Low: ‘We want to punch new holes in the possibilities of music’

Never afraid to sit still, even after a dozen albums, the Minnesota band look back at the tracks that define their evolving sound: ‘Just say what you feel strongly about now’

At home in Duluth, Minnesota, Alan Sparhawk gives a tour of his vegetable garden, where long pumpkin vines rope around the heirloom tomatoes; Lake Superior is a few miles away and takes up the entire horizon. He, now aged 50, and his wife, Mimi Parker, 51, are the core of the American band Low – they have known each other since they were nine, have been married since before starting the band in 1992 and are parents of two teenage children. Their home offers evidence of their domestic lives and artistic ones, with Parker’s drums set up in the living room and the tour van parked next to the minivan in their driveway. After the interview, Sparhawk takes off to chaperone an end-of-summer beach bonfire for his son’s church youth group.

Over 25 years and a dozen studio albums, the band have become an indie rock institution, venerated for their consistency and the continual expansion of their rich, minimalist sound. At the core of it all is the interplay between Parker’s and Sparhawk’s voices; the give and take; their partnership.

With a new album, Double Negative, out and a substantial US and European tour slated for this autumn, Sparhawk and Parker sat down to reflect on Low’s steady evolution and experimentation over the last two decades.

Words (1994)

The band’s first single from their debut album, I Could Live in Hope, was produced by the underground producer Kramer, whose involvement helped put Low on the map. The song is a soft, dark drift with Sparhawk’s and Parker’s conjoined harmony rising as a centrepiece; it sounds a bit like a somnambulant Galaxie 500 track. As Sparhawk says: “It’s definitely a calling card. That song sort of defines what the band was in the beginning.”

For Parker, the song is for ever tied to a defining moment. The band had been driving all night, heading home from one of their first scrappy tours and, as they were approaching their home state of Minnesota, they picked up the college radio station on the dial. “They announced that Kurt Cobain had killed himself and then they played Words,” recalls Parker. “It was the first song of ours that we heard on the radio.” It was the height of the commercial apex of grunge and a Lollapalooza-bred alt-rock boom – a curious space of foment for a band playing at a glacial pace and low-decibel hush, with tunes so solemn they made Joy Division sound like a party band. “From the beginning, we knew that what we were doing was not going to fly with a lot of people,” says Sparhawk. Playing shows for eager single-digit audiences sustained the band, along with attitude he terms “a midwestern-farmer version of punk rock”. “We were hopeful,” adds Parker, laughing. “I mean, we were pretty naive.”

Shame (1995)

Low’s second album, Long Division, upped the ante, stripping their minimalist sound to its barest essence and creating an album steeped in desolation. It is also where Parker’s talent beyond her brushed two-piece drum kit – her voice – comes to the fore. “This is the first song where I felt like Mim came forward,” says Sparhawk. Shame was also regularly on MTV’s reality show The Real World: San Francisco, which featured Pedro Zamora, the first openly gay man living with HIV to regularly appear on a network series. It drew the show’s audience to the band. “That became kind of a gay … I won’t say anthem. But a lot of gay men come up to me and talk about that song. They say that it really spoke to them,” says Parker. The period also saw the exit of the band’s original bassist, John Nichols, who was still in high school and did not tour well. The band received the first of several offers to tour with superfan Jeff Buckley and had to turn it down because of Nichols’ health; Zak Sally would soon join the band as his replacement.

Do You Know How to Waltz? (1996)

On the album Curtain Hits the Cast, Low tested how elastic their sound could be with two of the band’s primary tools: space and repetition. “From the first record, there have been a few hints at drone or repetitive noise,” Sparhawk says. “[On Waltz] we kind of allowed ourselves to go all the way with it.” Citing the influence of La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Spaceman 3, Waltz’s flirtation with the avant garde won them praise from the Wire, and gave them the reputation of being more than a rock band.

In 2013, the band stretched the 14-minute Waltz to double its length for a concert at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center – a venue with a reputation for hosting experimental performance – which Sparhawk closed out with a pithy anti-war sentiment: “Drone, not drones.” Thinkpieces ensued, as did outraged tweets from some fans who felt they were owed not just new songs but the singles they had heard on the radio. Others demanded refunds. “Today, it’s almost laughable to think about it,” Sparhawk says. “People were really starved for things to get upset about.”

