Over the last two decades, Duluth based trio Low have grown into one of the most consistent and enduring of bands, rarely putting a foot wrong over the course of an increasingly rewarding career.
Their 11th album Ones And Sixes was released earlier this year (the fifth to come out on Sub Pop) and it sees them build on their core strengths whilst revisiting episodes from their past, which together help consolidate one of the purest musical identities around.
We caught up with frontman Alan Sparhawk ahead of their UK tour to talk about the album, their breathtakingly beautiful live shows, their songwriting methods and their current musical influences…
Congratulations on making such a special record. It’s early days but it is already challenging Trust & Secret Name as my favourite Low album. How long did you work on writing the songs that appear on Ones And Sixes?
Usually a few songs start trickling in a few months after the previous record comes out. Those first few songs kind of guide you through the rest of the process. At a certain point you set some goals and deadlines and finish the last half of the writing and hit the studio. So, a year and a half, I suppose. The first few songs we had for this record were No Comprende and Landslide.
Did the recording processes differ in any way to previous albums or are you fairly settled in a particular method now?
It’s always a little different, depending on who you work with and where. We try to start with a live performance – usually the drums and at least one other instrument, all three of us if possible, then you build and tweak it from there. Sometimes the tweaking is more evident, sometimes the performance. It’s the same way people have been making records for decades, I suppose, but every day brings new technology and possibilities to the process.
Did you approach this album with particular ideas in terms of themes/sounds? A lot of tracks have an electronic edge.
Yes, we’ve always experimented with beats and synths, with a little trickling in here and there over the years, but this time we used more than usual. The songs seemed to beg for it – we were looking for some new sounds and extremes.
Some of the lyrics on certain tracks on Ones And Sixes feature references to things like relationships/identity/language/communication – was this an area you consciously wanted to explore?
Not consciously, I’m not an intentional writer – I don’t sit down and write ABOUT things. Fragments and ideas come, if you open the window, then you try to put them together in a way that seems right. Most of the time, you don’t know what it’s about, but I’ve learned that it very often reflects what is going on more accurately than if you had planned it. I think everyone knows the up and downs of communication and relationships. I think “you don’t understand me” is probably one of the quintessential themes of rock n roll…
The contrast between the beauty of the music and the occasional darkness of the lyrics found on some songs has been remarked upon in some reviews of the album – is this something you’re aware of when writing?
I’m just reflecting my own experience. Life is beautiful but also brutal and difficult. Some things are painful and can’t be solved, but an understanding nod from a friend helps.
Ahead of the album’s release you mentioned how you are primarily influenced by the here and now, “what’s going on in front of us” as you put it. Do you ever get influenced by other music/other forms of art at this stage of your career?
Yes, I’m glad to say that I still hear things I’ve never heard, that inspire me and probably influence the way I see what we do – reggae, metal, and hip hop lately. Reggae has been an endless treasure trove for a long time now. There are ideas in there that at the very least help you see more clearly. Metal is a deep and varied genre that is full of amazing and determined artists, and hip hop lately has been by far the biggest forward-cutting edge. As a result of all this, we wanted to make our own great music.
I’d say live shows are more important for Low than a lot of other bands – is there an element of you having this in mind when you are writing songs? (i.e. thinking about how they will sound/work live)
“How would the three of us play this song?” has always been a factor for us – it keeps us sharp, makes us think through things a little more, and makes for better recordings, in the long run. We try to play the songs live a bit before we record them – you learn more playing it once on stage than 10 times in the basement. You’re relatively prolific when it comes to releasing albums.
Do you find writing songs relatively easy or is the situation described in the final lyric on Lies – about staying up all night to finish a song – more accurate?
