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Seven Questions with Low’s Alan Sparhawk: Inspirations, first gigs, Low’s catalog, more

Low (photo by Shelly Mosman)
Low (photo by Shelly Mosman)

Seven Questions features deep dive interviews with local bands, songwriters, and personalities. Their music, their influences, what makes them tick, their earliest memories, what books they’re reading, what movies they love, and any other random ol’ thing is on the table. It’s a great way to get inside the head of Minnesota’s most important music personalities.

Alan Sparhawk, leader of legendary Minnesota rock band Low, needs no introduction.

His internationally acclaimed band has released 12 albums, most recently 2018’s Double Negative. Their minimalist indie rock is evocative and expansive.

Currently, Low perform a live stream show every Friday at 3pm CST on their Instagram page.

Alan was nice enough answer some questions for Music in Minnesota’s Seven Questions series.

Question 1: You’ve released 12 albums with Low. It’s an unfair question – something like asking who your favorite child is – but which one(s) are you most proud of and why?

I don’t have any clear favorites or any glaring regrets. We were always able to do whatever we wanted so we did, and if you do that, you never have to look back and reassess. We are always pretty excited about what we recently have done. Double Negative was intense to make and we really surprised ourselves, so it’s been an amazing experience to play those songs and know that some people are into it. We take out the Christmas record every year and play it a bit but usually once something is out, it’s out and beyond our perception. 

Question 2: Name two bands/artists from two widely different genres that you love. What do you love about them? 

Burning Witch was from Seattle in the 90s. They were pioneers in slow grind metal and I love them. The singer sounds like a scorched demon and the guitar player is Stephen O’Malley (who later formed SunnO).

The other would be Alice Coltrane – she was married to john Coltrane later in his life and she is a very mystical singer and performer – very spiritual jazz. She is an ecstatic performer and singer, sometimes singing in her own made up language. It’s very hopeful and visceral.

Low (photo by Paul Husband)
Low (photo by Paul Husband)

Question 3: You’re also a member of garage blues band Black Eyed Snakes. What place does the blues have in your background? Who are your favorite blues artists? 

‘Snakes came out of a lifelong love/hate for the blues. Love because it’s the primal scream, the soul language, the voice of human experience. Hate because the watered down versions we get from many people trying to commercialize it has almost drowned out its soul. Seemed like you had to wait through a bunch of slick modern show-offs to finally hear a track from Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Every midwestern kid who picks up a guitar sooner or later finds those familiar phrases and bent 4ths and can’t help but see the deep foundation that blues is. The more you look, the deeper it gets.

‘Snakes was built on the simpler, more repetitive stuff like John Lee Hooker, Skip James, R.L. Burnside, and Howlin’ Wolf. Not so into keeping track of 12 bars – that’s western thinking trying to impose itself on something that is free.

Question 4: Who are your favorite authors? What makes them great? What works of theirs would you recommend to people who hadn’t read them?

I’m dyslexic, so I don’t have a very impressive list. Most recent one is The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker and I love Sarah Kenzior, who is a socio-political scholar. She has the most honest and eyes-open perspective on what is going in the world right now, politically.

Question 5: Describe the first Low show. If you can’t remember it, share something about the band’s early shows.

It was at a place here in Duluth called Recyclable-bell. It was an all ages space and there was a small scene brewing so we were on a bill with two other locals and there were maybe 40 people there.

We played four songs, very quiet and spare. Some people wandered off, some people sat and chatted, but there were about four people who were very still and attentive who seemed to be feeling the same vibe were were feeling, so it was pretty exiting.

After that we decided it may be worth demoing a couple songs and seeing if we could step it up, maybe do a single on an indie label. Early ’90s were flush with possibility and people were waking up to the underground and if you were doing something unique, people noticed.

Low (photo by Paul Husband)
Low (photo by Paul Husband)

Question 6: What three songwriters influence you the most? What about them is inspirational?

My dad played drums. Dance bands when he was young, country bands when we were growing up up near Bemidji. He also loved singing – Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, etc. and he wrote a few songs, so in many ways, he was the greatest influence because it showed me that real people can play and write songs, not just the fancy mysterious famous people who lived in big cities far away. It made it real and possible, even for a Minnesota farmer.

Another influence is maybe Ian Curtis from Joy Division. His were the first lyrics I really dove into and felt like home in. Morissey was an amazing lyricist, but Ian’s lyrics are selfless and pure effortless honesty, unafraid of how darkly personal it was, and even poetic in its starkness.

Velvet Underground really helped open my mind to songwriting too – poetry in the rough, unbridled, brutal, and broken. Lou was both irreverent and attributive at the same time.

Question 7: What Low songs are you the proudest of?

Oof, that’s a hard one. I try to find a way for everything we do to be everything it has to be at that moment. Some songs are more abstract gestures that need context, while others stand on their own and still work if you played them on a kazoo.

“Walk into the Sea,” “Holy Ghost,” “$20,” “Murderer”, “Always Trying to Work it Out,” “Will the Night,” Disarray,” a new one called “White Horses.” There’s a few more, but I’m sure my perception of them is skewed.

My songs are simple and at best reach the level of “OK haiku,” I’m no PJ Harvey or Mark Kozelek and certainly no Elliott Smith, Dave Bazan, or Mitski. The fact that most of our music is slow and sparse makes what little I come up with seem enough. I have to work very hard and I’m a brutal self-editor.

Bonus question 8: how are you holding out in these trying times? Are you and yours doing alright? How are you and your musician friends coping with the loss of work?

So far we’ve been lucky: our kids are here safe, we have a home to live in and good friends to check on. The timing of all this was not as bad as it was for some bands/artists. We had been busy for a year and a half on tour and were planning to be mostly off, writing and recording for the first half of the year anyway.

I know several people who had just put out records and had been counting on money coming in to cover what they had spent to get there. That would be hard – both financially and creatively.

I did start going to therapy again after a few weeks, as I saw that it was getting to me more than I thought it would. That has helped a lot. I think admitting to yourself that you may need help is crucial to happiness. It helps to have the weekly live internet gig. Sometimes you have to schedule things that are good to make sure you do them.

Erik Ritland
Author: Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

Written by Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

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