Low, by Nels Cline

Last month, I travelled over to Duluth, Minnesota to interview Low for the issue of Uncut that comes out later this week. While I was there, I emailed a couple of questions about the band to Nels Cline (via Wilco’s publicist), who guests on the wonderful new Low album, “C’Mon”.

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Last month, I travelled over to Duluth, Minnesota to interview Low for the issue of Uncut that comes out later this week. While I was there, I emailed a couple of questions about the band to Nels Cline (via Wilco’s publicist), who guests on the wonderful new Low album, “C’Mon”.

A few days later, I received a very long response from Nels; too long, unfortunately, for me to publish in full in the mag. An edited version runs alongside my feature, but I’m very pleased to reproduce the whole thing here; a really thoughtful and insightful piece which manages to articulate the specific greatness of Low as well as anything I can recall reading. Here it is:

“I don’t remember when I first heard Low play ‘live’ – maybe it was at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. But I certainly remember when I first heard them because it was when The Geraldine Fibbers (Carla Bozulich’s band) were setting up in Hollywood to record “Butch” in December of 1996. Steve Fisk and John Goodmanson were making that record with us and had just finished recording and mixing “When The Curtain Hits The Cast”, the second Low record.

Steve Fisk put it on in the control room – pretty loud – to reference the playback system. I think everyone in The Fibbers was already aware of them except for me, the “new guy” (I had officially joined The Fibbers the month before). I was so blown away by the beauty and poignance of the songs and sound, and that feeling of admiration, identification, and awe has never left me.

Since then, Carla and I, as Scarnella, did a couple of shows with Low in New York City and Hoboken, and I have heard them ‘live’ many times. They have seen changes in the bass chair, have even gotten loud. When I joined Wilco in 2004, I was asked which artists I would like to see open for future shows, and Low was on that shortlist. It took a while to happen, but when it did I was asked to sit in with them on a song or two, playing lap steel. What a thrill!

Truth be known, I am rather obsessed with Low’s sound and style because I hear it as possessing a kind of musical and lyrical economy that is so beautifully voiced sonically and which also has a scalpel-like ability to cut into one’s psyche, an incisiveness, sometimes without my understanding why or how this is happening. Sometimes I think it has something to do with my Nordic DNA or something. But I see the subject matter of Low songs – mendacity, doubt, grief, ambivalence, familial love, bitterness, spirituality, your take here – as universal, ultimately. I suppose my favourite Low records are the aforementioned “Curtain”, “Trust”, “Things We Lost In The Fire”, and I feel I must add this new record, “C’mon”, to that list.

Low records are my travelling companions. Like favourite movies or other works of art, I check in with them occasionally, or they check back in with me, and the texture and timbre of my life is again measured or assessed. The beauty of their music haunts me, at times crushing me with its knife-like acumen, at other times making me drift away on clouds of wistfulness. Fuck, these words are clunky, and I apologise… For anyone interested in Low at all, besides listening to their records, I highly recommend the documentary about them from a couple of years ago. I lent it to someone a while ago after I watched it, but I think it’s called “Murderer” (after one of Low’s most hauntingly beautiful and leading songs). It is amazingly revealing. Like Low’s music, it traverses a region between lush and stark with a deft hand.

Since my becoming aware of Low, I have watched as Alan has started other projects, both of which seemed to address a burning need to “rock out”, to make a racket, be immersed in a mushroom cloud of rhythm and guitar, to really cut loose. I actually have sat in briefly with both The Black-Eyed Snakes and with The Retribution Gospel Choir and witnessed/felt the music, watched Alan go for it, heard his beautiful guitar sound in modes both subtle and strangulated. With records like “The Great Destroyer”, Low had surges of volume on brilliant songs like “Pissing” and “When I Go Deaf”.

That aesthetic, minus the Dave Fridmann compressed layers of distortion, is evident on this new record, “C’mon”, but is more like a Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound”. I believe Alan said they recorded “C’mon” in the church they often play in (where they did “Trust” with Tchad Blake), and it sounds deep and beautiful.

Producer Matt Beckley has made this record sound appropriately dramatic, and the big tom-tom explosions (heard in another guise on the last RGC album – Alan likes big booms!), strings, and layered voices make “C’mon” , again, both lush and stark. Classic Low, yet new/expanded Low. Growth! Just listen to “You See Everything”, with the lilting 6/8 and amazing harmonies and you’ll hear some very new Low sounds… The combination of Alan and Mimi’s voices – each individually beautiful in its own right – is one of the great sounds in music, to my mind. Always beautifully voiced and usually subtly expressive/restrained, their voices are like light to me, shining on some very (at times) dark matters. At their best, transcendent….

I was asked in the 11th hour to overdub some guitar on 2 songs (“Done” and “Nothing But Heart”) while Alan and Matt Beckley were mixing in Matt’s apartment in Studio City, CA. It was one of those amazing scheduling miracles; I happened to be in L.A. for 4 days, and could just squeeze in the session. Alan seemed truly pleased with what they had achieved, and as I listened to tracks I was really blown away by the huge sound. There was chuckling about the reaction of “slow core” diehards. But now that I have heard the whole album, I would have to say that I think it fits right into the trajectory of the band and consequently should not be shocking or dauntingly different.

The music is more “band’-sounding than “Drums & Guns”, as varied as their later albums. As stringent, too. But what was once an almost claustrophobia-inducing use of distortion/compression here gives way to something symphonic. I do not mean to be reviewing the record! I am just ruminating…

Tracking my lap steel, slide, and “lead” guitar took maybe two hours. Half the “session” was taken up with eating splendid Mexican food and (for me) drinking Mexican Coca-Cola. For bottleneck on “Nothing But Heart”, I used some guitar of Matt’s because my Jazzmaster’s action was too low from being bashed around on the road. I was a bit amused by this song: one basic lyric followed by an endlessly repeated chorus, not in some ways unlike “Hey Jude” with its building repetition and direct simplicity.

Upon listening to the results, I am amazed how loud I am in the mixes! And I am so pleased – not to be mixed loud, but to be on a Low record. They are, to me, one of the greatest sounds in the universe.”


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