Low - Dead Angel interview 03/01
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Blabbing with Low
From Dead Angel issue 45, March 2001

Low, from their very beginning as a trio in Duluth, Minnesota in 1993, have always been a misunderstood band. Eternally and erronously tagged as "slowcore" simply because most of their songs work better at low velocity, most people (particularly reviewers) have fixated on their speed to the exclusion of all else, missing the band's real point: their concerns lie more with sound, tone, and minimalist song construction. The slowness is merely a byproduct of their vision, not the reason for their existence. (My own band Autodidact plays at speeds similar to Low, and i can assure you that Autodidact and Low have about as much in common as i have with Barney the Dinosaur, although both bands are heavily enamored of Joy Division and Swans. I dunno what Barney thinks of Joy Division and Swans.) Nevertheless, Low have soldiered on in the face of misunderstandings about their art, creating a solid body of work that has currently reached its apex in the form of the amazing new album THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE.

I was aware of Low's existence as early as their first album, but it wasn't until i heard their stunning cover of Joy Division's "Transmission" (one of the few instances i can think of in a which a band not only did a good job of covering Joy Division, but maybe even exceeded the impact of the original song) that i became compelled to start seeking out their work. They have slowly refined their sound over the years to the point where their execution on the new album is both commanding and compelling, and it was with great pleasure that i was recently able to discuss the band and its vision with guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk. (It was also nice to find out, as i did when i met the band briefly during their in-store appearance at 33 Degrees, that they are genuinely nice people.) Read on for more details....


DA: I find it interesting to see you taking Hollis on the road with you -- it makes perfect sense to me, because Low has always struck me as more of a family than a band. Do you find it helpful to have the whole family along on tour?

AS: It is challenging, but I would rather us be together than apart.

DA: Has having a child along been a problem in any of the places you've played? (I'm just imagining some tough-guy club owner with a cigar going "HEY! Dat's a BABY! You can't bring a baby in here!")

AS: Most of the time it is no problem. She is usually back at the hotel sleeping by the time we play back at the venue. Lately we've been able to play some nicer places. We're not so fond of having her in smoky bars for any amount of time.

DA: Has having Hollis along influenced your choices of venues to play?

AS: Yes, but then we've always tried to play nicer places just because of the nature of the music. But sometimes beggars can't be choosers.

DA: Seeing as how Hollis has a front-row sea when Low performs, what's her reaction to the music?

AS: As I said, for shows at night, she is back at the hotel sleeping, but she does get to see soundchecks and occasional in-store, daytime performances. It's probably nothing new to her because she sees us play and sing at home all the time. She is usually more interested in all the people around [her], like at the in-store you saw.

DA: What inspired you to start Low in the first place? What kind of musical goal did you have in mind?

AS: We were trying to do something different from most of what you hear. I had been in loud bands before and just felt like there were already too many people doing it better than I ever could, so I decided to quit and try something that was closer to my heart. I knew that with Mimi and our first bass player, John, we would do something more interesting, challenging, and satisfying. We thought most people would hate it, but that only made it more tempting to do.

DA: I loved seeing Zak's amazing bass with the aluminum neck -- it looks cool and sounds great. Where did he find that thing?

AS: In Cincinnati. It's a Travis Bean. It's really great -- the perfect bass for Zak.

DA: Actually, I noticed too that all of your instrument choices are a little bit different than the average "rock" band. Is that intentional, or did it just sort of evolve out of something?

AS: It's just what we have developed and tried over the years. I usually play a Fender Telecaster, which is a very common guitar, but the 12-string is fun for different sounds. Over time you just find odd things to use.

DA: I get the distinct impression that a lot of the time what you aren't playing is just as important as what's there. Do you agree with the idea that a lot of Low's power is rooted in implication rather than the obvious?

AS: We have to use implied texture and sounds to get the most out of just the three of us. Sometimes just a sketch of a song speaks more deeply to a person because you leave room for them to fill in the spaces. I've always loved minimalism -- visual and sonic.

DA: How much do you rehearse before playing material live? It sounds very disciplined to me; I can't imagine it being off-the-cuff in any sense....

AS: We actually don't rehearse as much as we should. We spend a lot of time on a song when we're writing it and preparing to record it, but once it's recorded, we only need to play it live every once in a while to keep up. We usually only rehearse for a couple of days before leaving on a bunch of touring. We are very precise in how we play a song, but sometimes that is more from the general way we play, not from endless rehearsal. Sometimes I wish we could be more loose like bands like The Dirty Three, but it is very difficult.

DA: Is gospel music an influence on Low? The vocals particularly sometimes remind me of church music.

AS: Mimi and I are religious people (Mormon) and I think that hymns are perhaps an influence. I think any time you slow things down and have particular harmonies, it evokes a spiritual tone. I think we strive to have a certain spiritual feel in our music without being direct about it in the lyrics.

DA: How did Bob Weston, nominally a bass player, end up playing trumpet on the new album, anyway?

AS: He plays trumpet. We asked Albini if he knew any trumpet players that could come and play on the song and he called Bob.

DA: (A question mainly for Zak) Speaking of Bob, have you heard the new Shellac album? I think his bass playing on that is amazing....

AS: I think I can speak for Zak in saying that we agree that Bob is a great bass player. We like Shellac a lot.

DA: All of your albums have taken slightly different directions while still retaining a certain core sound -- how does the new one compare to previous ones?

AS: Hard to say at this point. I think for this record we allowed our pop lust to run wild, while on past records we were more inclined to hold it down. Before we would make the songs fit into Low, this time we made Low fit into the songs... if that makes any sense. It was probably the most confusing record to make.

DA: Now that you've worked with Steve Albini on several albums, does the increasing familiarity of working together make it easier to reach what you're aiming for in the studio?

AS: The main reason we went back to him is because we knew what to expect and we knew he spoke the same language. Because we were approaching things in a new way, we thought it would be best to have some familiarity amongst the confusion.

DA: How much difference (if any) do you see between the reception you get here and overseas while touring?

AS: It is mostly the same, though in Europe, music is viewed more as an art form, not just something that kids do for fun in dirty bars. There's a slight bit more intellectual respect, I guess. Still, it seems that US audiences have more fun, perhaps because it's not so serious. As for the size of the audience, it's about the same.

DA: Who would you tour with if you could pick any band you wanted? (past or present)

AS: Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey.

DA: What bands do you like that you think are succeeding on their own terms right now?

AS: It's nice to see Godspeed You Black Emperor! doing well because they are good and they have worked very hard to get to where they are now. Seeing Elliot Smith get tons of money to go record at Abbey Road is great. He deserves to have every resource at hand. Most of the bands we know are struggling hard to make it work, so I'm not sure who else. They are doing what they want, so I guess that's success, but at the end of the day you can't pay the bills.


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