LOW: FREE TO DO ANYTHING|
An Interview with Alan Sparhawk
by Ian Manire, Contributing Writer
As Alan Sparhawk himself points out, a lot of people listen to Low and hear pretty much one thing: "depressing music". If you spend any real time with their work, however, it becomes clear that the expressive range of Low's music is in many ways broader than most bands who appear to vary their sonic ingredients more. Low is simply more subtle than most, favouring tone, delivery, texture, and the relationship between sounds and silence over bombastic angst or capitulations of volume or rhythm.
"Minimalist" is a deceptive description of their music. What most artists might assume to be a realm expendable in a song or an album, Low has turned into the very source of their prolific longevity: the "limitations" clarify, allowing each of the finite elements of music to reveal its maximum potential. If Low gets silent, or violent, or pensive, or ecstatic: they really mean it. It is this honest, crystalline subtlety that has those who "get" the music returning to it over the course of years, and far from revealing "depressing music," allows fans to discover new joys each listen.
One other thing I think sets Low in the class of contemporary musicians who really matter in these times (and who will continue to matter long after the flavours of the year are forgotten) is that despite their increased recognition over the years, they are very genuinely working musicians, doing it because it's what they're here to do. This very interview reflects the truth of their priorities. I'm just a fan, a music geek, and certainly no journalist. I wrote to them, with essentially nothing to offer-no affiliations, no promise of publication-other than my love for their art. Apparently, my sincere interest was enough. They didn't need anything else from me. While on tour, Alan took the time to answer my lengthy queries with care and insight.
Fortunately, I've managed to get the whole thing published after all. So from here on out, Low can speak for themselves, and I can quit proselytising.
PopMatters: A lot of journalism regarding your work makes much of the self-imposed limitations of the Low aesthetic. Obviously, this sort of a focus ignores the fact that the "Low sound" has added and subtracted a large number of elements-instruments, tempos, production styles-over the years. More importantly, this focus tends to overshadow the fact that the breadth and depth of emotions your music conveys is in many ways greater than what most bands achieve via the more traditional fast/loud formulae.
How would you describe the relationship between your choices in sound and your emotional expressiveness? Did you ever feel that your commitments were limiting your expression? Has the continuing flexibility and applicability of your aesthetic surprised you in any ways?
Alan Sparhawk: The emotional possibilities you speak of took a long time to realise. When we first started, we knew there were powerful emotions that seemed to come naturally to what we were doing, but we thought it mostly stayed in the lonely/depressive end of the spectrum; though looking back, there is certainly joy and hope in the early songs, but we were new to it and only saw what maybe a lot of people see in us: "depressing music". As we grew, we saw the new possibilities, and at this point I think we could express just about anything we wanted to. The limits we seem to put upon what we do have actually made us more free. I think the slowness, unfortunately, just immediately makes people think it's downer music.
With each record, we hope to push ourselves a little more. For the last few records, the tension or challenge is in pushing against our own boundaries, finding new ways to work and push against what we have established over the years. The faster/louder songs are the obvious fruits of that, but I think the more interesting things have been the new textures and ways of creating dynamics. We haven't run out of stuff yet, but if you had asked us eight years ago if we would still be making records, we would have laughed (and cried).
PM: When I solicited music geeks for questions they'd like to ask you, a number of people made comments to the effect of "ask them why they don't rock". I gather that you are fans of plenty of more traditionally "rocking" music than your own. However, your own music probably distances a lot of (punk) rock purists as well as those strictly into traditionally quiet, melancholic forms of music. In fact, many accounts describe the formation of the band as a reaction to neo-Led Zeppelin rock dressed in punk's clothing.
How accurate is the "reaction" description of your formation? Was the original impetus less a statement and more a personal proclivity? Do you see advantages to avoiding most territory of "rocking," or "folking," for that matter?
AS: There's plenty of people doing loud rock, and doing it well. There are other possibilities in music. On the other end, I have always thought that to align ourselves with more of a folk or revivalist style would be limiting in a way that we don't want to have to deal with. Again, in many ways, we are more free to do anything than most bands are. We have done 20 minute, wall of noise pieces, and we have done John Denver covers, neither of which has seemed that out of place, in our minds. Yes, we were a bit of a reactionary band at first-only because half the fun of the idea for the band was the idea of playing it in front of an unreceptive audience. It soon became more personal and more complex, but we initially wanted to throw people off with what we were doing.
