A Kind of Hush
Low Keeps It Down While Scaling a Creative Peak
by Scott Carlson
Low, Secret Name, Kranky
You've heard of the "power trio." What does one call the famously quiet Low? The Duluth, Minn.-based threesome relies on a sparsely strummed Telecaster, a droning bass guitar, a single snare drum, and the shimmering harmonies of vocalists Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. The band's songs move at continental-drift speed, some are a bit monotonous, and some are barely audible. "Powerless trio" doesn't quite sum it up, though: Many of Low's songs contain gripping melodies, catchy guitar hooks, and an atmospheric je ne sais quoi--all of which has won the band a small but loyal national following.
But elusive beauty and unique style don't really wash in the business of rock 'n' roll, and Low's latest album, Secret Name, finds the band both at a creative peak and in a bit of a career valley. Sparsely decorated with slowed-down pop songs and electric hymns, Secret Name is Low's first album since the band was unceremoniously dropped from Caroline Records subsidiary Vernon Yard, which had signed the then-6-month-old group in 1994. Sparhawk and Parker see this step as positive: a return to the DIY ethic, and a refocusing of the band's priorities.
"No one likes to go to bed knowing that someone is losing money over you. So I kinda was like, "Great, at least we know they're not losing money on us anymore,'" Sparhawk says. "Perhaps we don't fit in the major-label pace of things. It would be nice to think that someday we'll have a big hit and sell lots of records, but I really don't think that's going to happen, and I think there would've been more pressure if we were on Vernon Yard."
To regain some confidence, the band recorded an EP, Songs for a Dead Pilot, and released it on Chicago's Kranky label last year. In the fall of '98, Sparhawk, Parker, and bassist Zak Sally went to the Chicago studio of punk icon and noisemaker Steve Albini to record Secret Name. It had been almost three years since Low's last album, which gave the band plenty of time to pick and hone a handful of songs.
"On [Low's 1996 album] Curtain Hits the Cast, we did about 19 songs and put 13 on the record. Looking back, instead of doing those six extra songs, it would've been nice to work a little harder on a couple of the songs [on Curtain]. But this time, we were like, "Here's 12 songs--we'll use 10 of them, instead of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.' That fits with the way we work. When we write, we don't have tons of songs we're working on and writing. If a song is halfway there, 90 percent of the time, we finish it and make sure it works."
As a result, the songs on Secret Name--particularly "Starfire," "Missouri," and "Soon"--are more consciously melodic and carefully crafted than anything the band has done before. The album's single, "Immune," engages the listener with Sparhawk's confessions of the stage fright he sometimes feels touring with Low's delicate sound: "Tell me is the time that slow/ Only when your eyes are closed? . . . Am I still immune?/ Am I naked too?" "Will the Night" is the album's triumph: The melody, which soars like every classic '50s song, swoops over a mournful string trio and a swelling, rumbling timpani.
"We're great respecters of the classic forms of pop music. If we could write a song as good as "Running Scared' by Roy Orbison or "Unchained Melody' . . . a little part of us would be satisfied," Sparhawk says. "Those are the songs that really rip at your heart and, most of the time, those are the songs we really like to write."
Parker and Sparhawk are Low's creative core, and they are also husband and wife. They started Low in 1994 after they were married; of being both a creative and a romantic team, Parker says, "we don't know any other way. I think it helps coming together on a song. We've known each other so long that we can read each other's thoughts a little bit."
"It might be kind of a mystical, subconscious thing," Sparhawk says. "I've heard a lot of people say that with our harmonies, you know, there's something there." But the two chuckle when Sparhawk points out that the lack of barriers works both ways: "It sometimes is a struggle. We're the hardest on each other. When I sit down and sing an idea for Mim and she has the slightest comment about how there's something wrong with it, I usually react a lot worse than if Zak says, "Uh, maybe we should change that.'"
Parker and Sparhawk often can't tell you where ideas for their compositions come from or what they mean. But Sparhawk is aware that songs with more direct themes--about religion and spirituality--have "crept in a bit more" on Secret Name. "Missouri" is about the early, failed Mormon settlement in that state in 1838. Sparhawk is Mormon, and Parker converted to Mormonism from nondenominational Christianity some years ago.
"I think the process of writing songs over the years, the deeper you get into it, and the deeper we get into the kind of band that we are--the focus on the core of the person, the center of the human being, the abyss--you start bumping into those things more and more," Sparhawk says. "Somewhere on the surface, it's chasing chicks and driving cars, and somewhere down at the core is "Who am I?' and "What am I doing here?'"
Sparhawk and Parker say that their devotion and beliefs don't push them any further outside the indie-rock scene than they already are. They are cautious when they talk about the religious themes in their music because, although they are devout, they don't want to be categorized as a dogmatic "Christian-rock" band.
"We're not doing this music to change anybody else," Parker says. "We're doing this music because it's what comes out of us. We have no secret agenda."
"We think it's better when people pick up on [the spiritual themes] on their own rather than people saying, "Oh, I think I'm going to check out the religious band,'" Sparhawk says. "We're making music for people, not just religious types. I think at the end of the day, we all feel alone. In the middle of the night in the dark, we're all feeling the same thing." [·]
Low will appear at the Charles Theatre on Sept. 16. Call (410) 727-3456 for tickets and information.
« Back to other articles from 1999