In Pursuit Of Hope
If there’s a single quality that most characterises the social tumult of our time, it’s total, abject disarray, but the music made by Minnesotan cult heroes, Low, represents a tonic to our contemporary turmoil.
Last year's devastating record Double Negative caught many off-guard; fans and critics alike stunned by its desperate beauty. A band who have never been averse to stylistic left turns, the leap that they made to create this record was striking nonetheless. Caustic one minute, eerily tranquil the next, few artistic statements encapsulate the disorientation and displacement of contemporary public life quite like this.
The response to Double Negative was deservedly rapturous. Four- and five-star reviews were near-universal; The Guardian described it as ranking “alongside the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Cormac McCarthy as a document of contemporary social collapse, and as such is the most important album of the year”; the record appeared near the top of almost every heavyweight end-of-year list. Commercially, too, this record has been a notable step forward for Low, whose current tour, festival bookings, streaming figures and record sales reflect a considerable surge in public profile. As much of a stylistic sidestep as this LP might have been, it was clearly an artistic reach worth making. Yet nobody was more surprised by the sheer level of acclaim than Low’s central partnership: husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.
“We weren’t expecting [this reaction]. We were just pretty focused on trying to do something new, and kept challenging ourselves,” says Sparhawk earnestly. “We were like, well, I’m not sure everyone’s going to get what we’re doing with this, but there’s something here. I mean, I thought some critics would get it… but not, you know, most people.” Parker nods in agreement, adding, “we knew we were stepping outside our comfort zone, the rules that we set for ourselves. But yeah, pleasantly surprised.”
We’re sat in Sparhawk’s anonymous, compact dressing room at London’s Barbican Centre, a couple of hours prior to their set at the complex’s grand central theatre space. Support act Hilary Woods is soundchecking as we speak, her twilit ballads seeping gently through the walls. It’s a fitting soundtrack to a ruminative conversation with tonight’s headliners.
In person, Sparhawk and Parker are quiet, a little reticent, prone to speaking either in long, elliptical streams of consciousness, or single syllables, with little conversational range in between. Or at least, they’re like this with me; one senses that press commitments are tolerated by them, but hardly relished.
Perhaps that’s symptomatic of Low’s wider relationship with the contemporary music industry. Longtime residents of Duluth, Minnesota, an isolated port city on the shores of Lake Superior, Sparhawk and Parker do not seem particularly interested in engaging with the business beyond absolute necessity. “Honestly, I think we miss out on some things because we’re not in those great centres,” says Parker. “We’re not in LA or New York, where you can be in the right place at the right time. We’re not ever there, so that never happens.” Not that this seems to bother them. “For kids growing up somewhere like Duluth, it’s definitely slower,” Sparhawk explains. “It’s kind of place that, when you’re young and ambitious, you want to get out of and go to a bigger city. But we grew up on farms; when we moved to Duluth, that was the big city for us. It’s fine.”
A sense of isolation and a steadiness of pace are threads that run through a good deal of Low’s catalogue, from the desolation of their debut, I Could Live in Hope, right through to the slow-blooming splendour of Double Negative’s stateliest moments. The “Arctic wind” of Duluth, as Sparhawk describes it, has “set their jaw a little harder”, instilled “an underdog spirit”; yet a record like Double Negative isn’t the product of a plucky David, defying the odds imposed by geographical remoteness and the pathologies of a music industry in flux. Nor is it the assured muscle-flex of an artistic Goliath, unambiguous and swollen with purpose; as is becoming a common refrain in discussions about this band, it’s a little more complicated than that.
"We’re still pushing ourselves, trying to grapple with the moment now, and not trying to justify it with the past" - Alan Sparhawk
“I don’t know how much a place like Duluth really changes the way we write,” Sparhawk muses. “I think that there’ll be people in New York or wherever who write late at night, maybe a little too tired, trying to do stuff, and it might sound similar. But there’s something about being shut in, being isolated, it being cold and having to stay indoors. There’s a push and pull there that sparks creativity.”
This band are a web of contradictions. Deeply admired by many, yet hardly alternative megastars; devotedly ambitious, yet famously modest and frugal in their personal lives. The deeply religious members of Low are outliers compared to the largely secular, profoundly contemporary circles in which they are held in such high regard. Apparently, though, their many dichotomies suit them.
“We’ve never felt pigeonholed,” says Parker, “With this recording, we stepped outside the rules that we set for ourselves. Maybe we’ll venture down that hall a bit more.” She pauses, so I ask whether that kind of restlessness has helped keep things fresh all these years. This evinces an emphatic reaction: “Oh yes. That’s the only reason we’re still doing this.”
