A Conversation with Alan Sparhawk (Low) by Killian Laher
No More Workhorse got the chance to talk to Alan Sparhawk of Low about their new album and modern music. You can see the results below.
The new album is mind-blowing.
Thanks. It was really intense to make. We were pushing into no man’s land. We knew going on that we were going to be spending a long time trying sounds and generating stuff, pushing things, twisting things, trying songs in different formats. From the experience of doing Ones and Sixes we had a process and we could see a potential way to work. We could come up with things that are interesting and be a little more… forward thinking perhaps. We always try and find possibilities and think ‘what else can we do’?
Some bands stand still!
Some bands do stand still and for some bands there’s a good reason to stand still. They’ve found a thing and it works, they have a couple of hits. That’s how they do their gigs, they play those and stay true to that. We’re really lucky, we’re able to stretch out. It took us 25 years to get from playing 2 or 3 chord songs to… playing 2 or 3 chord songs! We tried to ingest every forward step we took. We thought: what else can we add that’s useful to our band’s vocabulary. It took a long time to get to the point where we were safe jumping this far. We haven’t had the luxury of being able to work on it every day. We add, subtract… sometimes we’re just generating sounds searching. Sometimes we’re actively doing a version of a song.
It’s still just guitar, bass and drums, but we try and push what they can do, you know, we use a little bit of drum machine in a couple of songs. Trying to figure out can the guitar go forward? Sometimes the old clichés when played over and over can sound really amazing. Cool to hear live. But there’s a certain point where you say, what else can this do?
Was the sound of the album driven by yourselves or by the producer (BJ Burton)?
A bit of both. He was definitely a collaborator. We had a conversation, we had worked with him on the one before (Ones and Sixes). We got a feel for each person’s corner of expertise so to speak and learned to trust each other’s judgement. So we said: we’ll try that, and if it’s good we’ll keep it. We thought we could fully go forward, rather than straddle… the last time we had one foot in what was comfortable and one in what was possible.
There would be times where we’d be working on a song for a day, then BJ would get up early and go to the studio and start tweaking, moving things around or he’d say ‘oh I have this weird drum sample’. There were definitely times when he was adding, tweaking… it’s a very ‘studio’ record. We were very much manipulating sounds, and trying to find new sounds.
What else can be done with recording? There are boundaries. It took a long time. We did a lot of versions of things, there were a lot of songs where I really liked the song but we never landed on a version that we thought worked the way we wanted it. It was weird, it was hard. There’s give and take, you trust the people you work with. Steve (Garrington), our bass player worked a lot with arrangements, keyboards, piano parts which were subtle, he spent a long time trying to get that right.
I usually write on guitar, and a keyboard player would think, how are we going to voice it on a synth and drum machine? Sit down at a keyboard which seems like a simple instrument but there’s so much you can do. I’ll have this song with G and A minor, then sometimes I go down to D. There’s a million ways to do that on keyboard.
There was a collaborative spirit. Mim (Mimi Parker) brought in songs, there would be times where we would just improvise things, everybody had the freedom to have control of the situation. There’s a lot of interchange, a lot of crossing into each other’s territory.
So you tend to bring ideas to the studio, you don’t start with nothing.
It’s kind of a mix. Actually, in the past we had songs, we’d play them out live to get a feel for them. You’d sit at home and learn as much as you could before going to the studio. This record was definitely a mix, there were times where we were generating stuff that started from nothing. Other times we’d take this rhythm and put these chords on and figure out an arrangement. Then there were songs that were finished, we knew how to play it but “let’s go in and find a different way”. When we did Always Trying To Work It Out we did it in a really weird way. Underneath you can hear guitar, bass and drums but with harmonics and so on. What’s going on that’s weird is the way it’s pushing and pulling against the rhythm, how it’s distorting sound. We did that song in one day. We just happened upon a version pretty quickly that we were happy with.
There were songs we worked on a lot and worked on really hard because we knew there was something there. Then six months later we thought we knew how to bring it back out. You’re pulling things out.
Was it more difficult than usual?
I think the fact that it was over so much time made it feel like it was difficult. There was a lot of time where we wondered ‘what do we do with it, I think there’s something there?’ Some of the sounds I had a good feeling about but is it any good? It sure doesn’t sound like anything else! We were excited by it but we didn’t know if it was good. It’s weird! There were definitely times when I thought ‘is this too weird?’
A little bit of that is from experience, from making records here and there that were a little more experimental, where we tried things. Then with hindsight we thought, why didn’t we do that for longer? Over time you remember that, that every time I backed off I regretted it.
How long did the album take to record?
It seemed like about two and a half years. We started working on it just a few months after we finished the last record. We started whenever we had a couple of days in 2016. Then in late 2016 the election came along, we were so glad to be working on something so intense and grinding. It was so satisfying sitting in the studio and writing these riffs!
We have a certain following, a loyal fan base in general and especially this record seemed to catch a lot of attention. So despite the business slowly, inevitably falling we seem to have maintained a kind of level. I don’t know how long it will last. I’m not sure why! It might be just timing. It just happened to be the right record that came out at the right moment. Everyone’s like “fuck man, what are they doing here?”
It’s different. The way music is, you know, people are almost ‘retro-ist”. They use the same beats, the same sounds, I hate to say it but even the same guitar. I think the guitar can move forward but in general people stick to the same clichés. I don’t know. There’s room for expansion.
I think sometimes fans can be thrown by a change in direction?
I think people are more up for that now. There was an era where people were like ‘what are they doing changing?’ but I think that’s all out the window because everything is so absurd now. ‘I don’t care, what have you got, blow my mind! This world is going off a cliff, I need something that screams louder than that.’ I hope young kids get together and start making a racket. Doesn’t have to be a band, doesn’t have to be a guitar. Certainly it shouldn’t be someone standing at a computer. Maybe it needs to push towards performance art, maybe live music needs someone to come up with a big drum and slam the shit out of it for 20 minutes, run it through some effects… at least someone will remember that in a week.
Does the live show need to evolve?
Either that, or then again, another generation comes along. They didn’t see Elvis, they’re waiting for someone to go up there screaming their head off with a guitar and it’s loud. This shit’s been going on for 50 years but when they see it for the first time it’s still pretty amazing. We’re inundated with the media of rock and roll. It’s kind of ‘grandad’s music’. What’s it like for a kid now, a generation that’s so overloaded with pop culture? Whatever you’ve got, you gotta figure out a way to rage against how we’ve been doing it. Maybe it’s already happening. Kids are doing stuff, we just don’t see it.
Is it going to be a long tour?
We do it in legs. Two or three weeks at a time, then we all go home, have a week or two then we go back out. We’ll do the east coast of the States, then in the new year we’ll come back over to Europe.
Do you enjoy it?
Yeah. Touring’s been very good to us, it’s basically the heart and soul of what we do. It’s been really great to make records but our bread and butter is touring. We don’t sell enough records to make a living off. We sell just enough that it makes it worth it for the record company (Sub Pop) to invest in us and do the promotion. It costs money, they have to take that money out before the band gets anything. We sell enough to make it worth the record company having us. You hope you get to do the same next year.
We have a strong following. I’m sure whatever we release they’re at least going to listen to it. We have the kind of fans that go to shows and buy records. There’s definitely other styles, other corners where it’s more of a download thing.