You might call it an "Egypt Air" moment: the second you realize that an interview has gone irrevocably nose-down and
there's nothing left for you to do but wait for the impact. Perhaps that's a bit of a negative attitude to take towards
our interview with Low, but at the time, that's how it felt. Perhaps it's due to our misguided decision to attempt to
talk only about the band's Christmas EP. Perhaps it was our dangerously off-the-cuff questions, which seemed to
annoy the band with unerring accuracy. Perhaps some of us were suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. We'll
probably never know for certain.
We hope you enjoy this holiday-themed interview with Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Zak Sally. Perhaps, just for fun,
you'll imagine you're there in the basement of Chicago's doomed
Lounge Ax, watching the awkward goings-on. If you do, see if you
can spot the "Egypt Air" moment...
Splendid: Other than the fact that you've previously recorded Christmas material, what inspired you to do a Christmas EP?
Alan: It was a slow thing coming. We did a Christmas single a couple of years ago, because it was timely, and we thought it went well, and the next year we did some more stuff...by then we kind of thought 'Maybe we'll make this a little tradition every year, to do something Christmassy. We got impatient on the third year (this year) and ended up doing a whole bunch of stuff, and that's how it came together.
Splendid: So will we see another new Christmas EP from you next year?
Alan: Probably not. We'll probably start from scratch again, and do something small.
Mimi: And then in another six years we'll do another one...
Alan: Another six years, another full Christmas album...I don't know.
Splendid: In the last 15 or 20 years, nobody has really managed to come up with a new Christmas song that "took". Nothing has been added to the collective consciousness. Is that something you might aspire to, down the road?
Zak: We weren't shooting for that at all. It's nothing to shoot for.
Mimi: We're not shooting for the hymn books or that.
Zak: The first song off the record ("A Lot Like Christmas"), we finished it, and we were like, well, it's different than anything we've ever done before. It'd be so great if when you're driving around at Christmas with your folks, and you're listening to the "Christmas Station" and that came on...that'd really...nice. It's not gonna happen, but...
Splendid: It really is the most striking song on the record. A real change of pace for you. How did it come about?
Alan: We wrote the song, and we tried it a bunch of different ways, and it just sounded really...dull, when we played it our normal way. We just experimented a little bit, tried a few things, and the further we got away from the way we normally do things, the better it sounded, so we ended up going pretty far with it.
By the time we stumbled upon how that song needed to be done, we were really really excited about it. I don't think we really questioned for a minute whether it was right for us to be doing the song that way -- once we stumbled upon it, it was clearly the right way to do it and we were really excited. I don't know...anyone who thinks we should stick to a certain sound is assuming too much. We're just...what am I talking about again?
Alan: I don't know. It was fun, and it was different...not that our next record is gonna sound all like that, but it was worth doing.
Splendid: When I listened to the advance tape, I really had to stop and make sure I hadn't put the wrong tape in the player, which was cool.
Alan: Yeah, there's something to that. It sounds absolutely not at all like us, and that will become very evident tonight as we attempt to play it live. (Actually, they pretty much nailed it)
Splendid: Is it harder to get it right live just because it's so different, logistically, from the other stuff you're doing on stage?
Zak: Yeah, and it might be one of the only songs we've ever done that was kind of made to sound the way it was in the studio. We did a lot of...I wouldn't say tricks, but doing it in the studio and doing it live is two different things. Usually, studio work is an approximation of what you do live, and this time what we're doing live is an approximation of what happened in the studio.
Alan: That song really "arrived" more in the studio, whereas most of our songs, we play them and then figure out how to play 'em first.
Splendid: A lot of bands' Christmas material consists of a track or two on compilations -- or else they don't want to be associated with a "religious" holiday at all...what's your motivation in doing an entire album?
Alan: The more we can distance ourselves from everybody else, the better.
Mimi: We like Christmas and we're not ashamed of it.
Splendid: Yeah, that's what I'm getting at -- that's what makes it unusual. It seems like it's not cool to be into Christmas.
Mimi: I don't think that was really a consideration.
(long, long pause)
Splendid: Are you only doing three tour dates for this EP?
Mimi: Kind of. We did a lot of touring earlier this fall. We did a couple of months, covering the whole US, and we were just over in Europe. We did a couple of Christmas songs at the end of the European shows...this is probably about it, I guess.
