Low - Song Backgrounds
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Song Backgrounds

From Alan Sparhawk, Spring 2000, in roughly chronological order of release.

I Could Live In Hope | Long Division | Summershine | Transmission | Venus/Boyfriends & Girlfriends
The Curtain Hits the Cast | B-Sides & Compilations, 1996 | Finally... | Songs for a Dead Pilot | B-Sides & Compilations, 1997
Joan of Arc | B-Sides & Compilations, 1998 | Secret Name | B-Sides & Compilations, 1999
John Peel Session '99 | Travels in Constants | Things We Lost in the Fire
In the Fishtank with the Dirty Three | Unreleased Songs

I Could Live In Hope (1994)

Alan, Mimi, John, and Zak in a photobooth
words - a rough sketch of a real experience. too embarrassing to go into, but it was scary and changed my life. richard from the band versus thought we were singing "interlocking hero" in the chorus.

fear - speaking to my daughter who, unknown to me, would be born 7 years later. the beginning of biblical reference ("40 days without water").

cut - one of the first songs we wrote. had a whole bunch of lyrics but narrowed them down to this, teaching me a good lesson; most of what you write is crap, but if you only use the tolerable parts, it's not so bad.

slide - mim doing harmony to me works well, but my first attempt to harmonize to her isn't so hot. i remember this song hurt my hand to play on guitar. i like the echo-y dub drums. i love the half-spoken "you wait. . ." mim vocal.

lazy - my sister's name is sarah but it would be mean to say it's about her. had a music man amp that made that weird vibrato. don't have it anymore. popular request at shows. always wanted to hear a cool echo-y dub mix of this song.

lullaby - a reflection of our shoegazer fandom at the time, but i think mim's vocal is what makes it.

sea - one of those songs that just falls in your lap. sounds like an old song - maybe because of the folk harmonies.

down - closest thing to a low guitar jam. our demo of this was 9 minutes long (even more guitar!).

drag - probably one of our most self loathing songs. it's easier to be this obvious when you're younger. age makes you want to hide such feelings, or at least be more cryptic, unfortunately sometimes. hard to play now without feeling like a cry-baby. i'm not sure if that's good or bad.

rope - all about the bass part john brought in. fun song to play in the bars ("you're gonna need more. . .")

sunshine - i used to work at summer camps for mentally handicapped kids and this song was by far the most popular camp song. we thought by slowing it down it would bring out the very sober, depressing theme of the lyrics. a lot of those old folk songs are like that. we just messed with it in the studio and kramer went nuts and insisted we do it for the record.

Long Division (1995)
violence - written very shortly after our first record, so we'd been playing it for a while. i was always real happy with the guitar part. i think i played most of the guitar stuff on this record through a marshall amp kramer had. he always added the watery effect in the mix - works most of the time.

below & above - i always call long division our "darkhorse" - most people didn't like it as much as hope, but it was very dear to some people, and probably one of our favorites. this song is everything i like about the whole record - simple, cold/warm, pretty, and mim's lyrics.

shame - this song was an important step for us. it was vocally challenging and pushed our musical "skills" at the time. it is still a favorite with fans - it even played on MTV's real world, strangely enough.

throw out the line - about a friend from school who was an oceanographer in alaska. the epitome of our water theme hang-up. wish i would have relaxed a bit on the vocal. sounds like someone's stringin' me up.

swingin' - this song used to hurt my hand to play - awkward chords. kramer did the mellotron on it. i love that sound. vernon yard had us remix it (?!) - "unimpressed by my first draft. . ."

see-through - more ultra-minimalism. i think john wrote the bass part, before the split. we were listening to a lot of wire at the time.

turn - more wire and joy division influence. pitiful relationship song. told kramer to make it cold. now available in low/misfits version.

caroline - finished writing this last minute in the studio. our lack of confidence shows. still have a hard time remembering how we played it.

alone - fragile-boy song (see "drag"). low self esteem love song - danger!

streetlight - couldn't think of another verse, thus beginning the tradition of short songs on each record.

stay - very talk talk influenced. had no idea what i was doing on the piano - my best morton feldman impersonation. no time to think too much about it.

take - if you listen hard you can hear some rare guitar distortion. my vocal reminds me of jeff from idaho.

