sssh... it's an interview with LOW.
From Chairs Missing, January 1996, by Scott Munroe
Transcribed by Catherine, April 2000
As most bands vying for your entertainment dollar try to out-pop-punk or out-rock each other, leaving your hearing, sanity, and tolerance by the wayside, it's good to know there are bands that can take the extreme opposite direction and leave a far more lasting impression on you by going 60 BPM and putting the music at a whisper. Like Codeine and Bedhead, Low make music for more contemplative moods, knowing damn well you can't rock all the time. The fact that the main 2/3 of the band (Mimi and Alan) are practicing Mormons (yes, you read that right) seems to also fly in the face of conventional rock attitudes. Is that good or bad? You decide (and then I decide!! - oops, sorry, you weren't supposed to kn-). The band was interviewed before and after their opening slot at 7 Willow Street in Port Chester, NY in October with a band that was so abysmal, I'm not going to even say who they were.
Mimi Parker: vocals, percussion
Zak Sally: bass
Alan Sparhawk: vocals, guitar
Mimi: The band started in Duluth, Minnesota, April of 1993. Just three people with the same interests getting together and trying to do something different. I guess the first intent was to try something different and see how far we can go with it. How far we could push people into slow, whatever.
CM: So when you started out, you weren't a proper drummer?
Mimi: No, I've never had a full drum kit.
CM: So you've started on just the snare and the crash cymbal?
CM: Was that intentional to start out that way or did you try playing on a full kit and say "I don't like this"?
Mimi: Not really. I played in the marching band in high school. There were three percussionists in the band and we had switched off, actually. Sometimes I played cowbell, so... (laughs) clavets!
Alan: You should just say you played the quero (makes a percussion noise and sings): "You've got to change your evil ways...baby!" (laughs)
Zak: Oh, is that what that thing is called?
CM: When did you start playing the guitar?
Alan When I was a young lad, I wanted to be Edward Van Halen!
Zak You did not, did you?
Zak: You did?
Alan: Sure, I loved them. Hey, it was junior high! Van Halen was cool! That soon changed, I guess but, yeh, I just started playing guitar. My dad's a musician so he encouraged me, I guess to try stuff and kinda learn.
CM: What was the one moment when you decided to be in a band?
Alan: When I learned, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash, I thought, "Man, that's pretty easy. I can do that!"
Zak: I never learned how to play that song.
Alan: You learned how to play something.
Zak: I learned how to play "Amazing Grace." Got a book from the library.
CM: I'm sure you did a better version of it than The Lemonheads.
Zak: The Lemonheads do a version of that song?
Mimi: That's too bad.
Zak: It's a beautiful tune.
CM: How did you start on the bass?
Zak: I started on the guitar when I was kinda young and didn't really learn how to play it, then hooked up with Al and he played guitar better than I did. We wanted to start a band so there was a bass lying around and he said, "You can play bass" and I went "OK." That's how I started playing bass! (laughs)
Mimi: Is that how it works? Two guitarists get together and one decides he can't play as well as the other one so he automatically has to play the bass?
Zak (to Alan): You knew about five chords and I knew two and I went, "Who knows more chords" and you were a better guitar player and I went, "Well, I stink!"
Alan: Plus Roger and I found you so it was kind of a ball-in-our-court situation so we could manhandle you into playing bass
CM: Who's "Roger"?
Alan: When Zak and I first met, it was to form a band called "12:38" which is a name Zak came up with but he was a guy that I met in college who's a drummer who wanted to get a band together and we picked Zak out of high school 'cause he looked scary and formed a band called 12:38 and had a great time.
CM: What did that band sound like?
Alan: We used to do mostly our own songs but we used to play a very annoying version of "Sister Ray" for about as long as we could.
Zak: We did a thrash version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead."
Alan: That was usually at the end of the night when we'd run out of songs, we'd play a very bad version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead."
CM: Low started in Duluth?
