It’s the day before Low hit the road for their first tour in more than two years, but the duo are feeling unusually calm. “There’s this German word for the anxiety that occurs before a long trip,” says Mimi Parker, on a Zoom call from Duluth. “But since we haven’t toured for so long, I don’t have that anxiety as severe. Maybe I’ve forgotten how bad it is!”
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Her husband and bandmate Alan Sparhawk is consoling himself with the idea that because audiences have been so starved of live music, they’ll happily forgive any sloppiness. “I went to a show the other day in town,” he reveals. “It was just some friends who were doing a Van Halen cover band for somebody’s birthday party, and I was really pretty ecstatic!”
Sparhawk has recently been moonlighting in a covers band himself, playing the songs of Neil Young and Crazy Horse with the group Tired Eyes: “It’s a very raggedy four-piece band, and it’s really fun.” Parker, however, has declined the opportunity to get involved, preferring to stay home and watch the Winter Olympics. “We used to pretend Mim had a band called Rubber Snake,” confides Sparhawk. Sadly, though, no lost recordings by this tantalising side-project are believed to exist. “Definitely lost!” she laughs.
When you first got together as a couple, was there any inkling that you’d also be making music together for the rest of your lives?
David Moss, Carshalton, Surrey
SPARHAWK: I don’t know. I mean, we bonded originally on music. We were the two people in our school who were into weirder music: Mim had Hüsker Dü and REM, and I had Sex Pistols, The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees.
PARKER: We knew that music was important. I had a musical family – I would sing, my sister and my mom played guitar and piano and accordion. And Alan’s dad was musically inclined. So in terms of us being in a band, not right away, but the odds were pretty high.
How long was it before audiences stopped heckling you to play louder/faster?
Mary Levitz, Glasgow
PARKER: I think they might still do that!
SPARHAWK: Early on, of course, we were always shocking people. We were thrown on with whatever bands were there, it’s kind of a crapshoot. And so a lot of times, you’d get indifference and people going to the bar halfway through the first song. And some hecklers and drunkies deciding that they’ve come up with something clever to yell at you.
PARKER: And honestly, I think if we were to open for certain bands I’m sure we’d still get that. But once we started doing our own shows and people were specifically coming to see us, for the most part they were pretty nice. We were never precious about it, we knew that we were not going to appeal to the majority of people.
SPARHAWK: We were coming at it from a little bit of a contrary, punk angle – ‘Yeah, well, we don’t care what you think – they didn’t like The Velvet Underground at first either!’
You’ve always been a band who’ve made the most from minimal resources or technology. How do the last two albums fit into that?
Alex McCloud, Belfast
SPARHAWK: I would say, actually, what you’re hearing on the last record is a lot simpler than maybe it sounds. And I think that comes out of experience, and trusting yourself. We’ve been lucky to be in a position where we’ve always been able to push out as far as we want. There’s never been any obligation to stay a certain way or gravitate toward a certain way, either from labels or from us or anyone.
PARKER: We have stayed with a pretty minimal approach. On Hey What there’s huge, big sounds but honestly there’s not really even percussion – the guitar is played through a synth, and then there’s vocals. After maybe the third or fourth record we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we should add strings, we should add, add, add.’ And then after that, we decided to start taking things out again. And that’s where our mindset has stayed. From the get-go it’s always been very naked, very minimal, just three of us on stage. Maybe someday we’ll surround ourselves with musicians. We joke about it sometimes: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there were two or three more people with us so we could relax a bit more?’ But anyway…
Every time “Days Like These” comes on my playlist at home, my wife thinks the speakers have blown. Did you get any similar complaints, and was that the idea?
Andy Brammel, Northumberland
SPARHAWK: Yeah. Some of the fun and excitement is in pushing the front edge of what’s possible, sonically.
PARKER: I think after our last couple of records, people that know us are not surprised. It’s the partners and the spouses and the mates that are like, ‘What the hell is this?’
SPARHAWK: And of course, secretly, it’s a little proud moment: ‘Yes! We made something so out that people thought it was broken!’ But like I said, there are genuinely interesting things that happen when you push things to the limits. Anybody who messes with sound understands that when things are right at the edge of breaking apart, it can actually be really musical.
