Duluth trio Low has been tagged as "that slow, quiet band" for most of its 14-year career, but that's only part of the story. On recent albums like 2005's The Great Destroyer and the new Drums And Guns, Low has found ways to capture a bigger, denser sound without sacrificing a minimalist ethic. The A.V. Club spoke with singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk, drummer (and Sparhawk's wife) Mimi Parker, and new bassist Matt Livingston about Drums' take on violence, the band's 2006 hiatus, and the experience of eating an entire cake in three minutes.
The A.V. Club: Every song on the new album is, in some way, about violence and war.
Alan Sparhawk: It's not really intentional. I think we recognized that a lot of the songs were dealing with that as we were getting ready to record. I remember being somewhat surprised afterwards.
Mimi Parker: It's a reflection on what's going on, maybe. [Laughs.]
AS: It's kind of impossible to simplify it and be able to point to things like, "OK, this influenced this, and this song's this, and this must have been because of this experience." It comes together as it comes together, and normally I tend to write songs a certain way. Over the years, we trust that whatever we come up with is going to be something we care about enough that when we record and play it, we'll still like it.
AVC: Did global politics play at all into the inspiration for the album, though?
AS: It must have. There are definitely songs in there that as I was writing them, I was getting images or thoughts along that line. I have a hard time calling it a political or social statement; I feel like it's kind of beyond that. It's more questions like, what is man, and who are we that we kill ourselves and kill each other and wreck everything, and is there any way to get beyond that? Is there any way to answer that, and is there any way to go beyond it if there is no answer? Some of the songs are angry. "Murderer," for sure, was influenced by world situations. I remember watching a documentary and being very angry about it. It was about this violent gang in Mexico that tortured women and just… I don't want to go into it. But it just makes you so angry. You're thinking, "What would I do in the presence of these people?" I hope the song is larger than my little petty feeling. But if there's any specific example from the record, I guess that song is the most obviously influenced by seeing something that was going on in the world and opening up a window to this whole question of, "What happens when you feel justified so much that you're willing to come before God and stand as a murderer or someone who will exact vengeance on someone else?"
AVC: Like you say, the album doesn't have a lot of direct political commentary; you don't mention Bush by name. It seems to be more about the metaphysics of violence.
AS: I hope so. I really think the problem is unendingly larger than just George Bush. He's certainly a factor that has the power to change things—his removal or not existing anymore would certainly change things. But I think focusing one's frustration onto something as simple as one person or one philosophy, or one group of people, is grossly inadequate.
AVC: Drums And Guns is less loud than Great Destroyer, but there's still an edginess, maybe even a harshness, that makes it distinct from the earlier Low records. What kind of sound were you going for?
MP: We knew we wanted it to sound different than Great Destroyer and Trust, but honestly we went in just with that thought. It was almost like a hunt-and-peck. We brought out a couple machines we had that we're not really masters of, to see what we could come up with. I guess it might sound harsh or maybe even, what's the word? Amateur-ish, maybe.
AS: The way we put it together was very simple. We were working with just a few elements. We've come to an age where any sound is possible, and you have immense control digitally over what something's going to sound like. Unfortunately, I think that process tends to create a certain kind of music, and the process seems to dictate what you come up with. And I think that the fact that we've never really been record-on-the-computer or editing people… Some people said, "Oh, you've made an electronic record." Well, we don't know how to make electronic music. The way people make electronic music is vastly different than the way we did this record. Traditionally on a Low record, we would set up our live thing [in the studio], play and then embellish it, and then mix it. This time, we didn't do that. We just said, "Well, we've got to record this song, but we can't use the instruments that we had been using up until now."
AVC: Looking back on when Low began in the early '90s, how do you think you have grown as performers?
AS: I think we're pretty much exactly the same. By the time we were done with our third tour, we were pretty much playing the same way. Just as shaky, dropped just as many clams, and we fight about the same exact crap.
MP: Yeah, but that's just because we're married. It's okay to fight about the same crap.
