Low’s Never-ending Climb

Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. Photo: Nathan Keay

A family as much as a band, Duluth indie-rock veterans Low had already planned on having a quiet year when the music industry ground to a halt last March. The tour for 2018’s exquisite, experimental Double Negative had wrapped in 2019, and downtime was in order. But who could plan for the indefinite stasis of a pandemic? The band, which presently comprises the husband-and-wife duo of singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk and singer-percussionist Mimi Parker, could only remain idle for so long. In the spring of 2020, Low got to work with producer BJ Burton — who’d helped guide the band through the synthetic landscapes and electronic accents of Double Negative and 2015’s Ones and Sixes — and initiated “It’s Friday, I’m in Low,” a weekly Instagram Live concert series where the band tackles songs from every corner of a catalogue that includes ’90s classics like Long Division and The Curtain Hits the Cast and ’00s gems like Things We Lost in the Fire. Hey What, the 13th album from Low, isn’t your typical latter-day indie-rock offering. It picks up where Double Negative left off, pushing the ambient, droning guitar sounds of the last album even further out, with Alan and Mimi’s crisp vocal interplay acting as an anchor. Nearly 30 years along, Low is still reinventing itself. I spoke to Alan and Mimi in September about minimalism, Minnesota, and balancing family, work, church, and the pandemic.

I feel like I know the story of every album and every baby that I see nowadays: “We were all stuck inside.” What are the specific origins of Hey What?
Mimi Parker: Honestly, I feel like we kind of surprised ourselves because I don’t think we really thought, We’re going to release a pandemic record.

AS: We just thought, I guess this is going on awhile. Maybe we should try to figure out how to record.

MP: Do something.

AS: Sometimes, it’s kind of automatic. You get done touring a record, and maybe you got a couple songs. You’re like, Maybe we’ll work on some songs. Maybe we’ll do another record. After a while, you have 13.

Were there unique difficulties involved in navigating a pandemic as both a band and a family?
AS: Oh, for sure. Our daughter got COVID. We were all testing. It was kind of right when it was really the worst in our community, and she ended up catching it. She knew who she got it from. She knew a person who tested positive, so she was able to get tested right away, and we were able to quarantine. It ended up that she was the only one that got it, and we were able to keep it contained. But, I don’t know. I think because we have family, it was good. I was on the phone with friends stuck in their apartments in New York for months … literally, just totally alone. That was quite a feat. We were lucky to have each other.

We’d already kind of established a little bit of a work style with BJ, such that we could go in for short periods of time, work on stuff, and then go and be away from the studio for a month or two and think about what we’re doing, maybe write some more, then go back in and keep working. As far as the pandemic and recording, between testing and limiting exposure, sometimes only one or two people can be in the studio at a time. We did it piece by piece, real careful.

When things first started shutting down, musicians doing livestreams were a lifeline. It restored a feeling of normalcy to see music happening, even if you weren’t in the same room. How was that experience for you?
AS: At first, we were a little reluctant. We kind of felt like, This isn’t going to last long. There were other artists that seemed like they were good at it. I think Jeff Tweedy immediately had something. Like, wow, he’s got his kids and he’s set up for that, so we’re thinking, Ah, maybe that’s not us. I think our manager came to us, and was like, “This might be a cool thing. I think your fans would really like it. You should do a little something.” We thought, Okay, maybe. Once we start, we’re getting emails, letters, and messages from people who are really having a hard time, telling us how the music is really helping them.

MP: It was great for us because it gave us something to do, for one. And we’d written these songs, so it gave us a chance to play them.

AS: Try ‘em out. There’s something about being able to play something in front of someone when it’s still new. It kind of solidifies it in your mind, You gain some confidence. We went through our whole catalogue. It was a good challenge to go over our old stuff. We’d have to sit down every week, pick songs, rehearse a little bit, sing. That’s the thing with things shutting down and going home. Man, a week goes by fast, a month goes by, a half a year goes by really fast. Artists and musicians, people, they’re used to engaging that thing almost every day. You take that away, and it’s just really disorienting. I remember having to really adjust my perspective about what am I doing. What is my motivation? How do I think each day to where I can then actually get some stuff done? Because when you don’t have a goal or some deadline to meet, it’s surprising how motivation falls away.