Do you think you might recruit a new bassist, or have you burned through all the options in Duluth now?
Phil Barnes, via email
SPARHAWK: We’ve burned all our bridges! No, we do have a bass player touring with us. Her name is Liz Draper and it’s going great so far. The bass is a very vital cornerstone for the band. The mood and the vibe and the responsibility for making something substantial but also still quiet and minimal really falls on the bass. And so it’s always been an important role. We’ve had really great bass players, people that are dear friends.
PARKER: And we want to keep playing live, it’s important to touch those instruments. We could have done it without a bass player – it would have meant maybe pushing some buttons and whatnot. But that’s never been what we’ve been about. In the studio, BJ [Burton, producer of Hey What] was kind of that third collaborator.
SPARHAWK: Personally I like having someone to bounce ideas off. The two of us, we do get a lot done, and my songwriting process really involves Mim. But it’s nice to have a third person because it’s like two dimensions into three dimensions. We need someone to throw a little bit of unpredictability or a twist in there sometimes to keep the ball rolling.
“Breaker” – a straight-up anti-war song or something more personal?
Kyle Marchant, Boston, MA
SPARHAWK: It’s both. I mean, war is personal – it’s you killing someone, it’s you gettin’ killed, right? So yeah, it’s both. It’s looking at yourself going, ‘What is it about me that apparently I destroy? What is up with that? How do I stop doing that?’ It has to do with admitting that war is just as much your fault as anybody else’s. I’m a human being, I’m clearly capable of horrific violence. What up with that? Because it sure hasn’t done humanity much good.
I really enjoy listening to the dub mixtapes you often play before your live sets. What are your favourite dub tracks and how does dub influence your approach to making music?
Paul Cowley, via email
SPARHAWK: Some of my favourites are Horace Andy’s Dub Box, The Upsetters, The Aggrovators, The Congos’ Heart Of The Congos, Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man… We pretend to cover The Heptones sometimes in soundcheck. The thing I like about dub is that you’re breaking up things: here’s the vocal track and here’s the drum track, here’s the bass. We could turn this part up real loud and shut this one down. As soon as you see that’s a possibility, dub just kind of explodes in your mind. It really breaks up the idea of what music is – the creative process isn’t just writing songs. Obviously it’s a pretty easily seeable influence on the way we’ve worked for the last few years, and throwing out preconceptions about what we’re supposed to end up with. Dub is full of really amazing moments where all that’s going on is the bass and this tricked-out snare, and it’s doing everything you need for your soul. That’s powerful. You can just take little parts of it and it still carries the message.
Will you ever record a sequel to the Christmas record? How about an Easter-themed EP?
Alison Durrant, via email
PARKER: Oh yeah, there are a lot of Easter songs to cover…! [sings] “Here comes Peter Cottontail/Hoppin’ down the bunny trail” – that’s the only Easter song I can think of.
SPARHAWK: [hammily] “He’s up, he’s out, he’s back to liiiife!” Yeah, we’re gonna write an Easter musical.
PARKER: We’ve been approached about doing another Christmas record and it’s kind of appealing…
SPARHAWK: …but so many good things have been ruined by sequels.
What’s it like to have a star on the Minneapolis Hall Of Fame outside First Avenue?
Geoff Beattie, Harrogate
PARKER: It was really cool of them to do that.
SPARHAWK: I remember going down to Minneapolis with my mom when I was 14 or 15 and thinking, ‘I hope I see someone with a mohawk, that’s gonna be so life-affirming to me.’ We drove by First Avenue and I do distinctly remember seeing those stars. Then when I was in college, finally going down and seeing a show. And when we started the band, we played in the Entry, which is the side-room there.
PARKER: Anyway, you can see it’s very important to Alan!
Will the dungarees be coming out on tour?
Laverty79, via email
SPARHAWK: We had a discussion yesterday about this! Mim thinks it might be a little much – a little too connotative, a little irreverent.
PARKER: Yeah. They might disappear before the tour…
SPARHAWK: But part of the conversation was like, ‘Jeez, man, I don’t know what to wear any more.’ Do I just put on some black pants and a black button-down shirt again? I do actually worry about clothing more than people probably think.
This feature originally appeared in Uncut Take 300 (May 2022)