  

As Alan muses: 

"Anything is possible at this point."...

I'd like to continue to find that this is the essence of Low-that anything is possible, and it's worth the effort to find out how :"anything possible" sounds.  Sounds like Low.

Stephen Dohnberg heads up music at BurningInk.Com.  Contact Stephen at stephen@burningink.com


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