Low's Alan Sparhawk on Joy Division and radio
Since its inception in 1993, Low (due at the Larimer Lounge this Saturday, December 18) from Duluth, Minnesota, has created a body of work characterized by a fragile intensity. Although often lumped in under the banner of "slowcore" with a group of bands of similar sonic leanings, like Red House Painters, Galaxie 500, Tarnation and Codeine, it would be a mistake to try to fit Low neatly into what that sub-genre is about -- for starters, much of Low's material is anything but slow.
For the last decade, Low has branched out from the focused introspection of its early releases, and by the time of its 2005 album, The Great Destroyer, the band had proven it could write a song in whatever tempo it liked with whatever sonic character it preferred. On the cusp of the band's show in Denver this weekend and the release of its new record, we spoke with Low's frontman and guitarist, Alan Sparhawk, about Joy Division, the perils of commercial radio and the nature of politics.
Westword:One of my favorite recorded performances from Low was that cover of Joy Division's "Transmission" that you did for A Means to an End. What kind of impact did Joy Division's music have on you, and why cover that song in particular?
Alan Sparhawk: Oh cool. Right on. Yeah, we did that around the same time we did our second record. I'm glad somebody liked it. I'm a huge Joy Division fan. When we started Low, it's fair to say there were certain favorite bands that I was looking at as touchstones as far as, "These guys, whatever they're doing, they're totally owning it." The minimalism of them. Definitely the tone of Ian Curtis' lyrics were huge influences on me.
The first record I got of theirs was Still. I guess the reason we did "Transmission" is that we felt like... I don't know, we were looking at other songs that were more appropriate or typical of us, but it felt like we would have done something they had already done, so I thought, "Well, let's take one of the more aggressive songs and slow it down and see what happens."
Yeah, you completely transformed the sound of the song but retained its feel.
Yeah, thanks. Years ago, I was in a band that used to do Joy Division covers like "New Dawn Fades."
How did you come to work with Dirty Three on that In the Fishtank session in 1999?
We'd done a bunch of touring with those guys in The States. We were friends with them. This label was doing this series of what they called "In the Fishtank" - there are about eight or ten of them. They would invite a band to come in for two days at this studio outside of Amsterdam at this farm. When we got asked, we'd just got done doing a record -- I don't remember which one, Trust or Things We Lost in the Fire -- so the idea of going into the studio with just ourselves again... we were pretty rung out.
So we said, "Let's make this interesting." Dirty Three came up because they were our friends, and we thought it would be fun to do something together with them. They happened to be on tour over there again at the same time. It just worked out to do it as a collaboration. Everybody that worked on it was really happy with how it worked out.
In an QRD interview you did a long time ago, I thought you said something that seems more relevant now than ever if you change the specific references and technology. But I was wondering why you thought, and perhaps still think, you shouldn't trust what you're hearing on the radio in terms of music?
It refers to the fact that there's a very vibrant life underground with a lot of people doing some really great things that are way more interesting. The whole scenario of thinking of aliens out beyond listening to our radio and going, "Hmm... well, here's what these people mostly listen to." Sadly, it's true. The stuff you hear on the radio is essentially what eighty percent of the population wants to hear and satisfying enough to their requirements time and time again. If you're looking for the depth of what can be done, it doesn't take much time to look around and hear striking things.
Even now. I'm still kind of blown away by hip-hop right now. There's this college station that on one or two nights play that stuff. Old Minnesota has it pretty thick between Atmosphere and Brother Ali. There's sort of a Minnesota underground hip-hop legacy and the station here plays that end of things. You never hear about that stuff. That's just a recent example of stuff. Wow, a whole world of really smart people doing this shit and there's no level of awareness in the public, necessarily, other than "Hip-Hop, the McDonald's product."
How did you meet Reverend Dead Eye and have you played shows outside of Denver with him either in Low or in Black Eyed Snakes?
Yeah, man. He's come to our town a number of times. We've done shows with him. He's come to Duluth. He was a friend of The Snakes, basically. He's our friend in Denver.
