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High on Low 

Low's brand of "slowcore" has made its creators unlikely indie rock favorites for more than a decade

Wednesday, Feb 25 2004
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I want Alan Sparhawk, the guitarist/vocalist for Low, to give me a serious, emotive answer to my final question, and he knows it. On the phone from his home in freezing Duluth, Minn., he's cracked jokes throughout our entire conversation about his band, whose sound many consider the gloomiest, most lethargic on Earth. All I'm looking for is a little gravitas to sum up. What, I want to know, is the most important thing that Low has given him?

Sparhawk giggles. "It's given me the ability to pay off my student loan."

As smartass as the answer is, the man's got a point. Sparhawk started the group -- which includes his wife, Mimi Parker, on drums and Zak Salley on bass -- in 1993 in direct response to grunge's instinctive worship of noise and speed. But in a flashy and hyperkinetic pop music world based on ultratransient trends, Low should have been the last band able to make ends meet. Nonetheless, since its inception, it has expanded its ultraslow, minimalist style, and steadily attracted an audience that at first paid literally no attention to it.

In 1995, the musicians' first show at the Great American Music Hall saw them opening for now-defunct New York groove-rockers Soul Coughing, whose lead singer, M. Doughty, had to scold the crowd for overwhelming Low's delicate soundscapes with chatter and clinking glasses. "We were running scared on that tour," Sparhawk remembers with a snicker. "Now we don't take crap from anybody."

That's no joke. Low wasn't meant to endure -- much less get popular. But over the years the people who once ignored this music now seek it out, both to escape from an increasingly fast-paced and clamorous world and to experience the band's powerful lyrical honesty. So that, nine years later, you'll be able to hear a guitar pick drop when the world's quietest band headlines the Great American as part of, ironically enough, the 2004 Noise Pop festival.


When Low started out, fans and critics alike lumped the band, along with early-'90s acts like Codeine and Bedhead, into a genre alternately termed "slowcore" and "sadcore" -- dumb labels for a superficial pigeonhole that especially couldn't capture Sparhawk's act. True, all of these slowcore bands took cues from the opaque and mellow moments of proto-minimalists like the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and Galaxie 500, but where both Codeine and Bedhead played slowly and featured reflective lyrics, they also had relatively loud, multiguitar approaches that kept them comfortably in recognizable indie rock territory. Low's music, however, never assumed that comfort; its songs emphasized the subtle necessity of each floating guitar line, whispered rhythm, and hovering bass note.

Of its like-minded peers, Low has been the most adept at creating an atmosphere, or what Sparhawk calls "playing with the air." You do it not by rattling off songs, he says, but through elements like extreme volume, repetition, and minimalism. "It's basically when you're at a show and it feels like there's such a deep and interesting aural texture that it's almost as if you're seeing the air around you being manipulated and massaged and transformed. That's what we tend to go for."

Low's Spartan live performances perfectly embody the music's restrained physicality. Sparhawk scrapes at his chords and croons with his eyes shut, while Parker languidly taps the crash cymbal of her minimal stand-up kit and Salley softly plucks out broad, low tones. Their deep concentration hooked Steve von Till, singer/guitarist for East Bay post-hardcore metal band Neurosis and organizer of the Beyond the Pale festival, which Low played in 2001. "I saw them play and was blown away, both by their poise and by how delicate they could make it. They could have 600 people in a dead hush, so that one of them could basically whisper a lyric and barely pluck a guitar string and it would just reverberate."

The lyrics throughout Low's seven albums range between searing despair and naive optimism. On the group's debut, I Can Live in Hope, just as the lines of "Rope" settle into the psyche as a serene suicide mantra ("You're gonna need more/ Don't ask me to kick any chairs out from under you"), the album ends with a truly tender version of "(You Are My) Sunshine." On the band's most recent release, Trust, Sparhawk offers up ambiguous lines like these from "La La La Song": "Sometimes I could just choke myself with laughter/ Sometimes everything's so true/ So when you come down from your death-defying labors/ I'll still be in love with you/ La la la la."

"Our music's about grappling with ourselves as people, our different sides," says Sparhawk. "It's about struggling to say something that's so important that you have to say it, even though you don't know how." But one must admit: Seven full-lengths, countless EPs and side projects, and multiple world tours is not bad for a group of musicians who "don't know how" to express themselves.

So what accounts for Low's current popularity? Sparhawk attributes it to "longevity, and the fact that we haven't phoned a record in. We've struggled with every album we've done to put all we can into them." Local singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek -- who's played live with Low and recorded with Salley -- believes that it goes beyond mere quality control. He notes that early on, the Red House Painters -- his similarly slow and quiet band from the same era -- faced "the same boot camp, which was playing to virtually no one, or a room full of people that didn't listen to your music." But by 2000, the bands were selling out midsized halls, and, bizarrely, both the Painters' song "All Mixed Up" and Low's version of "Little Drummer Boy" ended up in commercials for the Gap's Christmas ad campaign.

Kozelek contends that tumultuous times demand reflective music. "Thirty years ago, with stuff like Watergate and Vietnam happening, Simon & Garfunkel sold out 18,000-capacity halls. And now, again, it's wartime, and the digital age -- it's a noisy, crazy time. I think that people now more than ever need to experience quiet for a couple of hours when they go out."

But Low's appeal isn't simply about just being sonically quiet or slow. Considering the blues influence on Sparhawk's hard-rocking side project Black Eyed Snakes, people may be connecting to Low's spare, dirge-y arrangements and searching lyrical style as a blues for the 21st century. Sparhawk agrees: "Based on my humble knowledge of the music, I think that although I didn't know it when we started Low, I kind of see what we play as a kind of blues. But it's not because we come across as sad. I'm not talking about blues like, 'Ohhh, life is so hard.' Blues has a direct line to the piece of a person's soul that's honest and raw, and real, and human. We try to get there in a slightly more convoluted way than what people recognize as blues. ... Our lyrics, this music, it comes from inside of us, and it's not pretty all the time, and it's not meant to be."

This year, the band's Chairkickers label will release both a box set of B-sides and rarities, and a new studio album that Sparhawk hints may surprise fans. "We've been more bold lately. We've got a handful of the most tender songs we've ever done, and another handful that are the biggest departures from what people expect of us."

Paid-up student loans aside, Sparhawk takes none of Low's recent success for granted. "It's humbling. I came from a very poor family, and from juggling three jobs to pay the bills, and being out in 20-below weather trying to start my stupid, broken-down old car to get to work. Mimi and I have been able to raise a daughter playing this music, and we're expecting another. Every time I pay a bill, or pick up a guitar and play it, and think of friends who are working 12 hours a day, I feel like, 'Gol-ly, man. I am really lucky and blessed.'"

About The Author

Ron Nachmann

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