You don’t like Low. You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll just put on a bit of Low in the background.’ You don’t add any old Low song to a playlist unless it’s ‘Just Like Christmas’ and you’re making a playlist of the greatest Christmas songs ever recorded. You don’t just watch two songs of a Low set at a festival and then wander on your merry way. You don’t do any of these things.
You love Low. You get enveloped in Low. You find a spot away from the dickheads where you can put your hood up and close your eyes and fall into Low. Their swoony slow-core is imbued with meaning for anyone who’s been through it with the band, every album a set of songs that soundtracked - usually - the hard times. There’s comfort in their infinite repetitions and their heavy hymns that wrap you up and hold you - sometimes comfortingly, sometimes against your will. Low make you say all kinds of pretentious things about how music feels.
Which is why a new Low album is a cause for excitement but also anxiety - is it going to live up to what you need it to? Are Low going to see you through the next few years of hard times or are you going to have to start listening to, like, country music?
The new album Ones and Sixes isn’t exactly like the Low of yore - there are crisp beats in there, some of the songs are sort of upbeat! It feels new and old, tired and woke, confused and all figured out (stream it on Spotify above to see what I mean). You know why that is? Because Low are all these things, as Alan Sparhawk told us, still figuring out how to communicate with each other, and us, and higher powers. And, also, he thinks Beyoncé is quite good.
DiS: Where did the name Ones and Sixes come from?
Alan Sparhawk: Well there's a few things going on. My daughter recently was in this competition to memorise as much of pi as possible. She's kind of a math and memorisation genius so she did really good. I just remember the process of her learning and looking at the sheet that she was memorising. It's a string of seemingly random numbers and yet there's a very precise and very grand function in that. Every once in a while there'll be a little pattern and there'll be a little repetition, or a back and forth between two of the same numbers. The way the brain is, you look for those and the brain matches them - it's looking for patterns.
That got me thinking about designed accidents or designed randomness - like, how do you plan for something to be unexpected? To me Ones and Sixes is a little illustration of, like, trying to find the first set in these seemingly random digits. It's the idea of randomness but then it being something that you've instigated or the balance between what you can control and what you can't control, and how separate they are in the end. And yet they work together sometimes. Sometimes the mix of the things that you have control and the things you don't have control of, and of that being probably the most healthy balance, as frustrating as it can be sometimes to not have control over everything. You place the control in the right spots and the randomness, kind of where it lands.
Do you think that plays out through the album? Quite a lot of the songs are about making sense of confusion and misinterpretation.
I think so, yeah, confusion. Things being completely different from what you thought. The layers of things, and perspective over time. I think there's a lot of, like, dealing with things that are having to do with long relationships. Ebb and flow, and the perspective, and the kind of deciphering where life is and what it is.
Do you find it difficult breaking down the music you’ve created like this?
Yeah. I mean, I'm sort of used to it now, because we kinda always have to do it, and you're like "Ok, I'll talk about this" - but yeah, deep down inside, really, you're like [sighs]. The only reason I do music is because I can't talk, I can't articulate my feelings. It seems to me the song is the most accurate way to state what it is doing, and to go back and talk about it sometimes feels... I mean, it's inevitable of course, you think, ‘Well, okay, yeah, I must have been influenced by this’ and ‘yeah, I can see that this song is referring to this and this and this’.
But, yeah, it can be really kinda... it dismantles this thing that you meant to be kind of pure with. The process of sort of understanding what you just did creatively sometimes can be detrimental.
It must be strange because you spend ages putting it together and then everyone wants you to kind of take it apart for them and show the inner workings.
Honestly, a lot of times this process of putting it together is... it's kind of back to this whole randomness. There's certain things you have control over but I don't think I've ever made a record where I've felt like, "Yep! I know what I'm going to do" and then go in and accomplish that. That'd be knowing what it was before you made it. Most of the time making a record, you just get little hints, and there's things depending on what was created. And you're like, "Oh, ok, this might be going somewhere in this direction or that direction." But I really don't have as much control over what do I want to do? What do I want this to sound like?
