Always Trying To Work It Out: A Conversation with Low’s Alan Sparhawk

Interviews
10/18/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Shelly Mosman
Transcription by Sandy Dodge

How do you describe Low? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. The Duluth, Minnesota trio has garnered a remarkable legacy over their 25 years as a band, hardly ever staying in one genre or aesthetic for longer than a single album. They helped shape slowcore with their debut I Could Live In Hope, made glistening records like C’Mon with pop engineers like Matt Beckley and folk rock slow burners like The Invisible Way with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy behind the boards. The band’s latest record on Sub Pop, Double Negative, only confuses the narrative more. Double Negative is Low’s noisiest and harshest album yet, but also one of their most undeniably beautiful works. For a group that’s always experimented with their sound, it’s still astonishing to see how far they’ve been able to push their dynamics a quarter century into their career.

Maybe the band’s discography isn’t as jagged as it appears. Though each album feels like it belongs into a world of its own, there’s a certain feeling that blankets over all of the band’s recordings. When I talk with guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk over the phone from his Duluth home, I mention the “starkness” I’ve felt in most of his work. He agrees. It’s an idea that he says is a part of his being and upbringing. The minimalist music that he’s created, for sure, but also the power and endlessness of Lake Superior also comes to mind for him. It’s a feeling that he says he’s always chasing but never feels like he’s been able to achieve. When I ask if he feels like he’s gotten any closer, he firmly says no.

“You still start with nothing,” Sparhawk says. “You're still looking for that surprise.”

While Sparhawk continues to look for his next surprise, Double Negative has certainly come as a surprise to fans and critics. The heavily experimental work has earned the band some of the best reviews of their career. Listening to the album, it immediately becomes clear why. The heavy distortion (and I mean truly heavy) on everything from vocals to drums create a cacophony of shivering and shifting melodic noise. Drummer and vocalist Mimi Parker has never sounded so thunderous as she does with the sparse rhythms she plays echoing through layers of disintegrating reverb while bassist Steve Garrington amplifies the chaos with sinister, low drones. Working alongside producer B.J. Burton, who produced the band’s previous record Ones and Sixes as well as Bon Iver’s 22, A Milllion, Low approached the record with continual questions of “What if?”

Double Negative will engulf you. In an anxious era, Low has turned the sensation of anxiety into something stunning. It’s surprising and not surprising that the band would continue to shake up their approach yet again after 25 years, but mostly it’s inspiring. In talking with Sparhawk, I don’t get the impression the band will stop searching for that elusive feeling they’ve always chased after.

 

KEXP: Can you talk about when you first started working on this album? It seems like it was pretty quick after your last record, Ones and Sixes.

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah I think we might have even, in late 2015 and into 2016, already done a few sessions, just trying things. We were going off of where we left off with Ones and Sixes, in that after that record we knew like, 'Okay, I see some light at the end of this tunnel, let's head this way a little further and go deeper into this concept or this idea'. So yeah, we were already working on it for a while in those sessions here and there, a couple days at a time.

You worked with producer BJ Burton on both that record and this record.

Yeah, he was definitely key to it. Not only mixing but just working with sounds. We would go in with a song and say, 'Okay, well we know we can play it this way but let's try this different instrument. Okay, we know the rhythm needs to do this' and we'd fish around with sounds and he'd help us look through possibilities and find things. Sometimes we'd put the song together, track the basics for it. Then he'd take it and sort of move things around, change things, substitute things to try to find different sounds. Then we'd go back in and record different parts.

It sounds like it was a very collaborative experience with him. How did you first get connected?

He actually reached out to us. He works with Justin Vernon quite a bit and they have a studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is actually only two or three hours from us. We've run into Justin over the years here and there. So BJ contacted us and said, 'Hey next time you're passing through you should come check out the studio. And so we did. And it was really cool and by that time he essentially expressed his interest in working with us. He was curious about what we were doing next. We got to know him a little bit and it definitely felt right. So we went from there.

He seems like he has a very distinct style and sound in the records he's worked on. What appealed to you about working with him?

