For the first time during a half-hour-plus telephone conversation, Alan Sparhawk really laughs. Not that the guitarist-singer for the minimalist avant-rock trio Low is humorless or anything. Rather, it's just that he usually punctuates his measured comments about his music, his band, and his take on the record biz with wry asides and occasional drollery. But now he's consumed in a mini tempest of laughter, prompted by his acknowledgment of his guilty-pleasure listening habits. "I'm a fan of some really embarrassing rock, believe me," he admits. "I like AC/DC's Back in Black. And then there's the really embarrassing stuff, like I think Alice in Chains's Dirt was an amazing record, even though it's probably the most unhip thing to say at this time in rock history. I thought it had a lot of soul to it. We probably would surprise people with how much loud stuff we listen to."
No kidding. Over the course of four years, three full-length albums, and two EPs, including last year's Songs for a Dead Pilot, Low -- Sparhawk (29 years old), percussionist-singer Mimi Parker (age 30), bassist Zak Sally (age 26) -- has established itself as pop iconoclasts, the advance guard for a quiet, slow, intense, barely there sound that both adheres to and subverts the notion of the song. A sound that respects and prizes the spaces between notes as much as the notes themselves. A sound that could not be further removed from the power-chord blare of AC/DC or the overamped churn of Alice in Chains. For instance, the six-cut Songs for a Dead Pilot, released on the Chicago-based indie imprint Kranky, features the thirteen-plus-minutes "Born by the Wires," a glacially paced exploration of aural textures that finds Sparhawk out front languorously scraping and strumming his guitar as he sings. About one-third of the way through, he dumps the vocals and, unaccompanied by his bandmates, "plays," if you call it that, more than four minutes of precisely spaced, highly reverberated guitar whangs, much as if he were a math-challenged bell ringer sounding, oh, eighteen o'clock. It could be the wake-up call that signifies the end of the world, with Sparhawk's guitar chords hanging palpably in the air, humming and rattling. The band finishes the track with Sparhawk coaxing subtly modulated tones from his guitar, augmented by a butterfly's kiss of Parker's cymbals and Sally's bass. Absolutely compelling, despite its completely unconventional structure.
Elsewhere on the EP, Low similarly toys with sonic atmospherics, notably on the opening cut, "Will the Night," which, with its tonal shifts in guitar, keyboards, and massed voices, sounds like a field recording from another planet, or perhaps a hidden-microphone recording of Heaven's waiting lounge. And on "Be There," the record's most gripping song, the band conjures a nightmare soundscape reminiscent of the score David Lynch co-wrote (with Alan R. Splet) for his 1978 film Eraserhead: an industrial throb like the underwater pounding of an immense ship's engines, one-note keyboards, tape crackle and hiss, and whispered vocals by Sparhawk and Parker. (The Eraserhead comparison gains even more heft when you toss in the sound of a crying baby -- a motif that seeps in and out of the Lynch soundtrack -- heard at the end of Pilot's "Condescend.") The closest the group comes to what can be characterized as a linear, "normal" song occurs during the opening minute and a half of the final cut, "Hey Chicago," whose detectable melody line, sung by Sparhawk and Parker, eventually gives way to what sounds like the desolate blowing of the solar wind.
Recorded in the spring and summer of 1997 on an eight-track machine in the basement studio of Sparhawk and Parker's house in Duluth, Minnesota (they're married), Songs for a Dead Pilot not only marks the first time Low has cut a record of significant length at home and produced it themselves, but it also introduces a new instrumental element -- strings -- to the band's signature frugal mix. Their previous three CDs and one EP -- all released on Vernon Yard, a subsidiary of the major label Virgin -- were done in larger, considerably more sophisticated studios, with big-name (well, big-name in indiedom, anyway) producers Mark Kramer (1994's I Could Live in Hope), Steve Albini (1995's Transmission EP, with Kramer), and Steve Fisk (1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast) presiding.
"Before it was always very much like, gear up, learn the songs, and practice, and then go in and spend a week -- eight or ten hours a day -- intensively recording and mixing," Sparhawk explains. "Whereas this [Songs for a Dead Pilot] was like, we came in, sat down, and tried to figure out what we wanted to do, string some wires, try some stuff, and if things weren't flying that day, we'd just go home." Meaning Sparhawk and Parker merely trudged upstairs. "It didn't so much make us lazy as much as that we were able to think about things differently. There were a couple of songs that we did in a completely different way, and then the next time round we said, 'Let's have Mims [Mimi] hit the washing machine on the side.' And we wound up with things that we thought were better, and not the thing we would have thought of first." That washing machine bit, by the way, consisted of sticking a microphone inside the appliance and having Parker whack its side with a mallet -- the experiment produced the aforementioned industrial throb heard on "Be There."
This Spartan recording process jibed with Low's trademark spare sound and overall artistic agenda. "The limitation of having only eight tracks means ..." Sparhawk begins, then trails off for moment. "Well, we never use very many tracks anyway. There's not a lot going on in our music," he jokes -- kind of. It was also the result of economic necessity. "We were going to be doing the record with Kranky," he adds, "and they had limited means -- resources -- as far as money to give us up-front for recording. So we thought, 'Let's take this little amount of money and buy some equipment and try to do this on our own.' And Kranky being who they are, we know that when we turn [the album] in, they're not going to be like, 'What, did you record this in your basement?' Because then we can say, 'Well, yeah.'"
The album's title alludes to a real-life incident. About a year ago an F-16 from a nearby air force base crashed not far from the band's Duluth headquarters, killing the pilot. "What was in this person's mind," Sparhawk asks rhetorically, "as he realized what was going on? Or didn't realize what was going on." (Although he points out that nothing on the album directly refers to the crash, the line "I don't want to be there when they drag you out" on "Be There" certainly gives one pause.) "There always seems to be a lingering mystery here and there in your life, whether it's in your community or in the world, and it's something that's in the back of your mind. [The plane crash] was just the weird thing that was going on during this time that we were writing all these songs and figuring out what we were going to do with them."
