A Low Profile: Alan Sparhawk & Mimi Parker On Their New Album Ones And Sixes

Zoran Orlic

A Low Profile: Alan Sparhawk & Mimi Parker On Their New Album Ones And Sixes

Zoran Orlic

For those of us who are old enough to have been of record-buying age back in the ’90s, the early years of that decade remain both deeply nostalgic and weirdly complicated. As the notion of “alternative” music continued to sledgehammer its way into the mainstream, left in its wake were increasingly visible bands that, just a few years earlier, might have forever remained on the fringes. In 1993, just as major labels scrambled to snatch up (and then systematically drop) any band that might be the next Nirvana, Nirvana themselves went Unplugged, Guns N’ Roses played their final shows with Slash, The Bodyguard soundtrack became the first release in history to sell a million copies in just a week, and Rage Against The Machine got naked at Lollapalooza. And somewhere in Duluth, Minnesota, Low became a band. Had you asked me back in 1994 — just around the time Low quietly released their full-length debut, I Could Live In Hope — which of my then-favorite bands would still be releasing records in two decades’ time, Low would not have likely been at the top of my list: A band composed of a married Mormon couple from Minnesota playing what was often perceived as the slowest and most excruciatingly minimal music possible does not immediately sound like a recipe for rock ‘n’ roll success. And yet, some 22 years later, Low are readying the release of yet another excellent record, Ones And Sixes, their 11th full-length (that’s its cover art below). As improbabilities go, the career of Low — a sprawl that includes long stretches of global touring, a stint opening for Radiohead, and seeing their songs covered by Robert Plant — is kind of a doozy. And it’s not a fact that is lost on the band.

“Honestly after every recording, there’s never been a plan for the next one,” says percussionist and vocalist Mimi Parker of the band’s longevity. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we’ve managed to stay together this long, because we’re not long-term planners at all. I never really thought it would end, but I never really thought it would go on either.”

It’s a sentiment with which Parker’s bandmate and husband, Alan Sparhawk, concurs. “I don’t know if we engineered that early or what. I’m sure we didn’t think early on, ‘Okay, everybody, let’s continue to do what we want, no matter how much it hurts, because in the long run it’ll really pay off!’ I remember even by the second or third record already having to contemplate and deal with the idea of, ‘Well, some people kind of like that stark, minimal thing,’ and by the third or fourth record we were already messing around with pianos and strings, and stuff like that … and some people really like that stuff, too. I think early on I was pretty aware that there were two paths we could go on. We could keep making the same thing over and over — like a very slow AC/DC — or we could damn the torpedoes and jump off the cliff to the future and try to be like the Beatles.”

Despite the purity of their configuration — Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Parker on drums and vocals, and a bass player (currently Steve Garrington) — Low’s catalog is surprisingly diverse. While pristine minimalism and Sparhawk and Parker’s dolorous vocal harmonies have always been at the core of the band’s aesthetic, working with a variety of producers over the years (Kramer, Steve Fisk, Steve Albini, Dave Fridmann) has managed to push and pull the band’s sound in interesting directions. 2013’s The Invisible Way — produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — was widely considered the most classically Low-sounding album the band had released in years: a missive that pretty evenly split the difference between the plaintive nature of the band’s early work and the ragged noisiness and sonic experimentation of later releases. Ones And Sixes largely continues that theme. Produced by BJ Burton, the record nicely balances the band’s trademark immediacy (“Into You” and “Kid In The Corner”) with more sprawling, experimental fare (the blistering, nearly 10-minute “Landslide” or “DJ,” a track that could be a spiritual cousin to Trust’s “Shots & Ladders”). Throughout the record, electronic flourishes bubble under the surface while the cavernous-sounding guitars rip and echo around the corners.

“In some ways it’s like every recording we’ve ever done,” says Parker of making the album. “We get to some point where we look at each other like, ‘What is this, what the hell are we doing?’ It takes a while to get to the point where it’s a cohesive thing and it fits together and it’s become something.”

