Low on “HEY WHAT” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, November 29th, 2021  

Low on “HEY WHAT”

Hope in Unfamiliar Sounds

Sep 10, 2021 Photography by Nathan Keay Web Exclusive
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During a press cycle in Amsterdam in 2011, Low’s Alan Sparhawk professed a fondness for Ke$ha’s music. He also responded to a question concerning Neil Young’s Pono platform that day, and whether top-shelf audio-quality is paramount to having a fruitful listening experience. “When I listen to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ through laptop speakers, I’ll cry all the same,” he mused at the time.

Five years later. Sparhawk talks about a show he played with one of his other bands, Black-Eyed Snakes, and him speaking in tongues out of the blue, as if possessed by some unseen force. That same year, Low played a compelling festival show in which the harsh rain surrounding the tent almost sounded like an abrasive static hiss, creating a strangely beautiful harmony with the sparse, lurching songs Low has been known for throughout nearly three decades as a touring band.

Another five years later. Sparhawk is seated in a dim-lit living room behind a computer screen shared with his wife and musical partner Mimi Parker. He briefly touches on the legacy of homebase Duluth, and why it seems perfectly self-explanatory to put as much energy into a local Neil Young cover band as his “work.” “I met these guys a few years ago and we play together in a band once in a while. It’s very fun, very loud and dirty. And very regional,” Sparhawk half-jokes, only to realize mid-answer there might be more to what he’s saying. “I mean, it’s music from this region: just North of here is Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, and Canada, where Neil Young grew up. He eventually ventured to Toronto and then California. But he and Bob Dylan only lived about a two-, three-hour drive away from each other up here. [Dylan] used to live like five blocks away.”

As unlikely as it may seem for a fifty-something Mormon couple to lift pop music into exciting new stratospheres, Low’s new album HEY WHAT carries that lofty trajectory even further than its critically acclaimed predecessor, 2018’s Double Negative. If you coalesce these seemingly arbitrary fragments in time—each separated by five years—the fact that Low ended up wholly embracing their pioneering spirit actually makes perfect sense. Sparhawk’s ears weren’t deterred by a fluorescent pop classic corrupted and compressed by laptop speakers, the crashing of natural forces around the stage, or the antecedents of the place he and Parker have together called home.

HEY WHAT opener “White Horses” establishes an austere clockwork that goes far beyond the sonic red numbers, with frequencies we’re not used to hearing on albums. Sparhawk and Parker’s usually pristine vocal harmonies take on a menacing tone. But unlike the desolate, fatalistic tapestries of Double Negative, HEY WHAT kickstarts with a palpable thrill, like a defibrillator shocking you back to consciousness. Working with producer BJ Burton a third time—known for working on similarly refractory pop records with the likes of Charli XCX, Kanye West, and Bon Iver—was never part of the plan, according to the pair. But ultimately, the two sides were driven by the same mindset: peering towards what’s beyond the horizon of what’s already there.

“As you would imagine, if it’s someone you’d get along with and can work really well with, that process gets deeper and deeper,” Sparhawk explains. “And a little bit more honed. We figured, ’Here’s the thing we know we can really thrive in.’ When we first started working with BJ we were coming in working the same way we had worked in the past. A lot of the approach in our songs comes from figuring out how we play it live, and we go in and base everything around that. We’d go in and record and play it live, and then add things to it. But with BJ we were doing a bit of half of that on Ones and Sixes, and half more exploring and experimentation with the studio. By the time we finished that album, we knew that the latter direction was more satisfying. We were happy with the chances that we took.”

Parker: “It was building up that trust too. I guess it’s just putting trust into that what you bring to the table is going to work.”

Sparhawk: “Your creativity really blooms when you know you can trust everyone around you. Whether it’s their reaction to something or their thoughts and contributions. Once you’ve had enough experience, you realize, ‘Okay, I can trust this person’s decision-making’... and even if they make a decision we all like, I know exactly how to say ‘we’d rather have it this way or that way.’”

The “experience” part is quite the understatement, especially for two individuals whose creativity is so closely embedded with family life, communion, and spirituality. The musical chemistry between Sparhawk and Parker almost goes beyond the idea of symbiosis. It has become the tether, that fundamental force that’s in place that allows Low’s sonics to venture within unheard-of territories, and still somehow sound like Low. It compelled them to stretch a version of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” into a polarizing 30-minute drone-set at Minnesota’s Rock the Garden festival, or perform a faithful version of Rihanna featuring Mikky Ekko’s “Stay” and nevertheless make that song completely their own.

That openness of taking that core sensibility to outer wavelengths has marked Low’s career throughout: they were receptive to Dave Fridmann—a notorious maximalist for bands like The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and The Delgados—adding broader strokes to their dirgeful, minimalist tendencies on 2005’s The Great Destroyer and 2007’s Drums and Guns. 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way seamlessly explored Low’s music from a more grounded, song-oriented spectrum, which in turn inspired another about-face: the jump into the great beyond with BJ Burton. It might be significant to note that Low might have been previously triggered going into this direction when working on 2011’s C’Mon, a record helmed by Matt Beckley, someone who has specialized himself in pitch correction for famous pop stars.

“With anyone you start to work with on records, you’re going to start having that abbreviated language, a tighter trust,” Sparhawk comments. “But sometimes there is a discussion. When we had done The Great Destroyer, and when we were going to do Drums and Guns, we definitely talked to Dave Fridmann, we had some of our own ideas.”