CM: Are you all Duluth natives?
Alan: Minnesota. Zak grew up there in high school but Mimi grew up in a farming community in northern Minnesota, more in the middle of the state. We went to Duluth to go to college and stayed there.
CM: What was/is the scene like in Duluth? Everytime us easterners think of Minnesota's music scene, it's usually Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Alan: The only "scene" to speak of in Duluth is about 100 kids, at least when the band started there were a couple hundred kids. Mostly high-schoolers, actually, ironically. Just people that would go out and see bands. There were five or six bands in Duluth that used to play out in one or two places ot play. Every night there'd be a show, there'd be five or six bands on the bill where everybody would just come and play. All kinds of music from punk to folk to us so that was pretty much how it was when we started. I think the last year or so rave has taken over in Duluth!
Alan: Yeh, Duluth is becoming a rave town, it's dwindled to maybe about 25 people now that give a rat's ass if there's any bands playing. It's sad, too, because we've brought national acts like Lois Maffeo and The Softies and some other people to town. Inkneecrel (sp?) from Minneapolis, they're a noise/experimental band, they're connected to Thurston Moore, man. They've got roots to Thurston Moore. (laughs) They're affiliated, that was the word. But not a lot of people would show up so it's kinda dwindling. There's still bands and there are still people that do stuff. People like dancing.
CM: Is Duluth a lot colder than Minneapolis in the winter?
Alan: Notably, yeh. Winter's winter in Minnesota but-
CM: And it lasts six months up there?
Alan: Yeh, about four or five. It's always about 10 degrees colder in Duluth than it is in Minneapolis.
Zak: It probably gets more snow than Minneapolis and there's not as much people so the snow stays longer.
CM: So it's common to have temperatures below zero in January and February?
Alan: Yeh. It seems every winter there's at least once where there's a week or ten days straight where it doesn't get above -10 or -20. You've never lived until you've walked through a field at high noon with the sun out and not a cloud in the sky and it's -40. It's like walking on the moon. The sun is straight up over your head and you can feel like death is right around the corner! (laughs) Be sure to write that we laughed!
Mimi: We laugh at death!
Alan (said in heavy, low German-accented voice): "AND DEATH IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER!! THAT IS HOW WE FORMED THIS BAND!!"
CM: "And now on 'Sprockets', ve danse!!"
Alan (said in a low voice): "VE DANSE IN THE COLD!! WE LAUGH IN THE FACE OF DEATH EVERY DAY IN DULUTH, MINNESOTA!!" (everyone laughs at this)
CM: Now this band had a different bassist?
Alan: Yes, his name was John and he was very young. He was 18. Being in a band wasn't necessarily his real dream in life -- not that any of us necessarily do, either, but he had a hard time touring. He didn't like to be away from home a lot and touring has become a big part of what we do and what we're about so it was an amicable parting.
CM: So you knew Zak from back then?
Alan: Yeh, we knew Zak from before and he was living in Oakland, CA at the time.
CM What were you doing out there?
Zak: Uhhh... stuff! I just ended up there, I was working there for two years or so.
CM: Did you hang out at Gilman St.?
Zak: (sighs) Oh, indeed I did! Every once in a while when the urge came across me, I'd go to Gilman. (laughs)
CM: How did you get signed to Vernon Yard?
Alan: After we did our first show, in Duluth, we did a tape-recorder recording of us playing in our house. Just two or three songs and duped off a couple of tapes and sent them to a couple of people. Mostly people we thought would be strange enough to just listen to it. We weren't really expecting much out of it, it was kind of the whole voyeuristic tendency of having something that you're doing being listened to by someone else. It was kind of a weird feeling. We were "Oh, Kramer'll listen to the tape and laugh at it and throw it away." But he liked it, called us and invited us out which was a totally big surprise. We were thinking of doing a single originally and thought, "this would be the money we would have spent anyway on a single" so we traveled out and did a couple of songs. He passed those songs onto some people he knew in Vernon Yard. He told us, "I really like this stuff. I think there might be some people who I know that would be interested in it" as in record company-type people. And we're like, "Yeh, whatever" so we went home and they liked it and told us to go back to Kramer's and finish out a record and we'd talk.