Ones And Sixes is also a record that examines subjects that have become constants in the Low catalog — spiritual and emotional unease and the vagaries and complications of human connection. The record plays like a kind of sustained meditation on confusion, often offering questions that have no easy answers: “You want religion/ You want assurance/ A resurrection/ Some kind of purpose/ You had the vision/ You opened your eyes/ A complication/ You should have looked twice.” The issue of what happens next seems to be at the core of the record, particularly on “What Part Of Me” — a song that repeatedly asks, “What part of me don’t you know?” It’s a question that not only applies to a long-term marriage, but to what it means to spend two decades working within the confines of the same band. It’s also a quandary that all artists with the blessing of a lengthy career must ask themselves after a certain point: What else is left to say?

“It could be a band relationship, a romantic relationship, it could be just any relationship, really,” says Sparhawk of the song. “You know, it can be exasperating, like, ‘Come on, man: What else is there that you don’t already know? Can’t you see that I’m bleeding out here? Look at me.’ I don’t know if the song is a plea for forgiveness, or if it’s a plea for help, or if it’s a plea for ‘Give me a break.’ In the end it’s like ‘Come on, just accept who we are. We are what we are when we are together.'”

At the center of Low’s story as a band has always been the relationship — both musical and romantic — between Sparhawk and Parker. One of the most fascinating things about speaking to them over the years is balancing their incredible normalcy — their Midwestern mom-and-dad friendliness — against the beautiful and occasionally harrowing nature of their music. While the subjects of domesticity and parenthood have crept up in their work from time to time (“In Metal” being one the loveliest and strangest songs about not wanting to see your kids grow up too fast), Low’s music can also be unflinching in how it addresses mortality, isolation, and abject despair. Some of Low’s most intimate songs — tracks like “Closer” and “Soon” — play almost like a private communication between the two. Though both Sparhawk and Parker are quick to address the myriad ways that the band has blessed their lives, both also admit that the path has not always been easy. Sparhawk in particular has struggled with serious depression, an issue that threatened to derail the band completely several years ago. Though he is clearly now operating from a much better place, the shadow of that time still hangs over the band’s music.

“First of all, you’re going to see me squirming right now,” says Sparhawk when asked to consider how his personal life influences the nature of his songwriting. “Over the years I’ve definitely learned that, more often than not — sometimes even more times than I want to admit — the music ends up being about stuff that’s going on with me. I’m definitely influenced by what’s going on in life, whether it’s personal or public: whether it’s personal stuff about grappling with psychological issues — with depression or the aftereffects of a lifetime of grappling with that — or it’s sort of about the quiet subtleties that come with that. Sometimes the songs that I’ll write seem to be almost like a snapshot of a moment of confusion or loss of control.”

Sparhawk continues: “A few years back I had a pretty weird breakdown, and it took a couple years to get out of it. It was pretty hard. There was a while there when touring was stressful, and between me still recovering and stuff … that was kind of a difficult era. It’s slowly gotten better, though. Some things will always be there, probably, from now on, but I think having Steve with us has been really good. He’s a great musician and he’s got a certain work ethic that I think has really helped us and inspired us to work harder. The older you get, it’s hard to keep perspective, and time goes by quicker. It becomes easier to think that you’re getting stuff done when you’re really not. It’s good to have someone younger around to push you a little bit. It’s good to have people working with you who will let you know when something could be better.”

According to Parker, her role in the band — and how she views her contribution to it — has also evolved quietly over the years. For someone who has one of the most beloved voices in all of indie-rock, she is unnervingly humble. (“I’m still not sure my voice is all that interesting,” she says.) Though she’d likely be somewhat loathe to admit it, her beautiful voice and lithe percussion are arguably the band’s most vital elements. While Sparhawk can be, as she describes him, “a bit of a wild card,” she remains the band’s calm emotional center.

“I think if you look at me 20 years ago and then looked at how I am now, I don’t think there’s a lot of change,” says Parker. “You know, between what I’m doing on stage, how I play, the expression on my face. From the outward appearance, I probably look almost identical. I have changed on the inside, though. As I’ve been doing this, I think I’ve become more confident, I’ve become … I wouldn’t say more daring, but I’m willing to try more things, and that’s pleasantly surprising at times. The older I get the more I’m kind of, ‘Yeah sure, I’ll try it.’ Yeah I might fall on my face, but I’m less afraid of things. Even though my voice has gotten a little lower with age, I’m less afraid to sing higher, or more loudly.”

