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Low - Staying Low

Author: Angus Thompson
Friday, 14 December 2007
Masters of “minimalist soundscapes and beautiful harmonies”, low, are a welcome addition to the Sydney Festival's Spiegeltent. Angus Thompson spoke with founding member and vocalist Alan Sparhawk on the eve of their trip down under.

Alan Sparhawk is speaking to me from his home in Uluth, Minnesota. As he looks out the window he tells me it is snowing, as it has been for several days now. Alan uses the phone conversation to wait for his wife and band mate, Mimi Parker, while she prepares her homemade apple pie, which their two children are presently helping her with.

Despite the departure of two bassists (making Matt Livingston the third bass player for the group) since the band's inception fourteen years ago, Low has always been a family affair - and with the added achievements of eight full-length albums, the same number of EPs and a hoard of compilations and side projects, as well as a solid church-going background, it looks as though Sparhawk is winning big in the game of life. Alan is even contemplating a midlife career change into professional race car driving.

However, anyone familiar with Low's music, including their latest album Drums and Guns, would be suspicious of just how swiftly the American Dream is going for the members of Low. With its haunting sense of disillusionment, Drums and Guns has been described as 'a soundtrack for post-traumatic stress'. But fending off suggestions of the bleakness of Low's image, Sparkhawk positions his music in a different aspect: “It's not as dismal as you paint it. I find that making music is more to do with being honest with yourself and creating something larger than yourself.”

The militant title of the album and the consistent juxtaposition of drums against modern weaponry in the cover art hint at a politically minded project. Although Sparhawk cringes at the thought of having made a political album, he admits that about halfway through the production of Drums and Guns the band realised the message they had created was inescapable.

“To me politics is about one person trying to influence a very large group of people. I shy away from it being political because then it sounds like we've got another album about how much we hate George Bush.”

The themes dealt with in the album were conceived far more locally, however, impacted by the pained dynamics of personal relationships, a concerted effort to communicate the woes of one person to another.

Emerging in 1993, Low distinguished themselves as 'slowcore' (a branding that Sparhawk detests) champions amidst the distorted power chords of grunge. Their live performances were barely audible above a whisper, Sparhawk takes solace in knowing of the few in those early crowds who were listening.

“It was confrontational - which ultimately made for better music, and all the more powerful for the one or two people who were listening.”

Taken aback by my efforts to deconstruct Low's success, Sparhawk attributes more visceral qualities to the band's direction thus far, enthusing the power of minimalism in song writing.

“When I was young I was listening to a lot of early punk, and that amateurism led to minimalism. I liked the fact that you could say a lot with just a few things. That, and the belief you can speak really accurately person to person.”

Heading to Australia in January to play the Speigeltent during the Sydney Festival, Low may very well be confronted with rays of sunshine quite alien to their aesthetic. Or, if weather permits, storm clouds of discontent will hover over a brooding performance by the Minnesota three.

WHO: Low
WHAT: Play the Famous Spiegeltent for Sydney Festival
WHEN: 17-19 January
MORE: sydneyfestival.org.au / chairkickers.com



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