You tapped BJ Burton as producer on the last three albums. I think that collaboration ushered in a radical change in the sound of the band. In my head, I see your trajectory as this earthy thing that kind of took flight and has now reached outer space. What would you say he’s brought to the picture that put you in a different orbit?
AS: We’ve been lucky to have the time. Most bands only get a few years. I think just about anybody, given the opportunities we’ve had, would’ve been able to start from nothing and take three decades to figure it out, the technology and stuff. It’s a good journey.

I remember when I met BJ, I kind of got a feel for who he was and his tendencies, and then looking at some of the work that he’d done already, just that was inspiring. I remember going, Wow, this guy really seems like he can really get out … I mean, he does hip-hop. He does this stuff with Justin Vernon. He’s doing EDM stuff.

I find it fascinating that he’s worked with Charli XCX, Taylor Swift, and you. That’s a reach.
AS: That’s what was exciting. Wow, this guy’s really got a really wide palette, and he seems to be kind of interested in us. Wow, that’s inspiring. In some ways, it kind of gave you the permission to step up to it a little bit, like, We could work with this guy. If we work with this guy, we’d really be jumping off a cliff here. We could really go deep here, couldn’t we? I think it gave us license. Of course, then, once we did the one record with him, we got a little feel for where he goes. By the end of the record, the parts that were our favorites were parts where we really let ourselves run free from our expectations. That dictates the next thing. So with Double Negative, we definitely were going in like, Let’s really use the power of this guy that we’re working with and this perspective and let’s really try to forge some new ground. It’s nice having someone inspiring, someone you can trust, and it’s not so much that they’re making all the decisions. It’s more you trust that they’re going to see what you’re doing and understand and be able to run with it. When you say, “I need this to be kind of like you climbed up a mountain and now it’s a volcano,” having someone who knows what plug-in to pull for that, having someone who knows about or can relate to that kind of language but then also has the technical ability to make that materialize has really been powerful.

I don’t know. I think he likes working with us because we’re a pretty open slate, even though we’re kind of a specific band and we’re known for a certain thing, there’s a lot about us that’s really up in the air. We’re really an open cable for how you do rhythm. Sure, I play guitar, but I’m really excited about finding sounds that don’t sound like the guitar.

MP: If there’s drums on it, there’s drums on it.

AS: Yeah, Mimi’s not going to be precious about whether there’s drums.

MP: I guess the one steadfast thing through the whole band has obviously been our voices.

What’s fascinating about Hey What that’s different from the last one is that on the last one there was some really out-there vocal manipulation happening, but on this one, your voices are front and center, and pure, I think.
AS: You hear that. That’s good. Most people didn’t notice that. That was something we were conscious of for sure going into it. It kind of happened by accident. We were just doing scratch vocals and started to be like, Wow, this is a really solid sound. With Double Negative, there was a conscious discussion: “How do we make the vocals sometimes very obvious, sometimes far away, sometimes indiscernible?” But this one definitely has a different attitude. Glad that came through.

You talked about climbing up a mountain and suddenly discovering it was a volcano, and that’s interesting because with these last two albums, there’s definitely the sense that you’re putting a song together, and then you’re having fun destroying it painting a still life and then burning it. 
AS: Absolutely. At this point, we will write a song and I can strum it on guitar, and we can sing it and stuff, but the immediate next thought is Can’t wait to bring it to the studio and find new sounds and figure out a different way to do it. Yeah, it’s fun. Any artist from day one can just jump in and have this full palette or whatever, but I think there’s something about starting from being really naïve, almost 30 years ago, and slowly learning about the process, and learning from all the different people that we worked with, and then getting to a point where now we can take the lid off and feel like we have a handle on what we’re doing.

How much of that comes from just hunting for new gadgets?
AS: There’s a lot of “Let’s just noodle around and come up with sounds,” and stuff like that, and sometimes that’ll work. But having a song and being like, “Okay, here’s a song, can I make this weird noisemaker do a sound that will make the song?” I don’t know. That’s kind of the only way to describe it. That’s what it is. The odds and ends — technology sometimes is just a great little switch to help you think differently. You go up to the guitar store like, Oh, this is a cool little pedal, and you bring it home. It can be an inspiration. Sometimes, you can get a song out of a certain piece of gear.