Sparhawk elaborates. “Without that drive, that growth, that feeling of life continuing down a certain path, I think you’d start getting up inside your head pretty quickly. All the other difficult things about being in a band would take over; at the end of the day, we’re still pushing ourselves, trying to grapple with the moment now, and not trying to justify it with the past.”
This is a revealing quote. Low - and Sparhawk in particular - have had more than their share of struggles with those “difficult things” over the course of their career. His issues with mental illness have been well-documented, but accounts of their severity remain shocking to the layperson: periods in which he “realised I was the Anti-Christ”; spells of profound delusion and a belief in his ability to solve various global humanitarian crises; dogged battles with addiction and insomnia. These ailments would surface publicly as increasingly erratic onstage behaviour, ranging from bitter mid-song rants to full-blown breakdowns. A particularly notorious incident among the UK chapter of Low’s cultish fanbase culminated in him hurling his guitar, full-pelt, directly into the audience at End of the Road Festival in 2008. He threw the instrument with genuinely dangerous venom, before storming offstage to the dismay of his horrified bandmates.
These days, he’s more stable, and is very open about his condition. In 2019, he says, “it feels safer, more common for people to be more open. Maybe you could’ve predicted that: a generation or two ago, things were pretty closed up. But it’s good.” Again, though, there are nuances to his thinking here, and he’s unsure about the true extent to which the current tenor of the public discourse about mental health can genuinely help those in the direst straits. Yet he at least recognises that recent years have seen some significant steps in the right direction.
“It’s never fun, mental illness. I don’t wish it on anyone, but I don’t think that being very public about it is necessarily a cure-all. Being public can complicate things, can create its own layer of problems. But just having an environment where people can feel comfortable, and think ‘I’m not weird, this is what happens to people, I should seek some help’… that’s positive.
“When my mental health became acutely bad, it was a real shock. You don’t know that it’s happening to you, you don’t believe that it’s happening to you, so hopefully more awareness will lead to acceptance, and make people seek help a little quicker. And if people around you can recognise that that’s what it is, and be patient, help you, be constructive, encourage you to change your life…” He pauses, visibly trying to condense what he’s trying to say. “If there’s someone around you that understands that you’re having a tough time, who isn’t just seeing the symptoms instead of what’s actually going on, that’s helpful.”
He shifts a little, his plastic chair squeaking beneath him. “You know, this stuff’s life and death.”
"There are things that come with age, with experience; you’re a little less hard on yourself if you can’t come up with anything" - Alan Sparhawk
Sparhawk and Parker are devout Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’d be easy to overplay the influence of their faith on their music, but in truth that influence tends to manifest in the form of subtle nods towards spirituality and an abstract sense of the sublime more than any explicit passages of worship or doctrine. Perhaps their faith is more evident in the manner in which they construct their shared lives; though hardly puritanical, they have a lean, pragmatic approach to touring and recording, and to some extent always have. Age has also brought its share of restrictions and responsibilities.
“Things inevitably get more complicated,” says Sparhawk. “You get older, you have children. We have a house, with my mother’s house next door… You have to make choices, be selective about when and where you tour. Which shows do we do? We can’t be as spontaneous as we used to be, we can’t just throw a tour together and run off.”
“The motivations might not be as pure,” admits Parker, referring to the financial imperatives that may impact the life of a commercial rock band in middle age. “But the nature of the business has changed a lot too. There are so many touring bands, you have to plan so far ahead. We’ve been resistant though, really frugal. But we’ve had a sound engineer for a long time now - we realised that was key, to have more control over that, because that can go south fast.” She and Sparhawk laugh gingerly; clearly, she’s alluding to stressful touring periods that they both remember. “Yeah, that was an early lesson. But this is the first tour where we’ve had a lighting person.”
Sparhawk nods enthusiastically, adding with little trace of irony: “Yeah, that’s the big time.” But he is quick to downplay the true extent of these changes to the everyday life of Low.
“Sure, a lot of things are very different. But a lot of things are the same. It’s still you up on the stage, we still set up our own gear, do soundchecks, there are bad cables and feedback, people who don’t know how to use the gear – a lot of that’s the same. But there are things that come with age, with experience; you’re a little less hard on yourself if you can’t come up with anything. And we still feel as compelled to create as we always did.”
Perhaps it’s their age, perhaps it’s their faith, or a mixture of both, but throughout our conversation Sparhawk and Parker continually move to contextualise their comments, to retain nuance and keep things in perspective. When I ask whether Double Negative has fundamentally changed their status as band, they’re characteristically circumspect.
“Well, you know, we got a few more good reviews than we normally get. It’s not a big thing,” Sparhawk shrugs. “But this is where we are now. This is where the world is, where technology is… at this point, for us to make a new thing we have to grapple with that. We’ve gone this far.”
