Q&A: Low’s Alan Sparhawk On The Invisible Way, The Band’s 20th Anniversary, And The General Weirdness Of Getting Older
I should say upfront that I am something of an avowed Low super fan. I’ve seen the band play countless times over the past two decades, interviewed them on at least half a dozen occasions, and spent what is probably an unhealthy amount of time pondering their records while sitting alone in dimly lit rooms. Not only is Low one of America’s most enduring and important rock bands (they’ve toured with Radiohead, released over a dozen albums and EPs, Robert Plant has covered their songs), they are also one of the most fascinating. A trio from Duluth, Minnesota whose core members — married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker — have spent the better part of the past twenty years making music that is as beautiful as it is harrowing, the band seemed always engaged in a kind of deeply personal exploration that placed them squarely outside the fray of whatever else was happening in indie-rock world. Their music exists in it’s own kind of austere bubble — ruminations on spirituality and death and violence transmitted from some very private universe. Early albums like 1994’s I Could Live in Hope and 2002’s Trust were built from a kind of pristine minimalism — guitar, bass, drum, and Parker and Sparhawk’s feather-light vocal harmonies. It is a formula that has served them well over the years, even as their music has stretched out in slightly more complicated sonic directions. Next month the band will release their 10th studio album, The Invisible Way, which also marks their 20th anniversary as a band. Never ones to toot their own horns, the band is characteristically low-key about the new record as well as the none too shabby feat of having survived for over two-decades in the music business, “We’ve made many records, and you know our M.O.: slow, quiet, sometimes melancholy, and — we hope — sometimes pretty.”
STEREOGUM: I guess a good place to start in talking about this new record is to ask how you got Jeff Tweedy to produce it for you. How did that come to be?
SPARHAWK: Well, I don’t know. We’ve known Jeff I guess six or seven years now, mostly via our even longer-ago friendship with Nels Cline, who now plays in Wilco but we knew back from his days playing in the Geraldine Fibbers.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah?
SPARHAWK: I don’t know … we toured with him and Carla Bozulich and so when he joined Wilco we, I guess he more or less put us on their radar and we did a few shows with them, some tours, and it went well, and Jeff’s a very nice guy. He and I have gone jogging together and stuff like that over the years and … yeah, he’s a nice guy. We get along and there was always this sort of this vague invitation there — always every time at the end of a tour, “Hey man, we’ll see you guys later. Hope it goes well.” Or, “Hey man, you should come to our studio sometime when you’re in Chicago. You guys can record there, do something cool.” You know, that kind of talk, which, you never know if it ever comes together unless you actually do it, you know? So I don’t know, we stopped in I guess earlier last year on our way through town and Jeff was there working on some tracks with Mavis Staples. We got to tour the studio and it seemed like Jeff was, I don’t know, he seemed to kind of be in the right frame of mind for producing, so I guess I just kind of asked him if he’d be interested in thinking about it and give us a call. So, yeah. Sorry I’m rambling. It was pretty simple. We asked. He said OK.
STEREOGUM: How did he function with you guys as a producer? I mean, I know the role of producer-band can be so wildly different from band to band and person to person.