CM: Was the reason you sent a tape to Kramer because you thought it was coalesce with what he did with Galaxie 500?
Alan: Yeh, I'd guess. He's a real stylistic producer. I was a big Galaxie 500 fan and I thought "I'll send it to this guy just because he recorded this band. Maybe he'll be interested in it or get a kick out of it." Yeh, it was mostly from his past record of who he worked with. He was off the beaten track, enough. I even sent a tape to Dischord. I knew they wouldn't be into it, it was just like, "Hey, man, I really like what you guys have done over the years. Here's some of our music. Play it in the office." They sent us a postcard back. They said, "Thanks for your very beautiful music. Sorry to say we at Dischord only sign local bands from D.C. but good luck in your endeavors."
Zak: Really? That's cool!
Alan: Didn't I tell you about that?
Zak: Was it Amy Pickering?
Alan: I think it was Amy!
CM: Did you try Twin/Tone at all or are they just Minneapolis?
Alan: I don't know if I sent anything to Twin/Tone. Early on we felt, "Man, nobody in Minneapolis is gonna be hip to this just because we're from Duluth" so we bypassed that. We sent something to Homestead and I sent something to 4AD and Kramer and Dischord -- that was it.
CM: How do people from Minneapolis look upon Duluth?
Zak: Hicks! (laugh)
Alan: A nice place to go on the weekend! (laughs)
Zak: I dunno if "hick" is the right word but it's basically a bastard cousin or something. It used to be worse, more people are coming up now but back then it was just, "Oh, Duluth, yeh, it's out in the sticks, right?" that's weird because Minneapolis, surprisingly, latched onto us pretty well, I was really surprised. We were, "Let's not even bother trying to play Minneapolis. Let's not bother trying to play for anyone there" because I knew as soon as the word "Duluth" happens, they're gonna go, "Even worse than a local band!" But actually people were into us early on. We do really well in Minneapolis now. We have a lot of friends there so we're pretty much surprised with that.
CM: When Babes in Toyland hosted "120 Minutes", the last video they showed was your "Shame."
Alan: Yeh. And I think during the show, they said, "Here's our friends Low who we know." We didn't see the show but I heard they kept saying our names throughout the whole show, "Stay tuned for Low from our home state of Minnesota -- good friends of ours!" and all that stuff and it's like, well, let's see I think I've talked to Lori (Barbero - BiT drummer) for a few minutes before and... I think that's it! (laughs) No, actually, they're really nice people and people in Minneapolis have been really nice to us and taken us under their wing -- somewhat.
CM: How about the band's sound -- was that deliberate? How long did you take getting that sound down?
Alan: Like Mimi said, we started out doing some stuff that we had in the back of our heads. It was just the way we kinda wanted to write music and some of the stuff that was coming out seemed to really work well with the real minimal, not a lot going on, quiet sound. Lyrically trying to keep things a little more prominent and having some very intricate vocal harmonies and going, "If we could bring this more out front and accentuate these melodies more because these are cool things and we'd rather that be heard than us banging around on our instruments so we just kinda brought everything back and slowed things down and also there was kind of the aspect of trying to push some limits as far as quietness and slower music. Some of our very first songs were actually a bit longer than what eventually they were recorded at.
CM: How many tours has this band done?
Alan: I'd say at least eight or nine at-least-three-week tours. When we tour, we go out for three or four weeks at a time and do one coast or the other or the south. By now as a band we've probably played 250 shows in about a two, two-and-a-half year time period.
CM: What have you learned from being on tour that you didn't when you first started?
Alan: That most people do not listen to us -- I don't know. What have we learned?
