Low but not down
Interview by Brian Greene
Three critically-acclaimed albums (and one
EP) into a pretty amazing recording career, Low recently found
out their label-- Vernon Yard-- was dropping them (along with
most of their roster), in anticipation of going under altogether.
But Alan Sparhawk, guitarist /
vocalist for the Duluth, Minnesota-based slow-motion trio, seemed
easy going and not worried at all about finding a new home for
his band's stark, mesmerizing ballads when Grip
spoke to him over the phone on a late February afternoon.
Grip Monthly: How
did the band originally come about?
Alan Sparhawk: I don't know.
Mim (Parker, vocalist and drummer) and I have been married for
coming up on seven years. And I was in bands before. I had been
in a band that was more alternative guy-rock, and had gotten very
tired of that. I'd actually given up on the music business,
period. I quit the band and decided I was just going to mess
around with some stuff that I enjoyed but nobody else did. Then I
met up with John (Nichols, the band's original bassist), who was
just a guy I knew, and we had some similar ideas about stuff, and
we started getting together. And somehow it just fell into this
really quiet, slow feel, and we invited Mim to come and play
drums with us. Then we just started writing these little songs,
and it felt good and made sense. And by the time we'd played a
couple shows, we had something that effected audiences a lot-- as
in, they either really, really hated it or really liked it, which
is usually a pretty good sign.
Grip: What's the
songwriting process like? Do you guys write together, or work
separately at first then come together later?
Sparhawk: A little of both. I
guess mostly I'll come up with an idea first, then we'll kinda
hammer it into shape. But there are some songs that we'll work
out together as a band. Or Mim will come down to the basement and
we'll write a song together, or I'll just play something on the
guitar and she'll sing something-- nothing too magical, we don't
meditate or anything.
Grip: You did
something that surprised me on both the "Transmission"
EP and the "Curtain Hits the Cast" album. So many
people are doing drone-rock these days that it's quickly becoming
stale. . .
Grip: Yeah. I see
you guys as achieving the same kind of effect as that stuff does,
but without doing it the way everyone else is doing. Then, with
the hidden track on "Transmission" and "Do You
Know How to Waltz" (from "Curtain. . ."), you
actually did those soundscapes. . .
Sparhawk:. . . it's something
I'd like to explore a little bit, but we're very conscious of not
wanting to get trapped into it. I think it's valid, and it's
something we enjoy, and we try to delve into it and make
something that's worthwhile. The drone thing that's on the end of
"Transmission" was just a little song that came
together, and suddenly I was four-tracking it, and it just turned
out really good. At the time, we were talking about what to put
on that EP, and I wanted to put (the hidden track) on there, but
it was strange, and very long-- and very non-song. So we thought
if we hid it, it wouldn't have so much weight. "Do You Know
How to Waltz" was kind of a risk. It got longer and longer
and became this amorphous sound thing. We thought, 'Okay, what're
we gonna do with this-- if it comes out wrong, it's gonna sound
real stupid, like, oh, we better put this on here so we can have
a really long song, like all the drone rockers.' But it felt
valid to me, and I thought we could pull it off and still be Low,
so we kept it. I'm really into My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3
and some of the early purveyors of that stuff. But for us to take
a little stab off in that direction-- I'd rather write a really
good pop song than record yet another drony epic.
Grip: Can you see
doing your sort of thing forever, or do you ever have passing
thoughts about different ways you could go?
Sparhawk: Yeah. . . it's not
so much that you see an end of the tunnel as you become aware
that there is one. I don't know, we usually take it one step at a
time. We'll finish a record and eventually we'll say,
"should we do another one?" And it's always been,
"Yeah, it feels right, let's look toward doing another
one." But I do wonder if three years from now we'll still be
able to do a record that's still us and yet not redundant. It's
kinda dangerous to think about that, though. I see possibilities
for future stuff. I don't know if that means changing the sound,
or what. . .
Grip: Well, I
guess the hope is that something would naturally develop in your
regular process. . .
Sparhawk: Sure, the hope is
that it would naturally change like that. But there's very few
people who can really make a change like that and pull it off.
It's usually met with a lot of resistance from fans. I mean, what
do you do, put out records for the old fans who just want more of
the same? If it came to that, I would rather just put an end to
Grip: Do you ever
get a primal urge to just rock out?
Sparhawk: Yeah, Zak (Sally,
the band's current bassist) and I are more inclined to do that,
but Mim is totally resigned to never rock out. She'll humor us
for about ten minutes and then it's over. But Zak and I have been
in other bands where we've done it, and we know the merits of
playing loud and hard. We have little surf songs we play, and
every once in a while he and I will pull out all our little toys
and make a bunch of noise. On stage, it's constantly there, you
just want to explode. But this band is very much about keeping a
hold of that.
Grip: And that
controlled tension probably gives a lot to the power of what you
Sparhawk: Oh yeah, it's a big
part of it. The most satisfying times on the stage are where you
think you're going to explode and you don't.
Grip: So, did you
know that this was coming with your label, Vernon Yard?
Sparhawk: You always kinda
knew it was coming, but you figured they were associated with
Caroline, and they were funded by Virgin, so maybe it'd be
alright. Six months ago, we were thinking that things were fine,
and we were ready to do another record sometime this spring.
Then, I guess it was in early December, we got the hint that
things weren't going too well. They asked us if we wanted to
negotiate our contract, and they offered us a fifth of what we
were supposed to make. We felt that wasn't enough for us to do
what we needed to do. A smaller company could offer us that much
and still do just as good by us. But I don't want to slam them. I
understand their position. When you're a band like us, that's not
selling a hundred thousand copies, it's hard to pay like we're
selling that much.
Grip: How have
Low's records been selling?
Sparhawk: We sell probably
between 10 and 15 thousand copies of each record, which is not
good compared to Alanis Morrisette, but it's pretty good for a
band like us. We were outselling bands on Vernon Yard that they
were spending literally ten times as much money on. We were
actually the closest thing to a money-making band they had. But
not close enough, I guess.
Grip: Do you have
any other labels in mind to approach, or are there some that have
Sparhawk: Our lawyer sent out
probably a dozen or two dozen CDs to some of the bigger labels.
And I know we have some people who like us at the bigger
companies-- it's just a matter of them asking their boss if they
can pursue signing a band. But certainly we're interested in
working with medium-sized companies. We've talked with Rykodisc,
we've talked with Touch and Go. We're doing a single with SubPop
this spring. If someone came along who was really into us and had
some great ideas about what to do with us, we'd probably go for
it. Money would be great, but it's really not a big issue.
Grip: What are
you listening to these days?
Sparhawk: (Long sigh) Oh man,
'these days,' as in the last couple days, I pulled out one of the
old Luna records, and I just bought the new Make Up album and
that's pretty amazing.
Grip: What about
some of your all-time faves?
Sparhawk: Oh, I'll probably
never outgrow Joy Division and the Velvet Underground. My Bloody
Valentine-- "Isn't Anything" is, to me, probably one of
the three best records ever made. I like a lot of old stuff, like
Roy Orbison and some of the Phil Spector-produced stuff. Beat
Happening shook my world pretty hard. I love all that Galaxie 500
stuff. People would probably expect me to deny any connection
with them, but they were pretty stinkin' amazing.
(This interview originally appeared in
Grip Monthly #5, April '97)
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