Low’s Ways and Means
With the release of their 10th LP The Invisible Way, Duluth, Minnesota act Low entered rarefied territory—20 years without releasing a record that sucks. The husband/wife duo of singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and singer/drummer Mimi Parker, alongside a handful of bass players over the years (presently Steve Garrington), have traversed myriad stylistic avenues throughout their incredible run. Initially pigeonholed as “slowcore” on ’90s indie classics such as I Could Live in Hope and Long Division, the band has adroitly expanded its sonic breadth over the years.
Low’s newest LP, the Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way, is a fulsome, organic, and brilliant effort, rife with tasteful accoutrements, including surges of melodic piano ripples on the astounding “So Blue,” and Neil Young-esque lacerating guitar figures on the cacophonous “On My Own.” But ultimately, this is the sound of Low comfortable being Low. Sparhawk and Parker are genius songwriters, easily among the finest of the past 20 years, and The Invisible Way finds them at the top of their game. They headline The Music Hall of Williamsburg this Wednesday, June 19, with ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty opening, and are sure to play a healthy selection of new tunes, as well as choice cuts from their vast back discography.
JOHN EVERHART: So you have your kids with you on tour?
ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, we’ll bring them along this summer. I think they get really bored, but as long as there’s an iPad charged for my son and Twilight books for my daughters, they’re all right. [laughs]
EVERHART: Maybe keep them away from the Swans shows you’re opening? Their shows are just ridiculously heavy and loud.
SPARHAWK: Ha! Yeah, I don’t know, maybe they’d like it. That band’s a monolith. We’ve gotten to get to be pretty good friends with Michael Gira [Swans frontman]. He’s a great guy. We toured with them a bit back in the ’90s.
EVERHART: You’ve been doing this for 20 years now. It’s pretty amazing that you’ve never made a bad record. You’ve been incredibly consistent. It almost seems like people take you for granted.
SPARHAWK: Joel [Leoskhe] from Kranky used to always say, “You guys need to make a really bad record so people will trash you and you can come back and make a really good record and people will be excited about it.” [laughs] But I feel like we’re always on the edge of someone standing up and saying, “Hey, the emperor’s naked.” I’m expecting that any second. But we’re pretty lucky that way. The longer you do this, the more treacherous it can be, and the more pitfalls and sort of bad diversions you can find to paint yourself into a corner. But with every record, we try to change the situation, yet still keep it comfortable, and we’re lucky to work with people who are inspiring to us who’ll give us that extra push. It’s nice to make records that are appreciated.
EVERHART: You’ve never had a significant depreciation in your audience. I remember reading that The Replacements were playing to fewer and fewer people, which is a big reason why they broke up initially.
SPARHAWK: I think that it’s harder now, because in the U.S., instead of seeing a lot of smaller bands, people seem to want to see a really big show. But we’ve been fortunate.
EVERHART: It’s odd, because early on because you were sort of accused of sounding the same. But it’s really been a profound evolution, particularly for the past decade.
SPARHAWK: It’s interesting that you say that. I’m ashamed that we’ve progressed as little as we have sometimes. I think the template that every band looks at is The Beatles and how much they progressed in six or seven years. But if you’re seeing it, good. Hopefully we’re evolving. It’s hard to tell from here.
EVERHART: But with you guys I feel like it’s songwriting. And I feel like you have this Neil Young sort of thing that you’re doing more and more of that sort of seems influenced by your playing in Retribution Gospel Choir.
SPARHAWK: Well, cool. Maybe that band does have that effect on me. That’s cool to hear.
EVERHART: How has the touring been thus far for The Invisible Way?
SPARHAWK: Generally good. But we played a show yesterday in Minneapolis, and there were like five bands on the bill. It was Bob Mould, some electronic dude, Metric, and Silversun Pickups. It was raining, and our set got cut short. So we thought it would be cool to play this 30-minute version of “Do You Know How to Waltz?” We thought it was great and special. But we’re getting bombarded by the most polarizing reactions. As much as the punk in me likes it, I’m really surprised by the weird energy that comes at you when people talk to you like that. I mean, I know there are people out there who loathe me and loathe Low, but they stop short of broadcasting it. It’s just interesting to see that line getting breached.
EVERHART: It’s an odd dynamic. I remember those shows you guys opened for Radiohead at Madison Square Garden years ago, and the crowd was so unbelievably nasty. I didn’t get that. You’d assume Radiohead fans would be open-minded. You were there because they asked you to be there.
