Low On Alice Coltrane, Harsh Winters, And Other Inspirations For Their Haunting New Album
Under The Influence is a new revival of a very old Stereogum franchise, in which we ask artists to talk about the inspirations behind their albums. From other music, to film, to novels, to stray notes left behind by friends, and who knows what else, this is what’s on people’s minds when they’re writing the songs we eventually come to know and love.
In the almost 30 years they’ve been releasing music, there have been many iterations of Low. Always with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker at the project’s core, the band has mutated and grown over and over again. Still, nobody could’ve quite predicted the radical transformation the duo has undertaken in recent years. First teaming up with producer BJ Burton for 2015’s Ones And Sixes, Sparhawk and Parker began to deconstruct their sound in a whole new way. That came to fruition on 2018’s Double Negative, an album that conjured the spiritual void and perpetual dread of the Trump years through noise-blasted, corroded songs. With it, they entered a new prime of their career, and made one of the most enduring albums of the past decade.
Now they have returned with its followup, the equally vital and powerful HEY WHAT. It’s an album that finds Sparhawk and Parker continuing to grapple with the world around them. With the material dating from 2019 and 2020, there were still the suffocating worries of political turmoil, the onset of the pandemic, and reckoning with their own perception of privilege and their place in the world as America went through another surge of protests driven by racial inequality. At the same time the two have maintained the thematic threads of HEY WHAT‘s predecessor, they have also kept pushing forward sonically. HEY WHAT is the sound of Low seeking transcendence through a form of destruction, obliterating and warping the foundations of their sound in the face of a world that, too, feels like it is perpetually on the brink of collapse.
At the same time, it isn’t impossible to sense something else at play here than on Double Negative. In certain songs on HEY WHAT, you get just a bit more of a reprieve — moments of true, calm beauty and moments of deliverance from the chaos around us. That may not be where the band was coming from, but maybe their search to go further and further out musically is also allowing them to scrape against emotions and ideas that haven’t quite cohered as we still live through the long shadows of the last several years.
Sparhawk and Parker talked to us over Zoom, from their home in Minnesota. They took us through inspirations that have long lingered for Low, and how many of these impacted their thinking as they’ve forged ahead into the new territory of HEY WHAT.
ALAN SPARHAWK: The reason I listen to Swans is the spirit of extreme artists, people we’ve run into over the years who were doing things that were really pushing the elements. The first Swans albums were really intense, really brutal, really pushing at the edge of darkness and violence. I just vividly remember the first few times hearing them and feeling like my horizon isn’t really advanced. Since then, we toured with them and got to know Michael Gira. I think they’re real sources. You don’t get the impression that they’re influenced by anything. These people exist because this message has to exist in the universe. You almost feel like they exist without reference.
You used this phrase about extreme music. With these last couple records, it feels as if you two have radically overhauled your sound. As if you are now yourself pushing further into unknown territory. Was that increasingly conscious as you were getting into these albums, looking back to discoveries like Swans?
SPARHAWK: For sure. I could definitely look back over the years to where we were influenced by other people, or even certain eras. I remember as we were learning the studio, early on as we were developing, we were listening to music that was classic — Beatles, Beach Boys, pioneers going through that same process. Things start fragmenting a little bit. You start listening to reggae, dub, all different styles, meanwhile with one foot always in new possibilities. What can be done with what is original. I feel like we’ve always wanted to make something unique. When we started, we said “Let’s push this element here and see how far out this can get.”
MIMI PARKER: Even from the get-go, when we set those minimal parameters for ourselves, we were always pushing against that. When we started working with BJ for Ones And Sixes, it was really an eye-opener for us. A new approach.
SPARHAWK: We look at the structure differently. Ones And Sixes was a learning period. By the end of that record, we had found the way to work and really dive into that. I think the moment we realized, “Oh, we can make a really cool-sounding song that’s all sounds we’ve never heard.” There’s no drum, and maybe no guitar. Once that dawned on us, it flooded and there was no turning back.
SPARHAWK: I like the corner they occupy in the music world. I think Stephen [O’Malley] does a good job of recognizing the place of what he’s doing. He seems to really thrive in that corner. It seems he’s self-aware enough to where he can be the master of what he’s doing. To me, that’s really something to strive for. Like Swans, anyone that’s this extreme and that’s willing to go this far, it’s pretty inspiring. And a little bit of the attitude. He’s a positive dude. He shines light on other artists a lot. I think it’s admirable and steadying in a lot of ways, shows you it’s possible to have integrity and still do something crazy.
