Monday, November 16, 2009


Tuesday, December 18, 2007 

Sitting in his garage by a small heater with 14 inches of snow outside, Alan Sparhawk is a man keen to arrive in Australia. "I wish I wasn't so white right now." he laughs. "I'm really excited about going to the beach but I know my skin type, I'll burn in 20 minutes and then I won't be able to go out in the sun again. I've been jogging for the last couple of years and I'm excited by the challenge of running trails in the heat there."
Sparhawk, singer and guitarist with minimalist indie-rock group Low - including his wife Mimi Parker and bassist Matt Livingston - has fond memories of their last show in 2006. Back in town to showcase two different albums over two consecutive nights, Sparhawk elaborates on performing shows. "Different cultures respond differently, you can't count on claps or cheers or requests. For a band like us if we're playing and there is a moment in a song which is still or quiet and you know that there are three or four hundred people there, and can hear the music still getting to the back of the room, bouncing off people's ears - that's the clearest indicator. It's only every third or fourth gig where these moments happen; you can't expect silence in all of the places we play." Surely there can't be too many other bands that measure gig success by an absence of response? But then Low have always gone their own way. Starting out as a joke band based on seeing how quiet the members could play, they soon became a welcome respite from a grunge-weary college scene, and by the time their fifth album Things We Lost in The Fire was released in 2001, Low had broken out from critics' Top 10s and into Gap ads, movie soundtracks and regular international tours. "When that one came out the British press and radio really grabbed it and that became the first record for lot of our fans. It makes sense to me that we're playing that one. At that time we were experimenting a lot and we were just naive enough and just adventurous enough to make that record...I never thought of it that way before but I think we were. We had a moment where we completely took the lid off and used whatever instruments we wanted to. We were working with Albini who had worked with us before, he was really sharp and we were able to work fast so we could try all kind of ideas."

Already having played Things We Lost In The Fire live several times in Britain, Sparhawk sees the intervening years as being necessary to play some of the songs they'd never tried before. "The British shows were fun. There were a few songs we had to go back and re-learn the second verse of and figure out what that guitar part was...but at least half the record we would pull out from time to time anyway. Right when it came out there were a bunch of songs we decided not to play live at all, we just couldn't figure out how to play them live or we weren't comfortable with them. But now they feel better now than they ever did, the distance can change that sometimes, I guess we were just to close to the process of creating them. It was never an uncomfortable thing to go back and revisit something and not be tied down to what it was at that point in time."

Maintaining the graceful intensity and slowness for which they're renown is something that would drain lesser bands. "There is certainly some second nature to it now, we've toured a lot and we've played this way a long time so it's really developed. I know that our perception of time going by is probably really off from a normal person's," he sheepishly suggests. "But at the same time there is this tendency for everything to have a weight to it so that when we play you have to be still and right on the edge of pushing yourself there for that to happen. Over time we've found different ways of doing that."
The idea of reinvention is something fans have become familiar with as Low have shifted sounds and themes over their last two releases. The Great Destroyer introduced a sonic heaviness, while Drums And Guns brings loops, electronics and, most notably, with finely judged lyrics like "All I can do is fight, even if I know you're right", a foray into the murky world of political commentary. Or does it?
"Without necessarily admitting to it being a political record, I certainly think the American situation has become more and more desperate and ridiculous; I can feel it boiling over." says Sparhawk with studied seriousness. "I've always grappled with 'how do I deal with this anger or this tension musically and lyrically' and always really shied away from that, mostly because the words you use to talk about politics in music are very cliche. We have to rewrite the language again and a new language has to be able to wake people up. The things we look at as cliche and anti-political from the 60s or whatnot, those things at their time were very powerful because that was the language that did move a certain amount of mass change. That was the last time America was capable of going out into the streets and getting pissed about something because man you cannot do that crap now. No way."

For hope, something that no change of US political leader can bring him, Sparhawk turns to Africa, and more specifically a Kenyan school which he raised the money to build (two Low Christmas gigs = one school) and then recently visited. While this might not be discernible in Low's music, it is certainly affecting Sparhawk as a person. "It was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had...I imagine if I ever meet Jesus it will be something like that. Going there has made me more unafraid. After having been there it was very easy to be bold, and to do things that were extreme and not hide behind things, on this record. Mainly that was from meeting the people, being inspired by them and seeing lives that are so much more positive and yet on the edge of what you and I think means security and balance. How much more fragile we are than these people living in mud huts, and how completely different their perception of continuity and time is." Possibly, you'd guess, closer to Low's than anyone else's.

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