PM: I've always thought of your music as having more in common with Elvis Costello's "I Want You," Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden", or the plaintive side of gospel/religious music (in terms of emphasising subtle variation of expression and repetition of musical/lyrical motifs) than with any of the "slow-core" or "shoe-gazing" bands with which you're often associated. I've never felt comfortable describing your music in terms of genre-affiliation (unlike Slowdive or Codeine or even Dirty Three, much as I love them each).
Do you see your music as existing within a particular continuity or community? What are some of your primary musical influences? Are there any "slow" bands, past or present, that you feel comfortable having name-checked in relation to yours? How significant is "breaking new ground" musically in your creative goals?
AS: We have always, from the start, wanted to be doing something that hadn't been done before. This is of course a relative endeavour-it depends on perspective. We are not the first to play minimal, slow, pop-based music, and taken at face value, one could say there's not much different between what we do and "Home Sweet Home" by Motley Crüe. Certainly, Joy Division, Velvet Underground, the Cure, Neil Young, and yes, Galaxie 500, were early inspirations; but we really were driven to do something original and unique. The artists that we respect the most always seem to be the ones who are breaking new ground and going against the grain, so that was what we wanted to try to do. I think we have done that, to some extent, but I don't argue with anyone about it-everyone's perspective is different and valid. Who is right? A college kid who works at the local indie record store, or Zak's grandpa? Thankfully, neither.
We have never felt like we were part of some community or group in the music-genre matrix. In the early '90s we were never accepted by the indie-rock scene, we were not part of that post-rock whatever stuff in the late '90s, and now the new wave / NYC scene is equally far removed from where we are. As for other slow bands, I don't know any of them, let alone share any manifesto with them. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but never being totally "in" means we will maybe never be totally "out".
PM: In record-geek discussion of your music, your cover songs are a repeated topic of interest, especially the way in which you so fully make a cover your own. I've even used the term "Lowification" without having to explain myself. I think in your weblog you recently talked about covering a Floyd tune "straight-ahead," which seems to suggest a conscious process of conversion on your part.
Talk a little, if you can, about your process of choosing a cover, and the translating of a song "into Low". (Have you ever considered covering a Talk Talk song? When I think about who could do it properly, you're one of the few groups that come to mind).
AS: Usually when we are doing a cover, it's mostly that we are fans of the song and we are curious about what it would sound like if we did it. The "Lowification" you speak of is not really something we plan or manipulate-we have our own limits and ways of playing, so it usually just ends up coming out however we can do it. We just know that because we are who we are, it's going to turn out a certain way. With the Floyd song, we were half way through tracking it when we realised that is was shaping up to sound fairly close to the original recording. We thought that was interesting, so we tried to stick with it for the rest of the process, just to see if we could do it, and I think it turned out pretty close. On other songs like "Down By The River" (Neil Young) and "Back Home Again" (John Denver), we knew we were going to be fairly off the original, so then it's a challenge to still keep what we like about the original and hopefully find a way to fit something from ourselves in. Though I am a big fan of Talk Talk, their stuff would be hard to find a place in. It's more than just that I hold them in such high regard; there's something else there that just keeps them far out of reach.
PM: Even as an outsider to organised religion or spiritual faith, the spirituality (if you'll excuse me using the term) of all your work is achingly, joyously clear to me. However, in much of the work I take to be overtly religious, you emphasise penitent sombreness, tribulation, longing, or even anger -- rarely anything the English would call "happy-clappy". I can only guess awkwardly as to your motivations for favouring this sort of territory.
If you can do, tell us a little about why you sometimes approach spiritual expression through these less commonly acknowledged lenses. How does sorrow, plaintive hopefulness, or anger relate to your religious experience or your spiritual expression? (I'm thinking here especially of songs like "I Am the Lamb", "If You Were Born Today", "Whore", or your cover of "Lord, Can You Hear Me".)
AS: I wonder sometimes, myself, why the subject of spirituality in our music comes out in darker terms, when in all honesty, my personal experiences with spirituality and religion have brought mostly joy, peace, and hope. Maybe the struggle of finding that joy, peace, and hope is what is the most interesting and the most worthwhile to express. I hope to have eternity to express joy, but for now, every moment is a struggle and I think any form of expression or art is a reflection of the artists perception of that, whether they are religious or not. To deny the two sides of it all is perhaps the most evil thing possible.
PM: When listening to your music, especially on the last few albums, I often feel like I'm catching glimpses of a larger story, but for the most part, I respond on a more directly empathetic or visceral level. For me, this isn't a problem, but I'd hate to be missing things you wanted your audience to "get".