Splendid: So you're in Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis?
Zak: We did one in Duluth, too.
Alan: Mimi is pregnant and it's getting to a time now where it's just...not right to tour.
Mimi: Yeah, it's getting kind of uncomfortable.
Splendid: I kind of wanted to ask you a little about that, if you don't mind, because it's so rare to see someone who's pregnant and touring... Does your style of playing -- the fact that the pace of your songs is a little less demanding -- make it easier to tour?
Mimi: I don't know. I can't compare it.
Zak: Are you referring to the pregnancy?
Splendid: Yeah. My point is that it'd be different if you were in L7 or something.
Mimi: Oh, yeah. It hasn't been that bad, really...It's different, obviously -- clothes don't fit.
Alan: It's harder for her to sleep.
Mimi: Harder to sleep, harder to get out of chairs, but...it's not the most convenient way to go, I'll admit that. And this smoky bar scene is not necessarily conducive to a healthy pregnancy, so that has a lot to do with why we're not doing more. I'm 7 months pregnant, so...
Splendid: Did you ever think you'd be seven months pregnant and touring?
Mimi: I don't think so.
Alan: No, we didn't think we'd ever be touring. We never thought we'd ever be pregnant, either, so the two are both a surprise.
Mimi: Well, not a surprise, but...
Zak: Well, ten years ago, if someone said "Yeah, you're gonna be in a band" you'd have said no. And ten years ago if someone said "In ten years you're gonna be pregnant" --
Mimi: Pregnant in a band... no!
Splendid: How are audiences taking to the Christmas music?
Alan: It's going pretty good. Some people are really excited about it. I think some people are a little confused by it. But it's the holiday season...I imagine that like most Christmas music, people will be a little sick of it by Christmas, but right now they seem to like it and we're getting some unique reactions to it. People who are excited about it who normally don't hear us, which I guess is an interesting side.
Mimi: We put out this little Christmas EP not with the intent that it's the next big Low release. Some people are getting kind of upset about it, you know, like...we read something about some guy saying "Oh, they could've done better." You know, just lighten up, it's Christmas.
Alan: It's a little EP.
Mimi: Yeah, it's fun, which is the reason we did it.
Zak: We did it in a week, for cripe's sakes.
Splendid: So what will we see from the next full-length Low album? Any changes?
Zak: There'll be a baby.
Splendid: So a lot of baby-centric songs?
Zak: No. We kind of go about things, in that we write and then we record and then we tour and then we write more. It just kind of evolves out of that process, so people can expect that it'll be a Low record.
Fig. 1: Low uses a flow chart much like this one to insure a smooth flow of creativity.
Mimi: There's no grand scheme.
Zak: I think every record of ours is kind of different from the one before it, so it'll be that...
Alan: It'll still be us.
Mimi: If we had some grand design it'd be easier to say more...
Zak: Like, the next record's gonna be...techno.
Mimi: We really do it song by song.
Splendid: Do you have any material done yet?
Alan: We have about half a dozen songs done...we need to write some more. At some point we'll look at 'em and try to figure out how they make sense together as a whole record. If we can't put it together, we'll write some more stuff and change some things around...right now we're still writing songs and shaking our heads and trying to figure out what they mean and what they're pointing towards, and I imagine we'll be doing that for another three months at least.
Splendid: How did you feel about the remix album (Owl: Remix Low)?
(The temperature in the room immediately drops 30 degrees)
Splendid: On your official site it's not listed as an album, but as a contractual obligation...
(The temperature in the room drops another 30 degrees. Frost begins to form on Zak.)
Mimi: Oh, really.
Alan: There was no contract.
Zak: It wasn't an obligation.
Alan: It has our name on it. It's...great.
Splendid: Okay...Umm, Alan, do you find you're a lot more sought-after for production these days? I know you've produced Jessica Bailiff's stuff, and you produced Best Boy Electric's album...is there a lot more?
