“It’s just kind of happened. I know it’s twenty years, but it doesn’t feel that way.” Low’s Mimi Parker is looking back on twenty years as one third of America’s favourite miserabilists. This month’s The Invisible Way is their tenth full-length release amidst a discography that also includes a slew of EPs and a couple of live records, each a milestone along a career trajectory marked with intrigue.
“You know, it’s just like life, really. There’s milestones along the way, obviously, and you remember them, but for the most part you’re just getting on with it and watching it go by.” Equating the band’s career with the natural progression of life is an obvious touchstone for Parker, something that she brings up throughout our conversation. “Obviously we still love making music, but the truth is, at this point, this band is our living. If the records still sound like they have some sense of urgency, it’s because this is what we do day to day to pay the bills and take care of ourselves. We don’t have an office to go to or a computer to sit in front of all day, and this is what we do instead; the band is still our life.”
The new record comes a little less than two years after the release of their last effort, C’mon, and marks a return to prolific output for the band; there was a four-year gap between C’mon and 2007′s Drums and Guns. “I guess we’ve been slowed down in the past by things outside of the music; obviously Alan [Sparhawk, singer-guitarist and Parker's husband] had some issues and we struggled to work on music for a while.” She’s referring, of course, to Sparhawk’s well-documented nervous breakdown back in 2005. “But I think it’s mainly that we’ve become much more efficient songwriters recently, I think we’ve become a little bit more methodical.”
This new focus allowed the band to finally make good on something they’d wanted to do for a while; work on new music with Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy, who produced The Invisible Way. “We had this very gradual introduction to Jeff, and Wilco in general; we worked with [Wilco guitarist] Nels Cline for the first time four or five years ago, and then he played with us on C’mon. It seems like he really got those guys into what we do, so we’d been waiting for a while for our schedules to align so that we could work on something, whatever it turned out to be.”
With Tweedy himself a veteran of nine Wilco records on the musician’s side of the recording desk, you’d surely be forgiven for wondering how easy he found the transition to the role of producer. “Going into the studio, he’d already heard the demos we’d sent him, which were pretty fleshed-out; it was like he knew the record better than we did,” laughs Parker. “I think he just kind of wanted to hold us true to that original vision for the songs; he didn’t try to second guess us too much. He was an incredible listener. He really wanted all of the focus to be on us.”
Part of Tweedy’s plan for the album involved recording it at breakneck speed, at least by previous Low standards. “The whole thing was tracked in five days – straight in and out,” says Parker. Again, she brings the practical considerations of everyday life sharply back into the discussion; “if nothing else, you’ve gotta think about how much everything’s costing you. Studios are expensive. If you go in knowing you can get everything done in a certain space of time, then that’s a big plus financially. We put the work in early and took these nearly-finished demos into the studio – I guess that’s the Minnesota work ethic coming out.”
C’mon and Drums and Guns had marked a period of sonic expansion for a band previously best known for their signature minimalist style. The Invisible Way, though, sees Low retreating into more familiar, less bombastic territory. “We worked with Matt Beckley on C’mon; he’s an LA guy, so I guess that record was always going to sound bigger, and lusher,” says Parker. “I think we’d grown a little bit tired of the restraint that we’d had in our sound for so long. It’s not really that we’ve gone back to that on The Invisible Way; it’s just that Alan doesn’t want to repeat himself. We’ve brought in acoustic guitars and we’ve never really focused on the piano like we have on this record, so we’re still experimenting.
Twenty years on, Low are still endeavouring to make their live sets as career-spanning as possible, but with those two decades encompassing marriage, births and lineup changes, surely the passage of time has changed the nature of the band’s relationship with their older material? “We think of songs like we think of friends; some you hold dear and never fall out of touch with, and others you drift away from over time,” says Parker, again bringing the band-as-life metaphor back into play. “Some of those older songs, we’d have to go back and re-learn the lyrics and how to play them again; others, we’ve never really stopped playing. I don’t think there’s anything we’ve done that we feel truly disconnected from now.”
Lyrically, Parker hasn’t strayed too far from her time-honed approach on The Invisible Way. “Lyrics are so weird; I think I’ve learned to stop worrying about them by now. I think my best lyrics have been very much stream of consciousness; that way, whatever’s on your mind is gonna make its way out, whether you know it or not. You shouldn’t have to try too hard, I don’t think.”
It’s difficult, of course, to speak with Low and not touch upon the spiritual aspect of their lives; Sparhawk and Parker’s devotion to their Mormon faith is well-documented, although it’s not something that typically seems to emerge in a particularly obvious fashion in their songs. “I think it probably pops up every now and again. It’s very personal to us, but we’ve never wanted to really put it out there in the music; maybe on some level, we worried people might think we were trying to force it on them, I don’t know.”
The Invisible Way is the fourth release on Sub Pop since they signed with the legendary Seattle label back in 2004, although it might be their last on this imprint; “our contract’s up now, so we’re not sure what’s coming next,” Parker says, with a nervous laughter that’s refreshingly self-effacing. “I’d like to think they’ll want to keep us on. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Whether they’re on Sub Pop or not, Low have a relatively clear view of what the future holds. “I think we’ll always make records and we’ll always want to experiment. The core of this band is Alan and I doing what we love; singing and playing. I don’t think that’s ever gonna change.”
The Invisible Way is out on March 18 via Sub Pop.