Plenty of musicians get mellower with age, but Alan Sparhawk's been doing the exact opposite. For the past couple of albums, his main band, Low, has been progressively increasing the noise level on its minimalist (and originally very quiet) rock, and he pushes that envelope even further with side project Retribution Gospel Choir. Where Low is about doing more with less, RGC is a place where Sparhawk can cut loose. Rounded out by bassist (and Sparhawk's Low bandmate) Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard, the band has just released its sophomore disc, simply titled 2. Although it still shares a lot in common sonically with Low, the album gives free rein to a fuller, almost classic-rock sound, and it has a sense of freewheeling fun not usually associated with Sparhawk's main band. Before playing at the Triple Rock Social Club Feb. 20, Sparhawk talked to The A.V. Club about Huey Lewis harmonies, Low's dip into the dance world, and his toughest critic.
The A.V. Club: What does Retribution Gospel Choir offer you creatively that you can't do in Low?
Alan Sparhawk: Well, I definitely allow myself a lot more freedom on the guitar and the volume and sort of the histrionics. Surrendering to that juvenile pride—calling it what it is and seeing if you can make something meaningful out of it. Letting go and letting out this chaos that the guitar can have. Really, to me, what mostly triggers it is people that are in the band, and how we attack things. With Low, Mimi [Parker, Sparhawk's wife and Low's drummer] very much sets the tone for that. When I play with Low, after all these years it's really just natural. But with these guys, it's just a different dynamic. We allow ourselves to play louder and harder. Definitely Low, from moment one, we were making music using premises that had never been used and were having to carve our own language. Whereas with Retribution Gospel Choir, we're coming to a language that's already been well established and well worn-out, and trying to figure out a way to make something alive and exciting using those same tools. You give yourself different parameters and surprise yourself sometimes.
AVC: Where do you draw the boundaries between bands? The first RGC record shared a couple of songs with Low, and there are a couple on 2 that seem like they could easily fit on a Low record. But then there's a song like "White Wolf" or "Working Hard," which sounds like your version of Foreigner or Journey.
AS: Oh, yeah. It's got those jumping harmonies—someone called them "Huey Lewis harmonies," which I thought was pretty funny. Those two songs definitely right away felt like this was something RGC would play. I don't mind blurring, I don't mind having stuff that can go either way. With Low, we've been playing with our own boundaries on the last few records anyway, and we're probably a lot more scattered off of what someone would say is "our sound" than you'd think.
AVC: It seems like it's not a coincidence that Low's changing sound happened around the same time you started doing these louder side projects.
AS: Yeah, I learn things and I get certain perspectives, having side things. I used to think that it was like, "Oh, okay, I do these side things that are more extreme, and I can apply them when I come back to Low," but I think actually the side things, over the years, are making me a little more confident about taking chances. Having done a few things like that on the side makes it easier. [Low's album] Drums And Guns very much came out of stirring things up the last few years and trying to push that element. Rather then coming back to Low and just slightly applying that, I felt like, "Well, I can get away with this and this, then why can't Low do this?" It's definitely made me braver. But I think that's natural. Anyone that's been doing something as long as we have, it's a constant struggle to keep yourself thinking like a child. Part of that is taking chances and turning your back on what you think you need to create.
AVC: Do you worry about doing the same thing too often?
AS: We certainly could've. If you were to define Low at the very outset, we sounded like the kind of band that would sound exactly the same from beginning to end. [Laughs.] Yeah, you have to keep trying. One of the biggest mistakes is people who, 20 years on, are still like, "Well, I'm still going to make the same thing I did before, because it works and I'm afraid." Bands like AC/DC can pull that off, but most can't. It's not about what sounds you're making as much as are you challenging yourself? Are you as scared as you were the first time you made a record? And if you are, you're probably doing fine.
AVC: Low is collaborating with choreographer Morgan Thorson on a dance piece, "Heaven," which will play at the Walker Art Center in March. What drew you to become involved with that?
AS: One of the dancers, Jessica Cressey, knew us and talked to Morgan, [who] visited us and showed us some footage of some of the movement. I was really struck by it right away. There's some really powerful and primal moments, a static and tension that I think is really beautiful, and makes for an engaging creative situation. We dance a little bit in the piece and make music. It's definitely a different world from music. It's really interesting. The piece is about an hour long, and there's times where it's very improvised, a musique concrète kind of thing, but there's some songs when the whole group is dancing and the dancers are singing like a choir. There's coherent songs and stuff that's just chaos.
AVC: Is that kind of collaboration something you'd like to do more of in the future?
AS: Yeah, I'd like that. Doing music for film would be interesting, but this is exciting because it's so interactive. I like the fact that it's a live performance. Something about that brings it back to my first love.
AVC: With your kids being a little older now, do you still bring them on tour with you?
AS: No, not lately very much. When Hollis was born nine years ago, we brought her along for six years. When Cyrus was born, he came with us as well. But the last two or three years we've definitely trimmed that off because the kids have been in school. With Low, we've adjusted our schedule for the last few years to keep [touring] to a minimum. It's nice to go out with Retribution, because the kids can stay home and play with Mim. It's efficient. With three guys in a van we can get around and sleep on the floor. They love coming along, but there were some years there where we were doing 90 or 100 shows and bringing kids along. [Laughs.] They won't remember any of that time, I imagine.
AVC: Are they showing any aptitude toward music?
AS: Yeah, Hollis likes singing—pretty good pitch. Cyrus actually has a great tendency to improvisation. He'll come down with the Retribution Gospel Choir—it's sort of a running joke, he's the fourth member, but we're never quite good enough for him. We'll be rehearsing and he'll come down and pick up the trumpet and play, and then he'll get through about a song and he'll look at us and roll his eyes and walk out. [Laughs.] "Awwww, still not good enough!"
AVC: So you'll know you've finally hit your stride when he stays in the room.
AS: Yeah, then we'll know we're good enough for the big time. [Laughs.]