Music

A Conversation with Alan Sparhawk of Low

By November 7, 2018 No Comments

“I’d say it was 90 percent confusion and 10 percent transcendence.”

 Low with Alan Sparhawk, left (Photo: Shelly Mosman)

By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
Margaret@pittsburghcurrent.com

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were already married when they started Low in 1993; By the time they had their first child, they’d put in a nearly a decade of touring. Now, 25 years and a dozen records later, the band – which includes longtime bassist Steve Garrington – has released what is easily their most adventurous and challenging album yet. Anyone familiar with 2015’s BJ Burton-produced Ones and Sixes won’t be shocked at the more dissonant direction that Low has taken, but Double Negative, which came out in September, pushes those boundaries even further. Also produced by Burton, the new record is immersively engaging, even just to the extent that you might occasionally wonder if the record is really supposed to sound like that, or if your stereo speakers are just busted. It’s far from the harshest or most perplexing stuff out there – ultimately, this is still a Low record, which is to say that even at its most shadowy or cacophonous, it’s measured and full of light and beauty. “It’s one thing to go and make a bunch of racket,” says Sparhawk over the phone from his and Parker’s home in Duluth, Minn. “Anyone can do that, but how do you make it have a reason?” He pauses to consider whether that’s the word he wants. “Yeah,” he concludes. “A reason. A purpose.”

Double Negative is such an interesting listening experience, because it’s gentle, but also kind of in-your-face. Was that what you were going for?

I’ve always loved other artists that have had that element, beautiful but also slightly disturbingly broken. There’s a tension there that I really enjoy. But I think doing the last record, Ones and Sixes, we kind of saw that a little bit … and sort of realized that we’d … arrived at this place where we were kind of wanting that. And we were also working with someone who saw that and wanted that as well.  … And we said, “Well, for this next record let’s really go there.” And it took a long time to really find what “there” was.

LOW with IN/VIA. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13. The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $20. www.mrsmalls.com

It’s one thing to be like, “Let’s just do a bunch of extreme stuff!” It’s another thing to actually look and say, let’s find something here that’s actually interesting that has some kind of soul or life in it. I mean, it’s essentially what you look for any time you finish a song or record something and sort of find the right way to present it. It took a while because it was definitely unknown territory and new vocabulary to figure out. But … once we started seeing the fragments of what we were hoping was going to happen it was pretty exciting. … [It] just felt like the right time and just seemed like it was what was coming out of us at the time.

 

It’s one thing to set out to make something jarring, but this feels organic.

I hope so. It was made with love, for sure. It was made with genuine desire to make something interesting and engaging, hopefully, in a positive way, but also recognizing that it might be difficult and maybe not a lot of people [would] really get it.

But, you know how it is. … You know when there’s something there that has a real resonance with the universe.

From what I’ve read, it sounds like the writing and recording process was really immersive.

Looking back it really was kind of a chaotic time … right down to psychological well-being and this feeling of being a little untethered for one reason or another. But it’s interesting because the process really reflected that. I’d say it was 90% confusion and 10% transcendence. Hopefully! And hopefully we captured mostly transcendence and at least a shade of confusion. In many ways, as much as [making a record] is a reflection of life, it does shape your life, I think. When … you’ve kind of gambled so much of your soul on creativity and sort of the quest to create something that you feel is satisfying, depending on how that process is going I guess it would make sense that it would really affect your mind. [Laughs]

I never thought about it that way, but this record probably reflects that more than any other probably because [making it was] such a long process.

Having played in this band for 25 years and being married and having a family, do you set boundaries between the band and family life, or is all just flowing through everything?

Mostly it’s all flowing through everything. The house here is a mix of papers … and dishes and groceries … and a pile of promo CDs and a box of records in the living room and a guitar here or there. It is sort of a reflection of the mix. It’s coexisting. One effects the other, of course, and that can be a plus and a minus sometimes. But then having each other all this time… I guess it’s made it more sane, more tolerable, probably vital to its existence, for sure. I don’t know, it’s been pretty wild. We were definitely ignorant when we started and didn’t know what we were in for, and didn’t expect much for sure, either. But yeah, it was crazy. Raising kids on the road? We didn’t even tour on a bus. We were touring in vans and staying hotels … So, it was crazy.

Kids really only know what they grow up with, but are your kids like, ‘Wow, this has been cool!”

