by LD Beghtol
Husband and wife duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker play languorous guitar and barely-there drums. Zak Sally's
supple, understated bass anchors their delicate, minimal compositions, which range from near fragments to lengthy
experimental drone-based workouts. Together, they're Low, a legendary presence in the so-called slow-core movement
(but don't call them that or you'll get a stern talking-to) and they make some of the most beautiful music you're ever
likely to hear. Unusually self-effacing, the trio speaks like they play: slowly and deliberately. IndiePlanet listened
closely to the group talk about the meaning of indie, babies and their gorgeous new Christmas album. What can we say?
They're an eclectic bunch.
IndiePlanet: What does indie mean to you?
Photo by Gail O'Hara
Alan Sparhawk: I don't know what it means anymore. To me it's very hackneyed--the whole indie stripe or stamp of things. Maybe it's still valid, I don't know. "Indie" as a musical genre--I think we've grown past that. But "indie" as a way of doing things--we're probably happier on an indie label than we've been in a long time--so it's still valid in that sense. Probably now more than ever.
IP: Happier in the sense of how you make your records?
Mimi Parker: I don't know that we ever really had a problem with what we recorded. I think maybe the way you're treated is the key. Whether you're treated with respect-
IP: And understanding?
AS: Well, that didn't really happen in our other situation-
IP: On Vernon Yard?
AS: Yeah--but you can have your chain pulled on an independent, too.
MP: But that doesn't really describe our situation now.
AS: No, but I think at this point "indie" doesn't really describe being with a smaller record company. They're smaller, which means they don't have a lot of money for promotions, but instead you get a better return on what they do sell, so it's really also a business choice as much as anything else. And it's a lot more definable now in those terms.
IP: I think it's a lot like the late '70s right now, where you have all this monster commercial music made by a few corporations, and the good smaller labels--sort of based on the Factory Records model--are releasing the good stuff.
AS: Yes, it's really obvious now what's independent, on a smaller label, and what's on a major label. A few years ago everyone got really worried and it was really confusing and everyone wanted to sit around and talk about, "Are we indie or not?" We're just on a small label [Kranky], now. We don't know if we're indie or not, but we like the way we fit them. Things are simpler on an indie. We find them easier to deal with. We deal more directly with the decision makers-
MP: There's no middle man. But with a major, you've got your name on a contract and there's a mediator at the table-
Zak Sally: And you and your lawyer-
MP: Yeah, and their lawyer. But with Kranky we don't have all that. When we have a request or a problem we deal directly with them-
AS: We bring him our requests and he tells us no! [Laughs.]
IP: So, when you left Vernon Yard, you left on "mutually agreeable terms?"
AS: Or whatever, I don't know. They're a big business and we're a small band--and it didn't work out. And it wasn't really the most ideal form of parting.
IP: Anyway, did you explore going with another, bigger label?
ZS: We went though that process for a while. But in the end it didn't work out.
AS: And in the end, that's fine.
ZS: I'm kind of glad it didn't. If it had, we'd be in a very different position than the one we're in now.
IP: Well, Kranky seems ideal for you.
MP: We think so.
IP: And you're in excellent company-
AS: Yes, we're very lucky. I almost don't feel like we're on an indie--most people are out there practically putting out their own stuff, or spending all their time on the phone just trying to get a store to consign some of their CDs-
ZS: That's indie-
AS: But with Kranky it's easy. We go, "Hey, here's our record." And they put it out, and it's in the stores. Which is great because we don't have to work hard at all.
IP: So, you've got five albums, three EPs, lots of singles--what's next?
ZS: A Christmas record. It's eight songs: three covers, five originals, all done in Duluth. In our basement. It includes the Christmas single from a couple of years ago ["If You Were Born Today"] and one we did last year for a radio station in Holland. And another five songs we recorded in the middle of summer. It's pretty varied. There's not a lot of treatments or effects.
IP: So it's just the three of you, no strings or anything like on Secret Name?
MP: Yeah, simple stuff.
AS: But we're playing lot of different instruments. I played bass, ZS: played some drums. We used an Optigan for some drum loops and keyboards ... lots of keyboards. And an acoustic guitar, which I don't usually like to use.
AS: It's very much a home-recording feeling. Not unlike Songs for a Dead Pilot.
IP: So, Mimi, your baby's due in March--which means you won't be able to tour for a while, I guess?
AS: No, we won't tour for a little while. We'll give her a month or so, then we'll stuff her in the van, and-
MP: We'll send [the baby] out to do the merchandise-
AS: It won't really be that different. We're pretty casual about touring as it is now. It's intense, but we're not wild people, so we won't necessarily have to totally change our way of touring. Maybe just shorter trips-
ZS: We've been working on that anyway, touring more efficiently. We used to hit every town two or three times a year. We like playing our music live, but now we're a bit better organized about it. And with the baby coming, it'll drive us to super-efficiency.
MP: There's more potential for driving ourselves at a reasonable pace. [Laughing.]
AS: If we were suddenly huge, playing for a couple thousand people a night, or if we started to make major royalties it'd be a little bit easier ...
IP: Don't say "if." Say "when"--be positive!
MP: Yeah, when?! [Laughing.]
AS: Right! [Laughs sarcastically.]
ZS: Yeah, we're positive, all right ...
IP: You sound slightly embittered, Zak. Why's that?
ZS: No, I'm not bitter--I'm absolutely not bitter.
MP: No, we're not bitter. We're just realistic.
ZS: We're doing great, really. There's all this other stuff we could be doing instead-
IP: Like playing Huey Lewis covers in some dank bar in some awful city?
AS: But it's been six years. There are a lot of bands right now that don't have [what we have].
ZS: And we're doing what we're doing and were allowed to do it and we're very lucky. And people seem to
like what we do-
IP: Oh, your fans adore you-
ZS: But we still go to every show and think, "Nah, nobody's going to be there."
MP: In fact, I'm always amazed when I see people in the audience.
ZS: You never know. So, no--not bitter.
IP: Oh, I didn't think you were really bitter, I was just-
ZS: Well, actually I am, but it's got nothing to do with anything we're talking about!
AS and MP: [Long pause, then laughter.]
« Back to other articles from 2000