Ahead of the release of Low’s long-awaited new album, C’mon, (released today) DiS were invited into Alan Sparhawk’s hotel room in West London for a chat about how it all took shape. With guitar in hand, Alan was tempted to sing his responses, Ziggy Marley-style – but in the end decided to just talk. And boy, did he talk...
Dan (DiS): It’s my immense pleasure and privilege to be with Alan Sparhawk from Low. Hello.
Alan Sparhawk (LOW): Hello, how are you?
Dan: Not too bad, how are you?
Alan: Good, yeah.
Dan: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us and to fit us into your busy schedule.
Alan: No problem. It’s very flattering, of course.
Dan: How’s England been treating you so far?
Alan: Good, yeah. It’s not as nice as New Orleans was, but it’s nicer than where I live in Minnesota.
Dan: So you’re in credit!
Alan: Yeah, this is a good happy medium!
Dan: Now, let’s talk about the new album, C’mon. For me, it seems like it’s the most accessible, the most direct, the most confident you’ve been. Is that fair?
Alan: Well, it’s hard to say – I’m probably the last person to ask as to whether it’s more approachable or more… What did you call it?
Alan: Accessible – yeah, I’m the last person to ask if it’s accessible. It’s always been accessible to me. Yeah, this record, we ran with a little bit of a different attitude. We’d done Drums And Guns a few years back, and that record was very much about tension and unfinished thoughts and using sounds that we don’t normally use live, and a lot of dissonance and noise. There’s always an ebb and flow between that, most of the stuff is either pretty or pleasant, but there’s always a tinge of noise, and part of that’s an aesthetic I like, and I think sometimes it might be a self-conscious thing, too. I don’t want to open up and be pretty all the way. But I don’t know, this record... I don’t know, for some reason a couple of the songs really overpowered that and dictated that I not do that. It just kind of made sense with the whole record. We just kind of let the songs be beautiful and let ourselves try to play in a nice, full kind of way, a little more reminiscent of the way we play live – you know, when things are going well! So yeah, I don’t know… It’s void of dissonance, so in certain ways it’s sort of a unique thing to what we’ve done so far. I think anybody who’s familiar with us probably will recognise the tone of it, and again, it’s similar to the way we play live, it’s a little more filled out, a little more vocals. The space we made it in was this big old church with a lot of reverb and a big old pipe organ in it, and there were some other keyboards and stuff, and I guess we indulged on that a little bit, and just let the space and the warmth and the intimacy dictate the way we recorded and approached it. Admittedly, most of the time when we go in and make a record, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You have your songs, and at least for me, it’s just trying to let the songs guide things, and let the space and the situation we’re in have its impact, and I guess it’s more or less the same with this one. So I don’t know, in some ways it’s a change of approach, but in many ways it’s still the same, still trying to figure out how to say the same things, and try to figure out better ways to say them.
Dan: But thematically, do you think there’s a difference as well? Because the last three albums at least, it seemed like quite a negative subject matter.