Well, he's really brave. He's really interested in finding new sounds. The possibilities of digital recording these days are through the roof. There are a lot of options, a lot of different things you can dig in to and pursue to get new sounds. Manipulating already organic sounds and different things like that. There are ways you can manipulate voice and pitch and tone that are just really advanced, and I like the fact that he's both aware and fluent with that stuff but also really interested in blowing it up and pushing its limits. Not just using it how it's convenient and easy but pushing it to find its outer edge. 'Where's the part where this is about to break?" That's where interesting things happen. And constantly having that attitude in the room and that kind of perceptional thought about what was going on and how we were going to be working was really inspiring and really opened up the writing process for us. It was surprisingly collaborative. Everybody had their space and there was a lot of room for crossing over, playing different things, adding different things. Setting aside the instruments that we play live in some ways freed that up. We've kinda done that off and on in the studio over the years. There's something about that that opens it up. It's a little bit more of a grey, organic area, but everybody moves in and out of it pretty freely as far as the decision-making process.

Yeah, there's definitely a lot of tonal similarities between Ones and Sixes and Double Negative. But the new record definitely goes even further into this very harsh, noisy, but still really elegant and beautiful sound. Did you guys spend a lot of time talking about this direction? Or how did you make that transition?

Well, I think once a group of people, once that aesthetic is established, you don't really have to talk too much about it. I think everybody understands the goal that we we're pushing at. There's definitely a noise element, but also where is it still beautiful? And you're constantly moving back and forth and pushing and finding that spot. 'Nope, that's too much', or 'okay, that's baring it too much'. So you're navigating around sometimes reaching in the dark and seeing what you bump into. That's just kind of always been an overriding thing for us, always trying to find that balance. You can always tell when you've found it. There's sort of an electricity to it.

 

You mentioned a lot of experimentation in the studio and trying to push things until it feels like they're breaking. I'm curious, what would that look like in a logistical way? Were you distorting your instruments? Or how would you make these distinctive sounds that just immediately grab you?

Well, I don't know. I think just being willing to strip to the essence of something or just letting something very simple carry the song. Like I said, a good engineer and mixer can take just one sound and sort of find a way to blow it up, make it very present, make it very vibrant. Sometimes it's as simple as distortion, sometimes it's putting a weird gate on something to where it just seems to exist on this...I don't know. There's a vibrancy that you can add to it somehow, not necessarily changing it. I don't know, there's that. We were constantly trying to find ways to break up the voices. Distortion, sometimes we'd sample or make vocal loops and use that as the tonal guide for a sampler or some other instrument triggering it. I think it's just a matter of looking at what kind of equipment you have in front of you and seeing how you can push it to do something interesting. Yeah, I don't know. To me, it's just not being satisfied with normal. It's what's exciting to you. What do you think's interesting? If you turn this up is it more interesting? Yes! Okay, well then turn that up!

That makes sense to me.

Anybody can make those decisions, it's just a matter of spending the time and trusting that you can and should be making those decisions.

I mean, that's got to take some confidence and bravery as an artist do that. You think?

I don't know. It was hard to do. You definitely have waves of moments where you're second guessing yourself and waves of moments where you think you're completely off track and you're wasting time or that you sound like a child. But I don't know, you just keep pushing along and somehow it works out.

It sounds like this was a more intentional process for you guys where you were kind of working and writing mostly in the studio with sketches of songs. What did that look like? Were you and Mimi bringing just like bits of ideas, like little melodies? What did that look like?

Yeah, sometimes. It would be some chords and melody, some chords and maybe some lyrics. There were a few songs that were complete. Like well, we know how this goes, it was just a matter of trying to find different versions. You know, do a few different versions and see if anything worked better than the other. But yeah, sometimes we'd be just fishing around making sounds, just running a drum machine through something to see if you can find something interesting. Once you did, you're like 'Okay, well let's save that'. Then we'd go home and listen to it. And at some point, we're like, 'Oh okay, I've got a couple chords I think could work with this and the melody. Okay, next time we're there we'll put this on there and we'll see if it makes sense'. So there was some of that. It's a little bit different. It's drawing the writing process in the studio.