Why did you work with Dave Fridmann on The Great Destroyer , and what inspired what sounded like a much louder sound for Low? Many people have remarked on how loud that record is though Trust previously hinted at that sort of thing.
Trust was mixed by Tchad Blake, who is sort of along the same lines as Dave. He's very interested in going in and making things sound interesting -- keep it monolithic and raw. An exciting presentation, so to speak. I'd known Wayne Coyne casually since we were touring for our second record.
I think he came to Norman and saw us, and we talked for a while afterward. Every once in a while, we'd talk on the phone, and he'd always say, "Man, you should work with Dave." Years went by, and it just never landed, and we'd met him by then a few times, and he seemed like a nice enough guy.
I liked what he was doing, and I liked a couple of Mercury Rev records in there. Take these guys or leave these guys, there are a couple of good songs, but the way he mixed "Goddess on the Highway," I remember the first time I heard that and having to sit down. "Geez, this is the sound of a ceiling being blown out and blown apart." I didn't necessarily think we had that sound, so much as I knew that he had been going to the limits with mixing, he knows what he's doing, and he knows how to mix a tune that can be a hit in time.
What inspired you to start both The Black Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir?
It's sort of similar for different reasons, I guess. A lot of it has to do with the community that we live in here. I've lived here forever, and it's a small enough place that you sort of get to know everybody. Over the years, there's been enough of a camaraderie around here, and people get together and play together. This was back in the '90s, more or less. I started The Black Eyed Snakes with some friends, some guys I knew that I thought would understand the concept. I've always had this love/hate thing with blues. I really liked John Lee Hooker and some of those kinds of things and hated most of the modern things.
Not necessarily that we were ripping off someone. I mean, I've had Cramps records since I was a teenager. It's not so much copying that sound as recognizing that something very beautiful and primal that can happen with those simple elements of rhythm and blues. A lot of it had to do with just the people I was playing with. "Brad's an interesting drummer, he'd probably sound great just hammering through this stuff." Same with Bob Olson, he has the same love/hate relationship as I do with the blues, and I knew he could rip solos.
There could be some speculation about how, "Oh you're not getting this or that with Low, and you have to blow off steam. Or you're limited by this, and you're really interested in that." Clouding the waters, or something like that. Or, "Who's the real Alan Sparhawk," or whatever. Honestly, it's all just coming with me, and it has to do with people, and I like to play live, and I get ideas once in a while, and I gotta try them out.
With Retribution Gospel Choir, in a lot of ways, it was a similar thing. It was guys I knew in town, and the opportunity came up to jam together and do an off-the-cuff show somewhere. For some reason, when we started playing together, it clicked right away, and there was an interaction there I knew was alive and had some potential.
We did a few shows, and it very quickly became an intense band. As with Low, it's never really a planned thing. Start, play a show or two, "Hey, that went well; we should record a couple of songs. Hey that went even better; let's do a record and more shows." Before you know it, you have something going on that's very exciting. It's been a very exciting band so far. I really like the records we've made. We'll probably have another one done later next year.
I do get something out of it? Yeah, sure, there's stuff that happens in those bands that I find musically exciting and satisfying that we don't necessarily do in Low at all. That doesn't mean one thing's what I want to do or don't want to do or being restricted. I'll be the first one to admit that Low was begun on parameters on limiting ourselves or at least recognizing our limits and trying to work within that.
In a 2007 interview with QRD, you said something about politics being an invention of the rich. Do you still believe that and why so?
Politics, whether it was invented by the rich or not, it's definitely a mechanism to enable power. If we were just sitting here and bartering and hanging out, and everyone is doing cool in sort of a tribal thing here, no one would really get rich. There isn't the facility that. "How do I house my money and how do I protect that?" Well, "We should invent some laws or a system." Unfortunately, it's become a necessary evil, just as society is that much larger and that much more co-dependent on one another and people on the other side of the world.
Whether that's progress or not is a whole other argument. That statement certainly has its extremes to its logic, for sure, but in essence, it's a nutshell of the idea that... I don't want to necessarily put myself up as a political expert or someone who is full of wisdom about what's going on in the world, because I'm still immensely ignorant, and I'm still blown out of my seat by things going on every day.
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