Alan Sparhawk is one of the founding members of Low, one of the enduring cornerstones of American indie-rock and “slowcore” pioneers. Along with his wife and bandmate, Mimi Parker, Sparhawk has been the driving force behind the band’s success, something which he continues to find surprising.
Low play The Button Factory tonight with Halves in support and tickets are still available here.
I recently read your interview on The Quietus, where you picked some albums that have meant a lot to you over the years. There’s a fair bit of classic rock in there, which is pretty unexpected seeing as Low are anything but that. Is that just a product of your age and where you grew up?
I kind of grew up in the last era of ignorance, when people didn’t know what was going on in the rest of world. By the time I was grown up, everyone had MTV and now the internet. Back then, you kind of fed off what came to you.
The Neil Young record you picked, Harvest, that makes a lot of sense to me, coming from the kind of rural place you do and how important tradition, history and roots are to the record. Do you think that you’ve embraced your own roots or is it something you can’t escape?
I would say that you can’t escape it. I spent many years thinking that I was rebelling and going against where I came from but the fact is, that kind of ends up being your anchor. It took a while but the last few years, I realised I’m very much where I came from. I’m very much a white, poor guy who grew up in the very centre of the continent, who stuck through winters and you’re influenced by rock and roll and country and folk. Then also by a world that seems so far away some times and the draw of that exotic and the unending possibilities of what’s out there. That sort of distilled on me as well, being away from society. The world came through weird glasses, you know and certain things seemed more outlandish than they really were. Like, when I first started hearing about punk rock, I had all sorts of visions and desires, and lo and behold it was true! I guess that Neil Young record, to some people it might seem quite removed from where we’re at but it’s actually very close. Maybe it’s because he grew up two hours north of where we lived here, maybe it’s weird thing that happens around here. It’s not country music, it’s not roots music, it’s just underdog music or something.
That outside world means an awful lot more when you’re as isolated as you were, and it’s a lot more open to interpretation.
Yeah, you end up sitting somewhere between where your imagination can take you and who you are.
Now you don’t really have any limits to what you can explore and things are much more immediate.
Immediate, yeah, you don’t have to look too hard to find anything so you end up not looking at all.
How do you deal with those changes? I’ve always seen Low as outside of technology in some ways.
Sometimes I say, if Low had started now, we never would have gotten anywhere. We’re not internet people, we’re not able to play that game of fast attentions, you know? So, I don’t know how we would fare. I guess I still have faith in people believing in seeing real shows, I think people still recognise the beauty of that and the humanity of seeing a real show. Then again, if you were a new band, I’d definitely feel daunted about how to get yourself out there and try to find some people to listen to you. When we started it was “float a record out there and go on tour” and that was the only way to do it and it worked because people would come see shows and people were curious about what was coming out. It wasn’t just there in front you immediately.
I was talking to a friend recently about Drums & Guns and he mentioned that that record sounds much better on a hi-fi than headphones, noticeably more so than your other records. Was that an intentional decision on the part of the band, to make a record that sounds best “out loud”, as such?
The outcome wasn’t entirely intentional but that record was very intentional as far as the way we put it together. When we went in, we had these songs we’d been playing just normal as a band and I just knew that we needed to find a new way to do them. So we set everything aside that we usually use and made the record with these more raw and almost electronic type things. That was a weird one, it was sort of in the middle of the heat of the Iraq war and the first time I’ve felt the overwhelming urge to stand on a soapbox and say something to a lot of people instead of just one person. That record sort of has a “Hey everybody, what the hell is going on?” kind of thing and we don’t usually address everybody. That was… I was going to say fun, it wasn’t necessarily fun, it was a very intense record to make, but I was really happy with that one. That came out of intentionally saying, “OK, lets see if it still sounds like Low if we do things this way instead”.
Then the newest record, C’mon, seems totally the opposite to that. It’s much more personal.
I think after doing Drums & Guns, I definitely had a sense we were probably going to swing the other way, one way or the other. Then as we were writing the songs, it became obvious that they were very intimate songs, a lot of them are love songs or whatever. There wasn’t any dissonance or noise, the songs didn’t seem to want that. I remember realising we were making a very pretty record and a record without any dirt or sharp edges and I just said, OK, lets do that then. Let’s see where it takes us”. It seems like our records are always a mix of that and it was interesting to go in that other extreme but we’ll see what the next record does.
I think the song ‘Nothing But Heart’ is really interesting, it’s like you just went on and on because the band felt like it and weren’t worried about anything. It has a very relaxed feel.
That one was an experiment in song writing, like, “Wow, can we do this? Can we go this long? If we’re going to go this long, we might as well go this long!”. I remember, we were writing very subtly without anyone having to say anything, we just stepped into this long repetitive thing, it was interesting. It’s been a while since we did a song like that.
Is that the kind of thing that keeps you going as a band twenty years later?
Yeah, kind of. I mean, to me, that’s the exciting question, “Can we do this?”. That’s usually the edge of something exciting happening. When that question comes out, it means that we’re pushing. That’s the phrase that comes out when you’re pushing yourself or the envelope or the box out a little bit. For me, over the years, those moments are the ones that become most endearing and sort of the ones you look back on. I know whenever that happens, something good happens, whenever we’re pushed to that edge where we really have no idea what’s going to happen, that’s usually the best state to be in, so to speak, when we’re trying to do something. This band, our creative process is about playing and dancing on the edge of what we can do.
It’s a very punk idea, to limit yourselves so much, just having the instruments you do and working with that as much as possible.
Yeah, it’s a little bit of a carry-over from DIY, 90s American indie rock. If you can’t set it up in five minutes and play your damn songs then go home. So maybe it’s a working class, punk rock pride thing we’ve always had. We’ve always got to be able to pull it off live on guitar, bass and drums. In many ways it’s kept us grounded and kept us focused on one light, enough to be able to get as much as we can out of each other. I think if we allowed ourselves too many extras, it would get lost real quick. It keeps you honest, it brings you back to the first day you got together.
(Photo credit: Savenije)