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    Photo: Low by Zoran Orlic.  

    It has taken 20 years and 10 albums for Low to perform in Liverpool, but that day is finally coming - the 18th, and they play the Cathedral. We ask the band’s frontman Alan Sparhawk - who is Mormon - about his feelings towards playing in such venue, as well as their last, beautiful record, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and discuss their longevity and slowcore universe.

    It’s quite a long way, and you’ve done it with a definite M.O, as you pointed out: “slow, quiet, sometimes melancholy, and, we hope, sometimes pretty...”
    Yes. I think we’ve maybe leaned more towards pretty in the last couple of records and ended up not as ugly as sometimes before. Maybe this is turning now.

    Yes. The quite aggressive intensity and even slight sense of anger in Drums and Guns and in The Great Destroyer is definitely gone in The Invisible Way, and the album is more minimalist than C’mon. Was that sort of simplicity pre-conceived?
    Yes, I think so. We worked a long time on the songs, on the arrangements, before we went to the studio, trying to find sort of the essence for their simple amount, and I think with the way that Jeff Tweedy was seeing what we were doing he was also very into keeping it very minimal. There were a couple of times when there would be a song where we thought “Okay, maybe we should add this, we should add this” etc and he was good at kind of encouraging us saying “No, no, it sounds good with just the very few things”, so he was really helpful to remind us that we were in there with the plan of keeping it very simple. We go into almost every record thinking it has to be minimal, very simple, but a lot of times because we are thinking about the way we play live, and to me the most interesting recordings are the ones where you could hear that it’s three people, and it’s closer to the sets of just three people playing behind of this. There’s a struggle, there’s a certain kind of tension that happens there, and if we add more things it makes it blurry I think.

    Has Jeff Tweedy been a hands-on producer with your record then?

    Did he take part in the decision of having the album a major presence of piano and acoustic guitar?
    No. The piano, we knew we were doing the piano. And Steve [Garrington], our bass player, had spent a lot of time working on it and making sure that he had the parts right, but the guitars were sort of a mystery. Every time we do a record, I have no idea how to pick the guitar, so usually you try a few things and see what works best. And it’s always a surprise, I will have my favourite guitars and I’d say “Oh, yeah, I really want to use this one and that one”, but almost every time I end up using an unexpected one, and ends up being the one I use mostly. Jeff had me try a few guitars the first day, and he had this Forties Martin acoustic that was really good and I ended up doing, you know, anytime you hear an acoustic guitar it’s this one guitar that he had. And then, a couple of little things here and there, I used this Danelectro guitar, that was sort of a surprise, it’s not the best guitar, it’s not the most well made. It’s just that for some reason the sound on it was great for the songs we were using it on. Jeff had heard our demos, and he already knew where we were going with the songs, and he was very much just helping us to do what we wanted to do. He didn’t really change things. I wondered, I thought, you know, he is a songwriter, maybe we’ll talk about some of the songs and change something, but he never did that, there was a lot of respect for what we do and I think he was real happy with the songs that we brought in.

    It feels like it’s been a more song-orientated approach on this record.
    Yeah, yeah, I think so. For this record, I think this time it’s all more focused on songs, sort of get in, get out, and do it. We go back and forward sometimes, sometimes we are more doing that and sometimes we are more doing sound and noise and things a bit more esoteric and out. This time, I think maybe also the instruments, sometimes a piano or acoustic guitar, are more transparent I think, sometimes in people’s minds, when those are there, I think they sort of fall away and all they hear is the song, and that’s maybe because people have been hearing those instruments for many, many years, they are used to it so it sort of disappears and all you have is the song and the voice, and the drums (laughs).

    Speaking of the voice, Mimi sings lead on five of the eleven songs, more than the usual for her in your previous records. Was that the initial idea for this album or did it come along as the songs were being written?
    It came as the songs were being written. She wrote more songs this time and we were able to work on them. We are always trying to get her to sing more songs, I think people like her singing, and her singing is probably more interesting and more attractive than my voice, you know, there’s a million bands with some guy up there whining. And Mimi’s voice, she has a natural voice. We always joke around that someday we’ll make a whole record where she just sings, so far that’s as close as we’ve gotten.

    The harmony of you and Mimi singing together in ‘Amethyst’ as one is just spectacular. I think it’s the most emotional song of the record, one that can even make you cry. Have you got to cry while writing, listening to or performing that song?

    Emotion... true, a fragile moment. Sometimes a fragile moment is all we need, when something is very true we laugh and we cry about it. And when the music has that moment that it’s true with us, that’s when... Yes, these songs are very emotional and sometimes when we are playing and singing they will surprise you. There have been many songs that have moved me in that way, yes.

    On the other hand, ‘Just Make it Stop’ is relentless, building up a fast pace with Mimi’s voice and the piano. Do you personally prefer a song like that or ‘Amethyst’?
    I don’t know, it’s usually the way the song comes, when you write a song, for me, I usually hear some ideas about how everything will sound, or sometimes you’ll start playing a song, sort of experimenting, and you’ll find a particular sound and say okay, this sound or this energy. ‘Just Make it Stop’, we tried it a bunch of different ways when we were first writing it, and maybe just on piano we sort of figured it out. But yes, it varies, sometimes a song can do many different things that you need to do what makes sense at the time.

    You’ve certainly managed to evolve and endure being faithful to your slowcore universe. Haven’t you ever felt constrained by its limited palette?
    Sure, yes. But that’s part of it. I think that everybody has limits in what they are working with, whether it’s their abilities or maybe a certain way a band is or maybe they are collaborating with another person and the way they are just makes this kind of music. Sometimes it’s just the natural way, and this is what happens when you are with this person and play music, so it’s not something you have to think about very much. Hopefully it grows and changes naturally, and you find a common ground, the voice together. It’s always kind of a mystery sometimes, especially going to the studio. Sometimes, a song, you don’t know how it’s going to sound until you stew it and then that’s the most natural way it’s presented. But it’s hard, I can tell, sometimes.

