Filed under: Bands, Interviews, Narc | Tags: Alan Sparhawk, Charlie Parr, Low, Narc, The Invisible Way
“American bands are always on the edge of falling into that pit of Americana, and I’m a little skittish about that. I don’t like the cheap use of something old just to legitimise yourself. That music has to be won with your flesh to be really real”
With an astonishing new album to promote and a twentieth anniversary to celebrate, Lee Fisher picked a good time to catch up with Alan Sparhawk from ‘authentic American prairie gospel’ band Low. Although expecting a man to discuss religion in music before he’s had some coffee is a little harsh.
Despite me waking him up, it didn’t take long for Alan Sparhawk to gather himself and prove to be as thoughtful and warm as I’d hoped. We started off by talking about the sound of Low’s new album – their tenth. The Invisible Way was recorded with Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) in his Chicago studio and marks a distinct departure in their sound. Piano is foregrounded and the voice of Mimi Parker – possibly the most emotionally affecting voice you’re ever likely to hear – dominates the album in a way it never has before. I wondered if Parker had threatened to kick her husband’s ass if she didn’t get more mic time.
“Quite the opposite – we’ve been trying to encourage her! I was hoping actually that she’d sing the whole record. And though I was half joking, it’s kicked in this last year, she’s ended up writing more and that’s kind of the key – if she writes more, she’ll sing more. She writes on the piano, so that’s kind of a big factor as to why there’s so much piano. As we were writing songs, Steve, our bass player, ended up writing a lot on piano too, and it reached a point where I thought: ‘oh man – piano! There’s a lot of ways to screw that up’. Throwing a wrench into an already taut machine.”
The Invisible Way sees Low moving further than ever from their ‘sadcore’ reputation and lot of that seems to be down to working with Tweedy. “We went through to Chicago last spring and stopped by and he was working on some tracks for the new Mavis Staples record, and hearing the tracks – how raw and minimal the arrangements were – that brought it all together. And I asked him right there. It’s kind of a recording trick to keep something truly as it was and not have to mess with it too much. Not a lot of engineers can do it.” I suggested that, to very different effect, previous producer Steve Albini works in a similar way. “Definitely. It’s very much that idea of capturing the sound the way it really is, and as much as Steve comes across as an extremist about that, it really is a beautiful aesthetic. And once you have that as a basis, you really have a lot of freedom and can be really creative.”
Last year when I interviewed him, Michael Gira described Low as ‘authentic American prairie gospel music’ and I asked Sparhawk if that was a big part of what they do.
“Wow – I should write that down. I’m not sure which I’m more proud of – ‘authentic’ or ‘gospel’. I’m blown away by that. Mimi for sure has one foot in more traditional music, she grew up singing American folk and country stuff with her family, that’s where she comes from a little bit more than I do.” As to whether this is a direction Low might move in, Sparhawk is a little circumspect. “American bands are always on the edge of falling into that pit of Americana, and I’m a little skittish about that. I don’t like the cheap use of something old just to legitimise yourself. That music has to be won with your flesh to be really real.”We discuss our mutual love for a fellow Duluth musician, Charlie Parr, who Low have worked with in the past. “Charlie Parr really is one of the few people who can do it, he really is in that music… It’s not a study, not a nostalgia thing or to add weight to something. When we recorded with Charlie it was effortless, it was just us sat in a circle playing the tunes. I feel like a lot of my checks and balances are dictated by how I view him and his integrity and what it means to make music.”
It’s always seemed curious that Low are rare in maintaining some critical cachet while being open about their religious views (Nick Cave might be the only other, in the UK at least). Their songs manage to be honest without being dogmatic or hectoring, and I was keen to ask Sparhawk how he approached it.
“I’ve learned over the years to just trust the flow of creativity. When I’m writing and something comes up and you step back for a second and go ‘Oh’ … I mean, I notice it, and I might wonder if I’m going to let this stuff out, or be shy about it. I tend to let it go, as long as we’re not intentionally going, ‘hey, we’re gonna write religious songs’. Just let it happen naturally and not second guess it when it comes up.”
There’s a clear difference in the way their faith is handled in the UK. “I remember early on, the British press picked up on it right away, ‘Ah, you’re the MORMONS!’ – they were really fascinated… By contrast, as glutted and sick with religion as America is, they don’t want to talk about that shit man. And once people have decided they don’t want to talk about spirituality or religion in America, it’s fucking over!”.
I finished up by asking if work had start on their next album. “Oh no, I’ve learned long ago to pace myself. It’s dangerous to be writing songs during the same time you’re doing a lot of interviews, it’s already humiliating enough without adding to it. The two together would be a deadly combination.”
Low release The Invisible Way on 18th March. play The Sage Gateshead on Friday 26th April.
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