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Interview: Alan Sparhawk of Low

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It's been a tumultuous year for Duluth band Low, which jumped to a new label (Sub Pop), released one of its strongest—and definitely its loudest—albums (The Great Destroyer), and then went on an abrupt hiatus in May due to mental-health issues of leader Alan Sparhawk. Then, in October, longtime bassist Zak Sally announced he was leaving the trio. Low will return to the stage Dec. 9 at First Avenue for a special holiday show, and in January returns seriously to touring with a series of shows that take the band all across the U.S. and Canada. The A.V. Club caught up recently with Sparhawk to talk about all the changes. (A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Onion's Twin Cities print edition. The A.V. Club also talked with Zak Sally in September.)

The A.V. Club: How's your health?

Alan Sparhawk: I've learned to not put too much trust in if I feel like I'm doing better or not, but I think if I look at the evidence, I seem to be doing better. We've decided to do some shows for early next year, so as far as the difference between early May and right now, this is much better.
AVC: Did the time off change the way you thought about what you wanted to do with Low and music in general?
AS: Not drastically. I think we've always been on the lookout for the ideal mental and physical level that we could handle as far as touring and having a family. It's an ongoing process, and obviously this last year was a big lesson on where some of the dangers are. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've got a pretty long touring schedule coming up over the first part of 2006.
AS: Yeah. Spread out over a lot more time. Shorter trips, with a little more time in between.
AVC: Does the schedule have something to do with your children now being school-age?
AS: Yeah, Hollis Mae is in kindergarten now, and we're just trying to find a way to work around that. I think shorter trips are going to work. It's actually a very light schedule compared to what we've been faced with in the past.
AVC: You've been playing a lot with Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters in the side project Retribution Gospel Choir. How did you two hook up for that?
AS: I've known Mark for a few years. It's always been [a close] thing with Low and Red House Painters. We knew that that wouldn't be necessarily an ideal bill—you know, a lot of people would go [playground mocking voice] "Oh, you two, Low and Red House Painters," just because of the whole quieter, slower thing. It just didn't ever feel like that would be the right thing to do with the possibility of working together. Then this summer, we were talking, and Mark was telling me about how he was getting tired of playing acoustic, because he had been doing the solo and small-group acoustic performances for a few years. So I said, "Well, I've got this group I play with here that's pretty responsive [with] loud stuff." And so we thought we'd try a little tour together, and do some of his songs, some of ours—well, most of the set actually we wrote new stuff for, so it wasn't necessarily Red House Painters and Low cover night. We played loud and got to do stuff together. I wish we could have taken that band around a little more. Maybe we still will sometime.
AVC: Have you thought about actually recording with him?
AS: It's always talk until it actually happens. He's got this record coming out right now and he'll be busy doing that. But maybe by spring we'll be trying to figure something out again. I really like the Retribution Gospel Choir. It's exciting. I wish we could get out in front of more people, but you know, people don't know about bands. [Laughs.] There's too many bands out there for people to keep track of.
AVC: Is RGC taking the place of Black Eyed Snakes for you, in a way, in that they're both loud and kind of bluesy projects?
AS: Not intentionally. I think it's just that the louder, improvisational, more gut-feeling stuff is always in me. I suppose, Retribution has those elements, especially the looseness of improvisation. I'm still coming to terms with why that stuff keeps coming out of me. I don't know what it means, what kind of bearing it has on Low.
AVC: I'd like to talk about your new bass player, but before I do that I should probably ask about the situation with Zak. Do you want to talk at all about Zak's departure?
AS: I can't really speak for anybody else, beyond what they've said themselves. I think there's probably several reasons [why he left]. He and his wife just had a son a month or so ago, and Zak's got other things going on. I'll admit there was some tension between the two of us toward the end of the tour, but at least from my angle, I attribute that to the fact that I was really, really unhealthy and getting pretty delusional and unstable. So, for the last few months there, it was just really difficult for everybody. I think, finally, for him, it was enough, it was just too much to work with. There's discrepancies on both sides as to what's going on. I've had a bit of a drug problem for awhile, which is not as—when you say "drug problem," everybody thinks of specific drugs, and it's not that—but it's… I don't know, I don't really call it a drug problem. But if you were around me earlier this year, I think it would have been really easy to look at me and go, "Wow, that guy needs to get off drugs." [Laughs.] But we found out when we got home that it was definitely way different from drugs—but, anyway, without sounding very rock 'n' roll boring, it's been rough. We had a good time making that record and stuff, but it's been hard. My mental health has been very hard on everybody, and the thing with mental health is, you can't just flat-out say, "Oh, well, sorry everybody, I guess I was kind of crazy there for a couple of years. Everything's fine now." It just doesn't happen like that. Number one, you don't recover that fast. Number two, all the stuff that goes on when your life is so fucked up, it's going to leave a personal flavor to it. No matter how close and understanding people are around you, the stress and everything that people have to go through to be able to put up with you and work closely with you, I imagine, probably after awhile [Zak was thinking], "Fuck this, man." [Laughs.] "I've got a family coming at home, and I've got things that I enjoy doing more than laying in mold in a bus in the middle of Germany."