    Low still sounds quite fresh after 20 years and you seem excited to keep going and sorting out limits and mysteries.
    Well, having limits forces me to be more creative, you know. I have this idea and I need to present it through these limits. Sometimes those limits actually make your idea even stronger. The limitations, they are there, yes, and they can be frustrating sometimes, but in the end it is what moves you forward.

    Have you ever played in Liverpool before?
    I don’t think so, we’ve driven through a few times, we had a day off one time and drove around and saw some tourist things but this is maybe 12 years ago. We’ve always wanted to play there and we have these fans who come to other shows and say “come to Liverpool!” but this is our first time, yes.

    You recorded C’mon in a deconsecrated Catholic church and you have in fact played in several churches, but have you ever played in a cathedral?

    Yeah, we’ve played in some crazy bigger buildings like that. It’s really strange, I’ve just been reading this book by David Byrne, from Talking Heads, and he talks about space and how where people perform music changed music. How big spaces like churches inspired music to have very long notes and simple changes and a certain approach to harmonics that kept it from getting too clouded and confusing in a big room that has long reverb. And he compared that with music that’s outside, that carries very directly from the source. Playing at a big stage like that, it’s really beautiful but it’s also a huge challenge, sometimes certain songs just don’t work there, because there’s too many things going on and you are sending too much information into the air. So for us being kind of quieter, minimal, it really can enhance it, but even with us, we have to be very aware, sort of adjust our set according to the space. Cathedrals are really beautiful but they are also the most challenging.

    I saw you in Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival on 2011 and that was kind of a spiritual experience. I can only imagine how your concert is going to be at Liverpool’s Cathedral, which, by the way, is UK’s largest cathedral.

    Yes. At least that’s what they say.
    Oh, wow. Wow, that’s going to be crazy then. I will have to think really hard about that now.

    Well, don’t take it as too much of a challenge.
    It is, though (laughs). I’m excited. That’s strange, interesting, the biggest one, good.

    You once said that music is a particularly good conduit for you to feel closer to God. Do you think that in a place like that, a huge cathedral, both ingredients get together?
    It can be, but sometimes with our generation the very idea of a church can throw some people off. To some people it’s unfamiliar, they think “Oh, a church is a church” and then there’s a bit of a wall that builds up, so may- be there is a little bit of resistance. In a dirty club you don’t expect it, so then you have no preconceptions about what it means to feel something spiritual in that space, because there’s no reference to it. It’s almost more honest and free when it happens somewhere else, whereas when you are in a place where normally these kind of feelings are brought out, sometimes there can be a little bit of a resistance. But then you open up and realize that this space has had many, many thousands of people in there, some of them with very, very deep concerns of fear and hope, and whenever I’m in a place like that I feel those things. I don’t feel God as much as I feel the presence of all the people that have come there searching for God. To me, that’s what that space is. It can be very humbling and very challenging to be honest to that spirit. If you are making music there, you are becoming part of that spirit, and it’s not the place for a dishonest man.

    What are your feelings about Low’s 20th anniversary?
    I don’t know. We didn’t necessarily have a big party or anything. 20 years is interesting, a lot of the people who we look up to have been going for even longer, so it’s not so much an- ything that we can be too proud of.

    Most of the contemporary bands do not have that long a life, or if they do, sometimes they get a bit lost along the way.
    Yes, it’s dangerous to keep going (laughs).

    Do you ever feel this fear of crossing that line and becoming not that meaningful, not that relevant, the fear of sort of going along as opposed to going ahead?
    Of course I’m afraid, of course. Everyone who has done it this long is afraid of that. But I don’t know, the key I hope is to be honest with your- self and always make the music that you feel the most strongly about. I hope (laughs). That’s what we are going to do.

    Do you feel like...
    Old? (laughs)

    Like Low carrying on for another decade, I was about to ask (laughs).
    I think we probably will, yeah. Mimi and I are together, this is our life, and it doesn’t seem to me that anything is changing either, as far as priority, this is what we do and we are always looking for the new challenge, and right now we are at a place where we might start doing things that are a bit different from the last couple of records. We’ll see. To me that’s the key, I think we are always trying to find where it is to be uncomfortable. I think it’s time for a new way to think.

    Is it time to go even beyond your slowcore aesthetic?
    I don’t know. We know it’s going to always be sort of minimalistic, it’s always going to be our voices, but in the last few records, I think we realised that we can do whatever we want and try many possibilities and still sound like us.

    You say ‘happy birthday’ no less than 32 times in ‘On My Own’. Is that dedicated to yourself?
    I don’t know, maybe a little bit? I remember when I came out with that line and repeating it, it sort of made me laugh... You know what, I’ll tell you what; here’s how I wrote that song. That song, I wrote after watching the Pearl Jam documentary. I’m not a big Pearl Jam fan, but the movie... they did a movie, you know, they’ve been 20 years and someone did this movie, it came out a couple of years ago, and some of that song is inspired by seeing that movie. It’s interesting to see things about their perspective and their experience that was similar to us. It’s interesting to hear them talk about the experience of doing what they’ve done for that long, even though their experience is very different from us, there were things about it, a certain perspective and the spirit of it that I found very similar, so maybe I’m saying “happy birthday” to Pearl Jam (laughs). I know that’s very unhip, “happy birthday Pearl Jam” (laughs). No, I don’t know, also, I like the idea of different birthday songs, maybe 50 years from now everyone will sing “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday” [sings like on ‘On My Own’], but probably not.

      Oriol's posts By Oriol Bosch
      @ obosch_



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