How do you want your listeners to understand your music? Is it important for you that they understand each lyric literally; that religious references, for example, be consciously recognised? Do you consider your songs stories in any way, or are they less narrative, more captured moments, times and feelings?
AS: I think "captured moments" is a good definition. I'm not a very good storyteller, though I'm kind of telling stories. They are not meant to be understood in a certain way, necessarily. Even the semi-religious references are meant to be open to broad personal interpretation. I think there is some sort of "big story" behind the lyrics or whatever we are doing, but I'm trying to sort that out, too, so I'm comfortable with others not seeing it either. Let me know if you figure it out. Sometimes, as we are getting older and bolder with the music, I feel like we are getting closer to understanding what we are saying; I hope I never will.
PM: A number of people expressed incredulity or confusion regarding your decisions on Trust, especially regarding production, given the success you've had in recent years with "the" direction you'd been going. With Low especially, it rather seems like you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't (change). When subtlety is a prized attribute in an artist, even relatively gradual changes can seem large, for better or worse. I've been a fan of what I'll clumsily call a thawing of your sound over the years -- an increased inclusion of acoustic instrumentation, strings, piano, or working with the Dirty Three or Ida Pearle. So I'll admit I was surprised by the dark, relatively inorganic feel of Trust at first; but I find myself more and more drawn to it every listen.
Are the surprised onto something -- was Trust a conscious shift, as seemingly evinced by stepping out of your long-time working partnership with Albini? Did you during recording or do you now, with a little distance, see the album as overtly distinct from the perceived "direction" of other recent work? Talk, if you will, about the pressures in general of being associated with "a sound," especially one to which many people have become very attached.
AS: You are right about the "damned if you do/don't" situation we are in. I know a lot of people hold our early stuff close to their heart and they don't seem as hot on what we have done lately. However, I can probably find just as many people who think all our records sound the same. We of course have to change as we go along. I think to be making the same music the same way nearly ten years on would be bad; however we are not going to do a 180 just because we want to prove something to people. Being close to the music, it's easy for me to say that I think we have had a good, healthy progression over the years, while still retaining the same vision and motivation regarding who we are and what we want to express. Ultimately, we are the only people we need to answer to. The fans and critics are important (in their own different ways), but at the end of the day, we can't put their satisfaction before our own.
We do read our own reviews, and we do have very inspiring fans. Sometimes that outside reaction (even the negative ones) can be a motivation to keep going. On the new record, as with all the others, once we had the songs written, we looked around for a recording situation that seemed to make sense with the material we had and would also be somewhat inspiring to us, so as to keep new ideas and possibilities flowing. We have found that sometimes you need to stir the mix a little to get new and unexpected things to happen-thus working with someone other than Albini. We loved working with Steve and we may do so again, but we knew we needed to try some other things.
It may seem to some like we are regressing a bit on the sound of the new record; Secret Name and Things We Lost (In the Fire) moved toward more instrumentation and a more ecstatic tone. However, I feel Trust is the result of having tried that approach and now coming through more informed, i.e. now we know what having strings on the song is about, so we can now make a more confident decision on whether to use them or not. Instead of adding whatever came to mind, this time we tried to find the simplest instrumentation, while still having variation throughout the record. Certainly working with Tchad [Blake, credited with mixing, not production] steered the record more in favour of texture rather than instrumental arrangement, but that was something we were hoping for anyway.
It's hard to tell how we will feel about this record years from now. I don't really listen to our old stuff, other than the Christmas record. I know when we first finished it that we thought it was good, and I know that at some point I thought the songs were very strong, perhaps the best we have ever written. So, I have to just trust that it isn't horrible.
PM: Radiohead and Björk, I believe, have name-checked you as contemporary musicians making music that is both beautiful and important. Given your commitment to community-level touring and record selling, I would infer that living the star lives you've observed of Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Bonnie Raitt has never been an ambition of yours. Nevertheless, in the musically obsessed history of pop, Skip James or Pere Ubu are at least as important as Frank Sinatra or the Jackson 5.
Does recognition from your peers mean anything to you? Do you ever ponder your place in musical history? If the band is retired, do you have an idea of how you'd like to be remembered? Do you fear being taken too seriously? Do you fear being forgotten?
AS: Being name-checked by a few people we respect has been nice. (I've not heard the Björk connection, but I'm excited if it did happen.) I think what it does is verify one's path. If people who you respect see and recognise your efforts, it reassures you that you are not completely off what you are shooting for. I'm not so much concerned that perhaps their fans will find us, as a result; but the thought that someone who successfully shares the same general artistic vision and standards as you sees and identifies with what you are doing can be encouraging. At the same time, some of the most reassuring, humbling, and motivational complements I've ever received have been anonymous, personal, private. Still, as I said earlier, at the end of the day, it's just you that's left to justify what you do. As for being "remembered", I think everyone who loves music and decides to create music dreams of being one of the "immortal ones". I guess we'll see. Everyone wants to live forever.
