After Drums & Guns and The Great Destroyer, you might assume the title of Low’s ninth album, C’mon indicates the band is lowering its sights – setting aside universals for a colloquial invitation. But Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have simply turned their attentions inward, searching, sometimes painfully, for a way to co-exist with the world, and with each other. There hasn’t been so honest a report from inside a long-term relationship since Yo La Tengo’s …and then nothing turned itself inside-out.
Shortly before the album’s release, Sparhawk got on the phone from the Duluth, Minnesota, home he shares with Parker and their two children to talk about real-life love songs, trying to sound like Al Green, and why he understands where terrorists are coming from.
What I hear on C’mon is the sound of you and Mimi talking to each other through the songs. Is that how you see the record?
Yeah. That’s something I’d noticed as well, for sure. We’re never intentional writers, but during the process of doing this, realizing what sort of songs we’re writing, I did notice the tone of the language and what’s being said was being directed back and forth between the two of us – or on a more symbolic level, an intimate dialogue between two people who have a history and are trying to be honest with each other. There’s definitely more, almost, love songs on there in contrast to the last couple records we’ve done.
When you say “love songs,” it evokes a fairly rosy picture. But the songs on C’mon encompass the whole of a marriage, the times when one person can’t stand the other, or has to talk them off of a ledge. It’s a portrait of the whole thing, not just the good parts.
I’m glad that there. It’s an accurate a reflection. Anybody that’s been in a relationship recognizes that’s part of it. The more honestly you can speak to that, even if it’s just reassuring someone watching from the outside, like, “I’ve had an ugly fight like that,” or “I’ve felt that helpless,” the better.
There’s a real push towards emotional honesty and vulnerability in your lyrics, and a frustration with those who don’t make the same commitment. There’s that line in “Witches” – “All you guys out there trying to act like Al Green, you’re all weak” – which seems to say that putting up a suave facade is the coward’s way out.
That line represents calling out the fakers. It’s almost a hip-hop thing. Of course, it’s not too hard to recognize, I’m pointing at myself at the same time. And then wrapping up by paying tribute to Al Green being in some way a measuring stick. We can’t all be Al Green, but man, look at that guy. He pulled it all off. I’m probably not going to be able to pull it off like that guy. Or any ideal for that matter. Al Green just happens to be sort of a running theme through the band. There’ll always be this thing about Al Green when we’re on tour. One time, when we were doing those shows with Radiohead a few years ago, Colin, the bass player, asked us one time, “Do you guys listen to a lot of Al Green?” “Yeah… we listen to him, sure.” “The way you guys sing is really a lot like him.” It’s been one of these puzzles where we have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. We’ve listened to him, but not enough that he’d necessarily influence the way I sing – but at the same time, I haven’t listened enough to really know what he’s talking about. It’s sort of an inside joke for us, like, “What the hell are we doing sounding like Al Green?”
There was a point at which Al Green decided he didn’t want to be Al Green either. He stopped singing love songs when he went back to the church.
He sort of turned his back on where the glamorous life was taking him. Of course, he had a little help from his wife. He’s since then become the symbol of a man, at least on an exemplary level, turning his path towards faith.
That struggle was very much as part of The Great Destroyer. “When I Go Deaf” and “Death of a Salesman” very pointedly question whether being in a band is worth it.
Yeah. They’re sort of reflecting off of people around myself. “When I Go Deaf” is me looking at my father and other people around me who have just as much passion and love for music who don’t have the same path that I’ve been able to take. That record was coming to a culmination of this very, almost on the edge of violently, grappling with that.
“Murderer” brings in the element of spiritual struggle as well. It’s almost an accusation against God, or at least a reminder of his vengeful Old Testament roots.
For me, that song came out of a glimpse of what it feels like to almost ask God for permission to be violent, or do something vengeful, in the name of God, so to speak. And trying to argue with God: “You’ve done this before. What good am I other than to do this?” Drums and Guns was very much grasping at the extremes. You can attribute that to a lot of things: the war, looking at terrorism and thinking, “Who’s to say I wouldn’t do the same thing, if I was in a position where I felt my faith, my world, my family was under attack?” My beliefs – which aren’t that far off on a certain level – would tell me that I have to use violence, not unlike those people. There’s a bunch of things colliding on those records.