Writing is difficult and slow. I actually avoid it and have to kick myself a bit. Finishing a song can be transcendent, but it’s usually a long humiliating road to get there. I don’t write a lot of songs then use the best ones – if we have a record come out with 12 songs, we probably had 14 written from that whole year or two. It just seems like we have written a lot because it’s been over more than 20 years…
Do you ever look back on your career and if so are you able to assess albums? Or are you too close to them? Do you have any distinct memories/feelings associated with particular albums?
Each one has different memories – different situations, states-of-mind and people involved. Can’t really say that I have a clear favourite or any that I regret. I’ve always found it easy to ‘release’ a set of work and move on without feeling like a need to revisit. I make different decisions now from what I would have made 20 years ago, but I’m probably motivated by the same vague reasons as always.
You played some shows in China earlier in the year – how was that as an experience? Do you find your music is received differently in different parts of the world?
It is very unexpected sometimes to go to a place that has a very different culture and then still have fans show up. China is beautiful and the people were really nice. It was a great honour to be be invited and allowed to go there. Same with any place we go. There should be more cultural interaction between countries. It is face to face and through honest expression that we most vividly see each other as brothers and sisters. I know I come away from these trips with a better perspective on life and humanity.
Has your relationship in the context of band changed over the 20 years you’ve been making music?
Of course, because the world has changed and our lives have changed. There are some things that never change – songs are always hard to write, we still prefer minimalism, we are still trying to make new music, and it’s still a scramble to make enough to pay bills, but life experience and technology has shaped the way we navigate the unchangeable. Sure, the internet has changed the music industry, but good music is good music and people still have different tastes.
Do you have particular roles within band with regard to contributing lyrics and musical ideas How do you decide who sings vocals on particular tracks? Has who sings lead vocals ever changed in the early stages of a song?
I write most of the songs, but there is a little collaboration and crossover here and there. Most of the songs Mimi sings are songs she has written, and Steve has brought musical ideas in that turned into finished songs. There have been a few occasions where one person started singing a song, but then we decided to switch…
What do your children make of your music?
They seem to mostly tolerate it…
Do you listen to a lot of music generally? Is there anything you’ve particularly enjoyed this year?
I’m about a medium listener – not all day like some people, but every day for some time. I like to listen when I’m driving, sometimes in the house. This year started out with D’Angelo’s record and the new Kanye singles, then there was Kendrick Lamar, and now Drake’s mix tapes. I don’t have a lot of history with hip hop, but this stuff has really been blowing my mind lately. It’s bold, smart, brutally honest and forward-thinking. Steve is into it even more than me, but he comes from that and has amazing taste…
I read you were involved in the Jesu/Sun Kil Moon album being released early next year – what was your involvement? Your previous collaborations with Dirty Three and Spring Heel Jack have been quite special – is this something you’d like to do more of going forward?
It’s always fun when collaborations work out. Most of the time, artists can’t nail down schedules enough to finish things like that, so those that work out are usually pretty random. Mark is a friend and he made it easy to be part of what he was working on. We had some time one evening to add some vocals to a song he had done, so it was quick and seamless. We’re always looking for new collaborations…
I remember seeing you play Things We Lost in The Fire back in full back in 2006. Would full album live shows be something you’d be interesting in revisiting in the future?
If the right situation came up, sure. Every artist is going to have their heart more into what they are doing currently, but revisiting something specific can be a fun and a nice way to say thank you to fans.
Last year you played your entire catalogue over seven shows in Duluth. How did you find that? Were there any songs you enjoyed playing more than you expected?
It was fun to do once. Yeah, there were some surprises – Do You Know How To Waltz?, Just Stand Back, Fear, Will The Night, Turn…
You’re pretty busy touring North America & Europe for the rest of this year. Do you have any plans yet for 2016?
More shows in the US and maybe some UK/Europe festivals in the summer. It really depends on if people want to come see us…
Low’s Alan Sparkhawk was talking to Steven Johnson. Low’s album Ones And Sixes is out now through Sub Pop. The band start their European tour in Manchester on 7 October 2015. Full tour dates can be found at chairkickers.com