You spoke with The Wire before Double Negative was released and said, “There are negative things going on, and we’re reacting negatively.” Now, things are way worse worldwide. The lyrics of Hey What are full of unnamed adversaries and this heaviness. Characters seem to be nearing the end of their ropes. Is that just the weight of 2020 bearing down through your writing?
AS: It must be. We don’t sit down and intentionally go, “I’m going to write about this or that.” But time and time again, whenever we’ll write and we’ll do a record, we look back and go, “I see that this song is about this.” Yeah, we definitely resigned ourselves to the fact that the music’s going to be a reaction to whatever’s going on and what we’ve been experiencing in life. I don’t know. You can’t fight it, really, and that’s fine. I guess, ultimately, when we’re highlighting or illustrating or calling attention to heavier things, the hope is that we’re coming away from it with something positive — not necessarily that we’re giving the answers. It’s like therapy. You go to therapy, and sometimes all you do is just talk. Sometimes, when you’re sitting down to figure something out on the guitar, you struggle. I’m not getting anywhere. It’s not working. I’m almost getting worse. You got to remember that the next time you pick up that guitar, sure enough, you’ll be able to play it. All that time that you thought there wasn’t progress happening and you weren’t processing anything, you actually were. Sometimes, just engaging the problem, even though you don’t fix it, you walk away a little better. Sometimes, you go into therapy and you just talk and you’re like, “Wow, this is frustrating. All I did was complain about stuff.” But then the rest of the week went great because you were actually able to get that stuff off your shoulders and process it, even though processing it sometimes looks ugly.

MP: So maybe that’s what our music is.

People are still filling up venues to see you, and you’re making interesting changes. In the past, you’ve named David Bowie as an early inspiration, and I’m wondering if this band’s commitment to change over time is a function in having grown up studying a master of it.
AS: Bowie was great with that. He even got away with pop stardom in the ‘80s there and still floated into the ‘90s and the 21st century with just the deepest integrity. I couldn’t begin to compare to David Bowie. There’s times when I looked up to Neil Young and the way he’s carved out a style of music that he could play until he’s 105 and it still looks right.

Speaking of Neil, who are your guitar inspirations? I feel like I heard a lot of Neil Young in the last Retribution Gospel Choir album.
AS: Yeah, Neil Young. I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or something, but there’s just something about that ragged, fried-out amp, mangled-strings sound — that imperfect transcendence that the guitar wants to make. As a kid, I was also a big U2 fan. There’s stuff about the Edge, echo and texture and the attack, using simple chords to build a song. There was something about him that was a big influence. I’ll say Jimi Hendrix, even though it’s too holy to say that you’re even trying to replicate it. Also this guy Marc Ribot, he’s in New York. He’s played on a bunch of different things. In the ‘80s, he played with Tom Waits and different people — that very fragmented, broken guitar sound is him. That’s always my favorite sound: Marc Ribot playing a guitar that he found in a dumpster.

How much of the open space and patience in your sound is Minnesota bleeding through? Do you think your background and your surroundings ever come through musically? 
AS: Yeah, there’s something about this space. We grew up in a rural, pretty economically ground-down community, and the winters were long and hard. There’s something about the darkness in the season that maybe pushes you further into your cave, psychologically and physically.

MP: There’s also [Lake Superior], too. We’ve got a pretty great view of the lake. It’s open, just endless. It looks like the sea.

Is Hey What your first album created as sort of a duo?
AS: Yeah.

MP: We did that Murderer EP.

AS: Yeah, it was a little EP 12, 13, 14 years ago that was just us two together.

Is it the bassist curse again? You’ve had a few bassists.
AS: In Spinal Tap, it’s the drummer, right? The drummer explodes. For us, the bass player eventually gets tired of being on the road and has a life to live and a family to be with.

MP: We’ve had each other the whole time. But it’s stressful, life on the road.

AS: Since we’re always the writers, it’s nice to have a third person, and BJ is good with that, as far as the interplay. Sometimes, creating conversation needs three people. There’s something about that. With two people, it’s always like, “Well, I’ve got my tendencies, you’ve got your tendencies.” It’s always going to fall a certain way. But having a third person there to put some depth on that, like, “Okay, now are we sure, okay, now let’s really make a group decision here,” that’s been really important to us.

