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Low: The Joy of Holding Back

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: February 19, 2003

w/ Haley Bonar
Thursday, Feb. 27
9 p.m., $10
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha


Want more Low? Check out the April 2001 Lazy-i interview with Zak Sally.  

Low's latest CD, Trust, opens with a musical prayer, of sorts.

Called "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace," the song is pure Low -- slow, dark, almost mournful, it opens with the trio's rhythm section of bassist Zak Sally and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker playing an echoing, syncopated heartbeat, while guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk drips in a slight, lonely spy guitar line that floats like a ripple on a pond.

Enter Sparhawk's vocals, harmonized hauntingly by wife, Parker:

I knew this girl when I was young
She took her spikes from everyone
One night she swallowed up the lake
That's how you sing amazing grace

From there, a chorus of the two words "amazing grace" rises like an offering of forgiveness to a rock and roll god who lives in a dark, smoky club beneath the streets of a crowded Midwestern city. This is the moment of stark purity for any Low fan -- getting lost in the bleak, sonic bliss while Sally's throaty drums pound slowly forward, making sure that you're still alive.

It's how the Duluth-based band has been doing it for more than a decade, all but inventing the term 'slowcore' that has been hung around their necks like an albatross, forcing them to continue their cavern journeys as the only band capable of holding the flashlight.

As musically dramatic as Low sounds, their songs carry a message from the deepest mines of personal spirituality, choice, regret and redemption, written from the point of view of someone about to make a decision and weighing each option like a penance.

"A lot of our stuff revolves around that moment of suddenly discovering the truth, no matter how ugly it is, and therefore being able to make the decision to move forward or to change," said Alan Sparhawk from his Duluth home Jan. 25. "I'm not dictating decisions or saying 'Hey, this is wrong.' It's kind of an effort to try to understand and see the real picture. I really believe in the power of the individual."



From that standpoint, Low has taken a new approach toward spirituality in music. It's a grittier message than merely saying "trust in the Lord," and for Sparhawk, it's a more realistic one.

"There's a place for complete joy in spiritual music. I don't think it's constructive," Sparhawk said. "At the end of the day, we'll all be singing 'hallelujah' and praising God. There's nothing more powerful than that. But the reason we're living in this world is to grapple with tough decisions -- light and dark. To completely shut yourself out of that fact is not solving anything. I'm much more interested in grappling.

"I really believe that God does give us decisions where we're supposed to assess and find the true answer. You don't learn things by being told what to do."

Pretty heavy stuff. In fact, Low is a pretty heavy band that's not for everyone. Those who 'don't get it' have called them a 'downer band.' Within the last few years, however, Low's music has taken on a new, louder urgency. Songs that used to drone on for seven or eight minutes are now spiked with gigantic guitar leads or white-knuckle drums. Trust tracks like the pounding mantra "Canada" (apparently about cross-border smuggling) and the galloping "Last Snowstorm of the Year" are downright rousing.

As the band plays larger and larger venues, they've been forced to turn up the intensity, like at a show two year's ago at Knickerbockers, where Bright Eyes opened to a packed house. Sparhawk remembers that last appearance in Nebraska. "The crowd was really riled up about their local heroes," he said. "We felt like the underdog coming on after Bright Eyes. We adjusted for that. When things are that loud and apathetic, there's only so far you can go with the subtleties. That was a fun night."

Sparhawk said that although they've made adjustments to their live sets, there hasn't been a conscious effort by Low to get louder on its recordings. "We're more open to the louder songs than we used to be," he said. "We've held ourselves in a certain box for a long time. We've decided to see what happens. It's been to mixed satisfaction."

"A lot of our stuff revolves around that moment of suddenly discovering the truth, no matter how ugly it is, and therefore being able to make the decision to move forward or to change."



"Holding that back is much more satisfying than letting go from the get-go. It's almost sexual."


That's because Low understands the pitfalls of "the hard music road." The band prefers the power that comes from restraint.

"When you're playing quiet and subtle, every bone in your body wants to explode," Sparhawk said. "Holding that back is much more satisfying than letting go from the get-go. It's almost sexual.

"On the other hand, if it's just quiet-quiet-quiet, then that's all they'll remember. Ian MacKaye (from Fugazi) tells a story about when he was in Minor Threat. His grandmother came to one of their shows and he asked her afterward what she thought. She said, 'Well, you know, if there were parts of your show that were very quiet, the loud parts would seem louder.' There has to be dynamics."

A few days after our interview, Low was scheduled to leave on a brief tour in England. Sparhawk was a bit unsettled by the timing, with the U.S. on the brink of a war that many Europeans oppose. He said he wasn't comfortable with President Bush's recent decisions, and though Low has never been a political band, he's feeling a pull toward that realm. "We've made some comments from the stage in Europe before," he said. "Things like 'Thanks for coming. Sorry about Bush and the war stuff.'

"People just want to know where you stand. I was in Amsterdam and bumped into some locals who could hear my accent. They weren't antagonistic. They just wanted to know our perspective. 'What is it like to be an American at this time? Is your whole country insane?' They want some reaffirmation that Americans are good. They have to be reassured because there's a lot of crazy stuff going on. They want to know that America is going to be noble. I hope we are."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader Feb. 19, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photo by Karl Raschke.