Been Down Low
But Things Are Looking Up for (Under)Groundbreaking Trio
Low knows the power of silence in more ways than one. The Duluth, Minn., trio tests our patience and its own, keeping us in anticipation of the cathartic summation of Alan Sparhawk's washed guitar and lethargic vocals, his wife Mimi Parker's sparse drum taps and lush vocal trembling, and Zak Sally's sensitive bass. When it all comes together at just the right moment, it's ecstasy.
"It's something we discovered kind of early on," Sparhawk says. "There's a tension created by playing really quietly and slowly. We do our best to make that happen from time to time, maybe not quite as much on this last album, but yeah, it can be very exhilarating being up there playing live and having to hold back this flood of music, feeling like you're going to explode. It's very satisfying, actually."
The album he's referring to, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky)--the band's seventh full-length--does pick up the pace from previous works and even fluffs the layers a little, adding a heavy string arrangement here, a distorted riff there. But it's by no means up-tempo. It's a bit more tangible than previous Low outings, but no less rewarding for repeated listening. The band members do get the occasional chance to blow off steam musically: At a 1998 Halloween show, they donned clip-on devil locks and churned out two-minute Misfits covers, and they experiment with everything from electronic sounds to metal to blues to punk in side projects such as Hospital People, Tooth Fairies, and Black-Eyed Snakes. With Low, however, it's all about holding back. And part of that patience has developed with the arrival last year of Hollis, Sparhawk and Parker's baby daughter.
"It's a lot of work," Sparhawk sighs when describing life on the road with the new tour mate. "But it's about the same kind of work any parent has to go through. She, of course, gets up at 8. It would be nice to get more sleep, but it's fine. If we were traveling around playing for 20 people a night, I don't think we would. We definitely owe it to the fact that people come and see us."
Some might attribute a portion of Low's growing fan base to a recent holiday TV commercial for The Gap featuring the band's version of "Little Drummer Boy." But Low's not the only "underground mellow" artist being showcased to the consumerist public these days. Songs from Red House Painters and the late Nick Drake have also made their way into marketing campaigns recently.
"People are maybe coming around a little bit to stuff that's more atmospheric," Sparhawk says, yawning. "I don't know why, necessarily. It's nice in a way because, yeah, we're able to play some nice places and a lot of people come. And people like The Gap call us and say, 'We want to use your song in a commercial'--which is very, very weird.
"It's still a far cry from what the general public . . . likes. I think the whole Gap thing is basically just a bunch of kids who heard us five years ago when they were in college, and now they've got a really good job somewhere and they're starting to throw their weight around."
Sparhawk and Parker have known each other since fourth grade. The two went to high school together in Minnesota--Sparhawk played on the football team ("It was a small school"), Parker in the marching band. Their upbringing creeps into the music at times. "The weather has a lot to do with it," Sparhawk says. "You haven't really lived until you've been outside with a clear sky at 20 below and everything around you is so . . . brittle . . . and . . . shiny. It's a very strange feeling. Mimi and I grew up in kind of a rural farming area. The Great Lakes are here, which is kind of like being on the ocean . . . except without the tide."
Although Parker and Sparhawk hold as much back in their lyrics as they do in their playing, meaning finds its way in between the gaps as well: "Crushing your skull/ With my warming embrace/ It won't last/ Hold on fast," Parker murmurs in Things We LostĂs ˘Embrace.÷
Both are Mormons, and Sparhawk says their spiritual beliefs are strong and find their way into the music at times. But by no means would he call Low a religious band.
"I'm not going to steer away from religion or spiritual parts of our personalities," he says. "Those things that come out creatively, naturally, I'm fine with those things being there. I think the most deeply spiritual things don't need words. If we came out being very specific, 'Jesus this or that' or 'You're wrong, we're right,' I don't think that speaks to anyone's heart. If people are going to hear it, they'll hear it. I don't for a second want to change . . . life." Slightly in jest he adds, "I think there's a quote from the Bible that says, 'He who has ears, listens.'"
If we're lucky, the crowd at Low's upcoming show will shut up long enough to catch the band's minimalist beauty. And maybe, just maybe, a buzzing fluorescent light.
Low performs at the George Peabody Library (17 E. Mount Vernon Place) on Feb. 22 with Labradford and Sonna. For more information, visit Monozine.com. Tickets are on sale at Reptilian Records, Normals Books and Records, the Ottobar, and through www.insound.com. Disclosure: The show is co-sponsored by City Paper. Melissa Giannini is music writer for the Detroit Metro Times, in which this article originally appeared.
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