SPARHAWK: Yeah it’s always very different. Different people, different experiences, different hands-on or hands-off ways of working. I mean, we’ve kind of worked with a lot of different people and choosing the producer who we’re working with while recording is sort of an important part of the process … and it’s something that I think we thrive under. It’s inspiring working with different people. It kind of gives us maybe some subconscious confidence to do new things while knowing that there’s someone that we trust who’s going to be those second vital set of ears. I really value that. We’ve counted on that through the years. With Jeff it was interesting. I mean, first of all. they have that studio really dialed in. They know how to get a good sound there right away and that was really helpful cause a lot of times the first day or two in the studio is sometimes spent kind of feeling like, “Oh crap, are we going to get anything to sound decent here?” You know? Trying to find the right combination of mics and preamps and instruments and get the right vibe — it can be a struggle sometimes just to get started and that can really stifle your creativity or confidence and really sap all the energy. You’re going in like, “I’m ready to put this down!” and then you spend all this time fumbling around. With Jeff it was nice because right away we were able to just go and the sounds were good. Jeff spent a little time with me trying different guitars — he has a huge collection and he knows his stuff really well — and we ended up kind of settling on one or two options that seemed to really just be the perfect thing for the sounds that we were trying to get. I think getting good takes — its helpful to have someone there to say, “That was good.” Or, “Why don’t you try a couple more?” and you can actually trust their judgment. I don’t know, it’s nice to be able to just concentrate on doing a good take without having to be the one who goes back and listens to all of them over and over and then second guessing everything. Specifically with vocals … I think it was pretty vital. It became even more special and specific with doing vocal takes because he’s a singer as well. So … yeah. Essentially that was his part. I mean, there were maybe two or three little scatterings of things that he played that were, that you could say were, “I have an idea for this.” Or, “How about this bell part on this song?” and that kind of thing, but the rest of it was just — I don’t know, just kind of helping us get good sounds and pushing us along. Kind of navigating us and pushing us through the process of getting the best. The best it could be.
STEREOGUM: When you guys record do you tend to always go into the studio with all of the songs totally done or are songs often fleshed out when you get there.
SPARHAWK: It varies. For this one, we really had it down. We had demoed the songs and we went in just with these eleven songs and it was like, “Okay these are the songs for the record. Record them.” You know, in the past perhaps we would do fourteen to fifteen songs and pick eleven or twelve of them. But, yeah, it varies … and there’s always some messing around. When we were doing C’mon, I think, the luxury of being able to record two or three blocks away from our house kind of opened the door to, “Let’s just go try these and see what happens.” There was sort-of a luxury, it was almost sort of just a step above recording in your own house … and we had the luxury of time. But with this one we went in with a very specific goal.
STEREOGUM: How long were you guys recording with Jeff?
SPARHAWK: The first session was five days and that was essentially where we tracked everything. And then about a month and a half later we came back and worked for another five days — tweaking one or two things on the first day and then mixing the rest of the time. So it was actually pretty quick.
STEREOGUM: Yeah that’s pretty expedient.
SPARHAWK: Yeah, well. I mean we’re coming from indie rock nineties, you know? DIY, Hüsker Dü, this is due in twenty-four hours kind of stuff, you know? Lots of the time it was out of necessity because it’s all we could afford. Sub Pop obviously, they give us an advance to pay for the record and stuff, but in the end we booked a certain amount of days because that’s all we could afford! And that was fine because that’s all the time that Jeff had anyway.
STEREOGUM: Well, it’s a beautiful sounding record. A lot more minimal in it’s approach than the last couple of Low records.
SPARHAWK: Yeah, I’m really happy with it. I don’t know … making records is always a little bit of a mystical thing, but for some reason this one felt like … well, there were definitely many moments where it felt like we were being carried. I felt like there were moments where we were sort of reaching beyond what we can actually do and it was sort of weird, but I guess its what we get for trying to be nice. Sometimes you get carried along by a force bigger than yourself … you tap into something at the time right time.
STEREOGUM: I mean, particularly with Drums and Guns and in the last record too, there was an exploration of different kinds of sonics that hadn’t necessarily been there in previous records. In comparison, this record feels very restrained. It’s a lot more reminiscent of the minimal nature of your early records.
SPARHAWK: Yeah. Well I think having the piano on so many of the songs really added to that. Basically it’s just piano and acoustic guitar for about half of the tunes.
