Low - Magnet article
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Featured Artist: Low
From Magnet Magazine, Issue #56, October/November 2002

It’s no insult to credit Low with a uniquely narcotic effect, even among the lulling elite. The Duluth, Minn., group has never cottoned to dwelling in the navelcore ghetto, locked in some 4AD sub-basement by listeners who hear ambience rather than ambivalence spinning from Low’s husband-and-wife-and-oh-yeah-we-have-a-bass-player-too axis. In fact, it’s more than mere matrimony that should ensconce Low alongside arty couples-therapy groups Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. All three outfits have perfected reassuringly recognizable sounds and have earned unconditional support from pedigreed fans. All three are serial collaborators and/or reliable EP enthusiasts. And none of the three would work without its respective guitarists’ specific attacks, each leaving a thumbprint that sometimes obscures the songs. But despite the relative volume and speed of Low’s fellows, it’s that group’s Alan Sparhawk whose guitar lays a foundation for resolution rather than indulging in sobbing feedback. You could argue that he has no choice as long as he adheres to Low’s minimalist blueprint, but no one said Low is done building. Close inspection of Trust (Kranky), Low's sixth album, proves Sparhawk has knocked down a few walls and is expanding his base outward rather than adding stories. The resulting tension is that of someone trying futilely to find a favorite room in his house, someplace he can finally relax. You might fall asleep listening to Low, but you can’t be sure where you’ll wake up or whether it’ll be light out.

The night before leaving to tour Spain for the first time, Sparhawk talked to MAGNET about exorcising his guitar demons and making ends meet.

Are you bringing your daughter to Spain?
No, we’re leaving her with family.

Any wisdom in the advice Bono reportedly gave Peter Buck about hiring two nannies?
I don’t know. Was one for him? That sounds like a good idea if you can afford it, but we do just fine with one nanny. He’s a fan, a friend. It’s a lot of sitting in the van. He’s bored out of his mind. He would love to come to the shows instead of staying at the hotel.

Are you still happy in Duluth?
When we first started the band, we thought we might be more tapped into the scene based in New York or Minneapolis. Right away, we were lucky to find our mode of getting it out there everywhere, though—namely a record company that put us out. From there, it’s just touring, and Duluth is perfect. We can go for three weeks and do the East Coast, then three weeks on the West Coast, go to Florida or Texas to play in the winter in Florida. When you’re based in New York, that’s quite a journey.

It sounds like touring is still fun for you.
Well, in Europe, they put you up and pay you and arrange for your equipment and everything, so it’s nice to be able to take advantage of that. Here, it’s a matter of having fans in different places, friends in just about every town we’ve played who are good references on where to go eat. Sometimes it works out that people put you up. Somewhere toward the end of the set, you announce you need a place to stay. Every once in a while you sleep on a dorm-room floor.

Gerry Beckley of the group America seems an unlikely guest for Low.
To make a long story short, two years ago, I met Gerry. I was working backstage at a summer concert in town. People in town know I have a van and don’t have a regular job, so they asked me if I could pick up America. I thought it was the polite thing to do to also pick up a disc from the band. I gave him one of our CDs, too. He recognized the name and had heard about us. When I sent them on their way, I thought, “That’s another CD that’ll get listened to once.” He called later and said he really liked the disc. He’ll call me sometimes and ask me what’s going on in music. A year ago, I told him to go out and get the Flaming Lips record, and that’s all he could talk about for months. For a ‘70s soft-rock icon or epitome, he’s actually into new music and has a great respect for stuff. It floors me that this guy likes our songs. We’ll sit and talk about harmony and songwriting. I said we’d be recording soon, and he started hinting that he wanted to do something, so we arranged to have him sing some harmonies using the wonders of technology, sending tapes back and forth.

Where do you primarily record now?
We tracked most of the record here in Duluth. We still have a home studio, and this is kind of an expansion of it. We pooled some resources with friends in town and pieced together a full-on 24-track studio.

What led you to work with Tchad Blake this time?
I’m a big fan of his stuff and had sent him some of our music. He seemed interested but was always busy. Eventually he said he could put together some time to mix an album for us if we did all the tracking, so that made it possible. I don’t think we would have been able to afford him to sit down and work for a month, which would have been fast for what he normally does. We did the laborious part ourselves.

Did you spend more time on this album?
We’d been writing since before the last record came out. We started tracking at the end of February this year and worked two or three days a week for a month and a half.

