Stepping off the Soapbox for Love – A Conversation with Low
Label: Sub Pop
There is only a slight divergence in sound from album to album with Low. No need to get defensive about it, because their sound is so novel that this works and has sustained a seventeen plus year career. It’s true that through the years their sound has gradually gotten warmer and the dynamics have varied through different albums. But more than anything, it is seemingly their mood that changes—the mood they approach each offering with. Well, it’s been four years since their last release, the politically charged Drums and Guns. And their focus has shifted back to the more introspective and in my opinion, the most yearning. Although there is no real variance from the usual sparse and brooding approach, these songs somehow conjure big sound. In other Low albums, their melancholy seemed like more of a delicate, but exquisite secret, but on C’mon, it’s more of a pronouncement.
The reverence I’m feeling in these songs may be more of “An illusion Michael!” because I know they recorded the album in an old Catholic Church turned recording studio—Sacred Heart Studio in Duluth, MN. Sacred Heart’s high, vaulted ceilings were the perfect complement to the guitar sound, the most prominent of any of their albums in my opinion (oh the sweet reverb). It was especially agreeable to the group singing that powerfully ascends especially in moments like in the third track “Witches” with it’s perplexing lyrics about confrontation, capture, witches and baseball bats. I’m sure that’s the type of analysis that makes a band roll their eyes, but who cares, the song is gorgeous, the harmonies haunting, the guitar bewitching and banjo, well, it’s a banjo and that’s OK by me.
The opening track, “Try to Sleep” is really sweet and an unusually infectious song for Low that you could hear as a lullaby being sang to a baby, “You stretch your wings, you take a breath . . . and brace your head . . . try to sleep.” Well, a lullaby until the lyric changes to “Then you never wake up.” I mean, it sounds sweet but it is seemingly geared to the other end of life, a peaceful passing perhaps? ” Most lullabies are about something morbid anyway. “Especially Me” is another standout track, with intense, rolling guitar work and Mimi’s doubled, ethereal vocals. The album could easily have ended at track 9, “Nothing But Heart” which opens as what feels like an antithesis to Low, sprawling, feedback filled guitar. But it all quiets into palmed guitar and Alan’s rather vulnerable sounding vocal delivery as he expresses, “I’m nothing but heart.” It continually grows, adding drums, harmony, slide guitar and repeating his mantra that he is “Nothing but heart.” It’s hypnotizingly simple and beautiful.
As much as I want to think of C’mon as a direct Arrested Development (Gob Bluth’s catch phrase to cheapen it), it seems more like a personal plea, from one person to another for some type of civility. And if that does nothing for you, it’s earnest, beautiful music.
We spoke to Alan Sparhawk about the new album, the band’s sensitivity to being labeled slow core forefathers and whether or not bringing out the distortion pedals turned any of their fan base off.
It’s been four years since the last album. What gives?
=several things: mim and i were busy for the last few years working with a choreographer on a contemporary dance piece called “heaven.” it was very intensive work and we probably spent as much time on it as we would have had we done a record and toured around it. unfortunately, with dance, you don’t have as much of a tangible product to show for it other than the few performances that few see. also, i did a few records and a ton of touring with retribution gospel choir. between that and trying to keep the kids in school, it may seem like we haven’t been around, but we were.
What’s been the biggest change from I Could Live in Hope to C’mon?
Illuminating, thank you. Drums and Guns was a politically charged album based on what was happening at the time. Is C’mon coming from a particular place or was it just about writing good songs for a new album?
=songs on the new record are a bit more one-to-one and personal – not as much soap box. several of the songs could be seen as love songs.
In the song “Witches,” there is a really intriguing line, “All you guys out there trying to act like Al Green.” What do you mean by that?
=i actually stole that line from kool keith. al green is the king of sexy soulful singing. who wouldn’t want to be like him?
I’ve read that you’re not crazy about being pegged as not only a slow core band, but THE slowcore band. But you introduced a novel sound during a time where grunge and hard rocking alternative ruled. Isn’t that worth a pat on the back?
=as with most one or two word descriptions of an artist, it leaves alot of the story out, but quick descriptions like that have their place – i use them too. when we started, we knew we were going against the norm, but there were other bands before us who were slow and quiet (galaxy 500, velvet underground, joy division, eno.) i think maybe because there were a few other bands in the 90s doing similar things, people started lumping us together even though we were all quite different from each other (red house painters, codeine, idaho, etc.) the only credit we can take is that we’re still around…
Did you have fans treat the first time you employed distortion and an upbeat tempo as a Dylan playing electric at Newport Folk Festival moment?
=i wish. no, our fans haven’t come to expect anything. i suppose there are some people who prefer the earlier quieter stuff, but we’ve always had a string of loud moments live, beginning with “lullaby” from the first record. i do get judas-ed sometimes on the road with retribution GC…
Is Low a sort of antithesis to all the noise pollution one is bombarded by on a daily basis?
=perhaps. it’s not our main goal, but the drive for stillness has always been my most primal inspiration.
What is Low’s biggest muse?
I’m not exactly sure what that is. What were three of your favorite albums from 2010?
=i love mavis staples, so i enjoyed her new record. i love “undertow” by warpaint – got me to buy the record. i don’t own any of their records, but i like what arcade fire did. i was really ready for them to choke on this new one, but they totally stepped up to the plate. i’m happy for them, and it’s a good sign for other pasty, post-emo, dreamers.
Fill in the blank: In 2011 _______________ is going to take off.
=more bad american techno pop
Bazing! Will you be touring? What’s next?
=yes, all year.
How helpful, but people are resourceful. On a side note, the album title “C’mon” makes me think of Gob from the TV show Arrested Development. Any relation?
=yr too smart.
I get that a lot.