“Fear and anger can make you think lots of weird things about yourself. I am not immune, I have been on the edge of that, and there have been times with a little bit of ego, where I started messing around with things and what I have, and you can create a mask sometimes.” – Siobhán Kane talks with Alan Sparhawk of Low. From talking with Alan Sparhawk, it is clear to see why he collaborates so often and widely, his enthusiasm traveling beyond what is expected, morphing into something far more precious. He has just finished recording the EP Imperfecta with Gaelynn Lea, under the moniker (thee) Murder of Crows, using the Dirty Three as a kind of spiritual anchor. But then there is his work as Retribution Gospel Choir, and his work as Low (with Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington), a band he has been in for almost twenty years.
From earlier work such as I Could Live in Hope (1994) and The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996), to the majestic Things We Lost in the Fire (2001) and The Great Destroyer (2005), Low have never been a band to take things lightly; constantly reshaping their own relationship to music and creativity. This sense is there in their most recent record, last year’s C’mon, which was tender and beautiful, perhaps in response to 2007’s Drums and Guns which was more brutal-sounding, somehow.
One of the most distinctive parts of Low’s sound are the vocal harmonies that Sparhawk trades with his wife Parker, which feed into the more mysterious aspects of the voice, translating something emotional that goes beyond neat description; but they have always been interested in exploring the more difficult aspects of life, with Sparhawk being very open about his own relationship to depression, with music becoming a conduit for his feelings – his open letter in 2005 was particularly poignant, not least his reference to John Peel, someone who meant a lot to Sparhawk (as he does to so many of us), and his sense of him as a “selfless” man, with a “kind, wise, face” that “exposes fools”. That period seemed like a turning point for Sparhawk, and since then, his restless imagination has found a home not only through family life, and charitable work, but musical collaborations.
There are many highlights in Low’s work to date, but their covers have always been very special, whether it is their hymnal version of ‘Little Drummer Boy‘, Joy Division’s ‘Transmission‘, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘, Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya‘, The Smiths ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me‘, or The Beatles’ ‘Nowhere Man‘ – the list goes on. It seems very appropriate that in turn other artists have covered Low, not least Robert Plant, on his 2010 record Band of Joy- where he reinterpreted ‘Monkey’, and ‘Silver Rider’; and in 2004, the label Fractured Discs gathered some musicians to recreate Low’s first record I Could Live in Hope as a tribute, featuring artists like Mark Kozelek and Kid Dakota – it was a fitting coda to a record that has meant so much to so many, not least because it announced a rare talent to the world. Siobhán Kane talks to Alan Sparhawk.
With your most recent collaboration with Gaelynn Lea, Imperfecta feels like another step towards a more improvisational kind of music, it is obviously an approach you thrive upon. You’ve heard that? That’s awesome. I had been asked to do music for a film and when I saw her, the lights went on, and once we started playing together it was immediate. I suppose I have had a long history of collaborating with the community [Duluth, Minnesota] here.You learn. My father would often say, as a musician, “always take a gig, you’re going to learn something”. We are lucky to be in a community that is vibrant enough that there are lots of things going on, but small enough too. It’s not daunting. If you have an idea, you can reasonably carry it out. Even Low essentially started out as a collaboration with someone from town, just trying out something, as I had hung around them enough to know what their aesthetic was, and the community was small enough that we were able to put it together and present it in front of people, instead of thinking you were presenting it to the world.
That is very evident on the Duluth Homegrown mixtape you released earlier this year, it provides a real portrait of what is happening in that community right now, and you are so well-placed to curate a compilation. It’s difficult. I have been part of the music scene for so many years, so there are many ‘waves’ I can talk about. There are some standby favourites, and songs from recent memory. I tried to capture a sense of what was going on – there are some people doing some dance stuff in town which is interesting. It is pretty unashamedly lots of people I know in town, so people might think I picked a bunch of friends, but I know their work and believe in it.
I read a review of the show you did with Gaelynn Lea in the Sacred Heart space – part of the studio you are so involved with. It sounded like a special experience, not least because of the surroundings – the fact that it is a desanctified Catholic Church seems poignant, I always believe that spaces like that hold memories, somehow. I totally agree. We were so lucky to get that space. A lot of it had to do with friends keeping an eye out. When we had the idea to pool resources and make a studio, it was basically us and two other guys in town. We looked for spaces, and everyone needed a space, and once we saw it, everyone knew about it. There are a million studios, but this space is unique. It is what we wanted, who wouldn’t want to record in a space like that? Everyone wants to be in that mode, a space can put you ‘there’ like no other thing.
