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Low interview by tape & mail September 2000

I guess most of you already know about Low.  They’re a band that writes minimalist guitar based music.  I interviewed them a couple of issues back.  Maybe I’ll interview them again a couple issues from now….

QRD – You recently had a child, how do you think that will effect Low as far as recording & touring as well as sonically?

Mimi – It will be much harder.

Alan – It’ll be a lot harder I guess.  We’ll have someone else’s schedule to work around I guess.  It’s going to be a logistical nightmare each day as we come to town & try to find out where we’re staying, go do sound check, & then try to get the baby to bed before we get on stage to play.  We need to bring someone extra along, which means we need to buy a bigger van & have more people to feed & keep from getting hurt.  Sonically? I don’t know.  We just finished recording the new record & there are a few songs on there that I think are probably about having a baby & all that stuff.

Mimi – It’s more topics to sing about.

Alan – Yeah, more topics to sing about just when we were running out.

QRD –You recorded Songs for a Dead Pilot at home & then did Secret Name in a studio & then Christmas at home; do you plan to record more stuff at home or just use the home studios for EP's & stuff?

Alan – I think we’ll go back & forth.  The new record that’s coming out in January we did in a big studio again with the same person we did Secret Name with.  I don’t know, we keep going back & forth.  It’s fun to record ourselves at home.  We’re already kinda making plans on doing that for the next recording.

QRD – How was "Will the Night" on Songs for a Dead Pilot recorded?  I heard a rumor the reverb & noise is just from putting microphones at the far end of the room.

Alan – Actually, “Will the Night” was recorded on a microcassette recorder dictating machine.  We just kinda stood around the thing & played the song.  & then we mic’ed the machine & ran it back through a bunch of excessive reverb.  That’s kinda how we did it.  Just kinda mostly low-fi meets lots of reverb basically.

QRD – A lot of your songs have incidental noise like coughs & talking in them, is there a reason you choose to leave these "imperfections" in the songs?

Alan – I don’t know.  It’s pretty rare that it’s intentional.  Mostly it just happens & we have no way of getting it out of there, so it just has to stay.  Sometimes things happen at an advantageous time; like for “Condescend” at the end you hear this baby & it’s one of the cello players’ baby making this sound & she just happened to make the little baby sound at the very end of the song & we thought it sounded kinda neat, so we left it.

QRD – Do you think the nostalgic nature about youth & adolescence in the lyrics of many of your songs are what make so many people like you so much?

Alan – I don’t know; I guess it’s a common experience, everybody was young once.  I don’t know that it’s something we think about too much.  I don’t think we’ve ever intentionally tried to make something sound reminiscent of being young or anything like that, but it just seems to come up a lot.  Some people may like that & some people like other parts of us & some people hate us.

QRD – What do you miss most about being on a major label & what's the best thing about having moved to an independent label?

Mimi – Maybe the budget to do more press stuff.

Alan – We didn’t take advantage of it when we were there, but it’d be really neat to have a lot of money to make a recording.  We’ve made a lot of records now & I sometimes think it would be neat to have a huge budget & spend a long time in a nice studio making a record.  It’s nothing we shed any tears over anyway.  I think sometimes the advantage of having to keep within a budget has helped us a lot in the past.  You always wonder what it would be like to make a record with a huge budget, but I’m not gonna feel like I’m dying or missing out on anything if we never do that.  Best thing about moving onto an independent? There’s a lot of things.  It’s nice to know that we don’t have a 45 page contract that we need to go look at & try to make sense of every time something comes along that needs to be figured out.  We have just a handshake situation with Kranky.  It’s nice to work with people who care about us being happy with what’s going on & treat us like intelligent people.

QRD – How much of the imagery in your videos is your ideas?

Alan – I think pretty much all of them, the main idea has been.  From years ago there were “Words” & “Shame” & “Over the Ocean.”

Mimi – Not “Over the Ocean,” that was Phil’s idea.

Alan – “Over the Ocean” was Phil’s idea? I thought it was my idea.

Mimi – No, we’ve already had this talk.

Alan – We came up with the “Words” idea….

Mimi – That was my idea.

Alan – That was your idea?

Mimi – The boat.

Alan – Okay, but….

Mimi – For the record, the boat was my idea.

Alan – The boat was your idea, but on the water.  & I said, “But it’s frozen out on the lake, so let’s push the boat around on the lake.”

Mimi – That was my idea.  The balloons were Alan’s idea.

Alan – The guy with the balloons that can’t give them away in the “Shame” video.  That’s my idea.  Phil Harder, the guy who directed the videos, came up with the idea for “Over the Ocean.”  & the ones that Kirstin Grieve did we kinda had an idea on one or two of them, but they’re kinda straight forward playing & that was a completely cool experience that worked out fine.

