“This sounds very rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m out sitting next to the pool at the Best Western on Sunset Boulevard,” says Alan Sparhawk, singer-guitarist for Minnesota’s Low, who is in Los Angeles with his band to shoot a music video for its new album, The Great Destroyer. “This is not what we do every day. It’s twenty below back in Duluth — they just got nine more inches of snow.” In the background, his wife, singer-drummer Mimi Parker, can be heard talking to the couple’s two children. Bassist Zak Sally is nearby as well.
If poolside, Sunset Strip, doesn’t sound like a surprising setting for a rock band, consider that Low isn’t a rock band — or at least has never easily been characterized as one. This is Low, the wintriest of the wintry. But its current locale, like its jump from the Kranky label to the higher-profile Sub Pop, isn’t the most striking thing about the trio nowadays. A band that once wrote essays in atmospherics has become more emotionally and musically direct than any group on its new label’s diverse roster. A band that spent a decade as an influential cult act has opened for Radiohead on a two-week European tour. This is a band whose songwriter, Sparhawk — once the subtlest of the subtle — recently battled with something akin to a nervous breakdown, facing his personal demons in bold, passionate strokes.
“Trust was when I knew everything,” he says, referring to the band’s 2002 album, “and sometime between then and writing this stuff, I realized I don’t know anything. I used to always write afterwards — like, ‘This happened and this happened,’ or ‘Here’s my thought on this thing that I’ve been carrying around for years,’ whereas this record feels more like ‘Holy crap, what’s this?'”
To grasp the unexpectedness of Low’s new turn, you have to know how the ride started. In 1993, Sparhawk and Parker (who’d known each other since the fourth grade) hooked up with original bassist John Nichols for their first show at the RecyclaBell, a phone company building turned music venue in Duluth. “It was really funny — it was what we expected: Most people hated it and ran out of the room,” Sparhawk says, crucially adding, “Some people really, really liked it.” The people who walked out weren’t reacting to some loud, fast racket, but just the opposite. “When we started out, we intentionally pursued minimalism and slowness,” he explains. “It was almost a joke, like, ‘Let’s see how slow we can play and have it still be music.'”
To the group’s slight annoyance, if also to its indie-world benefit, the sound quickly gained the band a label as well as a dedicated cult following. Low invented the dark, easy-listening music of the ’90s, which an acquaintance with a sense of humor dubbed “slowcore.”
“A friend of mine heard us at the show, and he just kinda called me one day and was like, ‘I got it! I got it! Slowcore!'” Sparhawk recalls. “And then he just laughed, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ A couple months later, when the record came out, we had our first interview and they were like, ‘You play so slow, it’s so weird.’ And I just kinda laughed and said, ‘Yeah, a friend of mine calls it slowcore.’ And then, six months later, that’s what everybody was calling us.”
Not anymore. Compared to 2002’s languid Trust — much less the band’s ’93 debut — The Great Destroyer is, well, pop-rock: ragged, folky, deep pop-rock, but both pop and rock nonetheless. Sparhawk’s voice, raised above a murmur and past a croon, is closer to Matthew Sweet than to Leonard Cohen. Parker, whose drumming, at its sparest and most supple, approximates the beating human heart perhaps more than that of any drummer before her, speeds up to (gasp) midtempo and creates a wide-ranging panoply of sound. Bassist Sally, who joined in 1995, admirably provides the constant between divergent gems like the sticky riffs of “California” and the gorgeous acoustic quietude of “When I Go Deaf.”
This transformation can be attributed, at least in part, to Sparhawk’s state of mind. “I’m not afraid to say that our records always kinda reflect where my head’s at and, looking at this one, I can definitely look back and say, ‘Yeah, well, it’s been a shitty year,'” he says. “Shitty in the world, with some people we know,” he elaborates, “and my own sanity being somewhat in question.” But he won’t give specifics beyond the following: “I spent a little time with doctors and medication and — you know. To me it’s just been something that’s been coming for many years. I’ve been fighting it off frantically, and the process of having to fight it off so hard has kind of made me collapse and … I’m doing okay now. We’ll still be able to tour.”
Whatever Sparhawk went through, whatever internal confrontation he’s faced, its effect on his lyrics is dramatic. Where he once wrote songs so pent-up that they added faint new shades to the word “sublime,” Destroyer is filled with passionate, direct lyricism. “When I Go Deaf,” for instance, has lyrics so sharp and evocative — Stay out all night/Looking at the sky/We will make love/We won’t have to fight, won’t have to speak, won’t have to lie — that if the song isn’t covered by another band within a year, it can only be out of respect for the original.
But it’s not just introspection that’s changed Sparhawk — forced extroversion has also played a part. In 2003, Radiohead invited the band to tour Europe. Low subsequently played live for tens of thousands in Milan, Florence, Madrid, and elsewhere, but according to Sparhawk, it was Radiohead itself that had the greatest influence on Low. “To see a band that’s sometimes doing some pretty bizarre music, and yet the fans are totally there with them — it makes you think, ‘Wow, maybe we should see about a bigger label and see if we can just make music; let’s not think about it so much,'” he says. “You forget sometimes that you’re lucky — you get to make music. I mean, do it, quit sabotaging yourself. And quit thinking it’s gotta be so high on the mountain, you know? What the hell’s going on right now? Think about it. That’s kinda what I did, and I’m excited,” he says. “I guess.”