From Whirlpool, March 1995, by Adam Cooper
Transcribed by Catherine, April 2000
Ever since Low's debut LP, "I Could Live In Hope," was released back in 1994, it has been on permanent rotation here at Whirlpool central. Their minimalistic melding of snail-like tempos, gorgeous harmonies, opaque lyrics, and gentle instrumentation have made them stand far above all of their dirge-monger contemporaries. So on a recent tour stop, we dragged this friendly trio into the WP staff car for a bit of casual conversation and ended up finding out what kind of car the man upstairs drives...
Whirlpool: What led to your working with Kramer?
Al: We sent a little demo of our songs to him. He liked us and invited us out to do a few songs at his studio and we recorded them, he liked them, and invited us back for more. We finished up enough for a whole CD, meanwhile, he sent the songs to some people he knew at Vernon Yard, and that's the story.
Whirlpool: That's a quick story.
Al: Yes, a condensed version of what happened in a short two months.
Whirlpool: Did Kramer ever express interest in releasing it on his own label? (Shimmy disc, ed.)
Al: Originally he talked about doing a single, but once we recorded a few songs he said he wanted to see if someone else would be interested. Either he didn't like it or...
Zak: ...oh, I think he liked it!
Al: ...or maybe he thought someone else would sign us... and he'd get more money. (all laugh)
Al: That's true. I mean, he would've spent money to put us out, this way he made money to record the record.
Whirlpool: Mimi, did you start off by playing on a traditional drum set or have you always played with your current setup (snare and ride)?
Mimi: I played in the marching band in high school with just a snare. I haven't had much experience on a trap set, and I'd probably be pretty bad. I can barely tap my foot to the beat when I'm playing and I'm not nearly strong enough to hit a bass drum. Well, I could hit it, but it would be awful.
Whirlpool: what type of music did you play before Low?
Al: I played in two bands before, one was the mighty Wheat Pennies (while Al lived in Arizona for a short six months, ed.), which was kind of country music, a silly thing. It was basically Tempe rock!
Mimi: Yes, that "Arizona" sound!
Al: It was fun though, we played at Balboa Cafe a lot and made money. It wasn't really what I was into, I was just playing little lead stuff. What else? I played in Zen Identity, which was loud and stupid, and the mighty 12:38 was where it all began with Zak and Mimi.
Mimi: I was only in it for a day.
Zak: No, you were in it for one practice and one show!
Al: 12:38 was really noisy.
Zak: It was screwed, Duluth, and desperate... mmm... stuff.
Al: We were young.
Zak: We were very young! We're older now.
Al: It was a great band! Just the three of us. Little did we know that sometime down the line we'd play again. I've always been into really simple stuff, but it didn't seem to come out on the loud stuff; all the spaces are already filled in. When we started doing this, it worked out with what I really liked to play.
Whirlpool: Your approach is so "un-rock and roll." Is this band a retaliation against your younger and angrier days?
Al, Mimi, Zak: NO! (all in unison)
Mimi: I've never been more angry than I am now!! (laughs)
Al: I'd say, in a lot of ways, it's a lot more nerve-wracking playing quiet and slow than it is to play loud and fast.
Zak: I agree completely!
Zak: It's a hard thing to do, you don't get to go off, you have to keep yourself in check. Some nights you want to play really loud because people talk over the top of us... you just want to do something like, "Hey, listen up buddy!"
Whirlpool: How were you received on the big local Duluth scene initially?
Al: Really well, actually.
Mimi: That was pretty much why we decided to pursue it.
Al: We played out just to try out things. A lot of people really liked it. We basically thought since it was going so well we'd just release a 7" single.
Whirlpool: What led to your former bass player, John's, departure?
Al: Uhmm, well, we all like John. We got back from the last tour and were asked to open for someone really big (Low wouldn't divulge who that was, even after multiple proddings, ed.) on a big eight week tour and John did not want to tour for more than three weeks at a time. Up until then, we'd been quite a touring band, it's a big part of who we are and what we do. When we tried to talk it out with John, it became real evident that there was a lot more besides touring that he didn't like about the band. Rather than go on with everyone aggravated and doing things or not doing things they didn't want to, we decided it would be best to just get Zak instead of John. To find a compromise between John and myself would've meant both of us doing things both of us wouldn't want to. With touring it would have meant John doing more than he wanted to and me doing less than I would've wanted to. Those kind of conflicts don't go away and they tend to rear their ugly heads at really bad times like when you're touring in the middle of nowhere.
Whirlpool: Mmm. What do you think led to Low's slow approach to tempo?
Mimi: Ahhh, laziness, I guess. Kidding!
Whirlpool: Are you really slugs at heart?
Al: It was just a big part of what we kinda started doing. The first idea was to do stuff that was quiet and see how it feels. We played it, it was fun, and we wrote enough songs that way, so we played out. It's not so much a gimmick, as it is just a real efficient way to get across the musical ideas that we're doing. Some of the things we write would lose substance if we just blasted away at them. Some other bands have played our songs live and loud and it's just funny (Al wouldn't say who, ed.).
Whirlpool: Vocally, what is the strangest comparison you and Mimi have had?
Whirlpool: Well, it doesn't even have to be strange.
Zak: They get a lot of Cowboy Junkies comparisons.
Al: Yeah, but they don't have harmonies!
Whirlpool: Have you heard Simon and Garfunkel before?
Mimi: Yes, I think we have been compared to them.
Zak: No way, I like them! Don't they sing "Slow Ride"? (laughs)
Al: They have good harmonies, real tight.
Whirlpool: What were you all doing before the record deal went through?
Mimi: Nothing, just working at a department store.