I don't know. I personally prefer to have stuff written, at least something written. Even just a fragment or couple of chords written before you go in and just start making stuff out of nothing. Like actually sitting in the studio trying to write. There's actually not really much of that. It's just, 'Here I have this fragment, let's fish around and try to find some interesting sounds'. Then you slow down, then you speed up. It's usually based on something that's written beforehand. I think because we were trying to base them on completely different arrangements and stuff like that, it definitely went more until, 'okay well let's try this', 'okay this is this is interesting, there's something here, i'll finish that, or i'll develop this and bring it back next time'. That kind of thing. It was different. Different for us. I don't know. I'm hoping that that just kind of parallels the other things that are sort of different. Different approach to rhythm. Different approach to vocals. Definitely a more drawn out recording process. Luckily we had the space and time.

 

Looking through your discography it's hard to pin down a certain, 'this is what Low sounds like' because you guys have tried so many different styles and always kind of experimenting with different sonic palettes. Is that something that keeps you going or excites you? To just constantly put yourself in these maybe uncomfortable but new settings?

Yeah, that's actually a really good way to put it. You know, our first couple records were with with this guy (Mark) Kramer. He was very esoteric, a very, very stylized producer. He had a certain sound. And I think just early on we recognized the value of working with someone else who had their own vibe and who probably brought a little something to the recording. Just the tone or the approach or even just their personality, which then inspired us to kinda work a certain way. You know, Albini, he wouldn't say necessarily Albini has a sound. He's not really mixing and sort of putting his gloss on things. But his attitude and his sort of work ethic was really instrumental and inspirational to the way we would work with him. Same with Dave Fridmann. Dave Fridmann was very interested in what else is out there. What other things can you do? What other sounds can you guys come up with? What else can Low do? That was really pivotal for us I think as well. I mean it's part of what brought us to where we are today

But yeah, working with inspiring people that we feel we can trust. That's a big thing. It can't be just someone you think is cool, it has to be someone who you're really okay with letting this and this and this decision be made by this person. It can be really freeing and really energizing to your own creative process and makes you focus on the things that you do and make decisions on. Not that things are out of hand it's just that, well, I trust this person is going to make decisions that I'm gonna be fine with and that are probably going to be cooler than what I would come up with. So let's roll with that.

I think that takes a lot of humility and trust as artists to do that because your work is so personal, to let someone in and help dictate that process, that can be a big thing.

I don't think you have to be in control of everything. I mean as long as it's not something I hate, you know. I'm fine. I wrote the songs, I sing them the way that I want. The songs are important to me and I have control over it but it's important to me that I leave enough choice about how someone else is going to filter that is another thing and like I said, that's very freeing to be able to have part of it that you can trust someone else that you're working closely with to do well at.

With this new record, I know you guys mentioned the 2016 election and all the world itself in the past couple of years and the chaos that’s come from that. Did you, Mimi and the band talk about any of that and how you wanted to approach the record thematically? Or how did that inform the process?

Well, we're always talking about that stuff. We're always kinda talking about it. We'll get together and rehearse for like two hours and we'll end up only getting through maybe three songs. The rest of the time we're talking about what's going, talking about some podcast or what was heard, this and that. It's funny, it's always part of the conversation. I don't know, man. I don't know, it didn't have to be necessarily cautiously talked about. It just kind of came out… I don't remember ever really having any conversation where all three were like, 'Okay man, this just can't stand. Let's make a record that's gonna...' You know it was never consciously spoken of but I think everybody just knew what we were doing was really kind of resonating with what was going on. And you know, I guess just from experience I know that whatever you're going through at the time definitely influences what you create. So it was kind of interesting to see that unfold, you know, making decisions in a creative process where you think, 'Oh this is this little world, this isolated world,' and it's like well, no. You're being very influenced by what's going on, it sets the mood. I think, as a person who writes stuff, you want to address it. You want to use your power for good, you know? So yeah, it's kind of a constant question. And again, I'm just trusting the process and trusting that if you're honest it'll come out and it'll say what needs to be said and hopefully do a little bit of good.

When I asked that question I was a little hesitant cause I wouldn't characterize Double Negative as a political record, you're not really saying very outright like 'topple government' or whatever.

Right. Right.

But there's the feeling of the record. There's chaos in the world, but the album feels like that anxiety. Is that what you're trying to address?

Well, I don't know that we were conscious of it. It makes sense. I mean, the songs feel to me more like the personal reflection, it's not necessarily addressing what's going on in the world, it's addressing what does it feel like for this to be happening. As a human being, when certain things that you thought were always going to be secure are now not secure, this is the experience. The songs are more of a reflection of what a person is going through, not necessarily reaching out and going, 'hey you, you're bad'. It's more saying like, okay well it's us versus bad. Is this bad? How does that reflect, what does that mean to me? What is this chaos? How is it that I'm still alive?