You said this thing about Swans, that they make music that doesn’t feel as if it’s influenced by anybody. That’s honestly how I felt about the recent Low albums. Do you feel these artists are a spiritual inspiration more than an aesthetic one?
SPARHAWK: I suppose I’ve always looked at the whole artist. There’s a certain minimalism to it, a certain intention to what they’re doing, that I think we resonate with. There are some practical things they’re doing. They are trying to fracture, to abstract music a little bit. They’re trying to break it apart. I think specifically you can look at beat. Think about those two bands and the way they approach rhythm. For sure Sunn O))), the backbeat is gone.
That’s a specific thing that illustrates a larger picture. What are the elements that seem to be holy here and what happens when you take those away? That can be any element. Are you serious, you’re going to be that relentless lyrically with your whole catalog? It’s intense, man. That strength and that singularity is probably more inspiring than the actual technical parts, which are inspiring as well. Just watching them play, it’s beyond volume. It’s a really unspeakable thing to get them to this point where there’s this thing that happens that’s louder than loudness. Something about that relentless, colossal effort resonates with us too.
Is this a long-term influence or were there specific music ideas that got passed down from them that you were thinking about recently?
SPARHAWK: We were talking and we realized that all four of our parents were freakishly intense music people in their own unique way. Each of them had a very different role in their influence on us. Mim’s mother was an aspiring country singer when she was young, she taught herself how to play guitar and accordion. She met Mim’s dad and taught him how to sing. He was a gruff, loud person, who when the music came he would just sit in his place and sing along and found this great joy.
PARKER: I think another really big thing is how much music they listened to. We had an 8-track player in his work truck. Every time we went into that truck he would put in music. We had lots of records. Music became a solace, a place of escape. I had an older sister who played guitar and she would sing all the leads so I would come up with harmony from a really young age. It’s been second nature to me.
What do you think all of your parents would think of these more recent Low albums?
PARKER: Well, my mom is probably not a huge fan, but it’s always been a little weird for her.
SPARHAWK: She’s always suggesting we do country music, because people love country music. As opposed to ours. [Laughs]
PARKER: She’s always been very proud, but I don’t know if she gets what we’re doing. Which is fine, because half the time I don’t either. [Laughs] Alan’s dad, on the other hand, he was a jazz guy — and farther out there the better sometimes. He seemed like he really got it.
SPARHAWK: He played drums in a country band when we moved to Minnesota.
PARKER: Not a lot of jazz in northwest Minnesota.
SPARHAWK: He wrote songs. Not a lot of people have dads who write songs casually. I’m sure that had a big influence on me. Just like, “Oh, real people write songs.” We lived in a pretty rural community, pretty far off the path of the rest of civilization. It builds in you a little bit of perspective that “Oh, all the cool stuff happens somewhere else.” We’re never going to be a part of that. My mother actually died this last year. I guess in some ways you could say that’s a little bit of an influence on the record even more. My mother played organ in church. That was probably the most prominent music I heard the first 10 years of my life.
I know you’ve spoken about spirituality over the years. A lot of these influences are pretty dark. There was a part of me that felt like HEY WHAT had a bit more tranquility or hope peeking through the noise. Double Negative, you know, it really captured the mood when it came out. It was so bleak. The reason I bring this up now is that when you mention church music, a lot of the new songs almost feel, to me, as if they could be hymns within this damaged haze.
SPARHAWK: I noticed that too. Some of the structures of the songs, the prominence of the vocal melody. It wasn’t intentional. It just comes up. You write the way you write. It’s for sure influenced by what’s going on. I feel like the record… it’s not hope, it’s something kind of beyond that. To me, it’s absurdity in the face of chaos. It’s an explosion going off and you look around and go, “Oh, we’re still alive, now what.” Stepping forward without it necessarily hanging on hope. Like, how do you move forward now without being motivated by hope, because there must be some force moving us forward. It doesn’t feel like hope, but let’s hang on to that, whatever that is.
Do these songs predate the pandemic?
SPARHAWK: It’s about half and half. We had plenty written as the pandemic was coming in. Definitely still in the thick of the fascist regime. I remember songs like “Days Like These,” I think I had just written that at the top of the year as things were coming down, and as we were getting more and more shut down. It just seemed like the song was a guiding light for the next while, so I continued to write.
You gotta remember, the last two years were a major upheaval in social and racial awareness. I think the question of what wealth is, what power is, what racial inequality is — especially in a position like ours. Coming to a deeper realization of your own privilege. Realizing, “Oh, yeah, there’s this thing I take for granted, and there are people who have to worry about this their whole life. Look at this thing that just got handed to us.” In the song “I Can Wait,” there’s the line, “I can take or I can give it away/ I can leave or I can stay.” That seems like nothing, but there’s a whole swath of us who have parts of our lives where that’s our view. Man, you don’t realize, there’s a lot of people who don’t have those basic foundational choices in their reality.