I remember that it was something I was sort of conscious of at the time and being like, “Well, we seem to be gravitating towards these instruments and they seem to be finding a completeness with each of these songs. Do I need to stop here?” You go, “Wait a minute, this is too safe. Is this too simple?” You don’t want to be … well, I don’t want to say predictable, but you wonder, “Is this using old sounds? Are we being retroist here? What’s going on here??” Those are the questions that plague you when you are making a record. I essentially tried not to think about it too much or let it color what was going on because it felt like what was going on was true and the right thing. I don’t know, I think at some point after hearing the way some of the songs were developing I sort of realized that, “Well, sure these are the same instruments everybody’s been making music with forever and that has its own pit-falls, but it seems right.” To me that was the risk that we were taking on this record. I guess that my hope is that people don’t hear it as some retroist thing or view it as a step backwards … because to me it was its own unique and new challenge. How do we make these very traditional instruments make something new? It turns out it wasn’t that hard.
STEREOGUM: A lot of people were drawn to your band in the early days because of the austere, minimal quality of what you were doing. There was almost a severe quality to those records; you were working within a very strict set of limitations. But I understand how that must get old. You eventually want to stretch your legs and explore other kinds of sounds.
SPARHAWK: Oh sure.
STEREOGUM: After repeated listens, I think this record really manages nicely to do both things — you have a very expansive sonic palette happening, but it’s also very simple. I could see how this record would please fans of the last couple of albums but also really appeal to people who obsessively love the first few Low albums.
SPARHAWK: Yeah? I don’t know … maybe. I wonder about that sometimes. I mean, it’s hard because I don’t really see it. My experience with the process of making the music is unfortunately different than what the listener experiences when they hear it … to me I just see us constantly trying to refine and re-try to say the same things. It just happens the way it happens. That’s just what’s in front of us at the time.
STEREOGUM: This record marks a couple of important milestones. Not only is this your tenth album, it also marks twenty years of the band, right?
SPARHAWK: Yeah, in the spring. I guess essentially when the record comes out it will be about the same time we first started playing … about 20 years ago.
STEREOGUM: Does that kind of blow your mind when you think about it? Does it seem like it’s been twenty years? Does it seem longer?
SPARHAWK: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. (laughs) I guess that’s been on my mind for a while. Oh wow … twenty years. I’ve been kind of pondering it for a while. You start comparing to other bands in history and stuff and you realize, “Wow, twenty years is a long time!” A lot of stuff happens in twenty years, you know? I keep thinking of things like … like if someone in high school came and saw us now—twenty years in–it’d be like if I went and saw Jefferson Airplane when I was in high school. Which, I guess now would be Jefferson Starship? Starship? So yeah, it would be like going to see Starship when I was in high school. So that’s weird. You know, the same band that did “White Rabbit” but twenty years later is doing “We Built This City” or whatever. I hope we aren’t at that stage in our career yet. I think for anybody at this age obviously you go, “Well, I don’t feel this old. I’m the same idiot I was when I was nineteen.” It’s sort of true and, as boring as it sounds, it simply is what it is. Though, I have to say that it is also sort of reassuring and it gives you a little bit of humility and you start to appreciate the other things in your life that you notice have been around that long as well. You know, that kind of thing. So the short answer is … it’s kind of weird.
STEREOGUM: To have this very personal project — and what is ostensibly often very quiet, personal music — become your career and your life’s work … that’s pretty amazing. It’s a feat.
SPARHAWK: Yeah … it’s very rare and weird.
STEREOGUM: It’s a milestone not a lot of bands reach. Especially not contemporary bands.
SPARHAWK: No, it’s true. I mean, we owe a lot of that to the fact that Mim and I are married, you know?
STEREOGUM: It makes it harder to break up the band … or, depending on the dynamic, makes it more amazing that the band didn’t break up.
SPARHAWK: Yes, It’s hard to break up the band when you’re married and you’re essentially the main characters in the ongoing narrative. We’ve been lucky. It’s never anything we expected, that’s for sure. It’s been fun, it’s been interesting and I really … I don’t know, I wish everybody could try it.
STEREOGUM: I talked to Mimi when the last record came out. I remember us talking about how, when you do this for a living, the making of music just becomes the rhythm or your life. You know: touring, not touring, practicing, recording ….
SPARHAWK: Making a record, yep. It becomes your life cycle in a weird way.