Mimi: We've learned to know our country's geography better.
Alan: How not to get lost. We're notorious for getting lost.
Mimi: Only in Boston!
CM: How can you get lost in Boston? It's such a small city!
Alan: Yeh, so small and so simple, you know. We play a lot so learned how to play a little better than if we stayed at home. We've learned how to play live as in getting used to all the ramifications of playing live as far as hearing yourself and how to get by in crappy situations. We're pretty easy going as far as places go.
CM: You and Mimi have been married for how long?
Alan: Over five years. We're 27.
CM: You were married before the band formed?
Alan: Oh, yeh, yeh. We've been married for five years and the band started about two and a half years ago. We had always tried things, I was in other bands. She and I would sit down and write little strange songs every once in a while. Thought someday it'd be cool to do somethin'.
CM: Have they called you "The Yo La Tengo of Duluth"?
Alan: Oh, we get that once in a while. Someone will go, "So, do you know Ira and Georgia?" and I'm like, "no." I imagine they give just as dull an answer to that question as we do. I think I read an interview with them where the big joke was that the interviewer was not gonna ask what it's like being in a band and being married. There's nothing too crazy, there's nothing groundbreaking to say about it other than it's nice that I don't have to leave her behind everytime we go on tour. When we sit and figure stuff out, it's very much just two people trying to figure something out. It's not like we come up with big ideas during a moment of passion.
CM: How much of an input does Zak have in the music?
Alan: A lot. The most one person will do in a song is probably come up with a couple of chords and words and melody. We just all kinda work stuff out. He has input into how we do things, he has input into how we sing and we have input into how he plays. At the same time, he has dominion over what he's working on. Some people would say, "Yeh, they're married, so there's a hired gun to fill out the third spot, to help us realize our songs." That's not the case at all. We're very much just three people trying to create some music we enjoy.
CM: I also have to ask this even though you two are probably sick of hearing this -- you and Mimi are Mormons, right?
CM: Were you brought up like that or did you convert?
Alan: I was born into a Mormon family and Mimi, upon knowing her for several years, joined the Church around the time that we were married. So we're Mormons and we're pretty active. There's a lot of Mormons out there, some of them that aren't active, "They don't practice" would be the term, go to church and stuff but we go to church and we believe in it and we live it as best we can.
CM: You have to realize that there aren't a lot of Mormons in Connecticut so I'm kinda curious about it...
Alan: Oh, there aren't a lot of Mormons in Minnesota either! (laughs)
CM: I was told you usually don't do shows on Sundays.
Alan: We try not to. It's one of those weird lines that you have to draw for yourself. Sometimes if we're on a tour with somebody, there'll be a show or two that's on a Sunday and if you have to do it, we kinda go on that. That's one thing about Mormonism, it's a very personal-type religion and your relationship with God is based on how honest you are with yourself and not so much how many points you score each month as in, "I get 15 points for going to church, I get 20 points for not swearing today, I get 30 points for not drinking." It's not like that, it's a strict religion and yet it's something based on your personal self and who you are and how you're related with the spiritual world. It's a hard decision to make; when we have to, we play it but the rule with our booking agent is no shows on Sunday.
CM: And your booking agent's down with that?
Alan: Oh, yeh, yeh. Totally fine. Peter Himmelman, he's a great artist and he does a similar thing; he's Jewish and whatever his deal is, he doesn't play on Saturdays. It hurts him. It's too bad that it hurts him, everybody talks about how, "Oh, if Peter Himmelman would just be able to play on Saturdays, he'd be able to tour and get all these tours opening for people. He'd be so much more famous and stuff." And it's like, well, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna be famous and know that you broke a rule that at one time you held very dear and important in your life? We don't drink or smoke, we do our best not to curse or be verbally negative and..."
CM: No caffeine.
