On Fans, Validation and Anger

An Interview with Low's Alan Sparhawk

by Andy Smentkowski


+ This is Where We Are Now: An Interview with Low’s Zak Sally

In 1993, Duluth, Minnesota’s Low began pioneering a whole new subgenre of indie rock. Since then, they have toured steadily throughout the world, released seven full-length albums and numerous EPs (that were recently collected into a box set), provided soundtrack material for The Mothman Prophecies, and opened for Radiohead. All of this work has contributed to a large and loyal group of fans who have fallen in love with their slow, quiet, and beautiful sound. However, their new album, The Great Destroyer, is a departure. The album is composed of what Low’s frontman Alan Sparhawk, calls “bitter” songs. It was also recorded by a famous producer (Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev fame) and is released on one of the most successful independent record labels (Sub Pop).

Leaving behind a proven formula for success may seem like musical suicide, however, as Sparhawk explains in the following interview with the Andy Smentkowski of Duluth’s Ripsaw News, staying true to a particular sound may not always be the path with the most integrity either.

PopMatters: “Has playing with the Black Eyed Snakes [Sparhawk’s loud and rowdy side project] rubbed off on Low?”

Alan Sparhawk: “I don’t want anybody to overthink a Black Eyed Snakes show, that’s for sure. It’s just about having fun. I think Low has influenced the Snakes and the Snakes have influenced Low but it’s not so much that one is spilling out of the other as it is that they’re just fusing together a little more.”

“Playing in the Snakes kind of opened my eyes. Like, you can be loud and still be dynamic and subtle. So I think I was a little more open to volume and the noise factor with Low more recently because of that. It’s just a long process of growth. Everybody is influenced by what they’re listening to. They’re influenced by what other music they’re playing. They’re influenced by what instruments they’re messing around with for the last while. Everything can be an influence but the older you get the more you look back at what you’ve been doing with your little music thing for the last 15 or 20 years, the more you realize that all of those things that you are doing were you and you start seeing them as one thing… as one body of work or as ‘Who you are’. And the Snakes is just as much as me as Low is, as sitting around watching my kids is, as running in Chester Bowl is… I’m much more comfortable with all of those things coming from the same person… more than I was four or five years ago when I first started stepping out a little bit from Low.”

PM: “How would you describe The Great Destroyer?”

AS: “The new album is desperate. No. It’s bitter… I’m tired of hiding it. Life is too short. If something is ripping you apart, you’ve got to let it out. You’ve got to let yourself say it and not feel like everybody is going to look at you like you’re uncool because you fall down and start screaming about something that doesn’t make any sense.”

PM: “Do you consciously try to write these kind of songs or is it more of an organic process?”

AS: “We’ve quit thinking about we’re doing. That’s one thing that’s happened with Low. I mean, we’ve quit thinking about what we think we should be doing and we just try to write good songs and if the song is demanding that we do a certain thing, we’ve got to go with it.

“Maybe I’m just getting old. I’m just kind of realizing I’m really lucky that I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of chances to spill my guts and get whatever the hell it is that’s inside of me out of me. Unfortunately, I didn’t really do it ... I’ve worked through a lot of stuff, but the last things… this next pile of stuff… that apparently my mind or soul feels like it needs to spill out is not really for anybody else. It just is what is. That’s what this record is. All of the other records felt like they were me telling a story, or talking about what I felt about something that happened, or just kind of painting a picture of what’s going on. I don’t know if it sounds selfish or inconsiderate but the songs on this record… I don’t feel this great need for anyone to hear what I have to say. A little bit of me used to think, ‘I’ve got something to say,’ and that I’m going to find a nice way to say it and then somebody will listen to me. Now it’s just like I’ve got to let this out because it’s killing me.”

PM: “Are you beginning to see music as a career or, in other words, are you beginning to think of music as your life’s work?”

AS: “That’s a dangerous thing. There’s a tendency when you get old to look back at what you’ve been doing and rest on that. And you can’t, of course. Neil Young is as unflinching about putting out a crappy record as he is about putting out a great record. That’s because he’s not looking back and he’s not resting on anything he’s done in the past. He’s willing to say, ‘This is what I came up with this year and if you don’t like it, screw it, because this is what I came up with.’”

