Duluth's most celebrated band masters the minimal
From Star Tribune, Sunday, February 4, 2001
Simon Peter Groebner
When the members of Low recorded a little eight-song Christmas album in their basement, they sold a few thousand copies through the mail. They never expected that it would be heard by tens of millions of people.
|Low is Mimi Parker, Al Sparhawk and Zak Sally, from left. |
Yes, that was Low's snowy, dreamy rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" featured in a holiday TV ad for the Gap, with the usual lot of beautiful models frolicking slo-mo in a snow-globe wonderland to the atmospheric sounds of an underground band from Duluth. Low's leader, Alan Sparhawk, still regards the commercial with a mix of awe and amusement.
"You see visions in your head of people that you knew growing up -- somebody who watches way too much TV sitting in Pierre, South Dakota, having a Diet Pepsi and a Twinkie -- hearing us and our messed-up, distorted, out-of-tune, too-much-reverb song careening out of their 27-inch TVs. That to me is perversely delightful," he said. "It kind of gets back to when we started the band -- the idea of, 'Wow, what would it be like to play this stuff in front of people? It's gonna really make them uncomfortable.'"
Taking the maxim "less is more" to heart, Low has made a career out of provoking pop-music audiences. First-time listeners usually find themselves either transfixed or disoriented by Low's low-volume, slow-tempo, sparse instrumentation and vivid, personal lyricism.
It's a formula that has made the trio -- guitarist/vocalist Sparhawk; his wife, drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker, and bassist Zak Sally -- Duluth's most significant musical export since little Bobby Zimmerman himself.
For that reason, music critics are frequently tempted to portray Low in mythological terms. The cliche usually goes something like this: Low's cold, remote, glacially paced music is the perfect soundtrack for life in the cold, remote, glacially paced city on icy Lake Superior.
"I think there's something to it, perhaps," Sparhawk tentatively offered. "I guess I like the idea that the myth exists more than I like the idea."
A January weekend spent driving around Duluth with Low's new album, "Things We Lost in the Fire," in the car stereo settles the matter. As you make the breathtaking Friday-night descent on northbound Interstate Hwy. 35 into the light-speckled city below, the orchestral choir-of-angels climax of the song "July" seems to choreograph the slide. On Saturday, the crawling grind of "Dinosaur Act" echoes the hulking industrial ruins on the city's west side. And on Sunday morning, as freezing drizzle bears down on the world's largest freshwater body, the wide-open space of the foreboding "Whitetail" seems to emanate from the frigid, ferocious, endless lake.
Maybe it's a conclusion that could only be reached by a tourist. But make no mistake: Low is inarguably a product of Duluth. And Duluth is inextricably connected to the music of Low.
(Warning: Exercise caution when driving to Low. The music tends to make the world slow down, even when you're speeding.)
Baby on board
On the wooded ridge above Duluth lies Sparhawk's and Parker's home, where Low practices, sometimes records and conducts band business. On this recent Saturday, the trio has much to be upbeat about. The Gap ad has ensured financial stability for a few months. "Things We Lost in the Fire," their fifth full-length studio effort, is drawing advance acclaim, and the band is about to embark on its umpteenth world tour to promote it.
Best of all, a new face will be along for the ride: Hollis Mae, a charming and unusually good-natured baby girl born to Parker and Sparhawk in March.
It turns out that the members of Low are not nearly as dark and mysterious as their music sounds. On the contrary, they're even a bit zany. Today, Parker and Sally are giving Sparhawk a ribbing for "forcing" the band out on epic road tours that swallow three to four months of every year.
"We've done interviews where these very fragile boys come in and expect us to be quiet and soft, and they're stupefied by how normal we are," Sparhawk said.
Perhaps the only thing that makes Low atypical among their musical peers is that Sparhawk and Parker are devout Mormons who abstain from drinking and smoking, and from performing on Sundays. One might argue that this makes indie-rock a strange career choice, but Sparhawk doesn't.
|Ten-month-old Hollis Mae is surrounded by parents Alan Sparhawk, left, and Mimi Parker, and bassist Zak Sally. |
"We're kind of oddballs at church," he admitted. "We don't get looked down upon at all, but you gotta realize, this is the religion that spawned Donny and Marie [Osmond]. I don't think most Christians understand what we're doing, but there's a few that do, and it's nice when you are aware of those."