AS: [Laughs.] What does that say about us?
AVC: Well, take the satirical sense of humor you display in the video for "Breaker," where you eat an entire cake in three minutes. It doesn't seem like something the 1994 version of Low would have done.
AS: You do it this long and your perspective changes, you know? There's lots of stuff that you wouldn't have caught me doing 14 years ago. We've always had the same sense of humor. Maybe it's just taken us this long to carve out enough space to feel like we can be funny with it without being detrimental. You can make jokes with the language that you have made. If you take someone else's language and try to make jokes, it usually doesn't go so well.
MP: We're bolder. We're less cautious about things like that. When we first started, we were more concerned about smaller details that we thought were bigger than they were. And now, we just realize that no one pays any attention to that crap. No one hears that. [Laughs.] Let's just go out there and have fun.
AS: Yeah, let's have fun. Let's play something that's interesting. Yeah, we probably wouldn't have done that in '94.
MP: I didn't bake as many cakes back then. That's why. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who came up with the idea for the video?
MP: I came up with the idea of eating a whole cake during the chorus of a song, and we're not sure exactly how we got to [the next point].
AS: It was just an idea. "Let's sit down and clap while one of us eats a whole cake." Videos have always sort of been a fun thing for us. It's always like the simplest idea. Our first video, for "Words," the idea was, "Hey, let's have us pushing a boat across the ice." And that was it. Or "Let's have a guy handing out balloons and no one will take them." That was the "Shame" video. "Let's have us playing and a bunch of crap is falling on us in slow motion." The one from Great Destroyer was: I start singing, and someone comes up and hits me in the face. And that was it. That was that idea.
MP: Apparently we're getting to the "torturing Alan" years of the band. Slapping him and forcing to him eat large quantities of food. Next time he's gonna wrestle a shark. [Laughs.] It was all hinging on whether he could eat that cake or not.
AS: It's a serious song, and I felt it was sort of appropriate. As long as we did it straight-on and didn't try to dick around with it too much, I thought it would work. As obtuse and absurd as it is, the simplicity can sort of find a way to work with the song. Plus, I'm wearing a Czech Border Patrol jacket. It makes me look like a Nazi.
AVC: You published an online tour diary about your shows with Radiohead in 2003, and wrote about dealing with playing larger venues for the first time. Was that experience a factor in the louder direction?
AS: Maybe part of it. It was more just the whole thing of, "Oh, we're outdoors in this big arena with 10,000 people." I don't know, I don't really see that we got louder at any [one] time, necessarily.
MP: I think it was pretty gradual.
AS: Our first two records were super mellow, but we always add elements live. It's not something we really thought about.
MP: I think when you started playing with The [Black Eyed] Snakes, I think that was a big change for you, because I think you started playing louder with those guys. I think once you were there, it was hard to go back.
AS: There's something a little bit different that happens when you're moving that much air. Something happens with the guitars and the way they interact with the air, and I think we started experimenting with that with Low. You've got to realize, on our first record we had a song called "Lullaby," and on our first tours that was the finale of the set—10 or 12 minutes long, three chords over and over. So it's not new to us, really, but I guess peoples' perception is that… The problem is that the catch phrase is "slow and quiet."
AVC: You've kind of been fighting that perception your whole career.
AS: Not fighting it, but people were just going with that instead of the fact that, from the beginning, we've been manipulating and experimenting with loud and quiet, but somehow we got tagged as quiet. I guess it's just easier. We never really consciously went one way or the other. I think we're playing quieter now.
AVC: You view your music as a process of gradual experimentation. But of course it's not always easy to see that from an outside perspective, because a year or more goes by between people hearing new songs, and when they do hear them it feels like a new chapter. It's easy to assume that a new sound must have been a very conscious decision.