Alan: I don't feel like I'm producing records. We know Jessica -- she's a good friend and she wanted to work with someone she knew, that she was comfortable around, and I offered to have her come up and use our equipment, and I helped her with some stuff. Best Boy Electric is John, who was our first bass player -- he's a good friend, and just talking one day I invited him to come up, and have his band come up and record with us. I don't really feel like we're producing. I enjoy working with people from time to time, but it's not something I necessarily aspire to do. It's fun to work with people I know, and I enjoy what they're doing, but... I'm sure from time to time there'll be other bands who come and record in our studio and work with us a little bit, but it's not something I've decided I want to do -- be a producer or anything.
Splendid: Someone who doesn't live in the midwest recently told me that he thinks everyone in the Midwest is into "that slow stuff", which I guess could nominally include you guys --
Alan: Our biggest shows are probably on the coast, so I don't know what that guy's talking about, and --
Mimi: He didn't finish the question. What were you gonna ask?
Splendid: Do you really see your music as being slow?
Zak: I love this one. Yeah, but I think, at least for us, it's not the point.
Splendid: Yeah, it's more about texture and detail.
Zak: It's how we do things. Nobody says "oh, well, all those fast bands" --
Alan: Hey, GVSB, what's up with the fast music?
Zak: It's just --
Alan: It's really sweeping the country, isn't it?
Zak: The tempo is really beside the point. It's just the way we present our stuff, and Tool presents their stuff a different way.
Mimi: I don't agree with the Midwest thing, either -- a good variety of bands come out of the Midwest.
Alan: I think there may be a little bit of a leaning towards some "wimpy" bands these days, which in some ways we'd fall into that category. There's definitely a lot more of those bands than there were when we started. Unfortunately it'll mean that people will get sick of that stuff and we'll get blamed for things, or...
whatever. It comes and goes. Soundgarden's still a good band.
Zak: We're no bigger fans of slow music than we are of loud and fast music -- we're just fans of bands and music that's made --
Alan: Music by people who really mean it.
Zak: Music by people who believe what they're doing and pull it off...well.
Alan: We're not aspiring to be slow. We're aspiring to be good.
Splendid: Once you get drawn into a song, it doesn't matter what the tempo is. It's about what's going on in the song, and that's where Low comes out ahead -- you might have a more intricate arrangement than, say, Labradford, who depend upon repetition --
Alan: See, that's exactly what I'm talking about here. We get lumped in with bands like Labradford because they're slow.
Alan: ...and we're slow, and it's like, man, they are pursuing music in a completely different way -- their approach is different, their goal is different and their satisfaction regarding interaction with the audience is different also. And it's great. We really love Labradford, and we can see that they're doing something different... To think that our goals are the same as theirs is ludicrous. That's the frustrating thing of the whole "slow" music -- it's like saying all the fast bands are the same. The Ramones were very much different from Tool or the Melvins. Well, maybe not the Melvins. There's a variety there -- it's the same old struggle. Every band wants to be understood. There's what I call the three second description -- you listen to a band for three seconds and then you tell what they're "about" in one phrase...and we're "slow and quiet". At the end of the day, we're "slow and quiet". To anyone who wants to look a little deeper I think there's more there, and I think there's a lot of difference...
Splendid: I think anyone who writes you off as slow and quiet hasn't really listened to your albums.
Alan: Right, but I don't care. If that's as long as they're gonna listen to it, then I don't want them to listen to my music anyway. And that's fine. It doesn't bother me..."Oh, yep, slow and quiet." At least there's a couple of people who listen to it. I don't care. We enjoy doing it.
Splendid: One last question: what's the best thing about being in Low? I'll send you a formal apology for these questions later, by the way. Why is it better being in Low than it is being in any other band?
Mimi: I don't know if it's better...
Alan: Low is different, so much, from other bands who aren't happy with what they're doing --
Mimi: It's good for us. It's good for me. I like the songs and the music, the style of music is closer to my heart than...other styles...
Alan: We're not going deaf. And we can tour in a Plymouth mini-van.
Splendid: As long as it has room for a child seat.
Alan: Oh, yeah, now we'll have to get a bigger one.
Mimi: We'll have to get a bigger one.
Zak: Baby's gonna ride on the roof.
Splendid: That'll limit you to summer tours, I imagine.
Mimi: No, we'll go south in winter.
George Zahora is Splendid's Editor. He is sick and tired of interviewing bands and has sworn not to do it again this century. And if he does it next century, he's going to do it without mentioning Labradford.
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