Low's Alan Sparhawk on Joy Division and radio
Since its inception in 1993, Low (due at the Larimer Lounge this Saturday, December 18) from Duluth, Minnesota, has created a body of work characterized by a fragile intensity. Although often lumped in under the banner of "slowcore" with a group of bands of similar sonic leanings, like Red House Painters, Galaxie 500, Tarnation and Codeine, it would be a mistake to try to fit Low neatly into what that sub-genre is about -- for starters, much of Low's material is anything but slow.
For the last decade, Low has branched out from the focused introspection of its early releases, and by the time of its 2005 album, The Great Destroyer, the band had proven it could write a song in whatever tempo it liked with whatever sonic character it preferred. On the cusp of the band's show in Denver this weekend and the release of its new record, we spoke with Low's frontman and guitarist, Alan Sparhawk, about Joy Division, the perils of commercial radio and the nature of politics.
Westword:One of my favorite recorded performances from Low was that cover of Joy Division's "Transmission" that you did for A Means to an End. What kind of impact did Joy Division's music have on you, and why cover that song in particular?
Alan Sparhawk: Oh cool. Right on. Yeah, we did that around the same time we did our second record. I'm glad somebody liked it. I'm a huge Joy Division fan. When we started Low, it's fair to say there were certain favorite bands that I was looking at as touchstones as far as, "These guys, whatever they're doing, they're totally owning it." The minimalism of them. Definitely the tone of Ian Curtis' lyrics were huge influences on me.
The first record I got of theirs was Still. I guess the reason we did "Transmission" is that we felt like... I don't know, we were looking at other songs that were more appropriate or typical of us, but it felt like we would have done something they had already done, so I thought, "Well, let's take one of the more aggressive songs and slow it down and see what happens."
Yeah, you completely transformed the sound of the song but retained its feel.
Yeah, thanks. Years ago, I was in a band that used to do Joy Division covers like "New Dawn Fades."
How did you come to work with Dirty Three on that In the Fishtank session in 1999?
We'd done a bunch of touring with those guys in The States. We were friends with them. This label was doing this series of what they called "In the Fishtank" - there are about eight or ten of them. They would invite a band to come in for two days at this studio outside of Amsterdam at this farm. When we got asked, we'd just got done doing a record -- I don't remember which one, Trust or Things We Lost in the Fire -- so the idea of going into the studio with just ourselves again... we were pretty rung out.
So we said, "Let's make this interesting." Dirty Three came up because they were our friends, and we thought it would be fun to do something together with them. They happened to be on tour over there again at the same time. It just worked out to do it as a collaboration. Everybody that worked on it was really happy with how it worked out.
In an QRD interview you did a long time ago, I thought you said something that seems more relevant now than ever if you change the specific references and technology. But I was wondering why you thought, and perhaps still think, you shouldn't trust what you're hearing on the radio in terms of music?
It refers to the fact that there's a very vibrant life underground with a lot of people doing some really great things that are way more interesting. The whole scenario of thinking of aliens out beyond listening to our radio and going, "Hmm... well, here's what these people mostly listen to." Sadly, it's true. The stuff you hear on the radio is essentially what eighty percent of the population wants to hear and satisfying enough to their requirements time and time again. If you're looking for the depth of what can be done, it doesn't take much time to look around and hear striking things.
Even now. I'm still kind of blown away by hip-hop right now. There's this college station that on one or two nights play that stuff. Old Minnesota has it pretty thick between Atmosphere and Brother Ali. There's sort of a Minnesota underground hip-hop legacy and the station here plays that end of things. You never hear about that stuff. That's just a recent example of stuff. Wow, a whole world of really smart people doing this shit and there's no level of awareness in the public, necessarily, other than "Hip-Hop, the McDonald's product."
How did you meet Reverend Dead Eye and have you played shows outside of Denver with him either in Low or in Black Eyed Snakes?
Yeah, man. He's come to our town a number of times. We've done shows with him. He's come to Duluth. He was a friend of The Snakes, basically. He's our friend in Denver.