Low's Alan Sparhawk: “We’ve always been on the outside and I think we always will be”

With ninth album <i>C’mon</i>, <b>Low</b> have found their beating heart once again. Frontman <b>Alan Sparhawk</b> explains why he got tired of making things ugly, with a little help from Katy Perry's producer

Feature by Darren Carle | 20 May 2011

Back in 2007, as the Bush-led war on terror continued in Iraq, a family-centred, clean living Minnesota trio called Low took something of a stand with their eighth album Drums and Guns. Previously, the veteran ‘slow-core’ pioneers had only gone conceptual with their 1999 Christmas EP, an eight track collection of songs that openly celebrated the yuletide season in an era of ugly commerce and cynicism. Eight years later, they were opening an album with the line “All the soldiers are all gonna die and all the little babies, they’re all gonna die.” Bad times indeed.

Yet four years, a financial collapse and a new war later, Low are on very different territory with new album C’mon, an unapologetic letter of love. In putting these points across to frontman Alan Sparhawk, it’s clear that easy notions between the political and personal are not things he ascribes to. “I’m at the point right now where I can’t necessarily tell,” he begins ahead of the release of his ninth album. “But I feel like the new record is more intimate, more like one person talking to one person. Intimacy and spirituality define your politics. What you say with politics is everything to do with how you view yourself as a human being, and vice versa.”

In that setting, C’mon is certainly more of the human reflection on the political mind. Musically it finds the group having cleansed themselves of the soap-boxing on Drums and Guns and the noisy, guitar-centric rock of 2005’s The Great Destroyer. Sparhawk agrees that such extremes were necessary for C’mon to take the shape that it has. “I specifically remember as we were finishing Drums and Guns that I already had a sense of what we were going to do next,” he says. “For some reason that record gave me permission to let myself go the opposite way.”

That ‘opposite way’ has resulted in Low’s best record in some time, certainly since 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire. The threesome, centred around Sparhawk and wife Mimi Parker, have hinted at making such an album for some time now. “In the past, if we were writing something beautiful, I always had to try and find a way to make it a little bit ugly,” he confesses. “It’s maybe just the Midwest, American, uninformed punk rock in me, but doing that this time just felt dishonest. There are a few songs on the record that are some of the most pure love songs I’ve ever written. I felt that if I really love this person, then why do I need to put the claws in? Why do I have to make it ugly?”

It’s an aesthetic that runs throughout C’mon, from the opening twinkling xylophones of Try To Sleep to the wonderful Nothing But Heart, which finds Sparhawk repeating the title mantra-like to a steadily rising choral of slide guitar, white noise and hypnotic drum pacing. “The thing that people forget about minimalism is that it’s an effort to make the few things which are there as large as possible,” he elaborates. “Lyrical minimalism is always a goal. The best thing to say is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s something I’ve always pursued, but I guess it’s a little more evident this time.”

In point of this, C’mon is fairly plush in its production. Recorded in the same vaulted space as 2002’s Trust, a former Catholic church in the band’s hometown of Duluth, it’s a record of grand scale yet with typically brittle human tales at its heart. The paucity of Low’s usual approach was bolstered this time by guest turns from Nels Cline of Wilco and Caitlin Moe of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. However, the choice of location turns out to be a little more humdrum than romantic observers might like to think. “Well, it’s only three or four blocks from our house,” is Sparhawk’s honest reply as to why they returned there. “Between having a family and a limited budget we just thought we’d go to a place where we knew we could work for two or three days and then take a break.”

Recording sessions found the group experimenting with toy drums, kick drums and beat-up boxes, yet despite this process and the end result, it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. “There was still a lot of head shaking over why something wasn’t sounding right, but with each recording experience those factors always vary,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s the space you’re battling against, sometimes it’s the time and sometimes it’s working with someone who has a different vision of what you’re trying to do.”

Which leads us nicely onto Matt Beckley, who produced the album. Although a long-time friend of Sparhawk, through Beckley’s father Gerry (of 70s folk rock band America), Beckley Jr. is better known for his work with such pop alumni as Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne. It’s quite a creative gamble for a band more used to working with the bleeding-edge likes of Steve Albini and Dave Fridmann. “There was a lot of trust involved,” he laughs. “I mean this guy could’ve completely ruined our career but I trusted that he’d make good decisions and the way I work with him made me feel very comfortable. I felt like he was someone I could communicate with and that he was very respectful of what we were trying to do.”

Long-time fans can rest easy though as Beckley’s work has only exemplified the nub of what has always been at the heart of Low; in short, some beautiful and affecting music. C’mon may assuage a few more listeners towards their cause for sure, but Low seem content with beating out their own path. “We’ve always been on the outside and I think we always will be,” agrees Sparhawk. “Our music may be simple and boring to the general public but that’s fine with us. We didn’t get into it for that.”

It’s a heart-warming thought that after nearly twenty years, Low are still steadfast in their initial aim of making simple, beautiful music for the few. Long may they continue.

C'mon is out now via Sub Pop