Hope…there’s something naïve about hope which is why it works.
(Alan Sparhawk / LOW)
LOW has been pulling in hard-core fans since 1993, when Alan Sparhawk formed the band, along with his wife Mimi Parker and bassist John Nichols in Duluth, Minnesota. Formed in response to the full frontal assault of grunge, LOW has been living up to its name: they faced down hostile audiences in their early years by turning the volume of their amps down. Nine albums, two kids, four bassists and 20 years later, LOW came to Berlin to promote their upcoming JEFF TWEEDY (WILCO) produced album, “The Invisible Way.”
Despite being covered by ROBERT PLANT, opening for RADIOHEAD, and other brushes with the big-time, LOW manages to stay true to their origins and play a brand of minimal, quiet and beautiful rock that strikes you with what it doesn’t say, and with the spaces that are left by simple melodies and barely there guitar and percussion. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION sat down with these earnest Midwesterners to talk about nervous breakdowns, bizarre gifts from fans, and the fact that JEFF TWEEDY is very believable.
You are considered to be the first of a stripped down musical movement.
MP: Well, one of the first.
AS: There were a few things around that were similar but different. IDAHO, CODEINE, RED HOUSE PAINTERS.
Does the history of what you’ve done before weigh you down?
AS: We’ve been lucky to work with some pretty cool people.
MP: We’ve always been able to record the way we wanted to, we have never had a record label, making demands and pressuring us. So whatever it is, we are only to blame. [laughs]
Which brings me to your side projects, such as BLACK EYED SNAKES and the RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR. What do they do for you? Is it about getting passed what you can accomplish with a three person band, or is it an opportunity for a new sound?
AS: It wasn’t born of anything like “Oh, I’ve got to do something different.” The community we live in is pretty close, and we just kind of collaborated with people and tried things. It’s an environment where you can try different things, and if it works, you can keep going. BLACK EYED SNAKES is very primal, loud and loose. In hindsight, I see that these projects influence LOW, it was sort of going out and experimenting, and then you can come back to LOW. Lately, it’s coming from RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR, because it’s very physical and very loud, with a little more teeth to it. It has let me stay out of the way, when making records with LOW. In the past, when a song was too pretty, we would aim to change it, mess it up with some dissonance, but the last few records we have tried to stay out of the way of that.
You talk about trying to make something that is really pretty and really beautiful.
AS: I think, before, I was uncomfortable with that. That beauty was there but I felt like I always had to …not just give it away, but also add something to counterbalance it. Now I feel like with LOW, every time we make a record we don’t have to say everything we need to say.
MP: Thank God.
AS: In a way, those bands made us more free.
MP: Yeah, I definitely noticed a change. A little more intensity, a little more volume. Oh no, Alan is starting to walk on stage. Better glue him back down!
Speaking of working with JEFF TWEEDY, he acted as a producer on this record. What were some of the benefits and drawbacks of working in the WILCO studio? JEFF TWEEDY isn’t normally a producer, he’s a musician.
AS: Yeah, he is starting to produce a few things now. The best thing is that because they’ve been working in that studio for a few years, they really know how it works and how to get the sound right. Often we have gone in to record, eager to go, and we spend the first day just messing around, trying to the get the sound right. They know that studio really well. Plus he is a really good cheerleader, sort of a coach/cheerleader.
Not the first person you would think of to be like that.
MP: Well honestly, we toured with WILCO and yeah, Jeff was kind of elusive, a private person but it was so great getting into the studio with him because he is funny and he talks and tells stories, very easy to work with.
AS: Very personable. He gave us some confidence early on.
MP: He was great, he stuck around the whole time and really listened. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to listen that closely to yourself and not overthink it.
AS: It’s nice to just concentrate on playing the song, instead of worrying about how it sounds. You end up- you can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s good to have someone you trust giving you feedback and we were able to believe him. When he would say “This is good,” it was sincere.
So he’s believable?
AS: Yeah, I would describe JEFF TWEEDY as believable. [laughs]
“Plastic Cup” talks about getting high and taking a drug test. So you guys are Mormon musicians with two kids. Let’s talk about the temptations of a rock and roll lifestyle and touring. I know you’ve taken your kids on tour before. What’s that like? It’s such a rare story, a marriage that lasts, within a rock band.
MP: Well, it’s the only experience I’ve had, the band marriage. It has good and bad aspects. In one way, we aren’t missing each other, when we are tour. On the other had, we aren’t missing each other [both laugh]. We’re seeing each other all the time.
AS: It’s not as much of a debacle as you expect. I mean, indie bands, we can’t afford that shit. There’s that opportunity sure, you can drink yourself to the floor every night, but it won’t last long. Plus people don’t want to hang out with skinny nerds.
MP:I can see where people would want to escape the lifestyle though, it can be kind of grueling.
So tell me a little more about “Plastic Cup.”
AS: It’s sort of referring to the stupidity of the drug laws. Looking at one person and their life, and how silly it is. How a thousand years from now, it won’t matter. If anyone looks back at our society, and finds these artifacts, what will they represent? Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of an object being found, years and years later, and people speculating what it says about our society. When someone finds it, what will they think of it.
I read on your website about your fan generated idea of images for the video of “So Blue.” [Fans can submit images that the song inspires, they will edit them into the video]. How do you see that working?