PM: When a band contains two people who are in love and married, the idea of the band "breaking up" is a little difficult to imagine. As a fan of Ida, Yo La Tengo, Richard & Mimi Farina, and plenty of other people who've made music with the person they love, I tend to idealise the situation. I just can't really imagine anything more beautiful than getting to make the art you love with the person you love.
Do you envision a time when you'll want to set Low aside? Is that possible? In other words, is Low simply what happens when the two of you play music together? Can you imagine retiring from music publicly? Can you tell us a little about the difficulties and the rewards of making music in your relatively unique situation?
AS: I think we will always want to make music. It has become such a big part of our relationship and communication that I think it will always be there. I'm not sure what the scope of Low is and how synonymous it is with Mimi and I, but for now the world of Low still challenges us and seems to speak the most accurately for us. I've always respected bands who were wise enough to know when to stop. I sometimes get a little tired of the work that has to go into maintaining a band that does what we do -- certainly we wont be doing 80 shows a year and recording every year and a half 10 years from now, but then we thought the same way when we started. We are in a unique situation; we could probably make a passable living doing this for a long time even without any attention from the media-the fan base we have is very dedicated and we are not dependant on being hip or being backed by anyone. We never plan too far ahead, and it has served us well.
Being married and in the band (i.e. being in both an intimate and creative relationship) has its difficulties and rewards. The problems that come up can compound upon each other because of the depth of the relationship -- a bad day creatively usually crosses over into a bad day intimately. If the relationship has trouble already, forming a band together will only compound it. However, a creative relationship can also multiply the depth of the intimate side. Getting up on stage and singing together is in some ways like getting to go to the hospital every night to give birth to a child, and anyone who has had a child knows what that event can do to a couple. Even having lived through some of the frustration that comes with the band has enhanced our marriage. I wish everyone could do it.
PM: Your collaborations with Spring-Heel Jack and the Dirty Three have been extremely well-loved by a lot of people, and when I play the super nerdy game of "imagine the perfect musical collaboration", you come up very regularly. Have you any dream collaborations of your own? Anything you might actually pursue?
AS: We would love to be Morrisey's back-up band next time he does a record. . . We have been fortunate that collaborations just happen-it's not something we feel we have to force.
PM: Your b-sides, compilation tracks, and LP-only songs are among many fans' favourites, but most of them have become pretty hard to come by legally. Do you still intend to put together some sort of compilation? Is the DVD video comp still in the works?
AS: Yes, we plan on compiling the rarities and such over the winter and hope to have them out for our ten year anniversary in the spring -- it will probably be a double-CD. Someone made a documentary on us recently and I think it is going to come out on DVD and it will include all the videos, including some that we have done for Trust, as well as several other extras. Hopefully that will be available by spring, as well.
PM: Related to the last question, what's your take on not-for-profit MP3s of out-of-print stuff or live recordings? How do you feel about many of us already having Trust, well in advance of its release?
AS: I see why many artists (and record companies, mostly) are afraid of the possibilities, but they said the same about taping 20 years ago, and it didn't seem to cause too much trouble. Metallica losing 20% of sales is no huge crime -- they still make their house payments; but for an indie band, 20% is the difference between being able to afford to go on tour or not. Our fans are pretty ethical people, so I'm not super afraid, but it is definitely an issue that will deeply impact the music world over the next few years. Gillian Welch has a song ["Everything Is Free"] where she sings about how once music is something you have to give away, the only motivation to do it will be purely the love of doing it. It will be harder to make a living at it, but at least the weak careerists will die off. Who knows how it will sort out, but I have a feeling the people who stand to lose the most (the record companies) will find some way to make even more money than before.
PM: Ida, whom I believe are friends of yours, have made two wonderful albums of tunes for kids. With a little one of your own (whose bedtime lullabies I envy), have you had any thought of a similar project?
AS: We do have a few children's songs we've written over the years. Who knows, maybe one weekend we'll just do 'em up.
PM: If you were to make a "best of Low" mix-tape for a stranger, what are some songs you would include?
AS: Hmmm, that would be hard. I'd just send them "Final Solution" by Pere Ubu.
30 October 2002
« Back to other articles from 2002