Progress Report: Low
PROGRESS REPORT: Duluth’s mightiest and most quiet rock band prep new album C’mon for release 4/12 via Sub Pop.
The last time I saw Low play live was back in 2008 at the New York edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties. Still touring in support of 2007’s Drums and Guns at the time, the band played a lovely but very short set. Later that night I ran into front man Alan Sparhawk in the snack bar and had the kind of bizarro conversation that can only be had while eating falafel in the makeshift commissary of a music festival late at night after drinking approximately one dozen bottles of Bud Light. Specific details of our conversation remain vague, but I do remember that Sparhawk told me that both he and the band were tired out from so many years of touring and that, before they made another record, they would need to pause and give some thought to how they might want to move forward. The future seemed unclear.
It’s been nearly four years since the release of their last record, and it sounds like Sparkhawk’s prediction for the band was mostly accurate. Still, Low haven’t exactly been snoozing this entire time. Aside from writing new songs for Low, front man Alan Sparhawk has been busy recording and touring with his side project, The Retribution Gospel Choir and both Sparhawk and wife/bandmate Mimi Parker performed music for a multimedia dance piece called Heaven by choreographer Morgan Thorson. The band also saw two of their songs get covered by Robert Plant for his 2010 Band of Joy album — a fairly surreal moment for any band, particularly an indie-rock mom-and-pop outfit from Duluth, Minnesota. Still, judging from the somewhat back-to- basics nature of Low’s forthcoming ninth album, the minimalist trio (which includes bassist Steve Garrington) have indeed taken a moment to step back and re-evaluate their strengths as a band. The resulting album C’mon shares the same kind of simple intimacy as classic Low albums like Trust and Secret Name. After experimenting with dense soundscapes and more politically- themed material on their past couple of albums, C’mon finds the band operating in a much more stripped down setting, once again exploring deeply personal and spiritual ideas that make their best records so haunting.
“Most of our records just kind of fall together,” says Mimi Parker, calling from the band’s home in Minnesota.
“There’s not a lot of real forethought that goes into it, to be honest. As soon as we can gather enough new material—which is harder now that Alan is writing songs for two bands—then we start thinking about recording again. It always feels like we have just barely enough material to make a record, but somehow it always comes together.”
“We hit things really hard at the beginning of the band,” says Parker, “For the first eight years or so, we just never stopped. You know, we’d played literally every rock club in the country and we’d play some cities twice in the same year. It just started to feel like we were beating a dead horse … at least a little bit. We just got burned out. We just realized that if we wanted to keep things going, we needed to change.”
Change, it seems, came in the form of a long, healthy break for the band. Sparhawk spent time working on music for Retribution Gospel Choir while Parker got to enjoy some time at home with the couple’s children. “We used to take the kids out on the road with us all the time,” she says, “which isn’t so hard when they are infants and they can’t actually move. But when they start thinking and talking and running, it’s just so much work. Now we have a really great person who comes in and stays with the kids while we are on the road, so at least they get to have a normal schedule and a normal day to day life.”
C’mon was recorded Sacred Heart Studios — the same former church where the band recorded 2002’s Trust — which made the recording sessions a lot easier for everyone involved. Not only did the band already have a strong sense of the space and the acoustics of the room, Sacred Heart is only a two-minute walk away from the band’s home. “The only problem is that they also have lots of weddings there,” says Parker, “So, you know, occasionally we’d be interrupted by a wedding planner and a bride-to-be who were stopping by the check out the space. We didn’t mind.”
C’mon represents a kind of return to form for Low, revisiting the more restrained, minimal nature of earlier albums. Tracks like “Nightingale”, “$20” and the epic “Magesty/Magic” would easily have been at home on the band’s early records, while “Something’s Turning Over” could almost be the sister tune to Trust’s “La La La Song.” The new record also showcases more of Parker’s voice this time around, particularly on “You See Everything” and “Especially Me” which Parker wrote. This return to the simple, austere nature of earlier Low records is an approach that some fans have missed on recent albums, which often coated the band’s songs with layers of experimental effects and sonic fuzz.
“It’s always just been the three of us — Alan, myself, and a bass player,” explains Parker, “So the simplicity of it is just kind of a natural occurrence. When we first started the band there was a definite intention to keep things minimal, but over the past few years we veered away from that a little bit. At this point we kind of approach it on a song-by-song basis, just doing whatever the song seems to call for. If the song is good, you should be able to play it however you want — either simply or really lushly. We always just want to be able to play the songs live, and this record is more about capturing the way we play live.”
“It would be nice sometimes to have other people up there with us,” jokes Parker. “You know, a string section or a choir or just other musicians — safety in numbers. I see all these other bands with so many people on stage and I kind crave that sometimes. It would be nice to be able to take a breath or drop a stick and not have anyone notice. You know, we’ve been feeling pretty naked and exposed on stage for a long time now … but I guess we’re used to it.”
Given that Sparhawk has his side job with Retribution Gospel Choir to keep him busy, why doesn’t Parker have a side project of her own?
“I’ve thought about recording my own songs, but then I’d have to actually go out and perform them,” she laughs, “I’ve had various offers from record labels and producers who wanted to help me put out a record of my own if I wanted to that. So, I don’t know … maybe? We’re talking about it.”
This spring Low will hit the road again, beginning with a jaunt down to SXSW and big show opening for Explosions in the Sky at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. For Parker, who is both “excited and really ready” to be on tour again, the upcoming run of shows will also offer the band a chance to dig into their now sizable back catalog.
“It’s nice to have a new record out because then about half of your set list is already taken care of,” she says. “We practice in our basement, so lately we’ve just been looking at our old CDs and picking songs that we haven’t performed in a long time, which is fun. Also, our bass player will often come to rehearsal and ask us to play songs we’ve haven’t done in years. He’ll be like, ‘Why don’t you ever play this one?’ And we’re always like, ‘We have no idea. Let’s do it.’ We’re really trying to keep things interesting.”
The premiere of “Try To Sleep”:
Low’s C’mon is out 4/12 via Sub Pop. And they’re on tour this spring:
03/16 – Austin, TX (SXSW)
04/06 – New York, NY @ Radio City Music Hall*
04/14 – Duluth, MN @ Harbor City School
04/16 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
04/20 – Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre
04/21 – Lincoln Hall – Chicago, IL
04/22 – Louisville, KY @ Headliners Music Hall
04/23 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Andy Warhol Museum (8pm & 10pm show)
04/25 – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
04/26 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
04/29 – Boston, MA @ Paramount Center
04/30 – Milford, CT @ Daniel Street
05/02 – Toronto, CAN @ Mod Club
05/03 – Ann Arbor, MI @ Blind Pig
* supporting Explosions in the Sky