TAS in Session: Low
Those mighty Minnesota masters of quiet rock, Low, recently released their ninth studio album, C'mon, the followup to 2007's politically indignant Drums and Guns. Not long ago, guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk, drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker, bassist Steve Garrington and touring keyboardist/backing vocalist Eric Pollard ("we're usually a three piece, but Eric knows some information about us," joked Sparhawk) came to The Alternate Side's Studio A to play several tracks from C'mon, including "Try To Sleep" and "Especially Me."
They also discussed their surprising choice of producer - Ke$ha figures into it - and recalled an ignominious SXSW gig when they got drowned out by another band and sought revenge, but still maintained a semblance of Duluth decorum.
Low just played in New York this past week, on April 27, wrap their North American tour in Ann Arbor, MI on Tuesday, May 3, and set off on a tour of the UK and Europe beginning May 16 in Sheffield, England. But they'll happily return Stateside this September for another round of North American dates to support their third release on Sub Pop:
Alisa Ali: Ninth album, eighteen years?
Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, 17 or 18 years. It’s been quite a while for a band that thought we’d play one show and see how many people we could bother.
Alisa: Really? You only thought you’d play one show?
Alan: Yes, when we first started it was this experiment of let’s-make-something-very-quiet and slow and very minimal and see how far we can push that.
Mimi Parker: We were hopeful that maybe we could play two shows.
Alan: We were willing to throw all of our chips on the one show. We played four or five songs and most people didn’t get it. Some people really liked it, so we thought we’d do another show.
Alisa: So you started off with the idea of doing slower, minimalistic songs because … ?
Alan: I’m a fan of some other things that bands have done. There’s some real minimal stuff from Velvet Underground, Joy Division and some of the British post-punk bands like The Cure. They were definitely influences on me and the ethic we were shooting for. Even Brian Eno and some of the more out composers of minimalism were on our shoulder a little bit as we were trying to push the extreme, so to speak. It wasn’t necessarily an original thing. There were a few other bands in the early 90s who were doing one strain or another of quieter or more restrained music. It was an experiment and by the time we had a few songs written it came alive and felt like something you put your soul into … and we did.
Alisa: You were in other bands though, right?
Alan: I’d been in a band called Zen Identity. We really wanted to get signed and all that stuff. We used to take our shirts off when we played and all of that stuff.
Mimi: Crazy stuff.
Alisa: Does that help you get signed? Take your shirt off?
Alan: Apparently not. Didn’t work. I’m old enough to say I was in bands in the 80s and went through that process of rounding up the twelve people you know in town that would care to go to a show and doing it at the bowling alley or something. But yeah, it was fun, but not where my heart was. Once that band was over I knew I wanted to do something with my wife and something that was new.
Alisa: During the recording process, did you have some doubts?
Alan: Yes, there’s a bit of that, you do a take, you look around, but usually when it’s the one, you know. It can be really frustrating because every once in a while you think, “Yes! Nailed it!” and it won’t be quite right so you have to go back and do it again. But usually the right one, you know.
Mimi: I’m usually the one who goes, “Yes! That’s good. I can’t play that any better. Let’s move on.”
Alisa: I understand that you recorded the album in an old church, but this is a place you’ve recorded in previously.
Alan: Yes, it’s called Sacred Heart Church - the Sacred Heart Music Center - and it’s in Duluth where we live. It’s an old Catholic church with a 120 year old pipe organ in it that still is maintained. As you would imagine, tall ceilings. It’s not necessary a new thing; those spaces are made for sound and a certain tone, reverberation and direction. I think a lot of bands in the last few decades have explored those spaces. They’re interesting spaces and I think a lot of it has to do with how many people have come there, sat for a moment and pondered the heaviest things in their lives, hoped and worried.
Alisa: All of that seeps into the recording?
Alan: I don’t know. I think the feeling that it sets on you, if you let it, can be nice company and help you with decisions.
Alisa: You were at SXSW this year and you played in a church, didn’t you?
Alan: Yes, they’ve been doing shows in a few churches. I think they’re running out [of venues].
Alisa: You either get the parking lot or the church.
Alan: Sometimes both.
Mimi: The first time we played there, in 1995 or 1996, it was this open room.
Alan: A room on Sixth Street with the window facing out to the street. Big open stairwell upstairs and we were down there doing our little, piddly, quiet, whispery music and upstairs was some Irish or Scottish hardcore band.
Alisa: They totally drowned you out?
Alan: Drowned us out until the last song.
Mimi: We tried to fight back. In our Minnesota, nice way.
Alan: We had this song, years ago, called “Do You Know How To Waltz?” and it’s just 20 minutes of white out. We had this reputation for being quiet and all, but we always had a few loud elements loud and that particular song was an extreme. Noise. Our sound guy was skilled and bitter enough to clear the room.
Alisa: What was the audience like?
Alan: Oh, it’s always a mixed bag. I think that time, there were probably 20 people, but people who were excited to see us.
Alisa: That’s an atypical show. A typical show for Low, what is that like with the audience?