But what you do have control over is [momentum] - I'll keep working, finishing songs. You can control that. You can pick someone to work with - a lot of times we will pick people to work with whether it's a producer or whatever, and it will stir it up a bit. On this record, it was more just about him being more bold and extreme - the guy, BJ Burton, was just more brave and more bold and extreme. He’d say, "Ok, yeah, this drum beat's cool, let's make it cooler! Lets make it really big," or, "What's going on in this song? How can we take these two or three parts and make them so present and so vital?"
Having someone else you can trust is a nice way to engineer the unexpected. And hopefully it'll be something that'll surprise you, like, “Oh wow! This really comes alive now" and it's a different sound.
There are definitely some very interesting beats on the album.
Yeah, these are more of a hip-hop vibe. He [BJ Burton] also worked on a lot of Kanye West records and different things like that, he works with a lot of hip-hop guys, so yeah.
You've spoken before about liking to be taken out of your comfort zone when you're writing - was there anything in particular that, on this record, that did that? I guess maybe working with BJ might have been one of them because he came from a different style.
Yeah. Working with this guy for sure was. You have to throw a little wrench into your own machine sometimes to kind of shift it a little bit. Writing is pretty personal - usually it's a pretty desperate effort to try and come up with something but I think the recording process to me is more where where I feel like “Ok, this is the place where I can introduce something, something that's beyond us or beyond our realm and and see how that goes. It's like, ok, I'm confident with these tunes, I'm confident with what we're doing, let’s run it through this filter, this person. I think, that's probably more the, the stage where that happens.
Do you always play songs live before you record them?
Does that help you like kind of work the song out?
Oh yeah. It really makes a difference. There's always one or two songs where you're kind of going like "Weeell, it's kind of this idea" then "Oh that worked out pretty good," but then there's always songs like “Ok we played these and we know that they're almost like the guide, now we sort of have this indication of where it's going and the tone of the feel," I think that's mostly the tone
The song No Comprende, it's heavier, it's a little more stark and, I don't know, it's a little more sobering than some of the songs on the last couple of records. I remember when we wrote that song, that was like ok, this is where we're going, you can tell. Like I said, those first few songs sort of set the tone. It's not the end of the writing so much as it's sort of enough of an experience. It's ‘This is life, here.’ It's a lot quicker to be, "Oh, ok, this works," whereas when you don't have that light kind of pointing you... sometimes it's hard to write something and say, "I don't know if this is any good."
Are there any songs on there that you particularly are pleased with or particularly like playing?
No Comprende, live. It's just... it's nice. And that song has that drop at the end. When that goes well live it's really, really fun. Feels like kind of the highlight of the show or whatever, so that one's fun.
I think everyone gets excited about their new songs. The old ones have their own layers of meaning and memory and places - they sort of separate from you over time. The tunes that we wrote recently will resonate more with now - I suppose it's natural, a song feeling like it speaks true, more true to what you're, how you feel at that time. You get sort of attached to it.
Do you prefer recording or performing?
I enjoy making records but, for sure I love playing live. The romance of seeing a band and some of the first bands I saw to me were just so so transcendental. My dad was a drummer and he played in a band, going round doing country stuff so to me that was more real than the idea of making a record. Making records feels more like kind of a gift. ‘And you get to make the record!’ It's nice. And that in itself sort of takes it's own sort of fun. it's an exciting process. We've been pretty lucky. But I guess live feels more honest. For better or worse, it's more of a measure of what you have to offer. There's an honesty in the moment - "I'm singing this song now. It's this moment." It feels a little more pure than, ‘How do we make the illusion of this thing that we picture in mind and we're not quite sure, but lets try to massage it keep going until it's the way we want it before we present it.’
Do you find your older stuff has kind of evolved as you've played it over the years?
It varies a little bit but yeah. I hadn't really thought about that until recently. Someone we knew came up after a show like "wow, when you play that song it sounds exactly like you guys sounded 20 years ago" and in some ways you're like "oh no! oh no we've not progressed!" but then at the same time it’s ok. I think a lot of artists get kinda weird about their back catalogue and they want to disown it or like change it. I understand that tendency.
I remember talking to Ben Watt from Everything But The Girl - years ago, we did a collaboration - and he was talking about how there's just no such thing as an essential version of a song. This is very much a remix guy and I remember just thinking at the time "No! You're wrong!" I spent the next few years just thinking about that like, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I'm wrong?’