Alan: Yeah, it comes back again to the flirtation with pretty and ugly. I guess for a couple of years there it was sort of escalating a bit. The world was getting pretty freaky, America was getting pretty ugly, with the Bush regime and the war, and the social and racial negativity was brewing, and unfortunately is brewing in America still. So I don’t know. Personally, it’s somewhat known, if anybody knows anything about me, I sort of had some mental difficulties a few years back, and I think… I don’t know, having gone through that, I really don’t believe in the myth of insanity being the impetus of creativity, because I don’t really feel like the otherworld-ness that was going on was necessarily bleeding into what I was making or creating, as much as there was maybe a little bit more of a desperation, a little bit more of a struggle. Again, you go in making a record and you don’t really know what you’re going to end up with, and if that kind of thing is going on, it’ll create a certain dynamic. And also, at the time, leading up to, say, The Great Destroyer, we’d been really kind of pushing the boundaries of what we could do live – volume, different textures – and trying to take these little things that we had and trying to explode them as much as possible, trying to reach the very edge of our sonic possibilities. That record, I guess, to me, was sort of the answer to most of those questions. That’s why I kind of felt like going on to Drums And Guns and totally throwing out the book was the only thing to do. But again, I can’t really say necessarily what mental illness...the impact it had on it. I don’t feel like I’m any less or more creative or visionary. In many ways, it makes you more cynical and desperate, which, I guess, if you direct that in the right way, can be somewhat productive and fruitful and satisfying. But as far as I can tell, I’m still the same guy, and yeah, every opportunity, every song, every recording situation, we’ve been lucky to have had a certain naivety about it, and with each stage be able to kind of step up what we’re doing and understand and get better at the tools that we have. So I’m not sure how it affected it, but it’s definitely a factor for the last few years. Most of the time you don’t really know how affected you are by the moment until years later. I can look back on things that we’ve done in the past, and I remember at the time thinking that my writing was so detached from what was going on, and the world of creativity, no-one wants to admit they’re that affected by their environment, but I’ve found over the years that you’re embarrassingly affected by your environment, and you end up in a certain way understanding it later, in ways that you never could at the time.
Dan: Do you find that your songs a few years later help you understand where you were at at that time?
Alan: I don’t know, they’re not so much helpful as much as just, you chuckle and sigh and go, “Oh, that’s where that tension was coming from,” or, “That’s where that thing…” I don’t know, part of it comes from not being an intentional writer. Some people sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song about my dog,” or, “I’m going to write a story about this, or a song that reflects my mood right now”. I don’t do that. Every time I try it, it basically ends in nothing. So I don’t know, you work through ideas, and you’re sort of juggling fragments of things as they come and go through your mind and seeing if anything lands, and the things that do land, then you sort of have to make sense of those and try to fill in the parts. There’s a part of you that knows, “OK, these parts are the soul, OK, this is the song, there’s a song here,” and you’re left then to figure out how to make these elements work together. And it’s really rare that I know what I’m singing about as I’m writing it. You get lucky if you recognise a few things by the time you’re done, but that’s it.
Dan: In that sense, is it useful having your wife in the band to interpret things, instead of you having to do it?
Alan: Yeah, I think having that close relationship, whether it’s just people in a band, or us being married and stuff, yeah, there might be something to that. It might give you a licence to not have everything together, because you know that there’s other people, there’s other factors that are going to come in. In a certain way, that sort of sometimes gives you the confidence to get through to what fragments and what parts that you are meant to.
Dan: I was interested to find out what musical influences fed into this album, because to me it just sounds like a quintessential Low album – I think the obvious influence is yourselves. Would you say that’s fair, or are there bands that…?
Alan: Yeah, I mean… I don’t know, we’ve never… Every band probably comes up with this phrase, but we never set out... We definitely, genuinely set out to do something new, we weren’t modelling ourselves after anybody, and as much as I’m susceptible to, sometimes, other people’s styles… There’s actually bands that I don’t listen to when I’m writing because I know that I’ll too quickly start following some of their patterns and phrasing and melody and…
Dan: Like who?
Alan: I don’t know if I want to admit... Um... I have to be very careful around the band Bread, be very careful around The Fall. I start singing and phrasing like him.
Dan: You have to be careful about that!
Alan: Yeah! I don’t know, it’s sort of a chameleon thing for some reason, definitely a bit. I subconsciously pick up other people’s phrasings and stuff. But… Where did that come from, where did that start?
Dan: Talking about musical influences for this album.
