Wild Mercury Sound
Low interview, Duluth, February 2011
It is an average February day in Duluth, Northern Minnesota, which means that downtown, on the edge of Lake Superior, the temperature is minus 13 degrees. Writing about his birthplace in Chronicles, Bob Dylan evoked “the slate gray skies and the mysterious foghorns” of Duluth, “the merciless howling winds off the big black mysterious lake... People said that having to go out onto the deep water was like a death sentence.”
Plenty of people who have fled Duluth might consider staying in this small, blasted city to be a death sentence, too. But as we drive near the old Zimmerman residence, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk are telling tales of the winter with the sort of wry, tough pride that seems typical of the locals. There was an old woman, says Parker, who fell on an icy pavement a few weeks back and then had a small mountain of snow dumped on top of her by a passing snowplough. Some hours later a neighbour using a telescope – it’s unclear what kind of magical x-ray telescope – ascertained that someone was buried beneath this new snowdrift. Dug out, the woman proved relatively unscathed. “Just a little hypothermia, I think,” Parker notes, phlegmatically.
Sparhawk, 42, and Parker, 43, have lived in Duluth all of their adult lives, have been a couple since they were 17-year-olds at the same rural Minnesotan high school, and for the last 18 years have been two critical thirds of Low. The rock world has not been historically populated by bands with such a loyalty to their spouses and their hometowns, but then Low are not exactly an ordinary rock band.
For a start, it’s a push to describe much of their 11 albums as rock, since Low’s reputation has been built on a stealthy, hushed inversion of normative rock behaviour. In recent years, Sparhawk (vocals and guitar), Parker (vocals, minimal drumkit) and a succession of bassists (currently a keen, gangling local, Steve Garrington) have fractionally upped the pace and volume, and found their songs covered on Band Of Joy by Robert Plant. Nevertheless, it’s the space and air in their music for which Low have become acclaimed: a setting for Sparhawk and Parker’s harmonies to reverberate in a kind of sepulchral vacuum.
Their faith is unusual, too. The couple are both practising Mormons and, while much of Low’s music comes across as secular, there’s clearly a strong religious dimension to the band. “For me, going like his is spiritual,” says Sparhawk. He mimes the furious strumming of a guitar. “I’ve always recognised the spirituality of music.”
The connections between art, faith and life got a little complicated, however, when Sparhawk had a severe mental breakdown. Six years ago, he closed his eyes, shut his mouth, and became convinced that he was the Anti-Christ, with a crucial role to play in nothing less than the end of the world…
“Hoochie Coochie Man” is playing on the stereo, and Alan Sparhawk is lustily singing along, as Mimi Parker manoeuvres the people carrier – filled with their children’s Harry Potter books and ice hockey sticks, plus the odd drum - into a parking spot outside the Sacred Heart Music Center. A deconsecrated Catholic church, this is where Low recorded C’Mon, their first album in four years and a mightily effective summary of their career thus far. Within C’Mon there are stark and harrowing confessions; disquietingly pretty folk-rock songs; strafed solos from a guesting Nels Cline; and lyrical quotes from the work of a noted gynaecological rapper, Kool Keith (“All you guys out there tryin’ to act like Al Green, you’re all weak,” in the outstanding “Witches”).
Up in a draughty room behind the church organ, though, the pair are talking about the days before Low, when the nine-year-old Sparhawk arrived at Parker’s school in Clearbrook, Minnesota. The Sparhawk family had come from Seattle, via Utah, to Clearwater, the state’s poorest county. About 500 people lived in Clearbrook at the time. The Sparhawks lived on the outskirts of nearby Leonard, population 50.
“It’s a brutal lifestyle,” says Sparhawk, “whether it’s the weather or the farming. If you’re dealing with animals, you’re dealing with life and death. There’s isolation, miserable work, the stress of being a kid growing up in a tough time, in an intense family. We both come from some real characters…”
“Our fathers are crazy,” Parker interjects, laughing.
“Classic fathers who aspire to much and have great potential, but…”
“… Ultimately squander it.”
Sparhawk is as intense as he describes his family to be, though pointedly self-deprecating, while Parker exudes a droll serenity. They finish each other’s sentences and watch each other obsessively, as if the interview is actually between themselves. Parker, it transpires, comes from a partying family, Sparhawk from a Mormon one with a hippyish desire to get back to the land.
At high school, Parker played drum in the marching band, while Sparhawk drifted towards making his own music, buying a bass and an amp from their algebra teacher, a motorcycle-riding lesbian who had formerly been a nun.
