Low's Alan Sparhawk on Ones and Sixes

It's been a mere two years since we last heard from Low, but their swift return presents a more intense sound and a cerebral, mysterious theme. Alan Sparhawk examines the figures that make up Ones and Sixes

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 06 Oct 2015

“It started out as a fascination with numbers,” says Alan Sparhawk, matter-of-factly. “What is random and what is not – how do you set reality into motion to where it does what you want, even though it’s moving at a random trajectory? How do you steer chaos? Where’s the line between organised numbers and randomness? That kind of thing.”

You join us in telephone conversation with the Minnesotan indie rock veteran, considering the themes of his band Low’s new record Ones and Sixes. As with their previous ten albums, it’s a solemn, spiritually captivating piece, held together by the eerily symbiotic harmonies of Sparhawk and bandmate Mimi Parker, friends since childhood and married before the band’s formation in 1993. They’ve dealt with the vagaries of existence throughout their 22-year career, whether subtle and personal (In Metal, from 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire, is a beautiful meditation on first experiences of parenthood) or more overtly political (2007’s Drums and Guns was partly written as a wounded and angry response to war in Iraq) – but this time it feels like the focus is wider. Bigger. Less straightforward.

He offers another summary: “The idea of trying to grapple with finite definitions of something that’s infinite or constantly changing.” If that seems like an impossibly huge concept, then consider that Low are canny enough to ask these questions by turning the camera back on themselves. What Part of Me sounds pretty enough as a piece of gossamer-light sadpop, but unpick the seams and you’ll realise that its hummable refrain (‘What part of me don’t you know? / What part of me don’t you own?’) serves several purposes: it’s directed at Sparhawk and Parker’s married life, because how much more mystery can remain after a near quarter century of both living and working together? Equally, it muses on the public nature of the musician, expected to share their private life via their public persona as much as through their art. As listeners, fans, even journalists – what more can we possibly want them to give?

"I’m waiting for that serenity that comes with experience” – Alan Sparhawk

Explaining the significance of that title would be a good start. “Trying to quantise, or even put a discernible pattern on something that’s random,” he continues. “Or the flipside of that being something that’s actually very concrete… like the number pi, you know? It’s an infinite number; we’re not able to define it. Even though it’s one of the most defined and real portions in existence.”

And what of one and six? “We looked around a little bit. Something that came up was the way they measure the success of a website. One to six was the scale of, ‘Did the person just look at the website?’, right up to, ‘Did they buy what was being sold?’ It became the difference between looking and buying: one and six.

“And years ago, scientists studying homosexuality were using one to six as a scale to test a person’s sexual preferences. That was an interesting reference, from yet another time when man was trying to put a number on something that was a lot more complex than we realised.”

Christian numerology also reveals some interesting details, we suggest. According to that system, the number one relates to creation, enlightenment or purity of purpose, while six represents a nurturing mother figure.

“There’s definitely something cosmic going on with those numbers,” he replies. “Even the number of the beast – for years it was thought of as 666. I read an article recently where someone had redone the math and realised it was 616. I had not heard the mother thing with six, that’s interesting.”

Especially given the album’s themes of artistic and domestic identities becoming entwined…

“Yep. There’s a lot of that. Trying to find a common thread in confusion.”

Most of the common threads on Ones and Sixes seem to come from the band’s innate sense of coherence: despite dipping their toes into a plethora of sounds and styles across their career, Low have surely and consistently managed to sound like no-one else but themselves. Does that make it easier for the band to shift gears?

“[Recent albums] C’mon and especially The Invisible Way were not as aggressive, not as experimental. It ebbs and flows. We go in a certain direction for a while and then shift after a few records, once we feel like we’ve gotten somewhere with it. But my favourite times are when we shift into something that’s unfamiliar.  We always have fun surprising ourselves.”

Do you ever find yourselves wondering how these new directions will go down with your audience?

“I dunno. Yeah. I mean, it’s always in the back of your mind. If I was into this band, what would be interesting? When I like a record, there’s a special connection there. The idea of being able to make something that someone else has the same connection with… I have to admit, it’s immensely attractive to me.

“Nobody likes to admit that they care what their fans think – in a certain way it can get out of hand; it can be detrimental to your creativity to steer you in a way that’s unnatural… but I dunno. I’m trying to make good music, and the reason is that I want other people to hear it and think it’s cool.”

Our conversation meanders around several topics, from Sparhawk’s listening habits (he cites Burning Witch and Kanye West as recent favourites) to the vitality of hip-hop (“Kendrick Lamarr! That guy’s giving everything. He’s laying his ass out there, and people aren’t doing that standing behind guitars these days, that’s for damn sure”). Eventually, we land on the subject of ageing and shifting perspectives, and his tone becomes noticeably grave:

“I think the older I get, the more concerned and the more irrationally frustrated I get with things in the world. Your awareness of misery and injustice only grows. You have to find new ways to detach. Hopefully in a positive way, whether just being hopeful, or realising, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do other than treat everyone that I meet today with respect.’ It definitely bears on you more; I wish it didn’t. I’m waiting for that serenity that comes with experience, but it’s just not happened.”

Serenity is a relative term, of course, and in that regard Sparhawk has certainly walked across more than his fair share of rocky ground. Having offered his experiences of mental illness as an explanation for cancelling the band’s 2005 tour, he has openly discussed his depression and subsequent substance issues in the past (the demon weed having conflicted with both his Mormon faith and his sense of stability). The severity of the situation was made abundantly clear at 2008’s End of the Road festival, when the visibly distressed singer closed Low’s by announcing, ‘Everybody who ever loved me told me they hated me today,’ before launching his guitar into an understandably shocked crowd. Seven years on, things seem somewhat different.

“I guess from a certain perspective I’m doing better. You get more of a grip on things with a little help. It took me a long time to get that sick, and I imagine it’s probably gonna be a lifetime living with some of the residuals of that. I’m definitely not as in danger as I was maybe for a couple of years. You get frantic, you get desperate and irrational, and you make stupid decisions based on desperation and hopelessness.

“I mean, I feel relatively sound but you don’t have to extend your arm too far to touch that familiar cape that once encompassed you. That’s one thing about mental breakdowns; if you’re ever crazy enough that you’re hallucinating, you think something’s going on that it turns out isn’t going on… nothing after that stands up. Nothing. Once that carpet is pulled out from under you, you’re gonna spend the rest of your life constantly questioning that. But it’s survivable."

Does it get claustrophobic balancing home, work and art when all three are so indelibly linked by the same people?

“I suppose it does. All those things are co-existing on top of each other all the time. Something that’s tense or a struggle in the band, you have to be careful not to let that affect your relationship too much. That can be… yeah, claustrophobic. There’s times when it’s almost too close.

“I know it’s a lot more work being in a band with someone you’re married to, but if you can pull it off, it’s pretty great. Being in a band’s difficult; you’re close to each other, you’re forced into these intense, extreme situations together… if just the slightest thing goes wrong it can kind of blow exponentially all over the place. So yeah, it’s treacherous. But I’m glad. When we were young, we mused and dreamed and prayed that we’d be able to have something we could do together in life, so we’re real lucky.”

We’re approaching the end of our chat with Alan Sparhawk – a musician, performer and family man, battling to make sense of the overlapping tensions between order and chaos. Between work and home. Between stability and endurance. Before we say goodbye, he offers The Skinny some general life advice. “Be healthy,” he says. “I hope you’ve got your shit together.” We don't request a definition.

Low play Manchester Cathedral (with Two Gallants) on 7 Oct and Glasgow Art School (with Mike Noga) on 8 Oct