If it were possible to determine exactly what makes a band work, then theoretically no band would ever break up. Bands, like romances and friendships, are often held together by impossible-to-quantify factors. The pleasures of listening to a band like Low are that the music they currently make is buoyed by a sense of shared history. The songs on Ones And Sixes certainly bear the same sonic hallmarks as those back on early Low records like Long Division and The Curtain Hits The Cast, but they are enriched by the kind of feelings that only come from having shared so much of your life with the same small group of people. It’s a kind of connectedness and musical symbiosis that can’t be faked. And in today’s musical landscape — in which so many bands burn out quickly due to the short-term attention span of most media outlets and the desperate, insatiable need for newness — bands with Low’s kind of back catalog are few and far between. In fact, venerable bands like Low (or, say, Built To Spill or Yo La Tengo) often suffer as a result of their own longevity — not because they don’t still make good records, but simply because it’s easy to take them for granted because they’ve been doing it so well for so long.

The question of “What’s it like to be in a band for so long?” is one that clearly the members of Low have grown tired of answering. For Sparhawk, the business of making music and putting out records has a lot to do with the band simply pleasing themselves. “If we put a record out, it’s because we like it and we’re proud of it,” he says, “Otherwise we’d never finish it and no one would ever hear it.”

For Parker, the band’s longevity is the result of both pragmatism and something slightly more enduring. “I remember talking to someone who was about to get married,” she says. “Unfortunately he might already be divorced now, but anyway, he was asking me what advice I had for him about marriage. I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s advice so much, but you just need to realize that you’re going to have bad days, you’ll have bad weeks, you’re going to have bad years in a relationship. But if you’re really committed, you’ll be able to work through it and figure it out, even during those bad years.’ It’s the same thing in a band. You’re going to have some really rough patches where somebody’s going to really, I don’t know, lose their mind. Like, literally lose their mind. We’ve gone through a few bass players and that has been challenging. You learn that people do have a breaking point and you have to respect that. Every band is different, of course, but I guess the reason this band has stayed together is because we are married. And we’re committed to that relationship. The band and the marriage are almost inseparable at this point. Honestly if I was just another girl in the band, it wouldn’t have worked. We would not be together. That being said, we’ve had so many amazing opportunities and amazing experiences because of this band. We’ve been able to travel the world and meet amazing people and see different things and it’s changed us as people for sure. I can’t express how appreciative I am of that.”


Low’s Ones and Sixes is out 9/11 via Sub Pop. Here’s the cover and tracklist:

01 “Gentle”
02 “No Comprende”
03 “Spanish Translation”
04 “Congregation”
05 “No End”
06 “Into You”
07 “What Part Of Me”
08 “The Innocents”
09 “Kid In The Corner”
10 “Lies”
11 “Landslide”
12 “DJ”

Low are also touring through 2015:

06/30 Guangzhou, China @ TU Space
07/01 Shenzen, China @ B10 Live House
07/03 Beijing, China @ YuGong Yishan
07/04 Shanghai, China @ Qian Shui Wan Cultural Centre
07/17 Eau Claire, WI @ Eaux Claires Festival
09/03 Bergen, Norway @ Perfect Sounds Forever Fest
09/04-06 Wiltshire, England @ End of the Road Festival
09/04-06 Stradbally, Ireland @ Electric Picnic
09/18 Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
09/19 Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
09/21 Toronto, Ontario @ The Mod Club
09/22 Montreal, Quebec @ Bar Le Ritz PDB
09/23 Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
09/24 Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
09/25 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
09/26 Washington, DC @ Black Cat
10/07 Manchester, England @ Cathedral
10/08 Glasgow, Scotland @ Art School
10/10 London, England @ Roundhouse
10/12 Köln, Germany @ Gebaude 9
10/13 Hamburg, Germany @ Knust
10/14 Copenhagen, Denmark @ Vega
10/15 Stockholm, Sweden @ Kagelbanan
10/17 Berlin, Germany @ Lido
10/19 Munich, Germany @ Ampere
10/20 Bologna, Italy @ Teatro Antoniano
10/22 Zaragoza, Spain @ Las Armas
10/23 Barcelona, Spain @ Bikini
10/24 Valencia, Spain @ Deleste Festival
10/26 Madrid, Spain @ Teatro Lara
10/27 Santander, Spain @ Escenario
10/29 Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Paradiso
10/31 Brussels, Belgium @ AB
11/11 Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
11/13 Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
11/14 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Complex
11/16 Los Angeles, CA @ The Troubadour
11/18 San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
11/20 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir
11/21 Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile

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