After The Great Destroyer, you were hospitalized for a while, and wrote an open letter to the band’s fans explaining the psychological troubles you were going through. You’ve said one of the things you were coming to terms with was that you’re no longer a rebellious young person, but a very angry adult. Is that still the case?
I don’t think anything necessarily changes. As far as what claws dug into me, it’s a matter of recognizing it and dealing with it, being a little bit more in control, or living with those things.
The emotional vulnerability that comes through in your songs can be a dangerous thing as well. On “Nothing But Heart,” you repeat that phrase for five or six minutes, so that what could be an almost banal statement becomes an anguished confession. When Mimi’s countermelody comes in, it’s as if she’s calling out to you in the middle of a storm.
I wasn’t necessarily trying to go for anything too high art, but at a certain point, that fragment really came alive. I like the idea of something slowly mutating or deteriorating, or the intensity folding in on itself, drawing out the mantra, like certain Steve Reich pieces, like “Come Out.” It’s very simple but at the same time, the four lines, the last one repeating are in a certain way as accurate as anything I’ve ever written.
Stock phrases like “nothing but heart” can be repeated so often they lose their meaning.
We’ve been pretty aware of that recently. It’s become a subject of interest. After a while, you’ve known each other so long, your language mutates so much that you could be saying one thing and the other person’s thinking a totally different thing. You get so lost in layers you can’t even say the simplest things to each other.
In “Try to Sleep,” which refers to both rest and death, you use “Don’t look at the camera” as a refrain, which could simply mean to live your life unselfconsciously or could have creepy, stalker-ish undertones.
That maybe comes a little bit from something I remember from when I was a kid. I remember having the classic fear of everything being staged, that everybody’s actually just acting and once you don’t see them they’re actually hiding somewhere else and watching. For me, it’s a reference to that, or the whole idea of waking up at the end of the story and “It was all a dream!” Oh, wait a minute, are you really trying to sleep, or waking up, or dreaming? At the end there’s this actual outside reality you have to make sure you don’t acknowledge. Stay with the storyline.
When Mimi sings lead on “You See Everything” and “Especially Me,” do you see yourself reflected in those lyrics?
Oh, yeah. There’s language that we have, a certain subtle way that I just know what she’s talking about. Perhaps she’s talking to me in the same way that I’m talking to her in certain songs. I find that a lot of songs that Mimi writes, she’s more grappling with her own self-image in the face of the world. She struggles a lot with trying to be able to say what’s inside her without being too conspicuous. She’s always grappling with her own timidness, so to speak.
You called her “the soul of the band,” and that seems like something Low’s been working with from the beginning – that desire to say things without overstating them, speaking them in a whisper instead of a shout.
Or at least engaging that struggle of, “Okay, how do I say this?” Fluctuating from one side to the other, but always riding the edge of the knife, so to speak. We jump out a little bit more. Some songs are very much standing on a chair and wanting to yell at people, and some are more sittin ‘around the campfire and some are spoken in someone’s ear.
It’s been four years since Drums and Guns, which is the longest break between Low albums.
Do we have any excuses? Two things, mostly. Retribution Gospel Choir did a couple records. By the time we did the first record and tour, it was doing well. Low was still touring off and on, but we’d been doing it for a while and Mimi really wanted to be home more. Meanwhile, Mimi and I started working with this choreographer for this piece called Heaven. That project ended up being really involved, as much as if we’d done a record and toured on it. We were away from home a lot: residencies, a lot of rehearsals, and we were in the piece, so when it would show, we’d go off somewhere for eight or 10 days. So it was this big thing that we worked on, and it took a lot of time and creative energy, and there’s nothing to show for it because it’s contemporary dance. By the time this dance thing finally was done, we were definitely champing at the bit to do a new record.