I just think it's something about writing a tune and then also being responsible for recording it, you kind of only have one vision the way this song goes. I suppose it's just because it's the same instrumentation set up but yeah, on the whole songs, when we play them, sound pretty much the same.
How do you decide what you're going to play when you've got so much to choose from?
That's, like, my worst. It's kind of a pet peeve actually, every night having to figure out which songs [to play]. Usually they're like "ah ok, we've got this new record, let’s try to play as many songs from that as we can" then there's a handful of songs that we play live just about every show - y'know Murderer - and there's a few songs that we just do because they go well live. You kinda have to let go of some stuff sometimes.
Do you find writing lyrics difficult compared to writing music?
Yeah. I think it's hard for everybody, even the really great people who've really nailed songs and stuff. I guess somebody can think, "Let’s just write" - like somebody like Morrissey. You can just tell the way he talks and his flow just sounds like it must just come out of him naturally all day. But I think it takes a lot of work. There are people who are really good and work very very hard really edit, really hone stuff like that for a long time. I'm a little more like, “Ok, good song.”
There's probably very few songs that we have that i could say, “Oh, ok, this song is, as far as this songwriting tradition, this one holds up. This is a good song, it doesn't depend on who is playing it. It's just there.
How do you feel about the lyrics being experienced on their own away from the music, like on lyrics websites and stuff?
I think everybody by now kind of understands that... that separation. I'm hoping everybody recognises it's not poetry. It's part of something else that was going on. I mean it, it's fine. Every once in awhile there's a song that I'll look at the lyrics and go like "Oh ok, y'know, that could stand on its own. At least it's short." When I'm writing I'm really relying on the music too and i think that gives it sort of freedom to be a little more ambiguous with things. You don't have to tell the whole story, you don't have to use proper grammar or anything. There's definitely way better lyric writers - my stuff's... it's too fragmented, I don't think it would ever stand on its own necessarily.
Can I ask you about Spanish Translation? What's the song about?
What it's saying is like, "before, I didn't know anything" or "I thought I knew but I don't, and then when I saw this, then everything all just sort of turned in on its head" - you either suddenly don't understand it when you thought you did, or now we realise it's something completely different. It's like if you read Camus in French, it's different.
In my mind I guess that the impetus of that was maybe more of a scriptural thing. I remember my brother went on a mission to Germany and when he came back and he said the word for ‘repent’ in German is ‘to turn around’. Which I think is so much more of an insight into what repentance should be. I think that's a much more constructive, understanding what repentance is whereas in English, the isolation of that concept into one word is... it's kind of made it susceptible to over-interpretation and sort of twisting of it through time. I don't know. Um. Spanish is a very particular language that I think, especially scripturally is very.. I don't know.. people I know have sort of illustrated some of these things and it's called ‘the language of the angels’, that's Spanish.
There's quite a lot of religious language on the new record and obviously your religion is very important to you. Was that intentional?
No, I think it's just part of me. It's language that's part of my upbringing and therefore it's sort of everywhere. If that's the language you define life in, it's gonna come through a little bit. I never really remember kind of being aware that that was something that came out of me. I didn't go about going like, I'm gonna write a song about Jesus, it came out naturally.
Do you feel like people ask you about the religious stuff a lot?
It's definitely something that they recognise in us. Some of the first press we did in England for some reason really latched onto that. They were fascinated.
We love an angle.
Yeah, yeah, it was one of the angles. I'm pretty comfortable. The thing is, I think there's a danger in saying, "I'm going to create something that's going to change people's minds" or I don't know, tell people the way they should think. There's a place for that - and I may very well regret that in life that i didn't say more. But I don't know. I think looking back I can at least stand- I feel like I've been honest. I don't think i've ever tried to force a concept or like that. If it's there, it's because it's just naturally there, and I think, I trust that if that's something that resonates with someone then it'll resonate with them more naturally.
You can smell someone trying to sell you something and I think, unfortunately, religion - it's very difficult to use any of your religion or the language of religion without it seeming that way. But I feel like, yeah, i can look back and be like, I'm pretty happy with that balance of expressing that it’s a part of my life. But I don't know. Like I said, maybe I'll regret it later in life. Should’ve been more bold or should’ve done more with my small platform or whatever I have.