This prompts a memory from Parker. “I remember seeing a guy on Twitter saying ‘this is unlistenable, this is not music’. But that made an impact on him!”
Sparhawk grimaces. “I mean, I want to hear why people don’t like the record. I don’t pay much heed to it, but I want to hear it.”
“I don’t know, this record didn’t seem that extreme to me – we’ve hinted at it before,” says Parker. “But maybe that’s just in my head. Still, we don’t know what we’re going to do next. We speculate.”
“Unless we were to do it in a particularly intentional way, like ‘we’re going to play this whole EP acoustic’ or whatever, I can’t see us stepping backwards,” says Sparhawk. “This record is an expansion of what we’ve been trying to do all along, and I don’t know that it’s a particular style or sound as it is a deconstruction of sound. My hope is that we can show more. It’s like rats – if you can see this many, there must be this many more just out of view. We found a few new things, but it must be endless.” They both giggle at the rodent comparison.
“There’s hope, despair, tragedy and beauty on Double Negative. I think it’s honest to write what you’re feeling.” - Mimi Parker
Our conversation turns to the gulf between the critical perception of Double Negative, and their own thoughts and intentions about the record. I suggest that although many of the reviews speak about the “decay” of the album, its “haunted”, “collapsing” qualities, there’s a guarded yet crucial sense of hope lurking just beneath the surface. It’s that quiet optimism, that hint towards the light at the end of the tunnel, that makes the record so powerful, to these ears at least.
“I think I agree,” says Sparhawk, after a pause for thought. “It is hopeful. Even the darkest things, the songs that are looking at difficult, desperate things, have hope in them, even if it’s just in the idea that recognising something is the first step forward. A lot of the songs are about us saying ‘what do we do? This is broken…’”
Parker elaborates: “It’s up and down – like a human, like a real person’s emotions. There’s hope, despair, tragedy, beauty… all those. I like to think they’re all in there. But I don’t think we set out to write a certain thing. I think it’s honest to write what you’re feeling. If you’re not feeling hopeful, I wouldn’t expect you to write something hopeful.”
Sparhawk affirms this, again after a pause. “I don’t know if I have any control over what I write. But I think that just creating something is an act of hope. Even in the darkest song, there’s a spark of hope, because someone’s writing this down, making sense of it, trying to communicate. I think that’s positive. We all have hope, we’re all alive, we got up this morning… I think it just comes out of people if you’re being honest, no matter how dark you’re feeling, no matter what your subconscious kicks out. That’s been my experience anyway. It’s an act of trying to move forward. Trying to live.”
So, amidst the chaos of modern life, a chaos that Low are hardly reluctant to confront in their work, what is the source of this amorphous, elusive feeling of hope? This question seems to be at the heart of understanding Low’s music, of getting to the crux of the artistic intentions of this uniquely thoughtful, complex, emotional band.
Sparhawk tentatively weighs in. “I don’t know that I hang my hope on culture and politics. Well, I hope things get better, that good people come forward, that people who have power make better decisions, I hope people who are corrupt get taken down.”
“There are a lot of good people,” asserts Parker. “There are people out there that are trying hard to make a better world and treat each other better.”
“There were a couple of old guys at St George’s Church in Bristol last night…” Sparhawk begins.
“…in the snow, which usually shuts that city down,” adds Parker.
“…who were hauling food off to go to the soup kitchen. God bless those guys, man.” He breaks, then nods assuredly. “Yeah, that’s it, man. Good people.”
Unsurprisingly – this is, after all, a band in the form of their career – the set at the Barbican later that evening is astonishing. Shorn of the all-consuming gusts of studio distortion and liquid noise, yet bolstered by the venue’s muscular, bassy soundsystem, the humanity at the core of Low’s music is even clearer than on Double Negative. Each bell-like peal of Sparhawk’s vocal rings true across the auditorium, each expertly-placed cymbal swell from Parker brilliantly punctuating the freeform beauty of the band’s instrumental arrangements. Double Negative tracks like “Quorum” and “Always Trying To Work It Out” are emotional bludgeons, utterly overwhelming in their potency, whereas quieter moments, like a stunning rendition of “Dancing and Fire”, become fittingly hymnal in these grand surrounds.
The band close on “Murderer”, from 2007’s Drums and Guns, rounding off a rare two-song encore. Plaintive and keening on record, tonight the song is downright transcendent, its skeletal verses and rousing climax cutting deep across the room. A paean to the loss of innocence and the recognition of suffering to which we can all relate, it encapsulates what’s so special about Low. For all the talk of decay and disorientation, around Double Negative, their message has never been clearer: only by staring life straight in the face can we make sense of it; only by coming to terms with our flaws can we find the strength to overcome them. That, at least, is the hope.