Friday, January 25, 2013

A Brief Interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low

I first met Alan Sparhawk as part of the multimedia happening titled 3N6D (Three nights in six dimensions) in February 2010. On other occasions since I captured his performances at a Halloween event, Rock Out Autism at the Clyde, a performance at Sacred Heary and last May on the Blood On The Tracks Express during Dylan Fest... but I've not had the privilege of seeing Low, until last week. The performance at St. Scholastica’s Mitchell Auditorium January 18 was one of a number of events that will be showcasing local talent in the months ahead.

Low is currently comprised of Sparhawk, wife Mimi Parker on percussion and Steve Garrington on keyboards / bass. One is struck by Sparhawk’s ease and confidence as a performer. The vocal harmonies between Sparhawk and Parker are also a feature of the group. This particular show appeared to be a live rehearsal in preparation for an upcoming tour in support of their new album. The new songs were inventively presented but earlier material was also shared with an appreciative packed-house.

EN: Who have been your biggest musical influences? 
Alan Sparhawk: Been inspired by many, many things. As a teenager, The Clash and other punk bands, then expanding as independent music thrived, eventually reaching everywhere with reggae, Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Mavis Staples, Native American songs, etc. My parents both loved and played music. My father wrote songs. Seeing that real people make music was pretty crucial, and punk/indie went hand in hand with that.

EN: How did your first tour in Europe get arranged?
AS: Our record company at the time sent us over to London to do some interviews and a couple showcase gigs on our first record ('94), Then we went to Belgium and did a show in a bar. There were people there singing our songs back to us. After the show, the singers (who barely knew a little English) took us out to the edge of the city to see the view. Pretty exciting for a bunch of farmers like us. Things have just grown from there.

EN: What do you like most and least about live performance? 
AS: Playing live is to me the most honest and pure expression of music. There are magical things that happen in the moment if you let them. It is humbling and exhilarating. I can admit that I've come to love and crave the interaction with people. That relationship has many dangers and wrong turns, but nothing beats creating something then sharing it with people who want it. It feeds my ADD, but makes me want to be better. As for the down-side: 8 hours to get there is getting a little old...

EN: You have several different bands, each with different styles, but your fingerprint is on all of them. What are the key characteristics of your songs that make them a Sparhawk sound?
AS: As you would expect, from where I stand it's hard to get perspective to even try to see what I'm doing, much less control it. It's always just me -- no masks. I think if you put your true self into something for some time, you eventually find your own voice, then it's just a matter of if anyone is paying attention. Trust that you are always going to sound like you, then set yourself free.

EN: Sometimes you play what I call "trance music".... slowly building layers in a patient crescendo. Is there a name for this style of song? 
AS: I sometimes call those songs "drones". I've always loved long, repetitive music -- it's psychedelic, which to me means it tries to go beyond the surface of consciousness, perhaps digging in a little. It can be meditation or even self-therapy. Years ago, the Duluth music community did a 25 hour collective drone as a memorial. It can be very powerful. Over the years, we have tried to push the extremes, and sometimes that means coming back to simple and short. The song usually lets you know where it needs to go.


Sparhawk plays music with at least two other bands that he's assembled, the Black Eyed Snakes and the Retribution Gospel Choir. In 2010, former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant recorded two Low songs from their album Band of Joy. You can read more about Low on Wikipedia. For a ten minute closeup of Alan Sparhawk produced by Twin Ports Underground visit this Vimeo link.

And have a great weekend... If you're here in the Northland, think warm.

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