PM: “How do you balance writing music that pleases you and writing music that you think will satisfy your fans?”

AS: “I have to admit I used to wonder about that a lot. Every time you would go to write or make a new record, there was always a little voice that you had to keep reminding yourself to ignore. That was the voice that was like, ‘Remember, everybody likes this, this, and this that you do.’ And basically, for a long time it was a matter of ignoring that and trying to be true to what I really want to write at this time… Over time you learn that you can’t listen to that because no matter what you do, there’s always going to be one side or another. There’s always going to be someone who thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world and there’s always going to be someone who’s going to have a very valid argument about why it’s crap ... and I think after awhile you realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with anything and you just kind of ignore it.”

PM: “Then what is it that guides you?”

AS: “Everybody needs something that tells them that what they’re doing is valid and of course, the best artists are the ones who all they need is themselves to be able to say that this is valid, and they don’t need any validation from other people. But every artist has to address that question of how much are you going to listen to what you think you’ve done in the past and what other people think you’ve done in the past… Anybody who has gotten beyond a record or two and has built up a fan base has to face that with everything they do.”

PM: “How have audiences reacted to the newer material?”

AS: “There have been shows recently where we’ll be sitting there playing and see someone who’s been to every show we’ve played in Chicago—or wherever—since 1995. And sometimes you can tell by the look on their face that they’re thinking, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ There’s a little bit of this scared look like, ‘You’re not my special band anymore.’ The truth is that there are actually very few people who think like that, but being who I am, I notice that. There’s always going to be someone that you know is not liking the direction you’re going in. But what are you going to do? You can’t keep putting out the same records… It’s a losing battle… to start listening to what other people think you should be doing or not doing because nobody’s right.”

PM: “What have people said to you in the past?”

AS: “There’s a guy in Germany. He’s probably in his late 40s ... and he’s a fan that just loves music and likes to go out to all of the shows. And he came up to me and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t work with Dave Fridmann.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘No, he will ruin you. Just don’t work with Dave Fridmann.’ He said that like three years in a row. So low and behold, we worked with Dave Fridmann and now I have to answer to this guy.”

PM: “A few years ago, when I reviewed Satellite Rides from Old 97’s for the Ripsaw News, I said something like, ‘They may be a great alternative country band, but they’re only a mediocre pop band.’ I felt cheated, like if Old 97’s weren’t going to make Old 97’s music, then who is? After a few months, however, I realized it was a really great pop record and I began to regret what I wrote earlier.”

AS: “That’s the trick. You kind of have to take that step forward. You’ve got to abandon who you were… Every record is a clean slate. You can’t get by just doing what you used to do and think that’s just as good, because it’s not. It’s not. The first time you did it, that was great. And maybe there was a point where you perfected it just so. Usually it was some show in like, Topeka, Kansas… or something like that… where you finally really nailed that thing that you do well. But once you’ve nailed it, it dies a slow death after that. Every time you go there, it’s not as good as that peak time.”

“Like Old 97’s were probably at a certain point where they were at the peak of what they were doing in that old style and they saw that and they saw that, afterwards, it was less satisfying to them and realized, ‘That’s it. We’ve done it and we can always go there. We can always do that. It’s on record and if people want to hear that all the time, they can go listen to the record.’”

“Yeah, we’re changing. There’s no ‘Violence’ or ‘Shame.’ We don’t play those songs and we don’t put out records that have as much of those kinds of songs anymore. BUT… I really like what we’re doing now and I think it’s just as good as the best stuff we did before and I think that’s what I have to do. I’m not that same guy I was at 25. I mean, I’m still the same person that went through that… but I don’t know… I guess that was a way of dealing with things at that time and now I have to find a different way of dealing with things because I’m a different person. I have a different life now. I have kids. I have people who count on me. I’m not a contrary youth anymore; I’m a really, really angry adult. I’m tired of contrary. I want to draw some blood. Being contrary and ironic doesn’t work.”

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