AS: With each [album] you're sort of saying "Here's where we're at with this." And it's not so much intentional. There's artists who do that, I'm sure. They'll look back and say, "Well, judging by the classic rock schedule here, we should be doing an acoustic record about now." And, man, after you've done a few records, there's definitely the temptation to look back and go, "Okay, what have we done now? What's the next part of the story that we're saying with this record?" I guess we've just never gone to that territory. Let's write some songs and see what we're supposed to say, and find out what we're going to say. Sometimes the picture dawns on you somewhere toward finishing it.
AVC: In 2005, you had to take some time off due to mental-health issues. How would you describe what was going on in your personal life during that period?
AS: Well, I was getting sick as we were making The Great Destroyer. And touring afterward, I was getting worse, spiraling downward with mental illness. I was very depressed, malnourished, stressed, and delusional. And I wasn't sleeping. It was a lot of things. It was everything sort of crashing, and helping each other crash at the same time. After we got back and realized we weren't gonna tour and cancelled some things, I went to the hospital, and have been recovering since.
MP: We'll let you know when he's done. [Laughs.]
AS: When I die, everything will be fixed. [Laughs.]
AVC: That sort of thing is always a constant process.
MP: I'd say life is a constant process, you know? Whatever your circumstances. You just try to do the best you can with whatever you've got going on.
AVC: Did that experience influence the new record?
AS: I suppose so. The way there and the way back certainly had its impact. You don't do anything when you're really sick. You don't come up with stuff. You know, there were no lyrics scrawled in the cold hospital bathroom that later turned into ballads or anything like that. It's more just, you're sick and you don't do anything. And then you start getting better, and sometimes the frustration of that makes you run to music even more. My perception of what is satisfying, and what I think my role is in what we do and the music we make is different now. Any experience like that is going to really ruffle your feathers, and then re-tool the way you see things around you. I don't know, I wish there was a particular anecdote or particular thing to say about what was going on.
MP: It's kind of like that question, "Does Duluth influence your music? Does where you grew up? Does the weather?" Sure, yeah. I don't know how, but yeah. You can't help but be affected by it.
AVC: You also spent some time in Africa last year doing charity work with the Maasai School Project. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
AS: We have a friend who's been going over there over the years, and he's gotten to know this village. We were aware of his work and wanted to help him. We were going to do these Christmas shows, and we thought, "This is a Christmas show, let's do it for a charity." So we did the shows, and they came back and said that with the money we'd made, they could build a whole building. Which was a surprise, because it was only $5,000. It was as easy as that. And when I went over to visit them, it was most of the way done. It was very exciting. They're done with it now. It was just sort of a simple thing, but the grandness of it was interesting. It's the most far-reaching, and at the same time one of the most intimate things we've ever been involved with. It's the farthest from what I thought I'd ever do with my life when I was young.
AVC: Since Drums And Guns is so much about man's inhumanity to man, going to Africa seems like it might have made you think about injustice.
AS: There are a lot of issues there, and a lot of opportunity for the West to do good. I'm sure I'm not the first person to say that there's so much we can do. There's certainly something about the experience of being there and interacting with people, and seeing a part of the world that's so far away from your own.
AVC: Your side project Retribution Gospel Choir recently released a tour EP. Any plans to do a full album?
AS: I would like to. We have some songs, and we've been doing a lot more dub music live and experimenting with some recordings. It'll be probably summer before we get some recording done, because Low's going to be pretty busy. But we'd like to get out and play some more. There's some interesting things going on in the air when we're playing. It's strange, but I like it.
AVC: It's been interesting to see another side of you come out with the side projects, and how Low has been kind of moving more toward Retribution and Black Eyed Snakes territory since those projects began.
AS: I don't know, what have you been doing, Mim?
MP: Yeah, it's all me. That second cymbal I brought on really changed the dynamics.
AS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I've definitely learned, the more you play guitar and the more you play live, the more you learn about the possibilities with those things. Volume has its place.
MP: I don't think Alan likes to admit that.
AS: No, I know they influence things. I'm sure they do.
MP: What can you do?
AS: Exactly, what can you do? We wrote all our ballads in the beginning. [Laughs.]