AVC: Are you still on good terms with Zak, all things considered?
AS: Yeah. Our friendship came a long time before there was any band. All these years of sharing the same stage and thoughts and struggles with someone, it creates an impenetrable bond. Right now, everybody's just trying to concentrate on the things that they're doing and the things that they need to be doing for the next part of their lives. It's hard to not have one of your best friends in the van and on stage with you all the time, but it's something you adjust to. He and I are feeling even closer and stronger about what we want to do next. It's not so much spite, as in, "Oh, great, well now I can…" It's like, "Well, with this element gone, what do we have left and is it worth doing?" And I think we've found that we have something that we want to continue doing. I think back, 12 years ago when he joined the band, all the crazy things we were doing, sleeping on floors and playing in front of audiences that were less than sympathetic. There's a certain peace that comes from knowing that we all survived and that we have kids and it seems like we're probably going to be okay parents. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you think Zak's contribution to Low was?
AS: Zak had a good personality for it. He had a good nature for balancing what Mimi [Parker, singer/drummer] and I do, and he's a good editor. As much as it was kind of frustrating and ego-killing, I always looked forward to bringing new songs to those guys. It's hard, because if you spend that much time with someone in that concentrated amount of activity, it's pretty intense and it's a little awkward to not have that. It makes us realize the strength and the integrity of what we have.
AVC: Low's new bass player is Matt Livingston, who's also in Retribution Gospel Choir. How much have you worked with him in the context of Low at this point?
AS: Just these last few months, actually. I've known him for quite a few years and he plays in different bands in town, he's also a pretty ridiculous saxophone player. [Laughs.] He was actually working on his master's six or seven years ago in jazz saxophone performance. He just kind of gave up on it because he realized that the academic music world is so far off from the folk or rock world, or whatever you want to call it—you have to be a certain kind of person to deal with Juilliard and all that stuff, and I'm glad I never tried to pull that off.
AVC: Do you think he might play sax with Low a little bit?
AS: No. [Laughs.] Maybe for a special occasion in the studio, but I've got a real love-hate thing with the saxophone. I've got to be careful.
AVC: What does Matt bring to the group as far as his musicianship and his personality?
AS: One of the things that I'm noticing that was his thing with the saxophone was resonance and harmonics, getting more resonant things going on. It's hard to explain, but Matt has a really good ear—obviously, with that kind of schooling, you can hear notes, intervals, and changes pretty quickly, so Matt picks up the songs pretty quickly. Everybody plays a little differently, but I like it. He's a lot more improvisational. It's a different approach. When we first rehearsed, it took a few days for us to finally settle in on the same rhythms and the same flow. Most of the time when musicians get together, there's always that variance—always someone's a little ahead of the beat, someone's a little behind, you just hope it meshes. I've realized lately that the uniqueness of the way Mim [Parker, Sparhawk's wife and Low's singer/drummer] plays and the way that we move along as far as the rhythm and the whole push and pull of the tempo—it never dawned on me, because we came to that all together before. Now having a different musician come in, it highlighted that. But it's not that we're getting rid of it, it's just interesting to hear it. It's all really subtle—ultimately, outside of the two or three of us, it's probably immensely unimportant, but it's been an interesting process and I'm excited to just keep moving along.
AVC: The first couple of shows that Low is playing on its return in Minneapolis and Duluth are both going to be holiday shows, right?
AS: Yeah, they're essentially that. In Duluth, we're thickening up the set-up a little bit for the Christmas shows with some more band people and maybe some choir action. We're tackling our Christmas record and trying to make it a big production. Some of it's just going to be the three of us, and a lot of it's going to kind of this bigger sound. It's kind of like a Low Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas show.
AVC: Are you recording a new Christmas album?
AS: Not right now, there's talk of it. But it'd be something we'd have to get on this coming year. It's definitely tempting. Our last Christmas record was kind of a godsend. [Laughs] I just don't want to say, "Oh, that went well, let's do another one." Over time, I think that the Christmas record seems to stand up pretty well, so maybe we'll try that again. For these shows, we're trying to raise some money for this charity, Maasai School Project, at www.laleyio.com. It's for Maasai tribes in Kenya. It's this friend of ours from Duluth, Hans Johnson, who now goes to the University of Minnesota. Since he was maybe 18, he's been going over to Kenya. He brought a recorder, Harry Smith style and recorded their music, and put out this CD [Rhythm Of The Maasai]. All the money goes to the schoolteachers' salaries. Beyond that, AIDS is looming and there's no literature in their language and there's just all kinds of real simple things could be done that would completely turn around the future for a lot of people. We're working on raising money to build a school in this village.
AVC: Any big plans for the Christmas show?