Is your songwriting approach much different now?
I’ve learned the best things happen when I try to come up with a vocal phrase and a melody at the same time and record the two backing that up. Anytime you come up with, “Wow, that’s a cool chord sequence,” or, “Hey, that’s a nice phrase or good lyrics,” it never ends up coming together. We struggled with that for years. After a long time, I said, “Wait a minute. The only ones that are working are the ones where I stumbled across a phrase or a melody.

Do you have to resist the urge to think about it too much?
I think about writing a lot. You tend to when you’re sitting down and not thinking of anything else. You have to allow the subconscious to spill over and let something come out. I don’t think I’ve intellectually been able to consciously sit down and write something. I know people who say the best thing is to write a song every day. It takes me a year and a half to write 12 songs. These are literally all the songs I have. There are writers I look at and have no idea how they do it. Pedro The Lion—I think [David Bazan] is phenomenal. He’s so focused lyrically. He tells a story in such a poetic way. I have no idea how he can do that. On the other hand, you take someone more subconscious like Bob Dylan. He’s piecing together snippets of absurdity and giving meaning to it.

Do you end up using the fragments? Do you recycle, or are some snippets gone for good?
There’s trimming and recycling. There’s times I get a little ways with a song and hit a dead end, and I realize three months later there are three lines that would fit something else, some other lyrical concept. I don’t really feel like I’m a great storyteller, though.

What is your strong suit?
I try really hard to not say the wrong things. [Pauses] No, that’s not right. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just an arc to how I work. I’ve learned the last couple years what doesn’t work, and I’ve come to understand and respect that it’s not all about great lyrics or clever pieces of music and how you record it. Great music is everything together. If you focus too much on one side, it’s not going to work.

Any regrets?
In most cases, I can look back at our old stuff and say, “That song’s fine.” I don’t hear things I’d do differently other than maybe having sung something better. But I usually know when a song has arrived. But we also spend a lot of time editing each other.

Are you a perfectionist?
There are things I haven’t been confident about. I’m glad I didn’t have time to second guess that. When we made the Christmas record, there were times when we thought we were making a huge mistake. We figured it would just be for fans and tried not to make it a big deal or worry too much about it. But around Christmas, we still listen to it.

Have you taken any flack about licensing the recording to the Gap?
Two people got in my face about it. But you know, we had a child and not much money, and it’s not my song. If it were my song and someone were changing it or leaving out the lyrics ... Like the jeans ad with “Fortunate Son” that leaves out all the protest and just keeps the part about waving the flag.

Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone recently that a song like “Bargain,” which he licensed for a car commercial, is his and not the province of any fan. To what degree are your songs exclusively your own rather than the idea of the listener?
I’ve always been leery of that, having gone through the Gap experience. We got more of a glimpse at the logic of an artist. I’m not quite as quick to say “sell-out.” It’s still a concern, though.

People still tend to pigeonhole Low. What do you do to get away from that?
We did a show as the Misfits playing a bunch of our songs fast and distorted and loud. A lot of the people got it, and a lot just stared. Every once in a while, some slower, quieter band decides to go play all Kiss covers. I know where that temptation is coming from.

As a guitar player, do you ever feel you don’t get a chance simply to floor it and enjoy being a technician?
Yes. I play in the Black-Eyed Snakes, a local band that plays unadulterated, primitive violent, negative rock that lets me be destructive and play screaming guitar.

That sounds healthy.
It kind of is. I’ve done this band a couple of years, so now I’m a little more comfortable letting the hammer down. It’s given me some insight.

Are you a better player?
Don’t get me started about my guitar self-image. I play the thing a lot. I’ve played it every day for the last 15 years. I look at this thing, and sometimes I don’t know what is going on. There are times I’m amazed when I look at it and say, “I can’t play this thing.” I don’t think we’ve ever made a record where I thought I played well or had a guitar sound that I liked.

Did having Tchad mix you help that self-image?
The thing we hoped for and think did happen was that he heard things we didn’t and brought those things forward. He shuffled the cards a little bit.

You’ve worked more than once with Steve Albini, whom one doesn’t associate with creating textures. Did he have a lot of input with your sound?
As opinionated as Steve is, it’s your call. That’s one of the things he’s most opinionated about: whether he should be dabbling at all. Just whatever you do, don’t say to Steve, “Make this sound cool.” But we didn’t really do any overdubbing this time with Tchad, either.

-- Scott Wilson


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