But like you say, I think people are quite resistant to that.
Yeah I think ultimately, you can be a lot more spiritual with people if you don't start off with the word 'God’. And ultimately, I believe it comes back to that, you gotta start where you are.
One of the things that struck me about Ones and Sixes is that a lot of the songs are quite hymnal, like structurally and musically they reminded me a lot of the kinds of songs we used to see in our songbooks at church.
That structure, even that style of phrasing and stuff, if you grew up with that then it's sort of there. Maybe because traditionally we're kind of quiet and that influence is probably more obvious because the rock cliches are less... Church music has been sort of an influence on music - there's gospel and blues and stuff like that. I guess it's maybe more rare that you hear the Anglican church influence, y'know.
It’s not quite as cool, really.
Yeah, it's not as cool as being in a baptist choir really.
What have you been listening to lately?
Let’s see. Well, the last few years I've listened to a lot of reggae - that's sort of like this cliche that people go through reggae phases, definitely been on that for the last six or eight years
That was like the last thing I expected you to say actually.
Oh really? Yeah reggae. Well, the other one is hip-hop - I think this year's been really great. I really love Kanye West. Yeezus was a really big eye-opener for me, and just like "Argh this is great, someone's really pushing the envelope, really pushing the possibilities." That was really inspiring. Over time yeah, the older you get, it's really easy to kind of blind yourself to it. The older you get, you think, Music, how can it possibly go further than this? What can possibly progress from this?" And yet, there's still bites you can take.
Did you listen to Beyoncé's album?
The new one?
It came out just after Yeezus.
No, I didn't. I remember reading a few things that people were saying about it and stuff, and feeling like I guess I know what that's about then. I probably should check it out. I know that one's pretty aggressive and she usually get some really good people in there. Some of the tracks are really bold and stuff.
At the time I thought it was really different and new, and then I listened to it the other day and I was like, this has dated really quickly in a way that Yeezus hasn't. Yeezus still feels quite fresh.
I think Yeezus will start sounding dated for sure. But yeah, that's interesting. She's really good. There was something on TV a couple of months ago, like a tribute to Stevie Wonder and she got out there like she's doing this thing between like Ed Sheeran - it's like, the silliest thing, he just puzzles me - I think America was just like "Alright let’s see what we got? We've got blah blah blah, alright we need some weird looking British guy to do some folk music, OK! Alright, brilliant, ok, you're fine, we're gonna promote the shit out of you." Now, he's all like... ok whatever - but she sang the shit out of that stuff, she did this medley of two or three songs. She's amazing - like he was actually pretty good as well. You'd better be good if you're gonna go up and sing with Beyonce, y'know.
She's, she's just phenomenal. Really powerful, really powerful singer but, yeah, I didn't really see her record. I remember Aidan Moffat or someone was just ranting and ranting about it on Twitter all day, so I felt like I experienced it ... like oh ok well that's what it's about. I probably should go listen to it. Have you listened to the Kendrick Lamar album?
Have you heard the whole record?
Took me a couple times where you're still trying to figure it out. It's puzzling for a while. It finally made sense to me this last week, listening to it on the way somewhere I was finally like "holy shit." It was just this moment of like goddamn it I really like this song, then I realise like I've said that after the last three songs, ‘ok I see why this is really good.’ It's really interesting because of the spoken word thing the whole record is really brave and interesting. How about the D'Angelo, have you listened to the D'Angelo record?
I've only listened to it once and I haven’t gone back to it.
It's another one, took a little bit. It's pretty good. I think Kendrick's record has eclipsed it. The new Kanye songs are pretty good too - see that stuff that's that really hard edge of vulgarity where it's the n-word or the f-word and all that, that stuff is so powerful right now. It kind of always has been but, that edge to the singles some of those guys are writing right now is so intense in America, what's going on, you sort of get the sense of the history and the racism and stuff where it's such a poignant and powerful thing. I don't know, I'm really blown away by how intensely and intelligently that's being addressed right now. I don't know, I sound like I'm just ranting. What I need to do is find the tunes I'm talking about and play 'em and say, "See?"
Ones and Sixes is out now, read Ben Bland's 8/10 review here.
Low are on tour now: catch them at the Glasgow Art School on October 8 and London Roundhouse on October 10.