By his late teens, Sparhawk had become, by Mormon standards, “A bit of a troublemaker.” While his brother headed off to German to do missionary work for the church, Sparhawk stayed in Minnesota. “I’m very much someone who’s fallen short of what I think is the right path,” he says. “I know I could be a better person.” Eventually, he fetched up in a Duluth band called Zen Identity, sounding like REM and Jane’s Addiction, “like really early Soundgarden, but maybe a little wimpier.”
As that band’s sketchy local career wound down, Sparhawk and Zen Identity’s last bassist, John Nichols, had begun to experiment with music that was “static and still and maybe even quiet.” Borrowing a drum from the local venue where he worked as a runner, Sparhawk convinced his new wife (who had converted to Mormonism when they married in 1990) to join the nascent band. They sent out a few demo tapes, including one to Kramer, who had produced one of their formative influences, Galaxie 500. Relatively quickly, Kramer recommended them to an offshoot of Virgin called Vernon’s Yard, Low borrowed $400 from Parker’s mother to go on tour and, in 1994, they released a debut album.
I Could Live In Hope set the template for Low’s first phase: unflichingly sparse songs, often reductively categorised as ‘sadcore’ or ‘slowcore’ alongside the likes of Codeine and the Red House Painters. Nichols was soon replaced by a doughtier bassist, Zak Sally (who stuck around until 2005), and every record “just did enough,” recalls Parker, “to keep us encouraged and motivated and confident enough to make another.”
A certain pessimism, it transpires, remains a critical part of Low’s make-up. Seventeen years on, they are a respected international band: not huge sellers, perhaps, but one whose practices – “pretty frugal,” admits Parker – mean they’re one of the few comparable bands who make a profit from touring. “The longer you do it,” says Sparhawk, “you start wondering, ‘This is going to be done any time now, isn’t it?’ It’s the fatalist mentality we grew up with – you never know when it’s all gonna go to shit.”
By the turn of the century, Low were comfortably established, thanks to two albums recorded with Steve Albini – Secret Name and Things We Lost In The Fire – which subtly expanded their range and remain, in the view of many fans, their finest work. A Christmas mini-album, uncommonly jaunty in places, found them a berth on daytime British radio, thanks to the forceful proselytising of John Peel. A track from Christmas, “Little Drummer Boy”, was lucratively picked up to soundtrack a Gap advert: “That saved our lives.”
But around the time of Trust (2002) and especially The Great Destroyer (2005, and produced by the Flaming Lips’ maximalist co-conspirator, Dave Fridmann), Sparhawk started wanting to flex his muscles, as if a long-suppressed love of classic rock was suddenly encroaching on a more puritanical indie aesthetic. “I’m a really, really angry adult,” he told the PopMatters website at the time, “I’ve got to let this out because it’s killing me.”
“We were trying to figure out how to be really intense,” says Sparhawk. “I’m getting a little more cocky and accusatory the older I get. I’m running out of time, so I’ve started to get mean.”
It cannot always be easy being in a band with your husband or wife.
“You can’t really draw a line between the business and the marriage,” says Parker.
“The band would not have been if it weren’t for the fact we were married,” adds Sparhawk. “A lot of our stubbornness comes out of being married. Can’t quit the band without quitting the marriage! Can’t quit the band without having to go get a lawyer!”
It cannot always be easy, either, being in a band with a married couple.
“Is it hard to be the bassist in Low?” ponders Sparhawk. “Yeah, I’ll bet it is. We get annoying like parents: ‘Oh, Mom and Dad are fighting again.’ It’s a really weird dynamic, and it can be hard on people.”
He fiddles with a strand of Parker’s hair, just long enough to irritate her. “What are you doing? You’re pulling the hair out of my head…” She catches the irony. “See? That kind of stuff.”
Zak Sally held down the bassist job for over a decade, in spite of quitting for a while in 2003 (he returned to the fold in time for a support tour with Radiohead). When he finally left in 2005 it was due, Sparhawk sighs, to “a combination of things. He had a child coming, he didn’t want to be on the road any more, he’s a graphic artist. And I was sick, on a very profound downhill roll to some mental illness that was very stressful on people. I think that was the last straw. He clearly didn’t want to be around me any more. It’s a sad casualty amongst several that happen when your shit falls apart.”
In May 2005, Alan Sparhawk posted a message on Low’s website, announcing the cancellation of forthcoming dates. “I have not been very mentally stable for the last while,” he wrote, and detailed a revelation he’d had before a photograph of John Peel at the BBC. “I was ashamed to even look into his eyes,” it continued. “In that instant, I knew I was a fool, and that I had become the enemy.” The letter ended with a recommendation to buy the new MIA album.
Sparhawk, it transpired, had been feeling “a little off” since his mid-twenties. When Sally left briefly in 2003, Sparhawk “was getting irrationally angry moments. I remember being on the edge of crying or stabbing someone or something. A lot of it has to do with self-esteem. Some hang-ups about growing up, and different things. Essentially, I became chemically imbalanced and not healthy.”