Alan: Clubs, bars and the dives that we started playing, we got used to whatever the energy is of the place. Even a noisy place can be fun. Some of the noisiest crowds can be the ones who appreciate you the most if you power through and do your thing. At the same time it’s nice after all these years that we can play some really nice places where people come and are comfortable. You know that most of the people there are going to listen to you.
Alisa: Your fans are usually a bit more respectful and want to be quiet? You need to shut up to listen, or is that not the case.
Mimi: Some shows, fans have gone to fisticuffs to quiet down their fellow audience members. It’s crazy. A fight at a Low show.
Alan: We’ll put up with whatever.
Mimi: We’re not overly sensitive or precious. We don’t have professional hushers.
Alan: It would be a good idea though.
Alisa: Mimi, was that a song you wrote yourself or are all of the songs collaborative?
Mimi: That one I wrote on the piano which I don’t really play. Well, Alan tends to write the bulk of the songs that he sings and then we bring it together. It’s kind of a collaborative thing after the fact, which is the case for all of them.
Alan: A mix. I usually write the songs I sing and then sing songs that she writes and we stay away from each other while we’re writing. We do better when we bring ideas that are worked on a little bit. You’d think that we’d work together more but we don’t that much. We never see each other writing.
Mimi: That’s because Alan does the majority of his songwriting in the middle of the night. I’m sleeping.
Alan: And you’re always writing when I’m sleeping in the morning. Songwriting is painful enough. Don’t need to bring someone else into it.
Alisa: Songs for this record were written on the road?
Alan: A little bit. We write better at home. The romance of writing songs on the road never really landed for us. You’ll come up with little ideas, but it feels better to make a note and come back to it when you’re home and you can tell yourself that you need to work. At least my process - that’s a horrible word - is that I have to go home and tell myself that I have to write for a while before it starts working.
Alisa: So it’s not like you’re working in the yard and an idea strikes you?
Alan: Mimi, you work more like that?
Mimi: I write in the yard often (laughs). It’s really just hit or miss.
Alisa: I feel that if you write on the road ….
Mimi: That becomes the topic.
Alan: Road songs.
Mimi: We really don’t have any of those, do we?
Alan: Yeah we do.
Mimi: On the road, being in the band.
Alan: Yeah, we should work on that. I think it’s time.
Alisa: The producer that you worked with this time, Matt Beckley, was an interesting choice because he’s worked with Katy Perry and that ilk.
Alan: Yes, he’s done a lot of bizarre Hollywood records, but we met Matt years ago through his dad who is a Googable person for sure, Gerry Beckley [who founded the band America]. Matt was guy who we knew, he was funny, he’d be in bands that we’d played with sometimes and over time it dawned on us that his real job was going up to Skywalker Ranch and pitch correcting Paris Hilton and stuff like that. Whoops. Sorry, Matt. So as we realized what he did, it became a lot more interesting. At this point, the idea of working with someone who, at least on the surface, is in a totally different camp is intriguing. We’ve worked with a lot of different people, some more typical like Steve Albini or Dave Friedman who has made some beautiful records. After a few years and after you’ve done a few records, sometimes the person you work with or the space that you go to do it is sort of a nice way to throw a wrench in your machine and make some surprises happen.
Alisa: So stylistically, what’s the difference between Matt and Steve Albini?
Alan: Well, comparing styles, Steve is at the end of the spectrum of an engineer, he’s very much about capturing sound as it’s happening and getting a really good sounding recording out of a good moment or performance. He’s not the guy who is going to fix it in the mix or pitch correct things; he likes to stay away from computers. It’s old school, but in a very purist way that maintains what’s good about the older styles of recording. He’s very opinionated about what is the valid use of that medium. Whereas Matt is very much in the world of the computer, editing the heck out of things and adding 170 tracks which we’ve disappointed him with, sending him just a few tracks. It’s a different world for sure. We were more in charge of the tracking and turned it over to Matt to work through. It was nice. You can poke fun at that end of the music industry but the guys who make those records, whether it’s Dr. Luke or whoever, there’s a certain skill that they have, a fine skill, to getting those records to sound good. That’s the reason those Ke$ha singles jump out of the radio. So we came back to the idea of what would it be like to run Low through that world? Matt didn’t go back in a re-edit everything or replace all the sound or re-pitch everything. He just knew how to mix things and make six or eight vocal tracks sound good. He made us excited to try things that were new. We probably tracked it in seven or eight leisurely days and the mixing took two or three weeks only because it was at Matt’s leisure.
Alisa: You also had Nels Cline [of Wilco] on the record.
Mimi: We’ve known Nels for quite a while, from his Geraldine Fibber days.
Alan: We played with him off and on. He’s a very gracious person and has really been nice to us. He’s always saying, “One of these days, give me a call if you’re recording.” He has a very busy schedule, but happened to be in L.A. when he was out playing with Yoko Ono and he had two or three spare hours one morning so he came in and played guitar.
Alisa: He plays on one of my favorite tracks on the album, “Nothing But Heart.”
Alan: (laughs) Oh no. You’ll certainly miss Nels on this song. I’ll do my best to reproduce Nels Cline chaos on this song.