AS: It’s still..it’s an experiment. It’s a really new thing. Our managers have sort of instigated it. Since this record, we’ve been thinking about how to collaborate with fans, because people do send us things.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve gotten from a fan?
AS: We’ve gotten hair, and someone early on sent us a Polaroid of someone passed out in their own puke.
MP: That’s right! No note.
AS: Yeah, no note, just a guy passed out in vomit. We’ve also gotten a couple borderline letters, marginal notes, things that are clearly someone’s exegesis. Sort of written by people who are on their way to the hospital or suicide. It’s pretty intense. I went through my own sort of psychosis or breakdown seven years ago so now it’s really painful to read and see, because you can see that confusion: that frantic, that scrambling, your mind going a million miles an hour. Yet there is something…in many ways it’s the most true moment of someone’s lives, sincere.
MP: It’s sincere, I’ll give you that. Whether it’s true…I mean, are hallucinations real?
What the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a band?
AS: I’m not terribly proud of the fact that we have had four bass players. It’s a complex thing, you can’t necessarily put one reason on it. It’s a tough lifestyle. I think the only reason we’ve done it so long together is because we are married, there’s a little bit of stronger “Yeah, this-is my-life type of thing.” I’m a little difficult to be with sometimes, a little erratic.
So you’ve mentioned this a few times, this breakdown. Was this a mental breakdown, a depressive episode, what specifically?
MP: It was seven or eight years ago…
AS: Yeah, it had been coming for a while. I’ve always been a little bit manic-depressive, and it sort of came to a head, because I was getting older and I wasn’t sleeping…well, that’s actually a symptom. It got pretty weird actually. We were on tour and had to cancel it.
So how do you deal with it now?
It’s kind of a slow process. It took years to get there and it’s taken years to get out of it. With therapy, with medication, being healthy. I started exercising, which really helps. Yeah, it was pretty weird and really hard for people around me when it was going on. I don’t like being crazy necessarily, it’s not as fun as it sounds. When you are in a band, you are also representative of those people in the band, so losing control of yourself is very hard on those people. Making music, it’s dangerous enough, and if you aren’t all there, it will fall apart in a second. I was lucky these guys were patient enough and loving enough not to completely abandon me.
And now how do you feel about touring?
AS: Oh it’s heaven! [laughs]
MP: We are coping with it.
AS: You get better at dealing with it, at seeing things coming. Remembering you are going to be okay.
I read that you guys don’t like the term “slowcore?” Do you guys hate that, being pigeonholed?
MP: Someone read that quote to me yesterday. At one point you must have said it?
AS: I’ve never said it. I probably cringed once when someone said it. I remember early on thinking it was kind of silly, you know “You can’t describe me in two words! You can’t hyphenate me!” There is more to us. But ultimately it’s useful. I mean, it doesn’t sound like MOTÖRHEAD.
MP: Yeah, it should not be MOTÖRHEAD. “They’re not MOTÖRHEAD.” [laughs]
AS: I remember where it came from. We were playing our first show, and I had this friend who worked at a record store in Duluth, and he said “I got it: ‘slowcore!’” and I think in the second or third interview, I mentioned it, and that’s how it started spreading around. So make a joke and it will haunt you for twenty years.
Well speaking of that…what were some of the original ideas and motivations behind the band when you guys started?
AS: I guess when we started the band we didn’t say, “Oh, we want to make that type of music.” It just seems to me, music has this power to deal with intense, emotional kinds of things. In a way, it’s the most noble thing, what music can do. Sure, it can lift you up, make you party and make you dance, but it’s also the fact that it can delve in and get to the most fragile and broken part of you. It can resonate with you through what can be the most alone, terrifying parts of your life.
What do hope and passion mean to you?
Hope is the only essence of childhood
that we carry with us.
(Mimi Parker / LOW)
AS: Hope…there’s something naïve about hope which is why it works.
MP: Hope is the only thing that can kind of keep you going, because you don’t know what’s around the corner.
AS: Hope is the beginning of faith or knowledge. It’s the moment where you are investing yourself just slightly, in a thought or an idea. Even though you don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s kind of the illogical part of it.
MP: It’s childlike, it’s the only essence of childhood that we carry with us.
Any thoughts on passion?
AS: It’s pretty close to hope, because you are letting something irrational amplify. Passion is primal, it’s your desire.
MP: I think you’re fortunate, if you have passion. I think you have to have hope if you are to have passion. It drives you to do, but can become an obsession, for sure.
AP: I like that it’s illogical sometimes. I mean, can you control your desires? Can you control your passion? You realize, you want THAT, because it does something for you. When it’s something that’s wrong, what do you do? Do you deny it’s there?
It’s hard to wrap your mind around, but I guess passion can go both ways, is not always positive.
AS: It satisfies some selfish part of you. You have to acknowledge it, because if you compartmentalize it, when you don’t recognize it and you hide it away, it mutates into something ugly or perverse.
It’s sounds like you are saying not to let things eat at you.
AS: I mean, recognize your desires, recognize that you want something because you get something out of it. Even if it’s “I’m going to be a good person,” that’s for something, recognize that, instead of pretending our desires have pure motivations. It’s selfishness, as soon as you can see that, then it doesn’t get in your way.
For your own dose of intense passion, with all desires acknowledged, check out LOW’s latest album, “The Invisible Way,” out March 19th on Sub Pop.