Alan: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I can look at what I’ve been listening to the last few years… I’ve been listening to a lot of reggae. I’ve actually really immersed myself in it a lot, the last five or six years, and there’s some really beautiful stuff in there. There’s stuff I can listen to over and over and over again. Who was I…? I thought of this the other day, there was some record that was really brave… I don’t know. I’ve been sort of casually… Not casually, I sort of dove head first a little bit into Bob Dylan over the last couple of years – but only by way of the Rolling Thunder Revue, which some people hate! A lot of people just hate that, but yeah, it’s from the mid-’70s, when he had this big band, Mick Ronson and, I don’t know, Joni… Not Joni – Joan, Joan Baez… But yeah, it’s really... The tone of that, after a while you just get the sense that he’s just going out there, he’s like, “I’m gonna have this big band, I’m gonna go out, I’m just gonna do these blastin’, rippin’ big-band versions of my songs, and make it this rippin’, rippin’, huge show.” And as ragged and dirty, post-hippy as it comes across, it’s really intense, and he’s singing so intensely, he’s such a... People are like, “Oh, Bob Dylan can’t sing” – he can sing really, really well. He’s a great singer, great stuff on there. There’s some renditions of some of his old songs, he does a lot of songs off Desire, which is the record before that – ‘Romance In Durango’, all these really freaky songs! I don’t know, but that CD kind of stuck in the van for a long time, a lot. It’s probably the only… Besides a couple of early Pink Floyd records, that was probably the only rock I would listen to a lot when we were travelling. So getting back to that, whether that has any bearing on what we just did, I don’t know. I know reggae’s changed the way I think. ‘Drums And Guns’ was very influenced by reggae and dub. It doesn’t sound like it – for me, just the whole idea of taking apart things and using the interchangeability of things was going round my mind. And then, I don’t know, the songs… I think the fact that reggae music, they effortlessly step into singing about spirituality and God in the same song as they’re singing about partying and smoking reefer, and for some reason that was empowering to me, just to see someone being that bold and just not even thinking twice about calling it what it is. Music’s a spiritual and intense thing, and to acknowledge that is really beautiful. Certainly, I think that kind of gave me a little bit of bravery. Not that the record is overly religious, as much as just some of the lines that are maybe a little too close to the bone or a little more easy to be ridiculed, I think I was a little bit more inclined to just let it fly. I don’t know, maybe the Bob Dylan thing has sort of… It’s not so much his song writing, which just baffles me, but I think just the attitude to the big sound that he went for, just not being afraid to do a nice, ripping version of a different song that he had. And then the singing – I don’t know, just the fact that he was just singing so hard and singing so pure and from the bottom of him. That always inspires me, anybody that does that has inspired me.
Dan: Like I say, this album sounds more accessible to me than some of your older stuff, and more confident – and not direct necessarily, but more bold, as you were saying. Does mainstream acceptance and mainstream success… Is that a factor in your thinking? Is that something that you’ve ever strove for, or you’re striving for now?
Alan: Well, I don’t know, anybody that writes a song or gets up on stage in front of anybody wants to be accepted, and adored, as they say – at least to a certain degree. For some people it’s the only thing, and for some people it’s just a little voice in the back of their head that they keep suppressing. I don’t know, we’re pretty realistic about things. We’ve been doing this a long time and we’ve always been pretty out on the fringe. I really have doubts that the kind of music we make is going to at all appeal to very many people, but I don’t know. I know there’s people that do love it and I know people who are affected by it as much as I’m affected by the music that’s moved me. To me, that’s more than we could ever ask. No, man, we look too weird, and the music’s a little too off, and we don’t play well enough to be famous, I don’t think. There’s some bands that are doing well now, it’s kind of exciting to see them do it because they’re coming from the same world as we are, but no… No, I don’t think most people would like what we do!
Dan: But if it were to happen, if this album was to go platinum or something, how would that affect your…? [Alan laughs] Just for the sake of argument!
Alan: I don’t know, it’s exhilarating playing in front of a lot of people, and every time we play for more people than we normally do, it’s exciting and just feels that much more alive in certain ways, and you wish you could do that every night. I don’t know. Yeah, it’d be cool. Well, like I said, there’s always that little teenage boy in me who thinks it’d be awesome to be a big rock star, but...there’s a lot of reality smothering it. No, we have kids, and we’ve got enough in savings to cover the next six months… It’d be nice to be able to know we can put a little money away for the kids, so yeah, I wouldn’t mind playing in front of more people, cos it’s kind of the only way you make a living these days. Not by selling records, that’s for sure.