Alan: Yeh, caffeine's another "make your own call." I personally don't consume any caffeine because of some of the guidelines and because I'm completely and utterly chemically imbalanced and caffeine is directly involved with some of my poor behavior! (Mimi laughs)
CM: What's your take on people like Kurt Cobain who went down into an emotional hole and the resurgence of hard drugs and heroin in the underground scene over the past 10-15 years?
Alan: There was a time where that was -- I wouldn't say heroin -- but there was a time in my life where that was kind of a big part of what I was about and... not to sound like "Oh, I know where they're coming from" but I understand where that's going and the dangers of it and sometimes there are certain things that cannot be helped. There are certain things that once you lose control you're in danger and those things are a very powerful force of evil in our society these days but at the same time I'm into legalization of drugs just because it's one of those things -- I dunno. There's a certain glamorization of that and I think it's wrong. I think anyone who's in it is wrong and if you asked any junkie, if they were being totally honest with you, they would tell you there's something inherently evil and wrong with drugs and they know there's something damaging.
(tape turns over)
Alan: It's dangerous and I really value the things about our religion that are trying very hard to help people out of that phase of being very dishonest with yourself.
CM: Being a Mormon, would you consider yourself more politically conservative or moderate?
Alan: Mormonism has nothing to do with politics and anyone who says it is, is wrong, very wrong and is hurting Mormonism more than anything. The leaders of the Church have never, ever come out and dictated anything about how you should vote; they've never dictated the abortion issue. They've never come out and said there's a specific church stance and I think anyone within the church who is truly searching for truth and is truly trying to live as Jesus lived, they will see very plainly how those types of things are not important and how there are answers, there are truths that are beyond petty issues. The sooner people get off of this crap about fighting about stuff and be a little more honest with each other, it will be a lot simpler. I mean, as to what the answers are, I'm not the one to come up with them and some of them are still trying to figure it out.
CM: How do you feel about organizations like the Religious Right and Christian right-wingers like Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Randall Terry manipulating people's fears and emotions to push their "Christian" agenda?
Mimi: Anyone who tells you "God wants you to be a Republican" has no idea what God really wants.
Alan: Yeh, that's a very literal way of saying it. Those type of people need to take a couple of days off and read the Bible and see how it was that Jesus actually dealt with people and how he dealt with confrontation, how he dealt with problems and I think if they really looked, they'd realize they are totally in the wrong. That is not the path. If anything, those types of things are a diversion for people. It's a way of diverting them from actually searching for truth and happiness.
Mimi: Religion has got such a bad rap lately. If you profess to be religious, people automatically assume that you're some sort of fanatic conservative and that you're nuts.
Alan: The word "Jesus" is so tainted these days, much like the word "power" over the last couple hundred years has been tainted.
Mimi: It's people like that who are doing more harm than good. Whatever they do, they claim to do it in the name of God and Jesus and it's really, really a travesty that they taint everything so bad and make everything so ugly because it's not. Like Al said, it's nothing about politics, it's nothing about worldly power, it's nothing about money, absolutely nothing about money. It's simple, it's a search for truth and it's a good thing and I think people maybe are afraid of the truth and afraid of good. It's too bad. I feel bad for all the people they affect and influence because a lot of people are not spiritually strong and are easily swayed by people like that who have that platform and that image of power or the image of being close to God, speaking to God. It makes me really sad, actually.
CM: Changing the subject, how did you get to do "Transmission" on the Joy Division tribute CD, "Means to an End"?
Alan: Wellll... the Lord came down and -- no, (laughter all around). One day we were doing a live radio show, this is when John was still in the band, he and I just from playing around and being fans of Joy Division, both knew the song and we were live on the air and started playing this song, the first part of "Transmission" and we just kept going and I sang a few lines and the next thing you know, Mimi was playing drums and singing a little harmony and we ended and kinda looked at each other and said, "Wow. That was kinda cool. We should play it for real sometime live." So we started playing it live. The guy who put together the Joy Division tribute thing saw us play it in New York once and kinda kept it in the back of his head so when he started putting together this tribute record, he remembered us, gave us a call. We were pretty excited to be on it.