Long Division preliminary songlist

Summershine (1995)
tired - an outtake from long division that we put on a summershine (australia) e.p. that was a sort of sampler from our previous records. ironically, it's the song we titled long division from.

Transmission (1995)
transmission - we had been playing this joy division song at shows and the guy putting together the tribute record saw us do it in n.y. and asked us to record it. kramer really got into it. the eno loop/sample at the beginning was his idea. we could only fit one verse in. if you pin us against the wall, we'd have to say that joy division is probably one of the biggest influences on us, if we had to point to specific bands. i heard j.d. for the first time the same evening i heard the velvet underground the first time.

bright - this recording with albini was a big factor in deciding to do secret name with him. it sounds like it's going to explode. albini called mim the tooth-brushinest girl he'd ever seen.

caroline 2 - "darker" version of original on long division. became more confident with the song as we later played it live. this is from our first session with albini.

hands - an outtake from long division. done very quickly, like most of that record.

jack smith - supreme dicks cover. one of our favorite bands to play with. i think i mis-quote the lyrics.

untitled - hidden track on transmission e.p. played on an old hammond organ. loosely based on a woman we know in georgia.

Venus / Boyfriends & Girlfriends (1997)
venus - one of the first "pop-y" songs we ever did. we did hesitate over it, thinking it didn't fit with what we were about, but decided we liked the song too much. it would be just as dishonest to suppress something from the heart, as it would be to force ourselves to do a song we didn't feel strongly about. this was recorded by our friend tom herbers. this song was originally written in a 4-track tape trade with jessica bailiff.

boyfriends & girlfriends - recorded by tom herbers along with "venus". probably played it a bit fast. it wants to be a 6 or 7 minute song, but we were trying to fit it on a 7".

The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)
Curtain and hand
anon - from a dream i had one night.

the plan - one of my favorite mim songs. watch for the demo version of this on the shanti 2 fundraiser c.d. on badman records.

over the ocean - written on the bass, waiting for zak to join the band (he had to move from oakland). i was really sick and could only hit a few notes, one being the high "iiiiii'm". not many songs out there that use the word "dell" - perhaps a tribute to southern wisconsin.

mom says - it's, um, about my mother. i lost a helium balloon. it was blue. mom said the astronauts would get it for me.

coattails - mim's most minimal moment. steve fisk did the OMD-like mellotron.

standby - wanted the end to be this big orchestral build like a cardinal song.

laugh - one of our first "muscle" songs. perhaps a tip to neil young. zak did the distorted keyboard, following the classic low keyboard approach - one take, completely lost and confused (see "stay").

lust - fun song to play live, especially at speak in tongues in cleveland.

stars gone out - first "wordy" song we wrote. influenced by many hours on the road listening to the oldies stations (righteous brothers, roy orbison, etc.). a love song, perhaps.

same - the writer's block song.

do you know how to waltz? - started short and simple, quickly became the long, wall of noise song. sounds like many layers of guitar, but it's actually just one take from 2 amps. added some backwards piano and rolling cymbal. has become a popular request at shows. hard to justify sometimes - there are so many bands out there that do the "long, loud drone" better than we do. played it with godspeed you black emporor! in chicago in '98 for 30 minutes - probably the furthest it could ever be taken.

dark - sort of a children's song. wanted it to creep into the ears of those who fell asleep during "...waltz".

B-Sides & Compilations (1996)
peanut butter toast and american bandstand - done for the gourmandizer 'zine compilaton. my mother has a picture of me at age 2 dancing with no pants on in front of am. bandstand on t.v. the song was required to be around 1 minute long.

be there - original appeared as a b-side to the "over the ocean" single in the u.k. on caroline records. recorded in a studio in duluth - made us realize we should look into getting our own recording equipment.

i started a joke - zak's idea. great bee gees song. someday we'll cover their whole first record. appeared on the jabberjaw benefit c.d. on mammoth records. jabberjaw, in l.a., was one of our first and favorite clubs to play. met many of our dearest friends there.

