Low - Alan Sparhawk on “Ones and Sixes”
Beauty and Noise
Nov 16, 2015
Photography by Zoran Orlic Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES
After 22 years as one-half of the husband-and-wife songwriting team in Low, vocalist/guitarist Alan Sparhawk has developed a thesis on longevity. Bands that have been around so long inevitably fall into one of two categories: they either survive by carving out a distinctly identifiable sound and repeating it over and over, or they never allow their aesthetic to fully congeal and attempt to reinvent themselves with each release. Though he isn't certain which of these categories he, Mimi Parker (drums, vocals), and Steve Garrington (bass) belong in, he says he hopes it's the latter, though he acknowledges they have made their name by reliably dealing in subtleties. Beauty and noise: those are the twin poles that have resided at the center of Low's sound from the very start, he says—and Sparhawk has been itching to upset that balance ever so slightly. With Low's eleventh effort, Ones and Sixes, he set out to make an album that pushed in from the margins.
To help with this minor reinvention, Sparhawk called on B.J. Burton, The Love Language producer and Bon Iver associate he befriended while he was producing experimental bluegrass band Trampled By Turtles and Burton was engineering. Impressed by the tracks Burton was doing with Kanye West and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Sparhawk began to envision how he could erase the edges of Low's usually understated sound.
"It's kind of a love story," Sparhawk says of working with Burton. "I don't know if you can hear that our record is done by one of the guys that works with Kanye, but there's definitely a more brave sonic thing going on. All of the parts are larger and more extreme and cut out and obvious. There's breaks—sections where something will just cut to something else and be kind of extreme. There's a lot of weird bass tweaking, sometimes very extreme and different. I would say as far as forward-thinking sonically, it's probably closer to [2007's] Drums and Guns, that record we did in the past that was a removal from the way you'd typically see us live with drums and guitar."
The difference in Burton's approach can be felt immediately and throughout, from the crunchy electronic beats and cascading synths of opener "Gentle" through the apocalyptic guitar drones of the nearly 10-minute "Landslide," a track that sounds like it could have fit on the last couple of Swans albums. There are leering bass-heavy grooves ("No Comprende"), angelic walls of reverb-drenched harmonies ("No End"), and moments of surprisingly breezy dream pop ("What Part of Me"). In other words, all of the elements that appear on typical Low albums are present, but they've never been lined up in such immediate and downright unsubtle ways.
"I don't think anyone is making records that sound like this, and in my most selfish moment, I guess I would just hope that people would be kind of blown away by it, like, 'Whoa, that's intense,'" Sparhawk says. "We probably weren't doing that as much on the last couple records. But this one, I wanted to make something that was new and bold and that was more forward-thinking about the idea of beauty and noise and dissonance and texture. That's where we've always been—the balance between beauty and noise. And this time the noise wins..." he says, with a mischievous pause. "Barely."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2015 Issue, which is still on newsstands now. This is its debut online.]
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