I was talking to some friends who grew up LDS about a schism in the church since leadership got behind vaccines and masks. There’s been a lot of blowback over that. I’m wondering how you feel about it as members of the church.
AS: We are very pro-vaxx and pro-mask. It’s sad to say, yes, the more religious end of the population maybe has a little higher numbers as far as being more conspiratorial and anti-whatever. Going to church, the leadership is saying, “Wear a mask,” but there are people who do not wear masks. I have to admit, it’s definitely been a heavy conversation that we’ve had. It changes the way you think about people. It’s hard to be like, “We’re brothers and sisters and we’re on the same page. You heard the same stories and had the same lessons that I did, but apparently you came up with this.” That tendency, that human desire to not be told what to do and to feel like you are in control, man, that’s powerful. It’s sad. I have to admit there’s times when I think, Wow, I wish the church was even more adamant. I wish the leadership came out even harder and said, “Hey, this is serious. You guys are killing each other by not doing this.” In some ways, it kind of also doesn’t surprise me.

MP: Well, the problem is that this became a political thing when it should not have been a political thing. It’s life and death, health. So your actions —

AS: — are protecting other people. Or your actions are causing the suffering or safety of other people.

It’s frustrating seeing people in religious communities being loud and wrong about public health. In the grand scheme of the zillion things wrong right now, there are bigger issues, but that one’s been really frustrating for me to watch.
AS: It’s a test of people’s faith, too. No matter what side you’re on, it’s really shaking people’s faith, I know.

And it’s testing the idea that personal freedom, no matter the costs, is the best route for everyone.
MP: Right. They’re forgetting all the things that are put into place that are limiting your freedoms but are protecting others, and those are real obvious things, but for some reason this is not to them.

Low still exists nearly 30 years later, which is unexpected for a band that maybe stumbled on the idea of confrontationally slow rock music at a time when there weren’t many precursors. How’d that happen?
AS: I had been playing in bands [since the] late ‘80s/early ‘90s, pursuing that “maybe we can get on a label” thing. When we started, we would talk about minimalism, and there were certain artists like Joy Division, Velvet Underground, and newer stuff like Galaxie 500. There’s something about songs that are right on the edge of disturbingly minimal or maybe almost too slow and a little bit trying. If you’d been to a few shows around then, everyone saw there were bands that were kind of disturbing and weird.There was a band called Beat Happening, and I saw them in 1990 or 1991 or something in an art gallery with like ten other people there. I just remember it wasn’t contrary, but they were creating this atmosphere that was … I don’t want to say uncomfortable. It was weird. It’s kind of like this cryptic music. You were playing, and things were a little out of tune, and the guy singing is real monotone, singing low, like, Are they singing children’s songs? Should I run away, or do I stay because this is the weirdest thing I’ve seen in a long time? I just remember that feeling, almost like fight or flight.

MP: It really made an impression.

AS: If we were going to do something, I liked the idea of it pushing that edge a little bit, pushing patience. Maybe some people were going to be so uncomfortable they left the room. People were excited about music. They were going to shows sight unseen; the internet hadn’t hit yet. People were just going out to see whatever. “Who’s playing in town? Let’s go see what’s going on.” So it was kind of a great time to try crazy ideas because some people really picked up on that.

And there was a feeding frenzy at the labels, who were looking for rock bands. Did you ever think this thing might go mainstream?
AS: I mean, ‘94, ‘95, there was all kinds of stuff going on, indie bands coming up and going mainstream. But, nah, we knew we always were a little off the beaten path. I guess I believed that the music world was big enough that if you could do something weird and have a limited audience and certain people that got it, it’d still be fine. Stuff I was into was always stuff that most people didn’t like and kind of just thrived in a small community, so we were fine with that. The whole scene, everybody was kind of … that was a thought that was in the back of every band’s mind, like, Okay, what are we doing? Is somebody going to come along and give us a million dollars or something? It was happening all the time.

MP: I mean, in a way, it kind of saved our asses, to tell you the truth — the fact that we were not successful.

AS: If we were and had appealed somehow in the late ‘90s, we probably would’ve died out.

MP: I’m sure we would be around. We’d be trying to replicate that success our whole career. That, honestly, has allowed us to do whatever we want. It’s given us freedom to surprise ourselves and hopefully others, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Low’s Never-ending Climb