Finally . . . (1996)
cool polaroid
tomorrow one - had lots of extra songs from the curtain recording sessions. wished we had a little more time. this was on the british "finally" e.p. and the brits kinda picked up on this song - heard that everything but the girl it had on a favorites list.

prisoner - originally a hospital people song. recorded in a hurry, but turned out interesting.

turning over - also recorded in a hurry. main guitar riff unintentionally similar to "one" by metallica (same 3 notes, different order).

Songs for a Dead Pilot (1997)
Songs for a Dead Pilot preliminary songlist
will the night - following in the "stars gone out" tradition. one of our favorite songs. this version recorded on a mini-cassette recorder with us hovering over, then played back through a lot of reverb. sometimes i think we should do a whole record this way.

condescend - first attempt at strings, the pop tradition. the baby sounds are from one of the cello players' daughter. the timing was so perfect we had to leave it in.

born by the wires - studies show that people who live under major power lines become "addicted" to them. one take - didn't know what we were going to end up with.

be there (2nd version) - optigan keyboard, put mic in washing machine and bang on it.

landlord - zak brought the rough idea in. it's about trying to make music in your tiny appartment. you always sound cautious and tiny.

hey chicago - about something that happened to zak. . . in oakland. soundman chris on keyboard and mim and alan talking through bass synth pedal at end.

B-Sides & Compilations (1997)
Zak's artwork for the Dirth 3 posters
lift - from paper aeroplanes comp. 7". i don't know if we've ever played this live.

lord can you hear me? - for spacemen 3 tribute record on rocket girl. we really enjoyed doing this. mim's sister, wanda, helped with the background vocals. i remember zak playing me "perfect prescription" years ago and it was amazing. we just jumped up and down. we've met both sonic and jason. jason said he liked our version of his song. both are some of the nicest "potentially strange" people we've met. jason smokes like a chimney.

no need - this is on a split c.d. single with the dirty 3 on touch-n-go. recorded at home on the 4-track shortly before recording songs for a dead pilot. had pictured it with unending "i don't need. . ." lines, but it would have been too long, so again it was a matter of narrowing it down to just a few. hap-hazzard mix ends up being interesting with the howling lo-fi reverb. first time with the e-bow bass, something that would appear more later.

Joan of Arc (1998)
Joan of Arc
joan of arc - this song finally came together when we played it faster. did well in the u.k. i think because we used the word "love" as term of endearment.

unnamed instrumental (at end of "joan of arc") - remnant of short-lived notion to have an alter-ego band called "red lolte" (zak on drums, alan on keyboards, mim on vocals).

long long long - probably the best overlooked song by the beatles. george was the darkhorse. i think we got a couple of the chords wrong, but it's one of our favorites.

B-Sides & Compilations (1998)
sleep at the bottom - spur-the-moment, written on the spot, collaboration with lauren from transient waves (whom we'd never met before) and the folks from piano magic.

blue-eyed devil - heard rumour of our friends, soul coughing, doing "words" so we thought we'd return the gesture. despite the odd experience it was, opening for them for a month, we are greatly privileged to be friends with those guys.

Secret Name (1999)
i remember - optigan keyboard (not record hiss samples!). evidence that i'm a pitiful guitar player. played gavin from bush's guitar. . .

starfire - loosely based on the life of our friend, scott, who is a paramedic and pirate radio station owner. he's done more for the music scene in duluth than anyone. tried the strings on the recording on a whim. la la section at end is popular with children.

two-step - we had been working on this song off and on for 3 years. i had my own lyrics at one time and mim had some others at another time. finally we put both separate ideas together (she's singing hers and i'm singing mine.)

weight of water - mim won't talk about her lyrics, but i think this is about water. another fun string arranging experience.

missouri - written days before we went in to record. we were delighted when we found the wobbly guitar sound because it sounds like "if" by bread. albini laughed at us - fool. he'll come around some day.

don't understand - he stayed with us one summer, growing up on the farm.

soon - this song went through many versions before settling on this. very exciting hearing the strings for the first time after only hearing them in your head. some lines lifted from isaiah. has become one of our favorite songs to play live.

immune - song about being in this band (see "takin' care of business" by BTO or "don't ask me 'bout my business" by skynard.) wanted it to sound like "she said, she said" by the beatles. always is hard to play live.

