Low - SF Gate article 04/12/01
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On the Lowdown
Slowcore band Low examines the virtues of minimalism
From SF Gate, Thursday, April 12, 2001
By Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate

Photo by Daniel Corrigan

Alan Sparhawk has just pulled off the road and settled into a hotel room in Grand Junction, Colo., taking a Sunday night off between gigs in Denver and Provo, Utah. As he does an interview over the telephone, his 13-month-old daughter, Hollis Mae, can be heard screaming her lungs out in the background.

"She's the loudest person I've ever met," Sparhawk says.

The irony is hardly lost on the proud father; he is the vocalist/guitarist in Low, one of the most notoriously quiet bands that rock music has ever known. "She'll be fronting a punk rock band by the time she's 15," he adds.

When Sparhawk and his wife, vocalist/drummer Mimi Parker, formed Low in Duluth, Minn., in 1993, they deliberately set out to go against the louder-and-faster grain of punk. With bassist Zak Sally joining in 1994, Low immediately specialized in glacial tempos. Cryptic lyrics and whispered vocals were imbedded in the musical equivalent of slowly melting icebergs. You could find precedents in the most fragile moments of such forebears as Velvet Underground, Young Marble Giants and Galaxie 500. But Low, who recently released its sixth and possibly most accessible album, Things We Lost In The Fire, took languor to new extremes.


LOW-CORE: How Slow Can You Go? (RealAudio)

An hour's worth of music from Duluth's slowcore pioneers and their peers and inspirations, including Velvet Underground, Eno, Nick Cave, Joy Division, Red House Painters, Ida, Tindersticks, Elliott Smith and more.

"The idea of playing that music in front of people who were used to punk rock and alternative post-Nirvana stuff just seemed very subversive and exciting," Sparhawk explains.

Initially, Low was met with indifference, if not hostility. Some people, however, responded positively to an aesthetic that combined the most ethereal qualities of folkies Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake and the dark, brooding intensity of Nick Cave. "That, to me, was some indication that maybe what we were doing had some merit to it," Sparhawk acknowledges. "That was the reason we kept going."

Today, Low has a sizeable discography (including Owl, a CD of remixes by Jimmy Somerville, Neotropic, Tranquility Bass and others) and a large enough following to justify booking two nights at the Great American Musical Hall for the band's upcoming appearances in SF.

From a Whisper to a Soft Scream

Moreover, a so-called slowcore movement -- epitomized by Codeine, Red House Painters, Ida and others -- gained enough dawdling momentum over the past decade that the Norwegian band Kings of Convenience could confidently title its latest CD Quiet Is The New Loud.

No longer pressured to find an accepting audience, Low now concentrates on fine-tuning its hushed, unhurried rock. On its past two albums, 1999's Secret Name and the new Things We Lost In The Fire, the trio teamed with famed indie-rock producer Steve Albini, making subtle changes in its sound. Newcomers wouldn't notice, but some songs on Things We Lost, including "Sunflower," "Dinosaur Act" and "In Metal," practically rock out in comparison to earlier Low efforts.

"As we wrote the new songs we found that they wanted to be a little bolder, a little more pop, actually," Sparhawk says. "In the past, we would kind of stifle that, and say, 'OK, now how do we strip this pop song down to something that sounds a little more like Low?' This time, we felt, let's not do that, and see what happens. I'm not sure if we're always going to go down that road, but it was an interesting experiment."

The challenge of experimenting with sound became Low's prime motivation after the novelty of pulling the audience's chain wore off, Sparhawk explains: "When we started, it was kind of, 'Tee-hee, we're playing real quiet and slow.' It probably took a good year before we started to sense the full possibilities, then slowly it dawned on us that if you put your heart and soul into it, it could be very powerful music, very exciting and even emotionally draining to play."

Under the Influence of Minimalism

While Low has plenty of slowcore compatriots in rock these days, Sparhawk looks to abstract art and late-20th century new music for parallels and inspiration. In rapt tones, he talks about what it's like to sit in front of a Mark Rothko painting, "watching how it interacts with the air, almost," and what it's like to aspire to a similar effect in music. "It's interesting to make something that has the same pace as the space that it's in," he says. "We're far from reaching that, but the stuff that we do that is most exciting to me is the opposite of the more pop numbers on the new record. It's music that becomes almost static."

He discovered minimalism in college. Whereas that term would make many pop fans think of Brian Eno, Sparhawk brings up the names of La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. "I wish that someday we'll be able to make a whole record that is as beautiful and static and powerful as his music," Sparhawk says of the breathlessly stark and elegant Feldman.

Playing slowly and quietly requires a different kind of mindfulness to detail than punk's three chords and a cloud of dust. That imperative doesn't escape Low. "When there's little going on, you have to be that much more attentive to what is there and what it is going to say," Sparhawk affirms, "because ultimately it's going to speak very loudly and very clearly. To say that we spend a lot of time on our songs and our arrangements and how we play them bounces off most people's ears, I guess. 'Well, duh.' But we do, and it's like a whole other dimension of songwriting."

Low has been able to make a career out of doing that because there is a burgeoning audience that is willing to come along for the ride. "The last time we played the Great American Music Hall, the place was sold out, and it was really, really amazing how quiet it was," says Sparhawk. "We don't expect it to happen, and we don't get all huffy if it doesn't. It is a little annoying if people aren't quiet, because you want the people who are listening to be able to hear what you're doing, but wow, when you get 700 people listening it's humbling, it's exciting and it makes for a better show. Those are the moments that we live for."

Low performs at 9 pm April 17 and 18 at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., SF; $12; (415) 885-0750. Danielson Famile opens.


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