That kind of mildly haunted quality has helped to define the band's music since the release of I Could Live in Hope. Not morbid, mind you, although the first album's dark and beautiful "Rope," with its repeated refrain "You're gonna need more rope," registers in the red zone on the disturb-o-meter, but rather ghostly, spectral. "On the surface," Sparhawk contends, "our goal has been to write some good songs within these boundaries that we've set for ourselves. And to try to express something as accurately as possible -- namely, whatever is deep within you. In the more foggy realm, I guess it's some sort of spiritual thing -- 'spiritual' as in the basic questions like 'Who am I?' and 'What am I doing?' The sobering questions. It's kind of a vague thing in the back of your mind."
The band began vaguely enough back in 1993 when Sparhawk and original Low bassist John Nichols started fiddling around with the notion of doing austere songs, the antithesis of the prevailing rock aesthetic. You know, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. "I had been in louder, faster, more 'rock' bands before," Sparhawk recalls, "and I was getting tired of that. I was seeing that there were these possibilities for more quiet, atmospheric, empty, minimalist music. When we started we didn't necessarily intend to be a band that recorded. The furthest along we ever thought it would get would be maybe to write three songs, play them for people, and see what their reaction would be -- to see if they'd be uncomfortable." Sparhawk recruited Parker to contribute percussion -- she'd played drums in her high school marching band -- and the three set about their experiment in human discomfort.
As it turned out, they succeeded. Partially. Some of the people they performed for -- "kids, mostly," Sparhawk notes -- found the group's funereal compositions squirm-inducing in the extreme. Others responded favorably. Somewhat encouraged on both scores, the trio recorded a demo of their handful of songs and sent it out to people they thought might understand the go-slow ethos, including Mark Kramer: grand pooh-bah of Shimmy-Disc Records, proprietor of Noise New York studio, co-conspirator with Ann Magnuson in the avant-everything band Bongwater, and indie-world godhead for his production work with countless bands, notably Boston's Galaxie 500. "It wasn't so much that we wanted him to put out our records or record us as much as it would be interesting to see if he'd write back and say, 'This sucks,' or, 'Wow, this is neat,'" Sparhawk remembers. Apparently Kramer thought Low's songs were pretty neat, and he invited the band to record in his studio. "Within three or four months of forming, we were on our way to New York to record the only five songs we had."
Kramer touted Low to some of his contacts in the music biz, and almost immediately the group hooked up with Vernon Yard, which, it would seem, had an affinity for the hushed and deliberate approach, having also vacuumed up L.A.'s similarly inclined -- almost always as pokey, but also almost always louder -- Acetone, also a trio, around the same time. The sessions with Kramer yielded the eleven-track I Could Live in Hope, all of whose song titles consist of one word -- "Fear," "Cut," "Lazy," "Sea," et cetera -- a further manifestation of Low's less-is-less philosophy. Of course, many others have shone a flashlight in pop's minimalist garret before: Galaxie 500, that band's splinter group Damon & Naomi (also a Kramer production), Spain, Red House Painters, Nord Express, the 4AD label's This Mortal Coil collective, and Rachel's, to cite only a few -- plus even occasional side trips by Yo La Tengo and Eleventh Dream Day, two bands noted more for their guitarrorism than their quietude (and two bands, like Low, with a husband-wife guitar-drummer combo, oddly enough). But few have taken the approach to such obsessive lengths as Low. That dedication -- and a willingness to tour behind I Could Live in Hope, 1995's Long Division, Transmission, Curtain, and now Songs for a Dead Pilot -- has earned the band the proverbial small but fanatical following.
"It may sound strange," Sparhawk notes, "but we've never actually shifted our goals in music. In a vague way we've always been shooting for the same thing, and I don't know whether we're getting closer to it now or whether we've already accomplished it and we're still fleshing that out and showing the possibilities." Probably both. He characterizes The Curtain Hits the Cast as "a wide spread of where we go, everything from very simple three-and-a-half minute pop-type songs -- 'Over the Ocean' -- to experiments in sound" (the epic fourteen-and-a-half-minute "Do You Know How to Waltz?"). As for Songs for a Dead Pilot, "We approached it as an opportunity to stretch out and try some things and not worry about which song we were going to do the video for," he continues. "With this album we took maybe a bigger step 'out there' than we have on our other records."
Given his way, Sparhawk would like to step even further "out there" by scoring music for film. "I'm much more interested in doing something like that than I am in ever having a song on the radio," he confides. "That just seems more real to what we're doing. That would be another chance to get completely away from 'songs' and work with textures while still understanding harmony and melody."
For the nonce, however, Sparhawk, Parker, and Sally will soldier on in the familiar rock routine of recording and performing. After some dates in the East, South, and Midwest this month, they will tour Europe in May, with tentative plans to record this summer, maybe back in the couple's basement, maybe some place bigger. According to Sparhawk, what you hear on Low's records is what you'll hear at one of their shows. "The core of nine out of ten of our songs is Mimi playing drums, Zak playing bass, and me playing guitar, and Mimi and me singing," he explains. "Generally, live, it's pretty easy to pull off. We're not ones to extend some section or go into some guitar solo on the spot or improvise. A few of the songs, like 'Be There,' are tougher to do, of course -- we don't have the washing machine on-stage."
Low performs with Swivel Stick and A Kite Is a Victim at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 15, at the Warehouse Cafe, 7181 SW 117th Ave; 273-0870. Admission is $7.
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