lion/lamb - originally a guitarbassdrums song but thought we'd try something else. more biblical plagiarism.

days of. . . - originally called "watermark" but my lyrics stunk so mim took over.

will the night (2nd version) - thought we should do a coherent version of this song (see original version on ". . . pilot" e.p.). all strings was a challenge. maybe barbara streisand will cover it some day.

home - written (obviously) in just a few minutes. perhaps a little homage to the swans.

old man song - snare stabs from listening to the beach boys too much. forward and backwards guitar.

last breath - struggled with arrangement on this one. still don't know if it's all there. vocally challenging. some of my favorite lyrics.

unnamed instrumental (on vinyl secret name) - at the end of "lion/lamb" i was still mumbling and poking at the piano. we cut it off on mix-down, but thought it could fill a place somewhere. . .

B-Sides & Compilations (1999)
i remember (2nd version) - always wanted to hear mim sing this song. did this right after coming home from recording secret name. call it hospital people with guest vocalist. this is the b-side to the u.k. "immune" single. fun to do.

back home again - mark kozelek asked us to do this for the john denver trib. laid down a bunch of instruments, but narrowed it down in the end. the vocal on a john d. song is elusively difficult and clever. learned a lot doing this song.

Christmas (1999)
just like christmas - true story from our spring '99 tour in europe. tried this song many different ways. stumbled on the solution while just messing around on the optigan keyboard (thank you, steve fisk!) zak heard hints of spector so we just went with it. one of the most a-typical songs we've ever done, but also one of our favorites. our two year old nephew can't get enough of it.

long way around the sea - about the nativity wise men. mimi's sister wanda helped with the back-ups (see "lord can you hear me?")

little drummer boy - the original drone-rock christmas carol. mim and zak on percussion, alan on optigan through all kinds of distortion and reverb. tones jump out of the din.

if you were born today - a.k.a. "song for baby jesus". originally on the '97 wurlitzer jukebox single. hard to talk about what it's about without making some boring social commentary.

blue christmas - one of our first efforts at home recording. very strange playing all those jazz chords. this appeared originally on the wurlitzer jukebox single in '97.

silent night - recorded in our kitchen with a stereo microphone.

taking down the tree - was actually written while taking down the tree. the nosebleed refers to mim's dry weather problem.

one special gift - started out as a song about being poor at christmas time, but i think mimi gave it a higher meaning with "for one special guest" at the end. i (alan) was going to sing it but i thought it sounded too much like smog.

Songs from the John Peel Session (1999)
those girls - a.k.a. "song for nico". part of our '99 peel session. perhaps it will come up again elsewhere in the future. the line "close to the frozen borderline" is supposed to refer to a song of hers, but i think i've got it wrong.

liar - part of the '99 peel session we did. zak played piano. we did a version of "last breath" on that session, but it was accidentally erased - very uncharacteristic of the famed BBC engineers.

Travels In Constants (2000)
the exit papers soundtrack - 5 song instrumental e.p. coming spring 2000 on travels in constants records (no individual song titles). after doing some soundtrack work for director mark pellington on a short film on a book called "of time and memory", we thought it would be good to put together a whole c.d. of soundtrack-sounding stuff (yes, i know, that's not the most original idea). there is of course no film called "the exit papers" . . . yet. it's a variety of sounds and songs with a few recurring themes throughout. it seemed to make sense to put it on the travels label c.d. series. it will be a very limited release.

Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)
sunflower - some people thing this song is morbid, but it's a love song. it was hard to nail the middle section because zak and i have a habit of slowing down too much when there is no drums driving things - took a couple takes. danelectro 12-strings are cool.

whitetail - lyrics were inspired by zak "comic books" sally. whitetail is a type of deer.

dinosaur act - wrote it in 5 minutes, laughed ("zak and mim will never go for this...") and went to bed.

medicine magazines - song made sense the first time we played it - been a mystery since then. albini has a nice wurlitzer electric piano we played in the middle. courtney love? ... don't know about that girl.

laser beam - we play this way slower, live. like many mim songs, did it at the end of the recording session, not sure what to do with it, but the lack of "stuff" makes it pretty strong in the long run. i'm always spelling it wrong on set lists and zak and mim make fun of me.