The band today … ‘I didn’t have to tell the whole story on every record.’
The band today … ‘I didn’t have to tell the whole story on every record.’ Photograph: Paul Husband

Just Like Christmas (1999)

Parker and Sparhawk’s Mormon faith had always been a quiet part of the band’s lyrical themes, but their Christmas-themed EP was a more earnest and open expression. Originally meant as a limited-run fan gift, the DIY affair, recorded quickly at their home studio, found a proper release in the UK and heavy rotation on John Peel. At the time, the band was touring and recording constantly, living hand to mouth on what the band earned. “Mim found out she was pregnant, [we were] worrying what are we going to do,” explains Sparhawk. Shortly after the band got a call saying Gap wanted to license Little Drummer Boy for use in its holiday commercial campaign. It was one of the first major ad campaigns to feature indie rock, and not only brought Low to a much wider audience, but allowed Sparhawk and Parker to start a family and keep the band going. They have done occasional Christmas tours of the UK since; the song is regularly put into holiday playlists around the world. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Parker.

Monkey (2005)

After three albums for the ultra-indie Kranky, Low moved on to the stalwart Sub Pop label for their seventh studio album, The Great Destroyer, a critical record in the band’s discography. “On that record, we were kind of struggling with, ‘What is loud Low?’” says Sparhawk. “We were banging on the ceiling of what could we do.” Producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips) pressed the notoriously quiet band to stretch itself.

The album met with widespread critical and audience acclaim and found a new fan in Robert Plant, who would later cover Monkey. As Sparhawk says, the album The Great Destroyer opened up a new level of ambition in their music-making, but it wasn’t until the next album that the band committed to the idea: “All the sounds we come up with are going to be new.”

This continual reinvention was a long time coming. “I remember being very conscious, after about two or three records, that I didn’t have to tell the whole story on every record,” says Sparhawk. “Just say what you feel strongly about now and finish it. You’ll get another chance.”

Murderer (2007)

This was a tumultuous period, with bassist Sally in and out of the band and a tour cancelled because of Sparhawk’s depression. The album from this period, Drums and Guns, is exceptionally dark, with lyrics that touch on death, apocalyptic themes and the Iraq war; Parker’s kit is muscled out by a drum machine. Sparhawk says Murderer was inspired by a documentary he watched about Mexican drug gang warfare that left him wondering: “What does it take for someone to kill another person? What do you have to believe about yourself or God to justify killing someone?”

Especially Me (2011)

C’mon is full of luscious arrangements, presenting a new lightly psychedelic maximalism for Low; Especially Me showcases Parker’s soulful voice set amid orchestration and a bevy of guest players. “There’s kind of a pure effortlessness about her singing,” says Sparhawk, who prefers Parker’s voice to his own. “It’s like it just naturally comes out; you don’t hear her trying.” The record features a handful of notable guest players – a rarity for Low – including Wilco’s Nels Cline on lap steel, Caitlin Moe of Trans-Siberian Orchestra on violin and backing vocals from Sparhawk and Parker’s young children, Cyrus and Hollis.

No Comprende (2015)

As Sparhawk puts it, No Comprende, from the album Ones and Sixes, is a linchpin song for the band. “When we found that song and found how to do it, how deep it could go, we knew we arrived at where the record was going to go. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for stuff we have been trying to figure out sonically.” The song references the impending breakdown in social communication, but it is also testimony to his three-decade partnership with Parker: “Being two people who are married and having been through a million different things and a million different frustrations and had a million different conversations, some of them very difficult and ugly, and some of them very life-affirming and reassuring.” Parker says the album was an exploration of her voice; on No Comprende, she shows off her range and a pop vibrato.

Quorum (2018)

Opening the rapturously received new album Double Negative, Quorum is the sound of Low dismantling and distilling the traditions in their sound and embracing new forms. The song and the album are marked by long, loping rhythms, disrupted signals, vocals given inorganic treatment, and simmering banks of static replacing swells of guitar.

In lieu of Parker’s acoustic drumming, or programmed drums, the songs are propelled by pulse. The work is atmospheric and arresting. Although they are rarely described as a political band, Low’s quiet superpower of reflecting the discord and disorientation of this American moment is on full display on Double Negative. “The recording sessions basically span the [Trump] election and the year after that,” says Sparhawk. “We really wanted to punch some new holes in the possibilities of music. The songs are more desperate, more kind of reaching. My reaction to a more chaotic world is to fight back with something more chaotic.”

While it is a bold direction, the band’s compass is still very much intact. “We have been going on faith in the voices for the last while. As long as we arrive at something we think is artistically interesting and has a purpose, it’s still us,” says Sparhawk. “We’re going on the assumption that we can do whatever we want.”

* * *

Low have curated a longer primer to their work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across their career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below

• Double Negative is out now on Sub Pop. Low play Trinity Centre, Bristol, on 15 October and Manchester Cathedral on 16 October, with more UK dates in early 2019.

Jessica Hopper

The GuardianTramp

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