In a fascinating documentary from 2007, You May Need A Murderer, Sparhawk claimed that “being a drug addict and a fairly devout Mormon doesn’t gel too well.”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily the major problem,” he says now. “It’s not so much an addiction…” Parker just perceptibly stirs. “Well, it depends whether you’re talking to the addict or not. I’m pretty much a daily reefer user, which I was not before I was sick, and I went through several years where I was a lot more open to chemicals that caused me trouble. It’s something that I picked up as I started going crazy. But before that, years ago, I was a drinker, and I remember very specifically realising right away that I was going to be addicted.
“I wouldn’t call myself a drug addict in the classic rock’n’roll, needle-carrying way, but it’s something that has held me back both spiritually and as a whole. I wish I didn’t count on it, because it’s something that I didn’t need to count on before. But then I didn’t need to count on medication before, which I’m on as well.”
Can you explain exactly what happened in 2005?
“There were a couple of years when I was getting, well, people would call it delusional, I guess. I remember we were on tour promoting The Great Destroyer and I wasn’t sleeping, sitting up all night writing stuff in my journal. I had ideas about how to fix irrigation problems, about how to help Africa, ideas about all these different recordings we were gonna do.”
On tour in Europe, with their children Hollis and Cyrus in tow, Sparhawk began skipping his medication and ranting onstage. When the band returned to Duluth, he went with a Mormon friend to a cabin out of town, where, he says, “it escalated. It got really spiritual.”
“I essentially came to the conclusion that there was something cosmic going on and I was this character in what was about to go on, the end of the world. It had to do with realising that I was the Anti-Christ, that I was this lightning rod of what it means to be a flawed man. I closed my eyes and I stopped speaking for a couple of days. I was going to stay there and wait because Christ was coming, and I somehow had to exist in the earth for him to exist.
“So yeah, it was getting really weird and my friend dragged me back to town and convinced me to go to hospital. I went in for a while, and then I opened my eyes, and then I started talking again. In many ways, it was the most powerful experience of my life. Unfortunately, it was also crazy.”
Sparhawk, one suspects, doesn’t regard the experience as entirely negative and delusional. Nevertheless, he talks about how his recovery was as “violent and damaging” as his breakdown. “You’re still sick, but now you know you’re fucking sick!” In time, he began working in earnest as frontman of another, explicitly rockier band, Retribution Gospel Choir, and returned to Low for 2007’s Drums And Guns, a morally fierce indictment of consumerism, the Iraq war and the Bush administration in general.
“I was thinking, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” he remembers. “’This douchebag is running this shit and we’re at war.’ People weren’t doing anything; what happened to the bomb-throwers from the ‘60s?”
Drums And Guns – electronically fidgety, packed with dread – is a frequently unnerving record. Plenty of musicians use the idea of the End Times as a creative metaphor or an affectation. There are few, though, who’ve made a record…
“And actually believe it,” Sparhawk interrupts. “And address it as a real thing.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “Yeah…”
Initially, C’Mon sounds like a more peaceful record. The first few songs have a warm, welcoming feel, and the songs mostly concern themselves with the struggles and consolations of a long-term relationship. “The songs are like us talking to each other,” says Sparhawk, sat in the building where most of it was recorded.
Parker’s new songs generally seem confused but reconciling. As the album goes on, though, Sparhawk’s are increasingly brutal and pared down: “$20” is a declaration of unmediated love, but it’s delivered at the pace of a dirge, and with an edge that could easily be mistaken for rancour. The stunned, Neil Youngish “Witches”, meanwhile, features Sparhawk referencing a story from his childhood: waking from a bad dream about witches, his father hands him a baseball bat and sends him back to confront them. It’s hard not to see it as an allegory for Sparhawk’s ongoing recovery; about not just facing up to fears, but actively fighting them.
“Recovery is sometimes ugly,” he says, “and you have bad days from time to time.” Sparhawk now goes running to channel his energies, but there are still days like the one in 2008 when he claimed onstage at the End Of The Road Festival that, “All the people I love told me they hated me today,” then viciously threw his guitar into the crowd. “That,” he says now, “is definitely one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
“I can’t convince people I’m healthy and it’s OK to let me get onstage again, that I won’t kill anybody or something,” he continues, as a few months of supporting C’Mon stretch out in front of the band. “I guess I’m taking a gamble and hoping that good comes from being able to do what I think is beautiful.”
Maybe it comes down to something he was trying to articulate earlier. If he equates creativity with faith, it’s wrong to repress it.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been given this opportunity, there’s a responsibility. But at the same time, I’m still just the 14-year-old kid listening to Van Halen and saying, ‘Wow, this would be great!’”