july - so many chords, so many parts - took a long time to "arrange." mark d. did the chamberlain keyboard stuff in one take and i think it really makes it. the "vibes" part toward the end is the chamberlain, too.

embrace - another one people thought was so violent, with all the head-crushing and stuff, but it's really quite intimate and personal. didn't play this one live very much, unfortunately. the ida pearle violin on this is really great, i think.

whore - don't know where all this pop came from, but i guess there was alot of it on this record. sometimes i think it would be interesting to hear a real pop band, like cheap trick, play some of our songs. sometimes feels like we're being dragged behind a horse. mim's "you will get your's" is one of the most sinister things we've ever written, i think - so soft and pretty in the background...

kind of girl - hmmm, fancy chords. i like this song - where it sits in the record sequence makes it come off as a little boring maybe. albini thought we shouldn't have doubled the vocals, and in hindsight, i think he was right.

like a forest - another great mark d. keyboard part. strings on this record were good. ida and "other" zak did a great job, and did them all in about 4 hours. guy i know blew off part of his hand with a firecracker when he was a kid...

closer - feels better when we play it slower, live. a love song, i guess - that's obvious.

(short, dark, instrumental thing) - this was actually a recording our friend daniel huffman made. it's the string players tuning and working on parts - he manipulated them on his "machine", added some other field noises and gave it to us to use wherever. short noise at end is a recording zak made of a new york city subway car putting on the breaks.

in metal - i distinctly remember writing this one mostly sitting in the kitchen with hollis as an infant. i had the music and some lyrics, but mim finished it. we don't actually write lyrics "together" as much as one would think. live, this turns into just a careening noise at the end, but i like the strummy sound of the recording. one track is zak, mark d., daniel, and myself all in a room strumming acoustic guitars.

overhead - extra song on the vinyl and as a b-side in the u.k. chugging guitar inspired by "stranger than kindness" by nick cave and the bad seeds.

don't carry it all - another "extra" song. i like the song, but we had to cut some stuff from the regular sequence. maybe i thought it was too "happy". kinda trying for a "hey jude" feel at the end. when i did the vocal, thunder hit on cue just before the band comes in. when we were mixing, albini would say "cue God..." right at that pause. silly guy...

In the Fishtank (with the Dirty Three) (2001)
i hear ... goodnight - this whole record was a complete pleasure to make. the dirty 3 are one of the greatest bands we have ever met and we learned so much in just the 2 days in the studio with them. this was a song i sorta had for a while, but it always seemed a bit forced when just low tried it. with the D3, it was able to completely go where it was begging to go.

down by the river - neil young cover. one of my favorite things we've ever done. again, the D3 way was the only way to go with this. did one take with more "structure", but realized that the best stuff was the loosest stuff, so this is the second take. when mim comes in with the vocal...

invitation day - mick from D3 had some chords and i had a couple lines. the only pre-planned thing about this session was "hey, do you know 'down by the river?'" everything else was put together there the same day it was recorded, and usually in one take.

when i called upon your seed - warren had an idea on the organ, mim did the lyrics. she comes up with some great stuff under pressure.

cody - this is something zak and mick worked out. it's basically the D3 with zak on bass. i know what it's about, but it's pretty personal to zak, so i won't elaborate.

lordy - in the studio, there was this little banjo/mandolin thing with only 3 rusty strings that i was plinking around on. again, the D3 approach made it all work. did one take and decided if we did another that we'd start thinking too much and probably ruin it.

Unreleased Songs
david & jude - written in '95. we play it live a lot. recorded it in '95 at calvin johnson's studio - he even played melodica on it, but it has never appeared on a recorded release. . . someday. it's about israel.

lice song - one of several children's songs we have. someday we'll put them all together on something. started playing this live in '99 and it quickly became popular. i won't admit if it's a true story.

small words - another short song we play live from time to time but have never recorded. it's about our first time playing a non-english speaking country (belgium). people were singing our songs to us though they only knew a little english. then afterwards, talking to them was a new and strange experience. to meet people on the other side of the world who know and love what we do, has been one the most wonderful and humbling experiences of being in this band.