QRD – What makes something a Low song instead of a Tooth Fairies or Hospital People song?

Mimi – That would be me.

Alan – Yeah.  If Mimi’s in it, then it’s a Low song & if she’s not it’s a Tooth Fairies or Hospital People one.  That’s kinda hard to get real deep about.

QRD – Do you eventually plan to put out a Hospital People album?

Alan – It depends on when you talk to us.  Sometimes we say, “No, never” & sometimes it sounds like something fun.  Maybe some day, but to be honest we haven’t seriously thought about it for a good six months.

QRD – What effect do you think your physical location (e.g. Duluth) has on your music?

Alan – Probably a bit.  It’s a somewhat unique place.  It’s cold here & the winters are long.  We have our big frozen lake.  Like the “Words” video is pretty much shot on Lake Superior.  It’s kind of like living next door to Antarctica in the winter, but in the summer it’s kind of like being on a really calm ocean;  & if that doesn’t sound influential, I don’t know what does.

QRD – Do any of your albums have themes or concepts that you don’t think people picked up on?

Mimi – I think many times they have themes & concepts that we don’t pick up on for a while.  So I wouldn’t fault anybody else for that.

Alan – We don’t get too many people coming up & telling us what our records are about, so I’m not sure if I have a real good answer for that.  I mean obviously people who listen to a song aren’t going to know exactly what we think they’re about; but as for one or two particular themes... I’m not sure I can put a finger on any of those.

QRD – What stereotype of musicians are you most annoyed by people associating with you?

Alan – It varies.  People who are not into rock & roll, when you tell them that you’re a musician they kind of assume that it’s a little hobby or think, “Aren’t you a little old to be pursuing teenage dreams?”  They assume that we’re not really musicians; that it’s just something we say & something we do for fun, but really we work at the drug store.

Mimi – I don’t think that’s what he’s asking.  “What stereotype of musicians are you most annoyed by people associating with you?”  Not so much anymore, but when we first started people thought we were all drug addicts.  The drug addict musician.

Alan – We got that all straightened out now.

Mimi – Or the mopey sad musician.

Alan – But pretty much all other stereotypes of musicians are completely accurate.  We don’t shower as often as we should & we’re always late.

Mimi – That’s not true.

Alan – Most people shower everyday.  We’re late for stuff.

Mimi – We’re never late for our sound checks.

Alan – We’re starting to be.

Mimi – We get to our sound checks & we sit & wait many times.

QRD – You put out Christmas yourself, would you like to put out more of your own &/or other people’s stuff?

Mimi – Not so much.  It’s a lot of work & you really need the connections & such.  It’s just easier to go through a label.

Alan – Kranky helped us so much with that Christmas record.

Mimi – Right, we can barely say we did it ourselves.

Alan – It was almost in name only.

QRD – Have you just been helping people record their records or are you really getting into the idea of becoming a producer or engineer?

Alan – I enjoy recording people from time to time.  I know so little about it.  It’s sorta like recording with Alan is about the same as recording by yourself except there’s someone else pressing the button.  For example, the stuff I did with Jessica Bailiff.  She has done & does things just as technically accomplished & whatever as what I did with her.  I don’t know that I was adding so much to her stuff as much as it was just kinda fun for her to come over & us to hang out & do the record together.  It’s fun, but there are people who are way better at it than me.

QRD – Why is the one tuning peg on Alan’s guitar different?

Mimi – To make sure people are paying attention.

Alan – You win the prize, you’re the first one to notice it.  Actually my poor guitar took a rather unfortunate uneventful flight, shall we say, one evening & bent its poor little B string tuning peg.  The only tuning peg I could find to replace it was an unmatched one.  That’s about as much of that story as I’m comfortable with.

QRD – How much is an hour of your time worth?

Alan – I think the more important things you have in your life, like family & children & music, the more things kind of polarize.  Your time is the most precious & flightful thing at the same time.  It seems like sitting there kind of watching the baby or doing those kinds of things time just kinda flies by & yet at the same time you of course wouldn’t give it up for anything.  It polarizes.  What do you think?

Mimi – An hour of my time?  Well I know I’m not getting paid much, so apparently not very much.

Alan – So you’re cheap.

Mimi – Yeah.

QRD – Why did you guys start using some loops & samples in your music?

Alan – I think it maybe started with just notes on keyboards.  Actually it probably started out of necessity because there’s only three of us.  You can take a little keyboard & tape a note down & then there’s more stuff going on & it still frees up our hands for doing the things we want to do.  I think it’s probably just out of an effort to get as much sound & as many possibilities happening still with just the three of us.  Plus it’s so popular.  It makes us fit in & be cool.