CM: What do you think of the other bands on that tribute CD?
Alan: I like the first couple of songs, Boys Against Girls...
CM: Girls Against Boys.
Alan: Yeh. Chicks Against Dudes, whatever. Honeymoon Stitch one's cool. When we heard it we thought, "Oh, it's the Jesus Lizard." Because I think it's actually the drummer from Jesus Lizard. There's a sound to it that sounds like Jesus Lizard. We're big fans of GodheadSilo so we're pretty into that.
CM: And they're originally from Fargo, North Dakota.
Alan: Yeh, we didn't actually meet them there, we just felt, Wow, these records are cool AND they're from Fargo!" They live in Olympia now. We've met them a few times and we always say we're gonna play together -- that'd be a nice contrast going.
CM: Looking at you, I can see that midwestern farming wholesomeness look that they have and you have as well.
Alan: The whole "From a farm, can't talk, can't gather my thoughts farmer guy." We're big fans of Versus.
Mimi: You don't have to run down the list...
Alan: Yeh, I like all of it. It's really surprising how well it turned out. We were thinking, "Oh, man, Joy Division tribute. We're the only band who really likes Joy Division." We thought it was gonna be a huge star vehicle, "Yeah, yeah, sure, we'll be on your tribute album. Who's the band?"
CM: Hootie & The Blowfish.
Alan: Yeh, exactly.
CM: Like that awful "Encomium" Zeppelin tribute record.
Alan: Or that Jimi Hendrix tribute LP. But it actually turned out really cool.
CM: What's the future for the band?
Alan: We're gonna record the third album this winter.
CM: With Kramer producing again?
Alan: I don't know, we're looking around at some other possibilities. We don't really know who yet.
CM: Rick Rubin?
Alan: No, too expensive.
CM: Can't Virgin foot the bill?
Mimi: They could but they don't wanna! (laughs)
Alan:: The forecasted budget on Low is very low so that's fine with us.
CM: Was the title "Long Division" from Joy Division?
Alan: No. I remember shortly after thinking it and going, "Wow, that'd be a cool record name," thinking, "Oh, man, 'Long Divison' everyone's gonna think 'Joy Division,' tribute record."
Mimi: It's from a line in one of our songs that we didn't put on the record, actually.
Alan: We didn't like the recording of it.
CM: Whose lightbulb is that on the front cover?
Alan: Zak actually took that in his apartment when he lived in Chicago a few years ago.
CM: Why did he take that photograph? Thought it'd be a cool photo?
CM: I didn't realize what it was until I held it upside-down. I thought it was a still photograph of a ripple in water.
Alan: Yeah, we like vague pictures like that.
CM: You also don't like your photos in the albums -- the first LP was your feet and the second LP's pictures are so teeny...
Mimi: We're not much to look at so...
Alan: It's a midwestern thing, I guess, "Oh man, a picture of me, oh geez." I like not having a lot there for people to extrapolate what they think of us visually.
CM: I thought it was your take on the Factory Records ethos.
Alan: Yeh, they went overboard with it but I don't wanna yet again cop them somewhere so we can do our sleeves and keep it minimal.
CM: Who came up with the band name "Low" and why?
Alan: I came up with it driving home from Minneapolis after rehearsing with this band I was with just before realizing I did not want to do what I was doing at the time anymore and I just... sometimes when I drive, I used to think of stuff like that when I was younger. I used to think of certain kinds of bands and what kinds of names would be cool for that. Try to be descriptive. I like names that you can tell what kind of band they are: The Jesus Lizard or Joy Division or Rancid...
Alan: Slayer. "Low" is like not a lot going on. "Low" like small amounts, somber. It was a very minimal word that had a lot of description to it so I thought, "cool."
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