That was going through us a little bit. It’s gone hand-in-hand, for me in the last few years… the more we do this, the more we get onstage, it’s, “OK, what am I saying?” There are times I question: I’ve gotten to get up onstage a lot and talk about my feelings, and people listen to it. There’s other people who have way worse things going on and should be heard. I struggle with what I say with the place I have.
In conjunction with the sonic exploration on the last few records, I was wondering if your interest in writing has kind of shifted. I mean, I remember when Drums And Guns came out it very much felt like a response to current events as well. But Double Negative was so musically shocking and also just felt like it was an anchor in tumultuous times. Do you feel you’ve gravitated to reacting to the surrounding world more over the years?
PARKER: I mean, in general. When we started the band, I think we’ve just become more aware…
SPARHAWK: Well, the world has gotten a lot more wack since the ‘90s. [Laughs]
PARKER: Our experience is we’ve traveled the world, you meet people, and you see things. When you go to other places, you see what it’s like there. It’s just an awakening of understanding of how things work. We’ve got friends who bury their head in the sand, and it’s like — this is the world we live in, you need to know what’s going on. Sometimes to the detriment of your own mental health and wellbeing.
SPARHAWK: I think the older you get, especially as an artist, you recognize the opportunity and the privilege you have to say something becomes more sacred. I think every writer has a bit of this fear in the back of your head: This might be the last chance you have to say something. It might be the last time you have to express what’s inside you. But your inner editor becomes harsher, a little more inclined to say: Are you sure you’re going to waste everyone’s time with these heady words? Or are you going to clear the way for something that means something? Because this might be the last chance to do anything with the tools you’ve been given.
SPARHAWK: I heard a few of Erika’s records and become a fan, reached out and had her do some shows with us. Especially her recordings, at first you think, “OK, it’s some noisy 4-track recordings.” But there’s a new level and unique perspective in the way she’s pushing things, the elements she grabbed onto. Some of the bravery of the textures of the recordings are inspiring me. I referenced EMA because I think those recordings were really great and it happened to be on my radar four or five years ago. I remember it was one of the sparks that got my mind thinking about, “OK, maybe there’s some new territory we can push forward into.” Just one of many newer artists who are pushing the envelope, not being tied to the way things sounded before.
SPARHAWK: PJ’s been a lifelong anchor. I remember when Dry came out, we listened to that record so much, so much, so much. We followed her pretty heavily to when she went through to Albini, that 4-track stuff she did for Rid Of Me. It’s so harsh and raw and personal. That record is just one of the great out-on-a-limb recordings by a very original artist. We did some shows with her three or four years back and she ended up being the sweetest person. Really just made us feel special. She gave us a shot in the arm. I remember walking away from those shows feeling so legitimate and inspired. She just treated us like friends and equals. Sometimes that’s all you need to do.
Similar to what I meant when I was talking about hymns, but there’s certain songs on here where the melodies feel very classic or not specifically of any genre, so it’s kind of like this timeless human element buried in this warped, mangled, future-pushing thing.
SPARHAWK: Roberta Flack is again a lifetime thing. It was a record in our house and I gravitated towards it after my parents played it. It stuck with me even as I was going through the typical getting into Pink Floyd, getting into punk. I was still listening to Roberta Flack. And also this Barbra Streisand live album, for some reason. But yeah, there’s something very original about her, the way her tone is, the way she carried a melody. It’s always, to me, so pure. I get great comfort in her voice. I trust her. I’ve always trusted her.
SPARHAWK: I’ve only been aware of her maybe the last eight or 10 years. Spiritual. You can hear her musical genius. You can hear she is pushing it and letting it spill out over the edge of the dish in the effort to make something beautiful and transcendent. She made a lot of unique records, and I think that’s an inspiration: “OK, I”m going to make a record that’s just going to be a synth and a language I made up.” “OK, this is harp and these guys I know playing jazz.” The extremity of being willing to go with a concept. And the spirituality of it, too. It’s music that’s so obviously beyond the technicality of what’s going on. It’s up around the outer edges.
And perhaps you’re trying to get that type of space with Low.