QRD – You recently switched from the DOD PDS 1000 series sampling delay pedal to the Line 6 Delay Modeler, why did you switch?

Mimi – To make sure people are paying attention yet again.

Alan – Alright, number one, I’m gonna tell you right now, the DOD PDS 1000 is absolute crap.  It’s the worst.  I used to have this Ibanez analog delay that’s great & has a nice pedaly delay on it & I knew what it could do & I was really used to it & I switched to this DOD thing thinking it would be great to do these loops & it’s just really crap.  Robert Smith thinks those things are all so cool & all the DOD stuff, but I’m telling you it’s junk.  I had two in my life, the first one blew up in a day & the second one sounded like crap.  The Line 6, I’ll tell you, I was bamboozled & dazzled by it in a guitar store one day & I just had to have it & I’m still trying to figure out how to make it do stuff that sounds nice & I think I will eventually, so we’ll see.

QRD – What's your favorite piece of musical equipment & what piece of equipment would you most like to get that you don't have?

Alan – Why don’t you start that one out?

Mimi – I don’t know.  I’m not the best person to ask that.

Alan – Her brushes.  One time Zak broke one of her brushes & she was so stinking mad it wasn’t even funny.

Mimi – It was my very first brush.

Alan – You had two & he only broke one of them.

Mimi – But you need two.  “What would you most like to get that you don’t have?”  I don’t like to shop for musical equipment.

Alan – For me, let’s see.  Probably my guitar.  The Telecaster.

Mimi – The one you haven’t been using?

QRD – Why did you switch recently to a metallic hollow body Telecaster?

Alan – The sunburst Telecaster I’ve had for years & I like a lot.  The only reason I’ve been using this other Telecaster is because I’m kind of thinking that on my poor original one all of the frets are getting worn out on it.

Mimi – But you know, look at Willie Nelson’s guitar.  Willie is not worried about that.

Alan – Willie is not worried about his guitar falling apart, I know.

Mimi – You’re just being a sissy about it.

Alan – Maybe I’ll go back to the sunburst Telecaster.  “What piece of equipment would you most like to get that you don't have?”  Well, I was gonna say a Rickenbacker guitar, but now that I’ve been enlightened by how much I should stick with my sunburst Telecaster, maybe I’ll stick with that.  Except everybody has those stinking things.

QRD – Do you think being aware of other current music inspires you or inhibits you because it might over-influence your sound before you've fully digested it?

Alan – I used to be a little more sensitive to that particular phenomena years ago.  It seemed like there were certain artists that every time I’d listen to their CD it took me a week to quit playing like them & writing songs like them.  But now I don’t know if that’s so much of a problem.  It used to be frustrating, but now we’ve kinda carved out our little corner.  I’m aware of that & I kinda force myself to listen to Wire because I’m getting too americana.  Break out the Kraftwerk records & straighten myself out a little bit after listening to a little too much Neil Young.

QRD – What's your dream car?

Mimi – I don’t have one.  I suppose when I was young it was a Jaguar or something crazy like that.

Alan – You don’t know nothing about Jaguars.  You never saw a Jaguar.

Mimi – I saw a picture of one.  A racing green Jaguar, I don’t know what model or whatever.  It was kinda cool.

Alan – I kind of have a certain lust for a blonde Mercedes stationwagon.  A white & blonde.

Mimi – We can answer for Zak.  A Cadillac.

Alan – Zak wants a Cadillac so bad it’s not even funny.  He keeps buying these junker cars….

Mimi – People give him junker cars.

Alan – People keep giving him cars that give him more hassle than anything.  He likes Cadillacs, if anybody has a Cadillac out there for Zak….

QRD – What do you most like to think people do while listening to your music & what do you least like to think they do?

Mimi – I don’t think about it.

Alan – It’s nice to think that people sit & listen to it.

Mimi – & not beating on their loved ones.

Alan – We don’t want them to listen to our music when they’re beating on their loved ones…smoking crack…detonating nuclear weapons.  Making cookies is okay, that’s a good one.

Mimi – That’s what we want people to do.  We want them to be making cookies.

QRD – Anything else you want people to know?

Alan – Hmmmmmmmmm……………
Other QRD interviews with Alan Sparhawk:
Low (from Whirlpool 1995)
Low interview (October 1998)
Low interview (September 2000)
Alan Sparhawk interview (July 2006)
Low Interview (October 2007)
Couples interview with Alan & Mimi of Low  (February 2007)
Father's Day Interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low (May 2007)
Guitarist Interview Series with Alan Sparhawk of Low & Retribution Gospel Choir (December 2010)
Christian Musician interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low (March 2011)
Alan Sparhawk of Low interview (June 2013)