Cranking up with Low
By Joshua Klein
A lot of musicians can point to one band that changed their life. Alan
Sparhawk, singer and guitarist for the Duluth, Minn., group Low, can point
to two: the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. Even more significantly,
he heard them each for the first time on the same night.
"I had been listening to a lot of punk music, but I was looking for
something deeper," Sparhawk recalls. "I had a friend with a great record
collection, and one night he played Joy Division and the Velvet Underground
for me. Those bands came at a perfect, critical moment.
"I'm just glad no one played, you know, Bob Marley's 'Legend.' That might
have changed the band's history."
From its 1994 debut "I Could Live In Hope" through its sixth and latest
album "Trust," Low has made slow, austere and unfailingly beautiful music
that might best be described as a combination of the two above bands.
Drummer Mimi Parker and bassist Zak Sally could be the most minimal rhythm
section in rock, and Sparhawk himself prefers picking quietly to pummeling
the crowd with noise.
Rather than tailor their music to suit popular tastes, the band has earned
a sizeable following simply by sticking to their distinctively downbeat
sound. "There are always a few people doing that kind of thing," says Margo
Timmins of the band Cowboy Junkies, who started out making music not unlike
Low's but has since upgraded to a more expansive sonic palette. "But they
do it really well."
In fact, sometimes Low does it too well. At a live performance on the BBC
two years ago, the band grew so subdued that the station's computer
confused the song for dead air. "We played 'John Prine' [from "Trust'],"
Sparhawk says, "and at the end it got so quiet that some Euro-dance music
automatically kicked in. It took them a few minutes to get the radio
station back on line."
"We were only the second band to ever knock the BBC off the air," he says
with some pride.
Low's live shows used to be notoriously confrontational, as the more people
talked, the quieter Low played. Sparhawk and the band looked at it as an
important learning experience. "We toured for years where we didn't expect
any attention," Sparhawk admits. "We figured, 'Hey, three or four people
here are actually enjoying it,' which made it worth doing. We didn't get
all huffy and storm off stage. Everyone needs to get stuff thrown at them
at some point."
Nowadays, despite sold-out crowds, people tend to remain respectfully quiet
at Low shows.
"It's a little creepy," says Sparhawk. "Sometimes the show actually feels a
little more exciting and edgier when people are a little more
uncomfortable. It makes things more interesting."
While Low hasn't deviated far from its signature sound, the band has subtly
changed over the course of its six albums. "We built the band on rules, and
lived and died by that for the first four or five years," Sparhawk says.
"We liked the tension from forcing ourselves into this unnatural way of
"Now we're exploding as opposed to imploding, plus Mim and Zak are letting
me take a guitar solo every once and a while."