"Hey, get off the thin ice! Geez!"
Zak Sally of Low is yelling at his dog. It's an unseasonably warm winter day in Duluth, Minnesota, and the bassist is multi-tasking -- cell phone in one hand, leash in the other. "I'm at the park," he explains. "It thawed yesterday, so there are these giant lakes that appeared. And then it got cold again last night, so they're all covered with ice. It's funny out here; as soon as it gets up to 40 degrees, people start walking around in no jackets and shorts."
It's hard to fully grasp Low's music without putting it into meteorological perspective. The band's home town, in case you haven't heard, is freaking cold. And Sally and company -- singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and his wife, singer/percussionist Mimi Parker -- have long been accused of a similar lack of warmth; early records like 1995's Long Division and its followup, The Curtain Hits the Cast, embarked upon a glacial crawl that gouged entire mountain ranges of grief and desolation out of listeners' psyches. With austere guitars, shivering harmonies and snare drums strapped to the back of a snail, Low ice-picked a niche for itself that it's been frozen in ever since.
That is, until now. The past couple of years have seen the trio tour Europe with Radiohead, contribute a cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" to a Gap commercial, and release an odds-and-ends boxed set called A Lifetime of Temporary Relief. But it's with The Great Destroyer, Low's new album and first for Sub Pop, that the thaw is truly felt. While the outfit's previous two discs, Things We Lost in the Fire and Trust, showed cracks in its monolithic frigidness, Destroyer is positively spring-like. The album boasts a raw, fuzzy lushness that's fertile with dynamism and emotion, ranging from wistful to deafeningly pissed. For Low, it's more than just an update of its timeworn sound -- it's a total overhaul.
"We've been doing this for ten or eleven years. We're not 23 anymore. We're not even 25," Sally says with a laugh. "We knew that somehow, something had to change. I feel like this record is our least graceful and restrained. It is kind of a departure. Compared to what we've done in the past, it seems so direct. It's wearing its heart on its sleeve. But at the same time, I think anybody who's been listening to us for a while could have certainly seen it coming. We just got to a point where we couldn't back down. We couldn't be half-assed. I asked my mom if she liked the new record, and she said, 'Uh, I like your quieter stuff better.'"
And mothers aren't even the harshest critics out there. A recent review of Destroyer on pitchforkmedia.com was less than complimentary, rebuking the folks in Low for "orphaning their fans and their history for the sake of the group's creative edification."
"Oh, yeah, they ripped us a new one," Sally allows. "I read that review, and it kind of cracked me up. The music industry is such a joke, you know? Not that that writer is a joke; I can read his review and be like, 'Oh, yeah. I can see how someone might take it that way.' But I got the impression he was angry because we weren't doing what he wanted us to do. Hey, I know bands that have done that as well, that have changed their sound in a way that I'm not happy with. But that's okay. There are a lot of Neil Young records that aren't my favorites, and there are a lot that are."
Coincidentally, traces of Crazy Horse's ragged glory abound on the new album, as do hints of the Swans, Galaxie 500, even Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Bruce Springsteen. Such unabashed hero worship is new for Low; its earlier work rarely seemed to gaze beyond its own shoelaces, despite a penchant for covering songs as varied as Pink Floyd's "Fearless," Joy Division's "Transmission" and even Top 40 classics like Journey's "Open Arms" -- displaying a closeted love of pop melody that fully bloomed on Destroyer.
"I think we've always tried to push against whatever it is that we are," Sally observes. "I remember the first time we had a proper pop song, "Venus," we were like, 'What are we going to do with this? It sounds like a pop song, and pop means fluffy.' And then when we wrote 'Dinosaur Act,' I remember us saying, 'Oh, my God, we have a riff! How far can we push this before we make ourselves uncomfortable?' We were in the studio with Steve Albini once, and we said, 'Hey, we need that Bread guitar sound on this song.' I remember Steve being like, 'Oh, my God, this is the worst day of my life.'
"In the early days," he goes on, "we had a certain approach. We thought we had to make these songs as minimal as possible, because that's what we do. When you go to extremes like that, you just set up boundaries for yourself. But then you have to push those boundaries and see how far they can go. Can we make a pop song acceptable within that? I don't know. Over these ten years, we've been going through all this stuff that most rock bands just take for granted."
Likewise, with the unleashing of Destroyer, the days of Low being taken for granted are over. Basking in a newfound confidence and warmth, the group is finally letting go of the long, lean winter of its past.
"I can see how someone may have preconceived notions of us," Sally says. "In the early days, we were too intense and nervous. That used to be much more apparent, whereas now I think we're much more comfortable with each other. We realize there's a happy medium.
"You can take your songs and the shows you play very seriously," he adds, sniffling in the chill Minnesota air, "but at the same time, it doesn't have to constantly be like pulling teeth."
Or chattering them.
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