Our meeting with Low falls on Italy’s Election Day. The air is filled with a strange, electric suspense, a tension, blocking every possible activity, waiting to eagerly know what is going to be with us. A sort of stillness, that immediatly dissolves as I enter the Hotel where the band from Duluth, MI, is waiting for me, to suddenly turn into a light calmlness, pretty similar to the feeling one gets while listening to Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s production.
And Mimi herself is going to be our interlocutor. With her, we’ll try and sum up what’s been of this first twenty years – and ten records – of Low’s, on stage and at home.
The release of “The Invisible Way” coincides with the 20th anniversary of the band. If “C’Mon” could be seen as one of your more pop-rock records, the new one turns back to the minimalist arrangements of your beginnings. Did you do this intentionally?
Yeah, I mean, I don't know if we intentionally decided to be a contrast, but we wrote these songs and we felt that's what they needed, just this minimal production. It's because we felt, at this point, that “C'mon” was, you know, something like "ok, we've done that" and now we could do whatever we wanted [ride], some "let's just try this".
A lot of attention, even in the press release on Sub Pop's website, on the new record is drawn upon you meeting with Wilco and the collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, who produced “The Invisible Way”. How did all this come up? How was your relationship born?
We've known Nels Cline for quite a few years, we had played with other bands he's been in, we've done shows with him and these other bands; then, I guess, when he joined Wilco he kind of just opened the door, he introduced us to them. Eventually, we did some tours with Wilco, so we got to know each other. I guess there's been talking about working with those guys, working with Jeff, and finally the time allowed it, the window opened up, and it just worked, so... we went to the studio, the studio's really nice, it's just that timing was right.
How was it working with Jeff?
It's been really great, he's been doing it for a long time, so obviously he adds... he comes in with a different perspective, because he's a working musician himself, and he kind of knew where we were headed with the songs and was very respectful of that, but at the same time he wasn't afraid to give his advice. The studio is really great, it's been a really nice experience.
You've been previously collaborating with other producers, for example with Matt Beckley for “C’Mon”, who had been working with high profile popstars, very far from your sound. How did you come to this unusual choice and how did things get along?
[laughs] That was really good too. With Matt, we knew he would definitely add a lot of Hollywood to the recording. It's kind of a weird going for and it's really amazing how different producers just put their stamp on it; if you go in to that arrangement you are willing to listen to each other it can be really exciting.
You sing in many songs in this “Invisible Way”, and, as many fans say, the best Low songs are the ones sung by you. Why did you choose to do so many this time?
I think Alan kind of forced me into it! [laughs] We've been talking about that type of thing, with maybe me doing my own, you know, doing all of the songs. So we kind of went back and forth but anyway so, honestly I felt a little of pressure but it wasn't bad, in the long run it ended up being a really good thing and guess I just worked harder and wrote the songs... who knows, maybe we might still do just solo bands, I don't know... but, yeah, so honestly he was giving me pressure to sing and write some songs, so...
How does the songwriting work in the band? Does Alan write the songs he sings and the same for you?
Pretty much, yeah, we work separately, we kind of run on different hours, Alan stays up really late and works, I have to get up early, with the kids, so I kind of do my work in the middle of the day while he does his late at night, and then eventually we come together and we can work out the structure, work out to find the details.
Do you only sing songs written by you, or do you exchange some?
Well, he actually wrote the “Holy Ghost” song, and I think he really wanted to sing it, but at the same time he wanted me to sing more, so I kind of took it away from him. [laughs] But mostly, yeah, all the other ones I did write, and he wrote all his songs.
You recorded one of your most intense and touching records at the Sacred Heart church in your town. The impression, from outside, is that the place is in his own way magic. Was it pure coincidence or did the environment influence you while you were recording?
I think the environment would always influence and, in that case, it's a church, a beautiful old church that has been converted into a studio, and there's a lot of history, a lot of life and death in that space, and maybe a weight, a heaviness because of all that's happening. I think that, maybe subconsciously, going into a space like this it kind of comes in, and it does affect you, I mean: you write the songs, out at home or wherever, and then you go in and, woah, something comes in. So, yeah, let's say it did.
“Drums And Guns” was perhaps your most controversial and surprising work. Does the label “political” apply, at least partially, to it and, if so, do you believe the message got through?
I think Alan considers it his kind of 'protest' record, you know, he mentions war and violence. Our country has been in wars, now, for quite a while, and this situation of the world is coming on you and affecting. So this is our protest.
