Interview: Low

Laura Leebove

By Laura Leebove

Managing Editor
on 03.19.13 in Interviews

Low’s albums have followed a fascinatingly diverse arc during their tenure on Sub Pop: The life-affirming electric bombast of 2005′s The Great Destroyer, their first for the label, was followed by the moodier, tightly-wound and politically-fueled Drums & Guns. Their 2011 record C’mon is majestic and intimate, an uncharacteristically clean recording with lyrics that can almost be read as a conversation between the band’s founders, husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Their goal for The Invisible Way, Low’s 10th album in twice as many years, was to keep a minimalist aesthetic, and they enlisted Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to help them stick to their instincts at his recording studio in Chicago.

The pristine sound is made from little more than guitar, soft drums, bass and a prominent but unintrusive piano presence that backs the album’s most soulful moments, songs like “Holy Ghost, “Waiting” and “Just Make it Stop.” Sparhawk’s and Parker’s voices create some of the fullest sounds on the record, and the scope of their lyrics is wider than Low’s past few collections: In “Plastic Cup,” they imagine people in the future digging up artifacts from today; “Holy Ghost” is about having faith that a higher power will “keep me hangin’ on”; and “Mother” is about teaching reality to future generations.

eMusic’s Laura Leebove spoke with Sparhawk about Parker’s growth as a songwriter, using nonsensical names in songs, and Jeff Tweedy’s hands-off approach to producing.

You’re celebrating 20 years as a band this year. If you could go back to when you started and give yourself career advice, what would it be?

I don’t know. I think I’d be cautious about that because a lot of what helped develop us over the years, or maybe contributed to the fact that we’re still around, is not knowing that we can’t do that or it would be this hard. I think I look back sometimes at how frustrating and sort of demoralizing sometimes it is to try to write songs. Sometimes it’s kind of depressing, when you work for a while and don’t come up with anything. It can be frustrating. I think some of that’s gotten better over the years because I tell myself, ‘It’s OK, I’ve tried this before.’ So maybe a little bit of that. Some of that frustration, years ago might have actually made for better material and made me work so much harder.

Your kids [Hollis, 12, and Cyrus, 8] have had a pretty unique experience being born into the touring-band lifestyle — are they interested in what you and Mimi do for a living?

Yeah, more or less. They kinda grew up around it, came on tour with us, so they’re sort of used to it now. They come with us from time to time.

What do they listen to?

Hollis seems to like the Beatles and some of those kinds of things. And the boy likes pop radio, I’m afraid.

When you’re all able to tour together, what music can you all agree on?

They’re always pretty tolerant of whatever. Mimi usually puts up with a little bit of reggae from me and then after an hour gets tired and puts up stuff that she likes. We usually agree on most everything.

I think “Mother” is one of the prettiest songs on the new record. Is it autobiographical?

Yeah, more or less, inspired by [my mom].

There’s a line there about holding you to the fire; were your parents strict with you growing up?

Yeah, actually, my mom was pretty strict. A little bit of strict and it also kinda evokes showing a kid the truth, showing them the way as harsh as it is sometimes.

You’ve said that part of what keeps you making music is the thought of “Can we do this?” while you’re making a record — whether or not you’re able to pull something off. Where was that moment in recording The Invisible Way?

I guess there’s sort of the “throw caution to the wind” or “OK, let’s jump in” kind of moment. I guess we just visited the studio and [thought it was] pretty cool. I think when we first started doing our takes and started listening, we realized that we were on the right side of the fence that day and things were going better. Sometimes [it helps] just having the right person there to reassure you that you’re not completely in the dark. There’s a little bit of mystery, I guess, not knowing how it’s gonna sound when it comes out the other end. I think when I sort of realized that Jeff Tweedy might be an option, that was the perfect mystery. I don’t know what that’s gonna sound like, but I feel like I could trust that process enough to jump in.

What was it that made you finally commit to doing this record with him? You’ve known him for a while and the offer to record with him had been on the table.

Last year we stopped in to check out the studio, we were on our way through town. I guess it took actually checking the place out and then hearing some stuff they were working on with someone else at the time. It had a really good sound and [we got] a great vibe…that’s when it kind of dawned on me that that was the way to go.

Did anything surprise you about working with him?

Well, I think there’s a little part of me that felt, “OK, Jeff’s a songwriter, he’s really into tunes and I was curious as to whether he was gonna go a little more surgically in and go, “OK, let’s move this around, maybe change this song.” I was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t do that. Early on just said, “Well, you guys already have your songs, you know what you’re doing, it’s good, you already know how to make those decisions.” It’s more trying to make sure we get a good sound. I guess part of me deep down kinda knew that he would be cool and he wouldn’t do that, but it was a mystery at the time. After the first day I didn’t know exactly what he was gonna do.

You already had these songs written and demoed before going in, but even though Jeff was hands off with the actual songs, was there anything that happened in the studio that wasn’t planned ahead of time?

Not too much. I think we were trying to stay to a certain aesthetic, a little minimalism, but I don’t know, yeah, I mean, I was surprised that Jeff helped us stick to that more so than I thought, which was a nice surprise. He helped us when we were second-guessing that, that was really key [with him] keeping us on task and sticking to our own rules, so to speak.

There are a few spots on this record where there’s a lot of soul and some places musically that seem like there was some kind of gospel inspiration. I’m particularly thinking of “Just Make It Stop” and “Holy Ghost” and “Waiting.” Was that in your mind at all while you were working on those songs?

Well, yeah, those are things just in the songs. That kind of stuff is just the heart of the tune, or emotionally the weight of it. I don’t know if you want to call it the drama or whatever, but that’s pretty much inherent in the songs. That’s always been something that’s there from time to time with us. Different songs kind of enhance it more, for sure, but that’s the songs, we don’t have to overthink that.

What’s the story behind “Clarence White”?

Well, there’s someone who played guitar in the Byrds named Clarence White, and the song is not about that person. Both those names in that song are more meant to be random, and not necessarily a reference to him. Those were the first few words that came out…and sometimes the first few words are sort of nonsensical…and you try to go back and fix them and sometimes those initial phrases end up becoming vital so you have to leave them. We couldn’t think of a better one.

Mimi sings lead on more songs here than most of your previous albums. Did anything change in the writing process to create that?

Yeah, she wrote more. In the last couple years with the kids going to school she’s had a little more time to write, and we’ve been encouraging her a lot the last few years to write more. Maybe someday she’ll do the whole record, but it’s a pretty good start so far.

I imagine sometimes when you write a song it’s obvious to her what it’s about and vice versa, especially with C’mon where it seemed like a lot of the songs had a back and forth between you. To what extent do you actually share with each other where the lyrics are coming from?

Probably never. I don’t think we ever… we don’t really talk too much about what songs are about until people ask us, I guess. We don’t really feel like we have to explain what the song’s about to each other.

Because you assume that she knows what it’s about?

Yeah. Or she knows about it as much as anybody’s gonna know about it. One person’s interpretation is [as valid] as anybody else.