INTERVIEW: Low | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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1994: Grunge has hit its peak. Major labels are burning obscene amounts of money on artists whose penchant for feedback and Sonic Youth is enough to give them ‘commercial appeal’.

Within this torrent of noise, Minnesotan trio Low released their debut album, I Could Live In Hope. Amidst the storm of bombastic angst, …Hope presented itself differently; its cover a sepia-toned photo of a wall, barely decorated by a photo of a boy sitting at a desk. This enigmatic cover was very much like the music contained within: mysterious, oblique and yet powerfully effective. It was a unique and bold statement that rallied against tradition, and didn’t care one bit.

Twenty-two years on, little has changed. Released last September, Ones And Sixes is Low’s eleventh studio album, yet it still seems that the core duo of Alan Sparhawk (vocals/guitars) and Mimi Parker (vocals/drums) – rounded off by their new bassist Steve Garrington – are far from running out of steam. As far as Sparhawk’s concerned, his hunger to remain prolific is nowhere near dying out: “In some ways I’m still very naïve with music…you still sit down to write and start with nothing. And as frustrating as that is as a writer, it’s still what keeps you coming back again. You’re still trying to figure out this puzzle and you keep on getting handed little pieces of it at a time and you’re thinking ‘wait a minute. How do I complete this?’”

There are always more practical reasons for the band’s activity too; Parker and Sparhawk have been married since 1990, and mix frequent recording and touring with family life. “There’s always that thing in the back of my mind: ‘How are you going to make money next year?’, and then the mystery and romanticism of pursuing this creative thing spurs you forward and takes hold.

“This is how we feed our kids, and those realities are the things that can turn me around and think ‘oh yeah, if I keep on working at this I’m going to come up with something I’m happy with’.”

Ones And Sixes finds Low pushing the boundaries of their sound; whilst Spanish Translation and Congregation recall the slow-burning majesty of albums such as Things We Lost In The Fire, there’s a more colossal sound to No End and the twisted pop of What Part Of Me. “It’s a creative cycle we go through. On the last two records I was more focused on the song and staying out of the way of it, without messing with it. There’s times when we pursue something that’s a little more traditional and familiar, and once we feel like we’ve barked up that tree enough we’ll move on. After we finished The Invisible Way I could already get a sense of a new sound in my head; I wanted noise and dissonance to pull the sounds in new directions. I wanted to push the envelope.”

Working with producer BJ Burton, in Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios, the band found their best accomplice in pushing their sound. “He’s very forward thinking technologically, and he’s deep into noise too.” Working with a new producer in a new environment allowed the band to tap into their love of traversing new sonic territory. “Over the years there’ve been times when we’ve taken chances and ended up finding something that works really well. We’ve learned to trust those instincts.”

Recording at April Base made for a fairly comfortable recording experience too. “Usually, if we’re not excited about what we’re hearing after the second day, it puts a damper on things. We usually have to rush through recording and it sometimes means we have little time to properly realise some of our ideas, so it’s nice to go to a place where they know their stuff enough to instantly know what mic will work best with a particular instrument. It’s important to work with people who can be quick and intuitive, who know what their space can do.” Thanks to the seemingly limitless potential of April Base, Ones And Sixes is one of Low’s finest moments so far; it’s bold and courageous in its ambition, and is arguably the most daring album they’ve made in a while. They’ve already started experimenting with what could become album number 12. “We’ve already thrown ourselves into experimenting with some ideas with BJ. It’s not usually how we do things. We’ve even recorded a cover of an Al Green song.” As for a new album: “We’re looking to do something over the winter, but our kids are teenagers now so we’re trying to be a little more strategic with how much we’re away for the next couple of years. We’re trying to take it easy.”

If there’s any fears that Low are starting to wind down, their An Evening With Low tour is sure to put those doubts to rest; the band are playing two sets at Sage Gateshead on Thursday 4th August. “England’s always been such an important country to us, and we want to give back to it. There’s so many songs we want to play from the past twenty years that we’ve missed having in the set. So at times it’ll probably get a little obvious we’re thinking ‘okay, how does this song go again?’”

Low play Sage Gateshead on Thursday 4th August.


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