Should we expect some political themes in “The Invisible Way” too?
Well, from my songs no, you know, I'm not sure I can speak for him [Alan] so much... somebody has brought up yet the notion of war and violence, but I don't know if I really see it in this one so much.
You've had a lot of changes in your line up throughout the years, with bass players. Why so?
Yes, we had a number of bass players... well, you know, I can say that we [me and Alan] are married, so we're kind of forcedly stuck together, and bass players are not married to us [laughs]. The first bass player we had was very young, he was still in high school when we started the band, and after a year, we were touring a lot, I just think he thought that this was not for him. And the next bass player, Zach, has been with us for about ten years, I think he was getting a family... For 20 years I think it's not that crazy to come through that, honestly – I can't speak for him [Alan], but – I guess we're kind of doing this together, and we invite people to come in, and if they wanna stay, if it's working, it works; if they wanna go then they go.
How do you balance your private life with your work?
Well, you don't really! What happens in the band, unfortunately and fortunately, moves into the family, in our marriage and relationship, and you just deal with it. It's just kind of the same – they are the same, basically. I mean, we have 2 kids, and of course they have their own impact, their own situation, but it's all one thing.
Do you take them on tour with you?
A little bit, they used when they were little, you know, but now they're going to school, it's harder, and it's a lot more work for me, when I bring the kids! You know, when it's just us I get up when I want, I eat when I want, but kids want to eat, want to sleep, they have a schedule, it's too much work. [laughs]
When you started, in the early nineties, there was a parallel and contrary movement to grunge, centered on slow tempo and suffuse atmospheres (I’m thinking about Red House Painters, Idaho, Bedhead, Luna...). Did you feel part of it back then?
I guess eventually we did, when we first started we felt pretty isolated, we were in Northern Minnesota, we didn't have a lot of friends and musicians, there were a few here and there, but we knew when we started that we were gonna be different from what a lot of people were listening to, and that was ok, because we knew that that would happen. But eventually, as we played, we met people, we met and had a lot of friends who were doing similar music, so then I guess we kind of became part of that, but always at the same time being separate from it in a way.
Someone named that genre 'slowcore'. In an old interview Alan said that it was the cheesiest definition ever given to your music, and continued “I hate that word. The most appropriate is anything that uses the word minimal in it, but I don't think anybody's made one up for that”. Do you still agree with that sentence?
Well, what's funny about it it's that Alan actually started that! [laughs] We had a friend who called that 'slowcore', I think that Alan mentioned that in an interview, then it kind of went, so, he only has himself to blame! I don't know at this point if he really was that bothered, you know, people are going to put things in a category, everything would be categorized, and he just had to stick with it. There's no worry about it, 'cause you don't want to be defined by that but at the same time it's an easy way, easy thing for people to do, so.
Can you name a couple of new artists/bands that have struck you positively, recently? Is slowcore still alive?
Yeah, I think the genre has expanded, but... Oh God, I'm terrible, I don't listen to a lot, and I don't know if I can name anybody right now, to tell you the truth! But I think the genre has expanded more so I don't even know if people would call that 'slowcore' anymore, but I think, whatever it'd be called, it's still not very popular but a lot of people are doing that type of music maybe calling it something else so it fits a little differently...
Within the genre you have explored a whole palette of sound/emotions, and your discography represents a coherent and personal but also quite varied sum of work. If you had to summarize it, do you think some part of the picture would represent you in particular?
I felt form the beginning that it's been a very natural progression – hopefully it's been a progression – and both of us are always surprised when we keep doing it. You know, it's a pleasant surprise, and so we've never forced it, we've never sat down and we've never calculated “Alright, this will be our next move” or “our next record need to sound like this, we have to do this”, it's been very natural. And I guess that kind of overview it's the only way that I can see it, it's very not contrived, just free flowing.
Though it's Alan's side project, I'm going to ask you about the album by Retribution Gospel Choir that just came out. “3” is a particular record: two long psychedelic jams, with classic rock, resounding spurts. Why did they release it so close to “The Invisible Way”?
I think it was probably just a coincidence, honestly, they've had the recording done. There was no plan, it was just coincidental, and they knew they were gonna do a little touring, and they knew we had A LOT of touring, so I think they tried to get it out a little bit before the Low's one, so they could go do some touring, cos we'd really be busy then.
Thank you, Mimi...