Sometimes one just wants to slow things down and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. This is the niche acclaimed band Low fits neatly into. Since 1993, Low produced several critically acclaimed albums that helped define the slo-core sound – a somber and fragile sound – and offered achingly beautiful music.
Guitarist and singer Alan Sparhawk said Low developed its trademark sound early on, partially because of his marriage.
I had been in some punk bands and decided to do something a little different, Sparhawk said. The whole quiet thing came from doing music with Mimi. (Alan’s wife and Low’s drummer and singer.) She didn’t want to do anything loud and obnoxious.
Low’s funeral-pace sound was also developed in part due to the band’s influences. If band members had stuck with their first idols, Low’s sound could have been completely different.
In junior high I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, Sparhawk said. Then I got into punk which mutated into the Cure and early REM. The big turning point were bands like Joy Division and the Velvet Underground and that’s where my mind was.
In 1996 Low paid homage to its idol Joy Division by covering the classic Transmission for the Means to an End tribute compilation. The jerky, fast-paced Transmission, as Joy Division performed it, seemed an odd choice for Low because other songs by the band fit more naturally with Low’s sound. Instead, Low took the song and slowed it down to an extremely slow pace, emphasizing the despair within the song.
One day we were doing a live radio interview, Sparhawk explained, and we just started to play `Transmission.’ We looked at each other with a smirk when we realized how slow we were playing it. We could have done some of the slower songs, like `The Eternal,’ but that would have been too obvious.
But not everyone was a fan of Low’s take on the song.
I’ve heard a rumor that Peter Hook (Joy Division’s bass player) liked the album but hated our cover, Sparhawk said.
Alongside Low – one of the first and best bands to get the slo-core moniker – other bands such as the Red House Painters and Codeine fit in the category. But unlike many artists, Sparhawk doesn’t mind being compared with other groups or being categorized.
I have respect for those other bands, Sparhawk said. It’s not an issue to be lumped together with them. I don’t detest slo-core, but I don’t really like it. Our stuff is serious but not sad. The problems with labels like that is that’s as far as most people go when they think of us. I’m sure Slayer doesn’t like being called metal.
Other terms and categories float around to help define Low’s unique and beautiful style.
Someone came up with American Gothic, Sparhawk said. I immediately thought we can’t use that because people will associate us with pale skin and black capes and people listening to Bauhaus.
In some ways, though, the term is appropriate.
It can also apply to people like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, Sparhwak said. I think we take an American art form (rock and roll) and apply to serious subjects. A lot of our songs are about birth and death.
Whatever you chose to call it, Low fans have nothing to fear when their new album, Things We Lost In The Fire, comes out in January. Instead of a radical change in sound, Low has worked to refine and expand the beautiful music they make, not overhaul it.
There’s a danger of reaching too far and doing stuff you have no business doing, Sparhawk said. Once in a while we jet off and try new things. We’ve worked with Spring Heel Jack (a British techno group) in the past. A couple songs on the new album sound like Big Star or Crazy Horse with the big guitar sound.
The new record sounds like we’re ringing out a sponge with clenched fist. It’s a bit lighter on the realized side of things, but heavier on the expressive, reaching side, Sparhawk said.
And, as often goes, the new album means a Low tour. The band was going to play an October concert in D.C. in October, but a family emergency forced the band to cancel the D.C. show. But fans need not worry – the band plans to come to D.C. in February.
Washington is one of the best places for us to play, Sparhawk said.
A Low show requires a different mindset than most rock concerts where the energy is one to go crazy.
Our biggest shows have been 700 to 800 people, that’s as big as it can get and keep in intimate, Sparhawk explained. It’s amazing how quiet and attentive people are, it doesn’t take much noise to drown us out. Some of my favorite stuff to play is the quiet stuff.
It’s probably a good thing that the band likes the intimacy and atmosphere that comes with a small show, since Low’s sound is not one that’s going to be heard on the pop radio stations or MTV any time soon. Even our prettiest stuff is too weird for most people, Sparhawk said. I think we’ve realized the limits of our audience. We’ve learned that the general public won’t like it but there will be in one or two people in the crowd who love it.
On the tour before the release of the new album, the days of playing hole-in-the-wall bars are, for the most part, over, Sparhawk said.
We’re going to be touring but with a new baby, we’re going to be more selective, Sparhawk said. Past shows were in dives that could hold 50 people, had a decent PA, and two crappy mics.
But the band is headed in a new direction, Sparhawk said.
It’s like, we’re going to go around the country once and play a few nice places, he said. That’s where we are now. I’m tired of playing places I can’t bring my baby in without her getting sick.