I think that's a really empathetic way to approach music and these kind of feelings. It's not like damning anybody, but it's more of a collective feeling, and I think you guys really tap into that really well. It certainly does feel like how a lot of people feel right now.

I'm glad it's there but I really have a hard time believing anyone could intentionally do that. I think you just live and express what's inside you and if it's honest, it's probably going to resonate. And it's nice when it does.

 

When you and Mimi write, do you talk at all about lyrics and trying to stay the same thematically? Are you very collaborative in that way? On this record how did it come about?

No, we didn't really have to talk about it. I don't know, songs usually come together. If something really weird and obviously like not fitting a record comes along, you know it's usually pretty obvious and it just doesn't feel right. But I don't know, I don't think there was ever any kind of conscious like, 'okay, well we're talking about this and this and this, so let's keep doing that, or maybe we should change this verse to this to talk more about this'. I don't know. I wish I had that much control over my writing but I don't know. It feels a lot more like a subconscious kind of random process where you get fragments and most of the time you don't really know exactly what's going on until maybe the song's done or maybe years later. Like I said, as a band, we talk about what's going on in the world a lot and we're pretty concerned and frustrated, but slightly hopeful. I feel like over time I've just learned that it just comes out. You don't have to be too conscious, you don't have to telling yourself, 'okay this is what I want to write' or 'I'm feeling this, I want to do this,' it just comes out. And your job is to get out of the way and try to present it as clearly as possible.

I think I think that makes a lot of sense. You briefly touched on the way you guys have experimented and changed styles over the years. Listening to this record, I went back and put on I Could Live In Hope and they definitely sound different, but there's a familiar starkness to both records for me. I'm curious, what draws you to this minimalist, kind of looming instrumentation, carrying over all these years?

I don't know, but yeah, the word 'stark' is good. I like that. The word kind of evokes more than just minimalism. There's a soberness to it. It's like, for a moment, standing still and taking a hard look at something very simple. There's something about that, it maybe is how I grew up. You know, we grew up on a farm. There's something about the field and the woods, sort of this emptiness. Duluth, where we live, we live on this big lake on the tip of Lake Superior and it's kind of like being on the ocean, it just kind of disappears on the horizon. There's something about that empty stillness. It perceives as stillness, anyway. Once you get out there on the water you realize it's very alive and very powerful even though it looks very still. Maybe that's part of it too. This static, but sort of potential energy that's bubbling underneath. I don't know, I guess it's just the corner of the aesthetic world I'm probably the most drawn to. There's just something about something very singular that's steady. Something very simple but large, a large gesture. The single word. There's just something about that that I'm drawn to it's really been kind of the anchor of the band. Whether it's the slowness, or the minimalism, or the sort of DIY, kind of no frills approach. It's all kind of part of this... Maybe there's a part of me that yearns for that. Really, my brain makes a lot more chaotic than the music we make. Sometimes I feel like the music we make an effort to try to push my brain to that state. You know it's like it's an ideal that I will always try to point toward but never quite really get there.

Do you feel like you've gotten closer over the years in all these records you've made?

No, no, no. You still start with nothing. You are still starting with nothing. You're still looking for that surprise.

It's just really inspiring to see how much you guys continue to experiment and look for new ways to capture that feeling, that idea. Is there approach you've always wanted to do that you hope to do? Or ideas for where you guys want to go next?

I don't know. After making this record it was sort of a little bit of a feeling of, okay well what do we do now that we've blown up the model? You know, once you've blown up the machine, you can't blow it up again, it'd be redundant. So what do you do now? Try to put some pieces back together again? Do you abandon it and go find something else to blow up? I don't know. I don't know. There's definitely genres of music that are interesting, but the minute you start talking about like, 'oh, it would be really cool if we did like a metal E.P.' As soon as it leaves you you're like, no, no, maybe not. Or wow, what do you say, we should do some reggae pop. But no, maybe not. But maybe we'll figure out a way to do reggae that doesn't sound like reggae. Some really minimalist reggae [laughs]. Sometimes I think that's actually probably what we're headed towards.

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