Formed back in 1993, Low are now one of the prime treasures of alt-American rock. The foundation stones of the band remain Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums and vocals), who are also a couple. With a succession of bassists – the most recent recruit being Steve Garrington – they are the epitome of slow burn, musically, as well as critically. Often referred to as a ‘slowcore’ band in the early days, their sound has developed and broadened over the years. Last year’s Double Negative album was their 12th studio album, and represented a career high for them, earning outstanding reviews, as well as being named Resident Album of the Year. Jeff Hemmings spoke with Alan Sparhawk about this success, the album, and his Mormon faith.
Hi Alan. Where are you based?
Duluth, Minnesota. We’re on the tip of Lake Superior.
It’s cold up there!
The way the oceans are, the fact we’re in the middle of a continent, yeah, it gets really cold here. The cold of Canada reaches down here.
Did you know that your Double Negative album was named album of the year by our local record store, Resident?
I’ve seen that, yeah. They are a special record store, they like to reach out. Somebody there must be a fan! It’s weird to be on these lists, after all these years. Kind of funny.
Tell me about the record
It’s a weird record. We thought when we were making this that people would hate this, or ignore it. It’s pretty weird that it was accepted. I don’t know what’s going on with this world!
How was it different this time round?
We were going to be working with the same guy, BJ Burton, who we did the previous record with, Ones and Sixes. I remember as we were finishing it, we had this feeling of, ‘wow, the way we’re working here, the sound, the intention we are developing here could go a lot further’. We could see that BJ was pretty brave, and an original mixer and engineer, and we were at this point where we were trying to present new ways to present songs, some a little more typical, and some of them a little more out there. We thought ‘let’s push these extremes’, that we only had a little sense of on Ones and Sixes.
We knew that it needed to shift, and we knew that a couple of doorways that we knew would probably be worth going into, but we didn’t know what the sound was. There was a lot of standing around, trying things, improvised stuff, getting our confidence. Sometimes it was just a noise, or a pulse, that we would tweak, and distort until it sounded interesting, and then we would set it aside, to maybe use later.
It took a while before we saw where it was going, and things started to make more sense. Initially we had some songs, which we played on guitar, bass and drums. But we knew we had to build on that with different tools, and started bringing in things that you would never have thought.
So, it was a different way of working and quite a different journey?
When we did our first record we did it in 24 hours, over two days. It was a budget thing. Next time you get four days, and then two weeks. For this record, we went in spurts. ‘We’re going to go in and work really hard for two days, come up with a bunch of stuff, see what happens’. That’s a little easier than going in for say a week, and wearing yourself out, and losing your perspective, and you start second guessing yourself. So, this time we did a couple of days at a time, and then stepped away, and looked at what we had, and came back to it in a month or two. There was a lot more time to create material. Although I was worried about that process; in general I trust my spontaneous decisions, and feel second guessing can be dangerous. ‘Oh man, can’t we just do this whole thing in two day?!’ But it would have been a different record, and wouldn’t have satisfied.
Mimi has a wonderful voice!
She has a gift for finding harmonies. Sometimes, it’s the only thread that redeems some of my songs! ‘Wow, this is a complete mess, but there’s this beautiful voice in there!’
Are there any themes that run through the record?
It’s something I think about all the time, but there’s a little bit of confusion, that moment when you are looking at reality, and things have suddenly shifted, and you’re not sure where you stand. I don’t sit down and say, ‘right, I’ll make a song about that’. You live your life, you have your hopes and fears, and when you’re writing a song, and you’re dealing with your subconscious. If you trust that, no matter how absurd some of things you come up with… sometimes it’s just a lot of little pieces. On their own they don’t seem like anything, but when you come back a couple of days later, you might say ‘this is actually something’. It’s weird how you can come up with something, and go, ‘Oh, this is nothing. I can come up with this all day’. No, write it down, it’s a great idea. It’s something you can build on. As much as I have learned the songwriting process can feel very disconnected – all these subconscious ideas, concepts and phrases – and they don’t seem to have any bearing on what’s going on, but then you’ll finish a song, look back, and see that this song is dealing with confusion, or this effort to understand something, grapple with despair.
Trump must have played a part?
I think the election, and what’s going on in America, must have had a huge effect on the process. It was on our minds, in our conversations. As a band we talk a lot. We joke about how every time we get together to rehearse for two hours, we usually only get through about three or four songs, because the rest of the time we are just talking. That’s one of the joys of being in this band, we’re all on the same political, and moral page, and we can be very open with each other about our feelings, and be very fragile with each other. It definitely came out in the music.
Why did you call it Double Negative?
It’s a play on the concept in math, two negatives equal a positive. And in words, in literature, like ‘I’m not not here. You’re here!’ I remember at the time, after the election, there was a lot of discussion about people who were angry, and negative, and lashing out, and there were people going, ‘I don’t want to stoop to that level, and be negative’. There were lots of views on how to deal with things. ‘Is it productive for me to feel inspired or to feel frustrated’? ‘Is it productive to make art that is based on frustration, and negativity’? ‘Is it productive to be negative about something that is negative’? ‘Is it righteous to swing back’? ‘How many times do you turn the other cheek’? That kind of thing. I thought it was the perfect description. What is the proper reaction.
Does your Mormon faith inform your music?
It definitely affects it. For better or worse, religion can give you the language and concepts of your view of reality. ‘What am I doing here’? ‘Was I somewhere before’? ‘Am I going somewhere afterwards’? Religion provides some possibilities, to answer those questions, to give you a foundation to work with, and grappling with things.
We are brothers and sisters, and that we came from a loving God, who wants us to figure shit out, and be nice to each other, and help each other, and learn how to control our own unique passions and weaknesses, and sometimes learn that you can’t. Sometimes the only hope is to hope, and trust there is a higher reckoning. All that stuff is deeply entwined in creativity. ‘How you are going to react to negativity and positivity’. It’s the same for any person, your concept of what is going on, even if you don’t know, is basically the foundation of anything you create, or anything you attempt to do in the world. If you got out of bed today, you must believe in something.