STEREOGUM: I assume that over this next year you will resume that rhythm by being on tour most of the time?
SPARHAWK: Well, we have a bunch of stuff already planned for the spring and some of the summer. And I don’t know, I guess it just depends … but I’m sure we’ll do some more shows in the fall. We’ll go to Europe; we’ll do a few tours in the U.S. and things like that. I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to try and bring the kids with us this summer, which will be fun. They keep complaining that they never get a vacation.
STEREOGUM: They complain until they actually get to go on tour, which is like the weirdest kind of vacation. How old are the kids now?
SPARHAWK: Twelve and eight.
STEREOGUM: Wow. That’s so crazy. I still have my wall of records and CDs in my office — and I was just looking at my copy of I Could Live In Hope — which I bought at a record store in Oklahoma City that no longer exists. It still has the price sticker that came from that record store and it has traveled with me from college to grad school to Kansas to a variety of apartments around New York. And you guys were one of the first bands I interviewed when I was just starting out as a journalist — around the time of Secret Name, I guess — and I remember us having a conversation about what is was like to take your baby on tour. So it’s crazy now to think about your children being that old. This is making ME feel old now.
SPARHAWK: That’s life, it just kind of cruises along and you’re doing your thing and before you know it all this stuff has happened — it’s very, very weird.
STEREOGUM: Will you do anything special to commemorate the twenty years? Play a special show or something?
SPARHAWK: I don’t know … we’ve got a couple of shows. There’s a show in Minneapolis we’re doing that’s kind of special. Some guys are going to kind of back us up. A string ensemble background kind of thing. It’s sort of a little show that celebrates it, I guess. I don’t know … I guess maybe we should have a big party or something?
STEREOGUM: Yes, you should.
SPARHAWK: I don’t know. We’d just have to do it in Duluth here. Something simple.
STEREOGUM: Thinking back to when you very first started the band … when you look at those early records and consider those songs … does it feel like a different band that made those records? Do you have a funny relationship to that material now?
SPARHAWK: No, no. It’s very weird, it’s like this timeless window that you look through and, you know, everything is just all present in the moment. I don’t really see it as something disconnected because of time. It’s kind of hard to illustrate that. We still play old songs live and when we play them — as far as I can tell — it feels like the same way we played them when we first started playing those songs. So, it’s sort of hard to tell in many ways … they still feel the same. So it’s sort of … yeah I don’t know, maybe it’s all in my mind but it feels — it always feels like we’re the same band, just kind of like, “Well, and here’s how we’ve always played this song, and here’s how we’ve always played this NEW song. And if we were to play this song years ago it would have sounded just like this too.” So, it’s kind of hard to see where there’s a line or there’s a distance or anything like that. It … I don’t know. New stuff, new material. You know, you write new things and you make new records but you still have the same problems.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know that I’ve had the new record long enough to unpack what I feel like the larger themes of the album are with any kind of authority, but I think it’s interesting whenever you can sort of look back at your body of work and see how you’re sort of coming at these same ideas from a lot of different angles. I think it’s cool. I think most people with long careers making art — regardless if it’s music or writing or visual art, whatever — you kind of have this certain set of problems I guess that you kind of tend to pick at over and over in your career. It just becomes about finding new ways to pick at it.
SPARHAWK: You always pick at it. Or maybe you’ve figured out this much, and now there’s a NEW problem to figure out. It’s true. And I think most artists probably would describe it that way. I mean, you still feel like you’re the same person, you maybe notice that you refine a few things and you’re better and this or that. A little bit of experience gives you some confidence sometimes. In those times when you’re questioning your abilities sometimes you’re able to remember that, “Oh yeah, it takes work and doesn’t always feel right at first.” Or, “Be patient.” If it feels like nothing is working, eventually it will and that’s kind of all you really learn with time. A little bit of patience with your own process. Being able to trust that if you keep at it, it will show its face.
The Invisible Way is out 3/19 via Sub Pop.