SPARHAWK: It’s because it’s New York, and every other person in that audience is in a band and wishes they were opening for Radiohead. The funny thing is that we’d done a short tour with them in Europe, and all those shows were awesome. We’d get on stage and people were in the arena, the place was full, people were ready to hear music. If they didn’t like us, they talked. If they did, they listened. Then I came back home a month or two later and Radiohead were playing this place north of Chicago and Steve Malkmus was opening, and I was able to get in and say hi to those guys. I went early to see Malkmus, and not even a tenth of the audience was in their seats. And then when we did our shows at Madison Square Garden, I got it. It’s America. A bunch of assholes. [laughs] But thinking about the Minneapolis thing, you’re gonna join the ranks of the people who booed Dylan when he went electric? The people who begged Prince not to play “Little Red Corvette” in the ’80s? Maybe I’m old and people don’t have a sense of that history, but it just kind of boggles me. Why in the world would get people so upset?
EVERHART: Drums and Guns may be my favorite record of yours. The political lyrics were so powerful. Do you feel as though it still pervades your writing?
SPARHAWK: It’s always been in there, but for some reason it stuck out the most on Drums and Guns. We were talking about soldiers and people killing each other. And that was the most blunt I’ve been, because it was a time when we were in a lot of wars with the Bush administration running things. Those things are still happening, obviously. But a song like “Plastic Cup” on the new album is sort of a softer poke, but that’s just as much about looking at the world and how we govern ourselves.
EVERHART: I took it as an allusion to the war on drugs.
SPARHAWK: Yeah, it’s the war on drugs. But it’s more than that. It’s about people in power lording over the less powerful. It’s a great way to put all the black guys in jail.
EVERHART: Did you see the recent documentary, The House I Live In?
SPARHAWK: Yeah, that was a great documentary. It was amazing to see someone put it together in a very striking picture. Michael, I’m forgetting his full name, but one of the main guys they had talking on there, what he said was just so powerful. And the Obama administration has been the most narcotics-jailing administration ever. I just think it’s so ironic and underhanded. It’s so contrary to the consciousness and the feeling of the rest of the country. With a Democrat running things, it’s still just the same things going on.
EVERHART: Yeah, it’s been incredibly disillusioning.
SPARHAWK: No, that’s it. Do you think anyone’s going to be able to rouse the liberal masses again? No way. I hope it goes better, but I don’t feel a lot of hope for the future.
EVERHART: Part of me feels like the liberal base would be more fired up and fighting these things if a Republican were in office.
SPARHAWK: Yeah, they would’ve been more vigilant and keeping things in check. I don’t know. Who knows? It’s frustrating. But most people don’t know what it’s like to be poor, and to live in poverty. To live in a situation where everything around you—every opportunity is shut. You don’t have anyone showing you how to rise above, you don’t have any resources, and everyone around you is losing that battle too, then yeah, you want something that you have control over that makes you feel like you’re running your brain for a minute.
EVERHART: You came from a fairly poor background, right?
SPARHAWK: Yeah, we were farmers. We were pretty poor. It was weird.
EVERHART: You’ve spoken in the past about how it was an impediment for you to believe you could do something.
SPARHAWK: That’s what poverty does, man. You’re surrounded with “No, you can’t.” You’re surrounded with reminders that this is what not making it looks like. It can depress you, it can discourage you, it can make you angry. You can run away from it. There are people who, if they have the gumption, say, “I’m leaving here. I’m gonna take three jobs and make it.” There are definitely people who do that, and it shapes the rest of their life. And that’s almost as unfortunate as someone who says, “Why bother? I’m not even gonna try.” There are people consumed by that, and I’ve been affected by it. It’s been a detriment for sure. It was ridiculous, and I don’t want to see anyone go through that again. It makes me compassionate, and when I see it, it makes my shoulders tense up, and you remember it. You just want to strangle whoever’s responsible.
EVERHART: Well, let’s try to talk a little bit more about the new record. There’s a lot of talk of the passage of time on The Invisible Way. “Amethyst” sticks out to me. It’s just a gorgeous song. Are you feeling it more acutely than you maybe were previously?
SPARHAWK: Yeah, I think everybody experiences that. Having kids, different things. Having your manager remind you that you’ve been doing this for 20 years. That kind of thing just makes you say, “Wow.” You’re puzzled by time. It’s not what you expected it to be. But here I am, and some things seem far away, and some things seem close. But that’s been a subject that’s been coming up forever with Low. I’m always bringing it up. But I’m getting older, and the kids are growing. You’re never far from a reminder that it’s going by quickly and that you’re in a place very far from where you thought you’d be not very long ago.
THE INVISIBLE WAY IS OUT NOW. LOW WILL PLAY MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG TOMORROW, JUNE 19. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.