SPARHAWK: I don’t think we ever could. In my mind, of course I hope our music is transcendent. I hope it’s unique enough that it passes by some of the sentinels that people put up for letting something in. But I don’t know. There’s something pretty pure and untouchable about what she’s going on, and I feel like we are either too self-aware or vastly not enough to be able to understand what she’s doing. [Laughs]
The Minnesota Winter
PARKER: We did so many interviews with people, and they would bring up the harsh Minnesota winter like, “Did that have some impact?” They were really pushing for that. Then we kinda thought, well, yeah, maybe it did. It didn’t really dawn on us. Just harsh, extreme conditions.
SPARHAWK: The lack of light, the long season of being indoors. The threat of death at your door. We get COVID pandemic every year here and it lasts six months long. It’s called winter.
I Am The Slow Dancing Umbrella
SPARHAWK: I don’t know if you’re ever going to find it. Maybe on Bandcamp. I Am The Slow Dancing Umbrella is the project of this guy here in town. He is just this guy I’ve known for years who’s been a big inspiration. He has by far the weirdest recording techniques I’ve ever seen. I remember him recording on a sampler as if it was a multi-track. He’s been an influence on me, doing really out-sounding records. There were a few under the name I Am The Slow Dancing Umbrella, that were just one of the examples in my listening history where the whole record was just completely sounds you’d never heard before. You had no idea where they came from. Every now and then you hear maybe that’s a twisted sample of something but I don’t know what it’s in reference to and it has no history in being used this way. I guess I picked that in the spirit of people who make records I think push the envelope and push the possibilities and show you can make stuff that will surprise you still.
SPARHAWK: There’s this one 7 inch of his called “The Peak.” I’ve had it for a long time and every once in a while to set myself right and give myself a foundation I’ll take it out and listen to it. There’s a lot about that that sets thing in order for me. He’s one of the early innovators, one of the people who’s really not afraid to dive in and smash the sounds and force them through to something new. I admire his political stance, and how he incorporated that into his art. “The Peak,” that single, I go back to it time and time again. It’s a landmark of extreme music and what happens when someone really jumps off a cliff with an idea.
This idea that you can still surprise yourself — prior to Ones And Sixes and Double Negative, were you feeling dispirited or that you needed something new and didn’t know what it was?
SPARHAWK: I know for C’mon and The Invisible Way, we were kind of in a little bit of a holding pattern. Like, what are we doing here. We had gotten to a point we’d reached with Dave Fridmann like, “OK, here’s gnarly loud and here’s a reflection of where we’ve been going live.” We had a bit of a diversion with Drums And Guns. We were kinda fishing around, still writing songs. With Invisible Way with Jeff Tweedy, I think we went in knowing, “OK, this is probably going to be a little more chill, some more acoustic instruments, and that’ll be fine because we’re working with someone who does that a lot and maybe in doing that we’ll find some new possibilities or a new side of ourselves.” That was a good process. I think we learned a lot there. I like a lot of the songs we did for that record. Ironically, I think it kind of hinted and sent us on our way for new possibilities.
When we had first met BJ, he invited us to the studio and I ended up working with him with Trampled By Turtles. I was producing and working with him and we ended up getting to know each other, talking about records. He was like, “Maybe we can do this and this.” That conversation started there. But we were always toying back and forth with the outer edges of the noise, that balance of the dissonance of noise and beauty of melody. I remember getting the sense that BJ got the balance we were trying to strike. I think that’s probably why we’re able to go as far as we do with him. I think he has a sense of what needs to happen to the song and what can be pliable. When we come to him like, “Hey here’s this weird sound can you make this work,” he’s definitely up for doing that. He pushes us. Just when we get discouraged and we’re not finding the sounds and the vibe we’re needing, two days later he’ll send back a mix like, “Here try this.”
Now with these couple albums, do you feel there’s still some point beyond this you’re trying to reach, or you’ve found this sound you had always abstractly been chasing?
SPARHAWK: You never really feel like you’ve found it. [Laughs] At the end you feel like you’ve gone as far as you could possibly go. There’s always a feeling when you get done with a record like, “Ah, that’s it, that’s everything inside me, there’s no way I can possibly come up with anything else beyond what we just finished.” You always feel like that’s it, we’ve finally done it.
PARKER: We’ve thought that from the first record on.
SPARHAWK: Pretty soon you write another song and you think, “This is pretty good, maybe I should record it.” The way we’re working now, it’s really hard to tell… I feel like we’ve only just gotten into the room now and we’re just figuring out the vocabulary. There’s twists and turns you take. Sometimes it’s about limitations. Sometimes to move forward you have to find some limitation. Maybe we’ll make a house record, or a reggae record. Different ways of forcing yourself into unknown territory.
HEY WHAT is out now via Sub Pop Records.