Parker: “Honestly, we always got to a point where we did that, we represented that phase or whatever it was…”

Sparhawk: “Or we found out we played out the possibilities this person gave us. Sometimes it is just a matter of availability, sometimes it’s more just, ‘Okay, we need to make a record,’ so we reach out to people we trust to maybe call. It seems we’ve been really lucky that everyone we worked with was someone who showed up at a show or came up to us and said, ‘Hey I really like what you’re doing, next time you’re in the city come check out my studio.’ Which is what happened with Steve Albini. Steve Fisk, same thing, we played some shows with Pell Mell, he loved us. Fridmann, same thing, he would just show up at shows. I think Stuart [Braithwaite] from Mogwai was like, ‘You should contact Dave Fridmann, he’s really great to work with and he is a fan.’ So that was easy. Same with Jeff Tweedy; we played some shows with him and he just kind of floated around the idea. A year later we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do this record with Jeff,’ which kind of seemed to work well with the songs we’re doing at the time. We met Brian Eno at a festival a couple of years ago… so that’s still in the back of my mind.” He lets out a depreciating chuckle. “It’s a long shot.”

Within the BJ Burton-era, Low’s music seems to be going through a ceaseless cycle of development, taking elements from the studio to a live setting and vice versa. “Trying to technically duplicate the record would be a nightmare,” Sparhawk pronounces. “There would have to be eight of us out there.” Parker: “And it sucks the spontaneity out of it. Trying to replicate something exactly, that’s never been our intent.”

Sparhawk: “I want to bleed, I don’t want to press a button.”

Sparhawk reveals he was working with Burton again just a few days before this interview, just trying out new sounds in the studio. And that’s where a lot of the magic manifests: marrying the sound with the song. “A lot of times people think, ‘Well you’re doing stuff on the computer now’ and you’re just tracking and tweaking the crap out of it,” he explains. “But actually, the experimentation is going on as we track the songs. BJ’ll actually be using the heavy effects, manipulating while we’re tracking, during the process of putting something together.”

“There is very little mixing after the fact,” Parker adds. “We mostly found all of the sounds during the tracking process. And it’s just a little tweaking afterwards.” Quite a staggering fact, considering how much further Low ventures from traditional-sounding instrumentation than ever before. To upend that, the pair put even more emphasis on the clarity and emotional depth of their vocals and lyrics.

Parker: “With this record, we knew the vocals were going to be very strong. We worked very hard at them, we sang a lot, we got ready. But a lot of times, it’s instinctual.”

Sparhawk: “I think that’s great, that’s your superpower. You’re able to hear something and go ‘Alright, here’s a harmony!’”

HEY WHAT, like its cryptic title suggests, feels very much a pleasant limbo between pop and experimental music: sounds restlessly and manifesting before they’re able to take on a definitive shape or structure. It’s gorgeous and transcendental, yet intrusive and overpowering at the same time, like the intermediary between thought and reaction. According to the couple, the inspirations are as wide-ranging as they are extreme.

“There’s dub and reggae, there’s something about that that gives you this hint of ‘I don’t know, this is pliable, you can actually take a pop song and trick it out,’” Sparhawk ponders. “You still have those fragments of a song in there once in a while, with the vocals popping in and out, echo or a recognizable bassline or something. That music was—at least in my mind—breaking apart the idea of a song. Some extreme music like Sunn O))), I have a single by Alec Empire, “The Peak,” which I always loved. It’s this work of art. EMA, with whom we toured with…I’ve been a fan of her recordings for quite some time. It’s very old school, almost like the four-track lo-fi thing, but you can tell she’s reaching very hard to find what the outer edge, the outer limits of this medium can be. Not afraid to make a track that’s not at all referential to anything you’ve ever heard before.”

HEY WHAT’s chief single, “Days Like These,” has to be one of the greatest hooks the band has ever come up with, but instead of rallying like your typical pop song, its structure collapses under its own weight and dissolves. But nevertheless, the core melody still lingers around long enough to usher you into the soothing celestial abstractions.

It feels like the sound of hope, of possibility or something new, or as Sparhawk puts it, “something falling open to the universe”: that same feeling one maybe gets after first hearing late jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock weaponizing guitar noise, or My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields creating these dense, multi-layered sound effects. And with anything that strikes as original and new, there isn’t much cast-iron to latch onto, other than to chase that raw unprocessed feeling down.

“We started ‘Days Like These’ as a sort of folky song played on the acoustic guitar, just singing together,” says Parker. “It felt really folky to me, and we would always play it like that. And that’s another thing about working with BJ, you never know what it’s going to end up becoming. I was certain that it wasn’t going to sound like a hokey folk song.”

“With Double Negative we kind of broke the door in, we blew the door up and found this new room with new possibilities,” Sparhawk ruminates. “And I think now, with this record, it felt more like ‘We’ve blown the door off as we walked in the room, now what? What are we going to do with the room, with all the possibilities here?’ It was a little more specific even: we got past this door, but there was also this other door, and then another one. So instead of being focused on the room, here’s another doorway, let’s make our way towards that. If it’s anything like the first door, it’s probably worth going through it.”

Parker: “I think about it in terms of themes too: Double Negative was pretty dark and a reaction to this crazy time, whereas I feel this album brings in a little bit more light.”

“This one’s like ‘This was way worse than we thought, but we’re still alive… maybe we’re gonna make it,’” Sparhawk chuckles. “I think at this point we’ve kind of carved out a way that we can apply ourselves into just about anything, any approach or format. The songs as well; I think we have a certain simple approach to songwriting. I think maybe that resonates, and I think maybe that’s a thread through things. Again, the vocals too. I guess when you have those things, the rest of it can’t really touch that: if we write the songs and we’re singing and we like what’s coming out, it’s gonna be Low. Over time we just learned to trust to go really far out of the limb, and as long as it’s still us writing the songs, still us singing, still us saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds great, let’s go with that’... somehow, it’ll become a lot more representative than if we had planned it.”

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