Al: I was a runner, a courier for this office. It was at a big arena in Duluth. It had a theater and an ice rink and a concert hall. Fun and brainless!
Zak: I was living out in California...
Zak: Ha, ha! I was a T-shirt maker and...
Mimi: A pastry baker...
Zak: No, I wasn't!
Mimi: I was just rhyming, duh!
Whirlpool: Were you guys actively pursuing a record deal?
Al: No. We sent stuff to Kramer hoping he'd like it and we could do a seven inch or something like that. We thought we'd just play out and maybe drive to Minneapolis and play there, so when Vernon Yard showed interest, it just totally threw us back. We thought, "Hey, this isn't supposed to happen."
Whirlpool: Was it spooky signing on?
Mimi Yes, it was!
Al: But it was interesting and exciting, too. In a way, I always thought it would be great fun to be in a band where all you did was make records.
Whirlpool: Is it really great now that you're there?
Zak: It's really hard work.
Al: It's really strange and different, and not very stable.
Zak: In what way?
Mimi: In terms that you get your hopes up for things...
Al: ...and things fall through...
Mimi: ...and are dashed away!
Al: You're not sure if things are going to last. I mean, we're in our mid- to late twenties, and all of our friends have real regular jobs are are partway into paying off their houses, and we're just sitting here...
Whirlpool: ...being interviewed in a tiny car. (all laugh)
Al: ...and we're on the other side of the country, we don't own anything, and if we were to have a kid or something it would be really hard.
Zak: Al is speaking of the two of us, of course! Oh man, that would be rough!
Whirlpool: It would certainly be a long and painful process.
Mimi: (reading a copy of the fanzine Feminist Baseball, suddenly blurts out) Oh man, we didn't get a very good review in here. It's a really bad one! It says, "What is this gloomy slop oozing out of Duluth?" and "Sounds like Mazzy Star were forced to walk across America, maybe it's the sound of Duluth."
Zak: Oh, well then maybe we should KILL him! We just can't keep doing this unless people tell us we're great!
Al: I don't think we'll be playing tonight!
Mimi: That's it. Hey, it doesn't even say who reviewed it!
Whirlpool: They're not even owning up to it?
Mimi: Geez, big coward!
Zak: COME ON! GIVE US YOUR NAME, YA PANSY!
Whirlpool: Okay, next question, and Zak you're going to have to quiet down for a second! (all laugh) You guys, and girl, seem to have already established some set musical boundaries for yourselves, like sparse instrumentation, slow tempos, etc. Do you ever see yourselves stepping out of those boundaries?
Al: Not in the near future. This next record is basically bass, drums, guitar, and vocals. To start adding something else like keyboards or strings would take a lot of work, we'd have to make sure it worked. Adding other instruments is sometimes just an easy way to make people think you are "growing." Just because you put horns on your record, doesn't mean you've expanded as a musician.
"Something we try really hard to do, is make sure there is a lot of economy going on; nothing is wasted, and nothing is extraneous. We just keep it as simple as possible, anything else is a joke."
Zak: We have to make things work within the framework of Low, which is just three people. If we can't make something work with the three of us, what's the point?
Al: Theoretically, we are just shooting to have some songs.
Whirlpool: There are only a few bands that can work within their own set framework and still make great records. This is an odd comparison to Low, but look at The Jesus and Mary Chain, their sound hasn't changed that much in like ten years, but they still progress and write great songs without stepping beyond the boundaries they've set for themselves.
Mimi: It's almost like a challenge.
Zak: Something that we try really hard to do is make sure there is a lot of economy going on; nothing is waste, and nothing is extraneous. We just keep it as simple as possible, anything else is a joke.
Whirlpool: You could even go simpler, but then you'd abandon structure and head towards minimalism...
Al: ...some of the new stuff is pretty minimalistic, more fragile structure-wise. There is even less going on. It's weird, 'cause I'm not even sure how well it will go over live. At least with the first record there are at least three or four songs that we can pop off and make them sound like straightahead pop songs that just happen to be a little slower; whereas the newer ones will take a bit more patience to listen to. Then again, maybe people will sing along to them, I don't know. "Words" is a pretty poppy tune. "Cut" we always know we can pull off and nail it, 'cause it's got this peak for people who want punishment.
Whirlpool: On the last record there seems to be some real subtle religious references. Is religion a big part of your lives?
Al: Yes, it is. There are some connotations, but I hope people will use it for themselves rather than listen and think we are preaching. It's not preaching, but rather laying out ideas and, if people are sharp enough, they'll listen and get their thoughts rolling. By no means am I looking to shape anyone's spirit, that's not my job.
Zak: My beliefs are different than Al and Mimi's, but I don't think anyone should read too much into the lyrics.
Whirlpool: Beliefs and things like that can't help but surface in lyrics. I mean, if your whole life is "sex, drugs, and rock and roll," that's all you're going to end up drawing upon lyrically.
Zak: Which we do!! (laughs)
Whirlpool: You're always going to draw from your own mental vocabulary. I mean, I'm not going to to ask for the meaning of certain songs or, duh, how you got your band name, 'cause basically I couldn't care less.
Al and Mimi: GOOD! (in stereo)
Zak: Well, lyrically, the whole next record is all about cars! Cars are way cooler than God anyhow. (laughs hysterically) Wait till you see my Mustang!
Whirlpool: What kind of car does God drive anyway?
Zak: A 1978 baby blue Buick Skylark...
Al: ...with a Stereolab sticker on the bumper!
Zak: Well, i feel like a fool. Any more questions?
Whirlpool: Nope. That's it, kids.
Low's second LP, "Long-Divison," will be out in April. They will also be covering "Transmission" on Virgin Records' Joy Division compilation coming out in August.
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