Yeah, I think so. They’re each very different people and each have their own perspective about it, but our daughter, she loved music early on, plays music … she really started on her own picking out a lot of stuff from the ’90s, bands that we sort of rolled around with … and then sort of through that, now at the age of 18 [she] has come around to actually kind of hearing our stuff as referenced through these other places instead of just, “Oh yeah, that’s our parents.” … Not that she’s a huge fan: Of course every parent would love, “Oh, dad you’re so talented!” But it’s like, “Naw, it’s never going to happen.”

Maybe in ten years.

Maybe in ten years [laughs]

But yeah, mostly, like you said, it’s all they know. I think if they’d grown up the way I grew up they’d realize how freakish this was.

I can’t imagine how comfortable it must be to play with someone for so long. Do you jam with other people? I guess working with other producers probably brings more creative tension in, but how do you keep propelling forward?

Kind of a bit of all of those things. Working with people who are creative that we trust. People we know where they are and where that means we are, because we can be pretty flexible with boundaries and zones of the creative process. And having a really great bass player. We’ve had a few different bass players over the years and that’s all been very good and very vital to the sound and the progress of the band, especially inspiring Mim and I to keep pushing forward.

I’m not sure what the two of us would come up with. I mean, we would write and of course there’s certain things we’d come up with, but there’s something about having three people, there’s a better flow there. Not that she and I can’t work together, we work together, obviously, all the time … but our creative dynamic works well with another person who. And Steve, especially, works well. [He’s] really a talented musician and is disciplined and, to be honest, really fills in for the weakness that Mim and I have in that department. We’re alright musicians but we’re not as gifted as he is, for sure. He has a very high demand for quality whereas Mim and I are a little more slack, and more ok with things being loose. So it’s a good balance.

Lately it seems like anything noisy or challenging musically gets categorized as apocalyptic. But, of course, this record is full of a lot of light, so I was wondering how you hold on to that, especially making a record in 2018?

The act of trying to make a record is pretty hopeful. It’s the effort to try to make sense of what’s going on, or what you’re feeling.

There’s probably going to be a slew of records that are really twisted and frustrated and everyone’s going to have their own way of reacting and it’s going to be really interesting to see how that goes. But, we didn’t intend to go in and make a political record, or a record that’s reacting, but we for sure made that record spread out during the time going up to the election, and it was definitely weighing on us. … We try to be aware, and we try to be conscientious and we’re definitely people who believe that people need to be treated with dignity and that leadership is a very important role and that … when people use it for their own selfish gain … it’s more than just people stealing things like money and power, it’s changing the psyche of the whole society, and it’s giving license to hate and violence and it’s shaking the foundations that the rest of the population count on to live from day to day.

I guess it’s sort of a long way of trying to describe what’s going on without being too specific. But yeah, the record was made definitely in that time, and from experience of making records and writing, at the time you don’t feel like it’s directly reflecting what’s going on in your life, but time and time again you can look back and say, now I see where that song was coming from.

I think it’s interesting because you say you never set out to make a political record, but I wonder if anyone can make a record that’s not political right now, in some way, because it’s become so …

Permeated. It’s permeated everybody’s soul. You have to be dangerously ignorant at this point to not be affected, I would say, adversely. Even if you’re the people getting off on what’s going on, I don’t think there’s any good coming out of that. That’s a bold thing to say, but I don’t think in the end their joy is going to be any good. … I think everyone is getting twisted in a way that I think is unfortunate. The line between politics and everybody’s soul is very thin right now [laughs]. And like you said, I don’t think you can do anything without being political.

[But] I don’t know, it’s tough to claim that. As soon as you say, “Hell yeah it’s a political record! This song is about this, and this song is about this!” For some reason it draws [this] “Oh really? Oh, you’ve got the answers, huh?” And, I think, maybe [artists] are shy about being more direct about that.

Do you feel like you’re a pretty hopeful person?

Well, yeah. I definitely have bouts of despair, I mean, despair being loss of hope, like … “this and this and this just seem to be getting worse, what’s going on?”  … But yeah, I’m hopeful. I think the fact that I keep recognizing that when stuff drags me down that it doesn’t make things better, and I might as well turn a little bit to the light. Step forward a little bit, do a little stretch and keep moving. I think I’m learning slowly that usually – well, actually, pretty much every time — you pick up and keep going it usually dissipates, and usually gets a bit better. And if you keep on doing that sometimes days and weeks will go by without the darkness, and that’s a pretty new thing for me, to be honest. And maybe that’s the key, keep it simple, and trust – even though you don’t believe it when you’re feeling that way, just trust that if you keep moving forward it will even out, it will clear up.

I think everybody recognizes that. We all got up this morning, and even if we felt like we were getting dragged out for one reason or another, you must give a shit about whatever it is that’s dragging you out.

 

 

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