You collaborate so much, in so many different ways, it seems like a way of coming up for air for you – is that how it feels? That is very true, a good observation for sure. There is always going to be some character I will track down and try and find a way to make music with [laughs].
With projects like (thee) Murder of Crows, and Retribution Gospel Choir, there seems to be a real joy in just being loose with the music, instinctively seeing where it will take you, and though Low is more structured, you can see aspects of that joy in something like ‘Do You Know How To Waltz?’. You work hard on songwriting, but do you ever find that a spark just comes to you like a little gift, but sometimes takes a long time to reach completion? Yes, definitely. Although I don’t usually set ideas aside that much. Yet if something has that spark, it has sometimes taken me years with the song, because when I know there is something there, I keep wondering how to finish it without getting in the way of it, that’s the trick of songwriting, but some of them do take a long time.
Sometimes musicians dream melodies, then recall them when they wake, I think that must be one of the most poetic feelings, literally making a dream a reality. That’s an amazing skill. I will dream things and never remember. I think I have only ever been able to retrieve one fragment in one dream in my whole life.
Though you are very young, yet. You’re right, that’s promising! [Laughs] You know, it’s almost like I am getting shape, you have to get your mind more accustomed to that mode of thinking, you try to do it every day for a while, and sometimes it doesn’t work, but then somehow it does, it’s like getting ready for a marathon – it’s so weird. I have to consciously work on songs, and get into that mode, I go through it every time.
You have been through a lot of struggle, but have retained your almost childlike sense of the world. I think sometimes when people get older, they lose that sense of reconnecting back to their more childlike self and become more estranged from themselves, shutting down from possibilities. There is a danger in that, and you know, the older we get the worse it gets, I see people going down those roads, it is dangerous. No matter who you are, you can think about what you are doing too much, you should try to make sure if you do, you are in close proximity to people who will take care of you. It’s immensely tempting to shut off from the emotional world. It is scary and daunting to lay a lot of yourself out there, you think it might come back to you in a negative way, so the reaction is to pull back, and in doing so, sometimes artists become contrary or ironic. Some people might look at Retribution Gospel Choir and think I am second-guessing things, but I’m not. Fear and anger can make you think lots of weird things about yourself. I am not immune, I have been on the edge of that, and there have been times with a little bit of ego, where I started messing around with things and what I have, and you can create a mask sometimes. A lot of times it comes off as bravado or cockiness, but most of the time it is fear, and a lot of artists do that because they are tired. It is truly scary being yourself, and there are a million ways for that to scare you and make you second guess. Some of those reasons are good, but some will make you hallucinate all kind of crap.
Because of all of this, I would always associate you with the term ‘mindfulness’, as you are always trying to be mindful of these things, always striving to be better. That means so much that I don’t know how to respond. I appreciate it. It helps me get through the times when I know I am not. I think anyone that has been doing anything creative for a few years….well, you are not going to last long if you are cynical and closed about things, and music doesn’t go anywhere if you are selfish with it, that thing doesn’t happen when you are selfish. When I have done Shape Note singing [a choral tradition], it helps, because how can anyone think anything of themselves, when you are singing that music? You can’t, you become one with something higher. You can’t help but be humbled by moments like that, when something comes out of nowhere, a spirit touches you in an unplanned or unexpected way. It takes regular people to make things better.
Do you think you might bring (thee) Murder of Crows to Ireland? It is a sympathetic landscape for the music, and you have such a long and rich history of playing here. I have also often thought you would suit some kind of show in a forest, which probably sounds odd. Murder of Crows is the most recent thing, and it’s exciting. We are going to try and do a few more local shows, but it would be exciting to bring it to Ireland – Gaelynn hasn’t travelled much, and Irish traditional music is her first love. You have my mind reeling on that, I will think of how we can somehow make that happen. I know we get to Ireland often, but it seems like ages since we last played. We have had some really memorable shows there. I will never forget playing Christchurch with Shannon Wright. And you have me thinking about that forest, maybe we could find a grove, with pine trees….just tons of trees, but with foliage that you could still see through. It’s another good idea [laughs].
Low play the Button Factory on Tuesday 10th July with Halves.