Dan: Have you noticed the difference, then, in your record sales in recent years?
Alan: Well, somewhat, yeah. It’s hard to tell. We sort of always… Each record would do a little bit better with each one, and as the internet sort of descended on everyone, it’s still kind of maintained, it’s still kind of kept at least a steady climb. I don’t know if that means that 20 years ago we would have been selling a lot more records. Does that mean that more people are downloading it, there’s more people listening to it? I don’t know, it’s hard to gauge. But it’d be weird. I know people that are famous, and it seems pretty weird. But I don’t know... I was taught pretty thoroughly as a child to not expect too much.
Dan: You’re an experimental band, you said yourself, you like there to be new challenges that you’ve got to overcome. For you, are experiments end results in themselves, are they valuable just because you’re experimenting?
Alan: Well, kind of having a spirit of experimenting, it’s a good way to put yourself into more of an innocent and naïve state. You kind of have to go there sometimes to allow for the true creative moments to happen. So yeah, experimenting is good, it’s just a real simple way to put yourself in an unfamiliar place. I don’t know, just from experience, pretty much every time we’ve done that, it’s always been a step forward, it’s always been a good result. Yeah, I’m really against going in and just being, “Yeah, OK, we’ve got these songs, alright, we know what we’re going to do, we’ll do it like this.” That’s not interesting at all. The more you do it, the more you have to be clever at fooling yourself and tricking yourself into being ignorant again, you know? Yeah, I think there’s very simple, almost tangible things you can do to make that happen. I don’t know, yeah, maybe it comes from an attitude... The band was sort of born on, “Let’s try to make something different to what we just heard, and they’re going to have an adverse reaction to it!” To me, that’s been a reigning aesthetic for us, and yeah, again, it’s sort of vital to being able to do stuff for years. The more I do it, the more I see the treacherous pitfalls that are around for any artist that’s been doing it for a long time. There’s a lot of ways to lose it and a lot of ways to fool yourself. One of the main ones is thinking you know what you’re doing and thinking you know what you’re going to do when you go in to create something.
Dan: I was going to ask you about the gap between this album and the last album – it was quite a big gap.
Alan: Yeah, I don’t know, I can come up with excuses, but I don’t know if it makes it look worse! Mim and I got involved working with this contemporary-dance choreographer, this piece that took two years in the making. It was really involved. When we agreed to do it, we were sort of like, “Oh, this’ll be interesting, a little thing we can do,” and it ended up being very, very involved. We were in a lot of rehearsals, and the writing was going on at the same time as writing the choreography and working. And dance is a really, really intense medium. I mean, those people put so much time into it. So much time, and there’s so many creative decisions to make. You’re so far out on a limb. It can be one of the most pretentious art forms in the world, and nobody listens to it, nobody sees it, and there’s no permanent record of it, you know? It’s a really interesting medium, because you work… I mean, we put in probably as much time and creative effort as it would have been if we’d done a record and toured everywhere with it, because, yeah, there were residencies in Florida, we went to New York for a few weeks to show it, and Texas and Seattle… I mean, it was just a really involved process, and I think beyond that… Meanwhile, I was doing a couple of records with Retribution Gospel Choir, and that was… I don’t know. It seems like, “Ah, two records in that time?” It’s sort of a band that, by the time we did one record, it was sort of obvious that we would pretty quickly do another one, because it was sort of blowing that way. But yeah, we took on these other projects, and before we knew it, it had been three years before we’d done anything.
Dan: Thank you so much for speaking to us, we really appreciate it. Thank you.
Alan: Thank you.
Watch the DiS interview with Alan Sparhawk here: