Careful what you joke about – it just might be the very thing that changes your life forever. When, in the early ‘90s, guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk decided to form a joke band to contrast the rapidly-emerging trend of grunge and post-punk bands coming out of the United States, little did he know just what an impact his project Low would end up making in years to come.
With fellow founding member and wife Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, as well as somewhat of a revolving door of bass players along the way, Low established a brand of low-fi indie rock that’s possibly best described as a soundtrack to post-dramatic shock… You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, as Sparhawk agrees, but if you’ve witnessed this trio live, chances are you belong to the latter camp. And if you’re lucky, according to the frontman, you may even hear a knock-knock joke or two…
“People who come to our shows for the first time usually end up a bit surprised,” admits Sparhawk. “The nature of our music for the most part is very serious and sober.
“So when people come out and see us and realise that we’re not always so serious up on the stage, they get a little surprise… and kind of come up to us and say, ‘that’s totally not what I was expecting’,” he laughs.
“I’ve had bands in my life where I’ve been shocked to hear them tell a knock-knock joke or something on stage too,” he adds, “so I know what they mean. At the end of the day you have to be honest with people. If anything, until you acknowledge that you have at least two sides to your personality, you can’t really communicate anything effectively.
“I love the power and intensity that happens purely though music by not saying anything and just playing, but I think it’s equally as powerful to interject your personality a little bit into the moment.”
For fans of Low, it seems the good news just keeps getting better this month. With a national tour coming up for the trio in October, Sparhawk announces that Low are currently also in the process of making a brand new album. And while the singer isn’t giving too much away just yet, he gives his Aussie fans two clues: think ‘organ’ and ‘bombastic’. And, of course, think ‘surprise’.
“We’ve been at it for a few weeks, it’s going great so far,” explains Sparhawk. “We’re really taking advantage of the organ that’s been sitting here. We’re getting a lot of big, bombastic sounds which are making the album sound like it’s recorded in a giant old church… That’s kind of because it is! We’ve been recording it here in Duluth (Minnesota) at an old Catholic church which they turned into a community centre and a studio. It’s definitely different from the last one,” he says of the album.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recording so far has been the length of time that it’s taken to even get to this point, says Sparhawk. “Partly, it’s music business politics, partly it’s the band members’ own faults.” Forever restless, Sparhawk says it’s simply impossible for him to sit still when creative opportunities are constantly knocking on his door – the most recent being choreographer Morgan Thorson who approached the band to collaborate on his new vocal/dance piece Heaven.
“We’ve been very involved with that piece,” says Sparhawk. “It was a lot of fun for me because it was more about the composing side of things and working with someone who has a specific creative vision and they get to make all the creative decisions for once.
“Usually we get to do what we want on projects so to work in this way has been refreshing. We also did a lot of vocal layering on this piece and some looping. A lot of it was improvised so you get the chance to indulge a bit and go in depth with material that you may not necessarily do on your own album.”
Collaborating with Sparhawk and Thorson was also fellow Low member – and the singer’s wife – Mimi. According to Sparhawk, working so close with the people you love has it’s positives… but it also presents a danger in many ways.
“Being a group of people within a band is an immensely intense experience,” he admits. “On the one hand it could be the best thing ever to be creative and to bare your soul with your family and the people you’re so close with. It makes you grow closer and tighter but it can also drive you further apart. You can end up really hurting each other because the band environment is so intense.
“Essentially,” he states, “it’s easy to become each other’s worst enemies too. It’s such a fine line that you tread – you’re living through the most amazing, life-changing moments together, but there’s a possibility that it can get too intense.”
So far, this hasn’t really been the case for Low. While Sparhawk admits members have come close to having rows and experienced the typical on-the-road annoyances, the Low bond is just too strong almost two decades later.
“Some people feel funny about admitting it, but at the end of the day we feel blessed that our music has paid the bills and fed the kids,” says Sparhawk. “Both Mimi and I came to a decision that we weren’t going to let this thing bother our relationship. It just works and we’re surprised by it every day.”
LOW play the Becks Festival Bar at The Forum as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival this Thursday October 21. Pikelet and Ponzu Island support. Tickets and info from ticketmaster.com.au, 136 100 or melbournefestival.com.au.