When the baby wakes from her midday nap, Sparhawk and Parker strap her into the van for a jaunt downtown to Superior Sound, a cavernous studio and practice space. Here, local band Father Hennepin is recording a cover of a song called "I Like It in Duluth," by the Moose Wallow Ramblers, a local country-folk band from the '70s.
Father Hennepin's Scott Lunt, largely considered the spark plug of Duluth's burgeoning music scene -- he was immortalized in Low's song "Starfire," about his now-defunct pirate radio station -- remembers regarding Low with a sense of "hero worship" at first. Now, Lunt will be touring with Low as Hollis' nanny.
"Alan is just as responsible as anybody for that nurturing feeling that's up here," he said. "On the other hand, because [the trio] are not scenesters, I think there's people who feel like they're not here sometimes."
Lunt deflects the notion that Low is "the sound" of Duluth.
"It just seems like such an easy thing to say, and I don't know if it's true," he said. "I wonder if it's more of a reflection of where they grew up."
Fair enough. Sparhawk, 32, and Parker, 33, grew up far from Duluth on farms near tiny, impoverished Clearbrook -- population 560 -- in northwestern Minnesota. Sparhawk's family arrived from Utah when he was 9; Parker was a native who got her musical education from a mother who dreamed of being a country singer.
The couple enrolled at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and soon married. Sparhawk kicked around in a variety of bands but eventually burned out on conventional rock. Quitting the band scene, he began playing casually with teenage friend John Nichols on bass, mapping out the spartan territory that would become Low.
"Looking at each other and chuckling at how little was going on, we thought: 'Well, I guess now we have to have a band,'" said Sparhawk, laughing. "And we have to write some songs. And I suppose we'll ask Mim if she wants to play drums."
"I think you went out and found a drum and a cymbal," Parker recalled.
"I thought, 'This'll be perfect,'" Sparhawk said. "Anything more would be too much. So I brought the drum and the cymbal and I said, 'Mim, here you go. You can be in the band.'"
On the strength of its first demo, Low landed a contract with the quasi-major label Vernon Yard. Released amid a boom time for new bands, Low's 1994 debut, "I Could Live in Hope," took the indie-rock nation and college radio by storm with its strikingly epic and low-friction approach to pop.
Nichols soon left the group, so Low called on Sally, 29 -- a Duluth native then living in California -- to return to Minnesota to take over on bass. Over the next few years, with the subsequent albums "Long Division" and "The Curtain Hits the Cast," Low toured incessantly, packing clubs from the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis to New York's legendary Knitting Factory. By 1996, the group was perhaps the most revered band from Minnesota on the national indie-rock circuit.
Low parted ways with Vernon Yard in 1997, but the group's watershed 1998 independent release, "Secret Name," and the new "Things We Lost" -- both recorded in Chicago with legendary post-punk producer Steve Albini -- find Low at a new level of maturity. The lyrics are increasingly straightforward, and the song structures have been buttressed with keyboard and string arrangements, suggesting experimentation with chamber music.
"We just wanted to explore," Sally said, "and we've had the growing confidence to not back off of something just because we're 'minimal.'"
Quiet as 'punk'
Two weeks later, Low is deep in the heart of northern Texas, on the eighth and final night of the southern leg of its tour. Tonight's venue is Rubber Gloves, a big brick shack by the railroad tracks in the small, dark town of Denton, about 1,100 miles south of Duluth on I-35.
The site feels remote, but at least 200 people have come out of the woodwork to see Low. For the first song -- a riveting new one called "John Prine" -- something improbable happens: The bar crowd falls dead silent. You can practically hear the cold wind outside during the song's soft a cappella sequence.
