"My Head Is Filled With Fire"

A Conversation With Retribution Gospel Choir's Alan Sparhawk

by Ian Mathers

3 September 2008

Alan Sparhawk gives back what he's taken, but that's not to say he's not holding onto his hope and wit.

“Ben [Watt] from Everything But the Girl once told me that he thinks there is no such thing as a definitive version of a song. At the time, that went against everything I believed about songwriting, but since then I’ve slowly found that he may be right. Having some songs overlap perhaps defines the difference more than the similarity. The tone and dynamics (and volume) of Retribution Gospel Choir certainly make certain songs jump out a certain way. I’m singing about the same stuff I’ve always sung about, but through a different filter, or language. It’s hard to explain. The less I think about it, the more the music just finds its place.”

Alan Sparhawk is talking about the songs he’s performed in more than one band, the ones his main outlet as one of the two voices in Low (the only band from the misbegotten genre tag “slowcore” to remain a viable artistic force) rendered as brooding, droning death knells, and his side project the Retribution Gospel Choir fired up into something tougher, rockier, more demanding. “Side project” is kind of an ugly phrase, but given that the Choir shares 2/3 of their personnel with Low and, in Sparhawk’s words, “definitely work around the Low schedule” it’s a hard one to avoid.

It’s been a tough, or at least interesting, couple of years for Sparhawk; beginning with Low’s masterful 2005 album The Great Destroyer, Sparhawk and wife/bandmate Mimi Parker began radically shifting the way that band sounded, even as Sparhawk experienced mental health issues severe enough to cause a tour cancellation. In the midst of this activity, longterm bassist Zak Sally left the band (more recently Matt Livingston, his replacement in both Low and the RGC, left both bands as well). But it doesn’t seem to have deterred him; in addition to last year’s Drums and Guns by Low (a shockingly great, career-defining and invigorating record), he’s been hard at work touring and recording with the Retribution Gospel Choir, releasing their self titled debut after some tour-only EPs on Mark Kozelek’s selective Caldo Verde label. Despite being busy with two bands, Alan recently found the time to answer some questions, ranging from the mundane to the quasi-spiritual.

This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve made music outside of Low (Solo Guitar, the Black-Eyed Snakes, Hospital People, etc), but it is the first time one of your other bands has been so high profile—releasing an album on another label, touring, and so on. Why now?
It sort of just crept up on me. The group started very casually, but we ended up doing a few short tours and recordings. We knocked it around for over two years before deciding to do a full record. The Black-Eyed Snakes have released a few CDs and that went well, so I guess once it felt right…

Caldo Verde was originally set up so that Mark Kozelek could release his own music, how did this album wind up produced by Kozelek and coming out on his label?
Mark had played a few shows with us, as a fourth member, on one of our earlier tours. He would bring it up from time to time and ask what we were up to. Eventually he convinced us to come out to San Francisco and do a few songs with him producing. It went well, we came back and finished it. He asked to put it out on his label, which was fine with me. He’s a great producer and so far a pretty good record exec.

The most striking Retribution Gospel Choir EP track, “Poor Man’s Daughter”, is much lengthier and almost epic than what made it onto the debut (I think I called it “Crazy Horsian” in the review at PopMatters). Keeping the album short and to the point changes the feel of it considerably; it’s almost relaxed, compared to some of the EPs. Is that more the mode you see the band working in, or will things like “Poor Man’s Daughter” and the dub tracks continue to make up part of the sound?
“Poor Man’s Daughter” is a cornerstone to our live set and is probably the most representative of how we play together. We really surprised ourselves with the version we recorded for the tour EP, so we didn’t even consider doing a new version for the full-length. The dub stuff, too, in spite of how much we like doing it, just would have made for more of a scattered record. We wanted to keep the full-length tight and short, with a similar tone and approach throughout. Trying to fit everything you can do into one CD is a recipe for disaster.

Some of your subject matter or phrasing here is pretty grim. The last time you talked to PopMatters you said you’d gone from “contrary” to “angry”. Are you still angry, or is discouragement beginning to set in? Are these songs laments, or calls to action?
Sort of both. “Breaker” is certainly a call to action, even though the solution is to end. The lamenting perhaps comes from being a parent, or maybe just from getting old. There’s hope but I find most of my songs are still asking questions.

There’s a streak running through the album of distrust and even hostility towards politics, human nature, (some forms of?) religion and certainly the status quo. “Holes In Our Heads” especially seems to say that the human race is kind of irrevocably and essentially screwed. Do you see much hope to the future? Or does writing and performing that kind of song help you purge these more negative impulses?
I don’t think I’ve ever written a song “at” something. It usually starts with random thoughts and phrases that you can only assume are directed at yourself. Sometimes, just for survival, the song will shift more outward, but that doesn’t show up until it’s way out of my hands. I have hope and love for mankind, but I fear for what we are going through.

I think one thing that’s overlooked about your songwriting/performances is the way you can be very wry but also serious at the same time, as on the chorus of “Kids”. It seems kind of self-mocking (those damn kids!), which seems to be something you do a fair bit, but also fairly harsh. Who is a song like “Kids” aimed at, and how seriously is its point intended?
That song seems to be a looking back at one’s life while also watching someone younger go through the same things. I’m a total cliché parent. In doing so, of course I’m yelling at myself as much as the “kids”. The “damn” and “shit” come from my dad, so it’s sort of a tribute to him. A lot of the songs on the record seem to be addressing the inevitable failings of men, and sort of an apology for it all.

How do you feel about Retribution Gospel Choir at this point? Are you planning to run both bands parallel to each other, or is one more important? Can we expect more albums and so on?
I try not to plan too far ahead and/or promise anything. Low has been very busy this last year touring after Drums and Guns, and we have plans for the rest of the year including recording ... Low works as much as Mimi and I want to work. RGC is touring now and if people seem interested, we’ll put out more.

Retribution Gospel Choir is a great, striking band/album name, but given your relatively public faith, a lot of emphasis gets put on the Gospel Choir part. Are you playing around with the public perception of your faith and your past work, or trying to focus attention on that kind of interpretation of these songs?
I like the fact that some people have to stop and check their prejudice a little when they see the name. I think it’s good to throw that in people’s faces from time to time—make ‘em mumble. I don’t think it’s any surprise to people semi-familiar with the Low stuff. The name is a bit long, in hindsight.

What kind of gospel, if any, is being preached? Are you trying to convert people, and if so to what?
The gospel of retribution—the good news that you can give back what you have taken!


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