The band's dirge-like percussion, grinding, minimal guitars, long harmonic vocal phrases, and emotional lyrics resulted in a sound so different that it prompted a friend of Sparhawk to coin the term that has followed them throughout their career. "We played our first shows here in Duluth and this friend of ours who worked in a record store was always joking around about the intricacies of the music scene and he said ‘I got it! You should call it Slowcore!’" Sparhawk reminisces.
When Alan Sparhawk started Low, he had no idea that nearly fourteen years later they would still be making records. "We were just kind of fiddling around and we had no ambitions at all," says the frontman. "The next thought was that we’d do a show and see what kind of adverse reaction we’d get out of people. It was very much dictated that we’re gonna play really slow music that’s barely there and see how little we can get away with." But they began to realize the possibilities of the style and it caught on with fans. Now, on the brink of their fourteenth year of playing haunting, minimalist music with his wife Mimi Parker, they're set to release a new album on SubPop, Drums and Guns.
The band's dirge-like percussion, grinding, minimal guitars, long harmonic vocal phrases, and emotional lyrics resulted in a sound so different that it prompted a friend of Sparhawk to coin the term that has followed them throughout their career. "We played our first shows here in Duluth and this friend of ours who worked in a record store was always joking around about the intricacies of the music scene and he said ‘I got it! You should call it Slowcore!’" Sparhawk reminisces. "It was a total joke and I think I mentioned it at one of our interviews." The tag stuck. They don't hate it but they do find it amusing. "You gotta have those tags I guess. I think that there are worse things to be called."
Their style has deeper roots than trying to shake things up in Duluth. Like many musicians, Sparhawk learned more about music in church than anywhere else. "Anyone who’s grown up going to church regularly with their family ends up singing those hymns and for some kids that’s the only singing you do throughout the week except for maybe some singing in school during the week." Alan was raised as a Mormon and his father, a jazz musician, often enlisted him up to sing for the congregation. "We’d loathe doing it but I look back and I realize that here were some semi-sophisticated things we learned from doing that," he says. "Harmony, breathing, holding notes, enunciation… those songs move slowly and there’s very long phrasing." That style has come to define Low's vocals.
The trio teamed up again with the producer of their 2005 rock-and-reverb infused album, The Great Destroyer, but Drums and Guns is nothing like their last outing with the David Friddman, the producer known as "the Fifth Flaming Lip." "David is a good producer," says Sparhawk. "He lets the band breathe and helps you push yourself. There was a lot of conversation homework, a lot of phone calls before we went in to record, just kind of me rambling and mumbling about whatever my concerns were and by the time we got to the studio he at least had me figured out a little bit and help us get on the right track and find what we were looking for."
Low is back from their adventure in rock with the new album, but this time they took a different approach in the studio than they have in the past. "You can hear drum machines and loops and there’s more dabbling in mechanical things," says Sparhawk. "We kind of assembled the record like a hip hop record." It's a departure from their usual method of sitting down in the studio, playing the songs as if playing for an audience, and fleshing them out as they go along. "After all these years I just sort of know all the patterns we’d fall into if we just do that so we decided to not do it that way," he says.
Sparhawk and Parker will tour this spring in support of the new album with current bassist Matt Livingston (also the bassist in a Sparhawk side project, Retribution Gospel Choir), but with one of their two children now in school, the future calls for changes. Sparhawk admits, "It’s getting more and more difficult to work out scheduling for touring." Regardless of whether or not they decide to really settle down, they will never give up music altogether. "It seems like music is just part of us," he says. "It’s kind of what our family has become and I think we’ll always have something that we’re doing in that realm."
For now, Low fans can relish Drums and Guns as a study of what has kept this band unique throughout the years. "There’s definitely a couple songs that, as far as recordings and stuff," says Sparhawk, "I definitely think are the strongest things that we've done."
— Jess Hemerly, April 2007