The club is choked with cigarette smoke. Parker stands still behind her two drums and one cymbal. Sally plays with his back to the room, his heavy brow accentuating a look of worry. Sparhawk engages the crowd with off-kilter humor: "All right, we're gonna do one more loud one and then we'll get back to business," he deadpans. Actually, Low does seem to play more loudly than in the past. But as always, the trio eases through its songs with patient self-control.
Audiences weren't always this accommodating. Early Low gigs were marked by a contrast between the almost inaudible introspection onstage and the cacophony of the smoky, stuffy bars. The noise level often resulted in vocal conflict between the front-row faithful and the barfly set. Perversely, that battle became part of the art.
"I guess I didn't like it much," Sparhawk said, "but I was reasoning with myself that this was a real punk thing to do, to go in there and stick this stuff in people's faces that was contrary to what they came here for."
"It was kind of comical at times," Parker said. "And it did unite us as a band."
"And it unites us with the fans that are listening," Sparhawk said.
Now that Low has graduated to mid-sized venues and more attentive crowds, a new challenge has surfaced: parenthood. Just 10 months old, Hollis is already on her second Low tour. And she's begun to change everything about how the band works -- especially on the road.
"There's a balance between what needs to be gotten out of the band and what needs to be done for the baby," Sparhawk said. "And basically the day is spent trying to figure out how to make the two coexist."
"We were all really wary," Sally said. "But thankfully, Hollis turned out to be a really happy, sweet little baby. She does OK on tour. But when she doesn't want to sit in the car seat all day, it's gonna be really hard."
"Which is not too far away," Parker points out.
The first Low album made under the influence of childbirth, "Things We Lost in the Fire" might also be Low's most nakedly intimate record. On songs such as "Closer" and "Medicine Magazines," Sparhawk's and Parker's vocal harmonies achieve a closeness that might only be possible between long-married people. And at least two songs are specifically for Hollis: "In Metal" and "Embrace" are strange, private lullabies from mother to daughter.
The Hollis Factor goes beyond that. "The process of waiting for the baby to come kind of brought me back to childhood," Sparhawk said, scooping spoonfuls of yogurt into Hollis' mouth. "[The song] 'Dinosaur Act' would basically be a picture of growing up."
Hollis let out a loud squeal. "Nothin' 'bout you, though!" the doting father responded teasingly. "Nope!
"Surprisingly enough, there's a lot of death on the record, too," he added. "There's a lot of bodies, a lot of death, a lot of people being buried, and resurrection. Someday, you'll sit by the side of someone who's having a baby and you'll realize how close the two things are -- birth and death."
The spiritual dimension
Those cycles of birth and death, and intimacy and loss, found on "Things We Lost in the Fire" underline a final important fact about Low: More so than most modern American underground rock -- if "rock" is even the right word for Low -- the band's music could be described as spiritual.
It goes deeper than the frequent hymnlike solemnity, or the subtle scriptural images in the lyrics, or the visceral exploration of morality in such tunes as "Violence," "Lust" and "Don't Understand." Instead, Low songs touch on those universalities that affect even the non-religious: questions of personal identity, personal direction, the search for meaning.
But although the band is two-thirds Mormon (Sally is not religious), Low refuses to wear the "Christian band" label.
"We're not out there going, 'We're a band that's out to sing Christian things to Christian people, and blah blah blah,'" Sparhawk said. "No. We're people who make music and have strong beliefs that happen to be Christian, and those beliefs find their way into our music."
So Sparhawk and Parker stick to the secular world of indie-rock -- which is far from incompatible. Indeed, the grueling lifestyle of a small band on the road often seems like it could only be motivated by a higher power.
But Sparhawk insists that the purpose of his music is not to preach.
"I don't for a moment feel like we have the answers and we need to give 'em to people," he said. "It's more like, here's some crap I'm struggling with, there's some others of you who are struggling with the same things. And maybe we can help each other out here a bit."
In Duluth: 7 p.m. Wed., Sacred Heart Music Center, 201 W. 4th St. $6. 218-723-1895.
In Minneapolis: 8 p.m. Thu. with openers Pedro the Lion, Woman's Club of Minneapolis, 410 Oak Grove St. $12.50. 651-989-5151.
E-mail Simon Peter Groebner at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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