It’s America, 1993, and the rock scene is full of bands cranking their amps up to 11 in a bid to replicate the angst-ridden Grunge of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
The Seattle group’s seminal album Nevermind had been released two years earlier, prompting a wave of disillusioned teens to pick up a guitar and make as much noise as possible; finesse could wait. What better way to portray emotion than by thrashing the life out of your instrument?
At this time, with guitar feedback and heavy riffs ringing out of established alternative music venues like New York’s CBGBs, it took real bravery to go against the tide and take a different approach to playing live. Step|forward Minnesota’s Low, who, with no small amount of rebellion, decided the way to make an impression was by toning it down, rather than all the way up. Low’s singer, Alan Sparhawk, today reflects on those early days with a mixture of nostalgia and amusement.
“It was met with a mixed reaction,” he says of his band’s unorthodox set-up. “Some people just kept talking though our music, not even realising we were playing, that’s how quiet we were with our amp settings turned down. Others just did the whole furrowed brows, arms folded thing and eventually walked out of the venue. We played in CBGB’s in the early Nineties and even the sound guy was like ‘What the hell are these guys doing?’ Playing to crowds we knew weren’t interested was|difficult.”
The frontman is a patient, thoughtful presence, which is reflected in Low’s music. Delicate, repetitive guitar lines weave in and out of the lush harmonies provided by Sparhawk and his wife, Low drummer Mimi Parker. There’s one word (well, not an actual word) that never fails to get his back up, though — Slowcore, the term invented by lazy journalists to define Low’s ponderous pace. Reasonably, Sparhawk asserts that “no band would willingly let their music be nailed down to such an obscure phrase like that”, and has always retaliated against the label. Today though, he seems to perform an unlikely U-turn on the matter.
“Maybe I should just embrace it!” he says. “It could be a great thing. It did start off as a tongue-in-cheek thing, before journalists started using it in every review and it unfortunately started to grow.”
Other than this, Sparhawk, Parker and bassist Steve Garrington have reason to be grateful for the press as Low have always been, as they say, a critic’s band. As Sparhawk remarks, with evident pride: “Most of the time we get good reviews.” No more so than for their latest effort, The Invisible Way, Low’s tenth album released earlier this year. Produced by fellow Nineties alt-rock icon Jeff Tweedy, from Wilco, the record sees Parker take on more vocal duties than ever before; Sparhawk claims that “one day we’d like to make an album where she sings all the songs. That would be awesome”.
He adds, with a chuckle: “I have to face up to the fact that she sometimes just sounds better than me.” Do the couple need to practice synching their voices now, or after twenty years of performing together is it something that comes naturally?
“Well it helps to warm up! We always sing that Blow Monkeys song before going on stage, how does it go... (breaks into song wholeheartedly) ‘Tell me why-y-y-y is it I’m digging your scene’. As you get older you have to do things like that, because the old larynx takes longer to wake up and you end up choking on yourself halfway through the set.”
With his wife sitting next to him on the tour bus in New York City, Sparhawk, with commendable frankness, contemplates life on the road with his other half: “Ideally you’d be able to comfort each other, but in reality it’s actually very stressful. Working together and having to deal with that stress can be hard. If it’s been a difficult day for the band, that can cross over and become a bad day for the marriage.
“I don’t know, man,” he adds, sighing heavily. “We’ve been through a lot of intense but beautiful things together. It sounds all touchy-feely, but that’s what our relationship is built upon. We value those times.”
Sparhawk and Parker are both Mormons, and the singer has previously stated that “our spiritual beliefs encompass our whole life and understanding of who we are and what we do”. Travelling, though, as well as putting strain on their marriage, also occasional||ly acts as an obstacle to the couple practicing their faith.
“It’s hard to find a church on the road,” laments Sparhawk. “It’s really just a case of being honest with ourselves, though. Most of the people we meet and work with are very ... spiritual. Everybody’s good! I just try to find peace and be honest and good in this world. That’s as religious as it gets for me, nothing too intense.”
Intense is definitely a word you might attach to Low’s recording process; for a band so meticulous about their sound, letting the final product out into the world apparently sometimes becomes “a bit of an issue”. In this sense, Tweedy was vital to the making of The Invisible Way.
“As much as we brag about being minimalists and go in to the studio with the intention of keeping things stripped down, inevitably we’re always adding new things on top, like: ‘Hey, that sounds nice, let’s put that in! And that sounds cool too!’ Jeff reassured us that the songs sounded good without needing to get too stressed about it all.”
The end result is an album that, while typically measured, is a little fuller in tone than some of Low’s earlier work. Obviously it’s not quite Nirvana, but Sparhawk and
co have no doubt progressed as a band, and are eager to keep pushing their music to previously unexplored regions. Low’s first album especially, I Would Live in Hope, made in 1994 would appear to be a big influence on melody-driven contemporary indie bands like Grizzly Bear, but Sparhawk laughs off such talk, self-depreciatively arguing that “everything we’re doing and have ever done has been done before, so we really can’t take too much credit”.
He continues: “Sometimes kids in these new bands come up and say some very nice things to us, which is obviously great. When we started off, though, we were pulling off loads of different bands, so I feel like I can’t really talk in that sense.”
And here Sparhawk reflects once more on the early Nineties, on the dominance of heavier bands such as Nirvana, Sonic Youth or Smashing Pumpkins.|“I mean, it wasn’t like we hated those bands, please don’t think that,” he says. “We weren’t being contrary and saying ‘This is better than this’. It’s just that my favourite music is when people are original and find their own voice.” |Low avoided being bracketed in with that scene, then, and to this day they refuse to be pinned down, to give themselves up to any label. Exercising the kind of open-mindedness that has served his band so well in their twenty-year lifespan, Sparhawk concludes: “We were just trying to subvert expectations about what a rock band sounds like, and we still are. We formed a band around that way of thinking, and we’ll keep thinking like that.”
Low play the Belfast Empire Music Hall next Wednesday, August 21. Visit www.thebelfastempire.com
Sharing domestic bliss on stage ...
Life in a rock band can often be a mix of the professional and the domestic, as these musical couples can testify...
*Sonic Youth — up until 2011, when the iconic New York band split up, the band’s singers Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were married, having been together 27 years. One of the hippest couples of early Nineties alt-rock America, they shared vocal duties for pioneering albums like Dirty and Goo
*Arcade Fire — the Montreal rock outfit are fronted by husband and wife Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. Incorporating a range of instruments and usually striving for an orchestral sound, the band’s third album The Suburbs received huge acclaim from critics world-|wide
*The Fall — having previously been married to Brix Smith, a former member of The Fall, the Salford band’s often temperamental frontman Mark E Smith is now wed to Elena Poulou, who also plays keyboard in the current line-up