AS: This is actually the first time we've done a really official Christmas show. Before, when we'd play near Christmastime, we'd just play as many of the Christmas songs as we could. But this time we're actually making it at least 75 to 80 percent Christmas tunes. So—decorations and ornaments and stuff like that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Since this will be the first Low show in a while, do you feel like there's something to prove?
AS: Yes and no. Ultimately we don't care, but at the same time, I want the people that have followed the band for a long time to still feel confident in us. I'm not worried about getting on stage necessarily, or this show. It's the longer picture. I just want the next little while to be exciting and a time of growth.
AVC: And since you've been playing with Retribution Gospel Choir too, it's not like you haven't been playing at all since the last Low shows.
AS: Right, right. I'm not worried about getting on stage necessarily, or this show. It's the longer picture, I guess. I just want the next little while here to be exciting and a time of growth.
AVC: You've got a new EP, Tonight The Monkeys Die, with five remixes of the song "Monkey" by guys like Bob Mould, Stephin Merritt, and Fog. Did you have a hand in choosing all the people that remixed the songs?
AS: Yeah. We had heard that Bob Mould liked the song. He'd done some interview where he mentioned the song, and we knew somebody that knew him and thought, well, give it a whirl. And he came back right away and was really, really into it. I really like The Fog, and he did a really intense, really, really good mix. There's a hip-hop group from Duluth here called Crew Jones; they did a mix, and it's pretty cool. They did some verses over it, and I really like it.
AVC: If there was going to be a Low tribute record and you could choose who was going to do any song of yours, who would you pick?
AS: I don't know. I know it sounds kind of perverse, but in the back of my mind I've got this sort of foggy list of songs, that I thought, "Boy, if the Foo Fighters were doing this song it would have been a lot more popular." [Laughs.] Songs that were kind of closet big-guitar pop songs, you know, that we ended up having to be clever with because it's Low.
AVC: You could probably try to shop some of your songs around to other groups.
AS: I don't know if anybody would openly admit to be, like, "Well, we're working on a record and we seem to be short a few songs—call up Low!" But it'd be fun. I find now that my writing for songs, it's a little more eclectic now. It's a little frustrating and strange sometimes to try to figure out how to fit a song into the parameters that Low inevitably has. I mean, in a certain way we can do whatever we want, but at the same time there's limitations, and those limitations have treated us well. I don't know—it'd be nice to just write a song, like, "Oh, I'm happy with that, but I don't know if I ever want to play it in front of people." [Laughs.] "Get someone else!"
AVC: Well, The Great Destroyer had a different kind of sound than previous Low discs, so you have changed the direction of Low in the past.
AS: I don't know. It's hard. I keep coming up with these kind of short pop songs and at the same time I'm kind of disgusted with pop. [Laughs.] I don't know. I'm not looking forward to trying to figure out that crap.
AVC: You covered "Nowhere Man" on the Rubber Soul tribute album that came out last month, This Bird Has Flown. Did you get to choose that song?
AS: Someone approached us and said "Do you want to work on this compilation?" Blah blah blah, pick a song, and we wrote back and said "Well, we'll try 'Nowhere Man.'" It was really quite simple. When they first inquired about it, I thought it was going to be a smaller release. We get requests for compilations pretty often and most of them we can't do, but this one was like, "Well, we can try this." And it worked out well. The person in [Duluth] here that we've been doing some recording with, he helped with the instrumental tracks with that. You can hardly hear him, we have Mim's voice way up front. That was a fun thing. I just wanted to make sure that vocals were king on that song and then try to stay true with rhythm in the back.
AVC: Have you gotten much response about the Low T-shirt that's in the movie Elizabethtown?
AS: Yeah. [Laughs.] We've sold a good pile of them. It's been weird, I think we've gotten about a hundred-some orders for those since the movie came out, and they're all from teenage girls that have no idea who we are. [Laughs.] It's a quirky little funny thing, I guess, but we'll take it. We'll take the advertising, even if it's in a teen romance drama movie that's three hours long.
AVC: How do you feel about the reception that Great Destroyer had with critics and fans, since it was a departure from your earlier sound?
AS: It's maybe noisier, I guess, and it was fun to work with [producer] Dave Fridmann because once we went down that road, he really was helpful in making it come across interestingly. It's tough when you start pushing into the louder, noisier stuff, because there are a lot of other people who have done it way better than we have over the years. It's kind of daunting.
AVC: Although the reviews seem to have been positive.
AS: It's kind of strange, because I was really in touch with how it was being received when it first came out, and then we went touring and now I have no bearing. I have no idea what's going on with that record now. [Laughs.] It's refreshing to see that we're still not hip! I mean, we're well-received, but we're never going to be The Arcade Fire, or whoever's hot now. And hopefully age will not make me even more apathetic to what what's hip out there. At this point I have no idea who we are compared to them in people's eyes. We certainly don't sell as many records as they do.
AVC: Well, hopefully your audience will keep growing with you as time goes on.
AS: Sure. We've had a pretty good audience so far. I can't figure out what we could possibly do to change it. [Laughs.] Besides get worse.