with Alan Sparhawk of Low
October 14, 2007
Okay, so maybe it seems like I interview Low all the time as this is the sixth interview for QRD, but it’s over the course of nine years. If you don’t already know their music, it leans towards minimalist pop. Their new album Drums & Guns is probably my favorite one of their albums.
QRD – Are the hand claps on Drums & Guns real or the “hand clapper pedal” in the CD booklet?
Alan – Real. I’ve had the hand clapper for years but have never used it on record. We had two at one time, but we gave one to Radiohead as a thank you gift.
QRD – The new album has pretty drastic stereo separation, what was the idea behind it?
Alan – I’ve always liked recordings that did that, but this was the first time we felt we could go all the way with it. Maybe stepping away from our normal instruments opened that up. The vocal almost always on one side came from Dave Fridmann - he just had it set up that way while we were tracking, just to have the vocals separate from the rhythm, to hear what was going on. We liked it & just never changed it.
QRD – Do you suggest listening to it on headphones?
Alan – Sure. Headphones always bring out details you don’t normally hear. For some reason, I think it sounds best in a car - turned up until the speakers are flapping.
QRD – Is “Hatchet” a message to anyone in particular?
Alan – No. At the surface I guess it’s to Mim because she is the only person I would talk to that way, but it’s meant to be sung by the listener, so it could be anyone.
QRD – You have some references to poetry & being a poet throughout your songwriting. Do you see yourself as a poet?
Alan – I sort of loathe poetry. I’ve read really great stuff, but 99.999% of that crap should just stay in the notebook.
QRD – Who did the drum programming & is it all the Alesis HR-16?
Alan – We did all the drum stuff. Some of it was an old Roland drum machine, & some is an Electro-Harmonix drum machine (I think they made them around 1980). We used the HR-16 only for the kick drum part. It’s in the background of “murderer”. It’s not programmed - we just beat on the thing for the whole song.
QRD – So is Mimi doing the drum programming or mainly you?
Alan – Mimi & I usually work on the percussion together. I sometimes have something specific I want her to try, but it’s ultimately something she’s happy with, especially live. I did most of the drum machine stuff, but there are a lot of “real” drums on the record, too, & that’s all Mim.
QRD – Are your loops all done on the fly with the Line 6 DL-4 & the Dr. Sample?
Alan – Somewhat. I’ve had some of the samples on my Dr. Sample for over 5 years, but some were done on the spot. I used the DL-4 a lot.
QRD – Did you walk into the studio with the samples pre-recorded?
Alan – Some. Most were done there, specific to the song.
QRD – Are you using the loops & programmed drums live?
Alan – Hardly at all. Live is a different battle. It’s not so much a technical issue as much as when we play live I just feel like it’s a distraction to have to fiddle with too many toys. I’m old fashioned maybe.
QRD – I know live a lot of musicians have problems being able to hear loops in a band setting to play with them in time. What do you do to get around that?
Alan – Don’t use loops you have to sync up to!
QRD – You don’t play as much guitar on Drums & Guns, which is kinda surprising given that you just did a solo guitar album. Why is there so little guitar?
Alan – We tried to make the songs work without using the instruments we normally use. As much as I love the guitar, I feel like sometimes I have to set it aside to really see what I’m doing. The less guitar there is, the more likely what is left will be worth it.
QRD – Do you enjoy touring for a month or working on an album in the studio for a month more?
Alan – Hard to say. 3 weeks of either is all I can take at one time. Actually, 10 days in the studio is enough.
QRD – How do you approach recording a song for a compilation or single differently than recording it for an album?
Alan – It’s harder to do a single song. I guess I work better when we schedule a block of time to work on several songs. It’s nice to switch around on several songs at a time. Doing one song “in your spare time” never works well.
QRD – When you write a song that is “the single” do you try to do something to make it blend with the rest of the album?
Alan – Most of the time we just work out the songs we have & maybe one or two, by the end, seem more “single”-like. If I start picking & choosing too early in the game I end up over thinking it. Making all the songs work together is sort of a crapshoot.
QRD – What do you think you can do to make an album seem cohesive instead of seeming like a collection of songs?
Alan – Record fast, mix fast, & let it go. It’s not about presenting what you’ve done all year, it’s about presenting what you have right now & trusting that it’s coming from the person the year made.
QRD – I know you often tour with songs before recording an album, how do you think this better prepares you for recording?
Alan – It’s always helpful. You can adjust & change if needed. Sometimes you have to play a song for a while before you can step away & really see it. Confidence with the songs in the studio is always better, & sometimes just playing the shit out of them first is the only way.
QRD – Drums & Guns kind of takes a turn back towards minimalism compared to the last couple discs, do you think it’s because you’ve been getting some of the rock out in your other projects?
Alan – Maybe. It’s not so much about the rock getting let out in other projects as much as that the other projects sort of open up the perspective. I find I’m more selective of what to play on the guitar now that I’ve spent time with volume, noise, etc. Doing a solo guitar recording kind of defined the extreme of guitar indulgence for me, so having done that maybe it’s not such a battle anymore & I don’t have to always ask that question.
QRD – It’s always seemed to me that Low started out very structured & constrained with what you were allowing yourself to do in the first two albums & somewhere along the way you loosened up in doing more things. Do you feel there was a point where this happened?
Alan – I feel like with every record we tried to push that a little - push the edges of self-imposed boundaries. I’m glad we did it that way. It’s like inventing a new language - you start with the basic structure (“where’s the bathroom?”) & expand as it naturally expands & finds new territory as it demands. The Transmission EP may have been the first obvious experiment, but it really expanded pretty fluidly all along. Hard to point to one moment...
QRD – You’ve had a problem with leaks of your albums going out to fans before release dates. Do you think it’s purely negative or kinda generates a buzz by the time the street date hits?
Alan – It’s not as troubling to me as one would think. When a record is finished, it’s sort of out of our hands & if people hear it the day after we finish, I guess it’s the same as waiting 4 months. By now it’s the norm, but when Drums & Guns came out, leaked records was a hot new phenomenon, so it was interesting to see that happen & see how it played out, but by now it’s normal & people will stop thinking about it.
QRD – You change your effect pedals around a lot, do you keep the old ones or sell them?
Alan – I usually keep everything. Some stuff just breaks down over time, or I find a better-made pedal to replace it. Lately I’m really into keeping the line clean - most pedals degrade signal, even when they are off, so I’ve been slowly eliminating the weak links. The first step is to get away from those DOD & Boss pedals. Even the tuner degrades the signal. I like the Z-Vex pedals a lot - very clean bypass & the quality really makes a difference. The only delay I can find that isn’t cheap & noisy is the SIB Mr. Echo, which I highly recommend - it’s still dirty & noisy, but it’s still “musical” sounding, if that makes any sense. Less is more with pedals, but I’m afraid to admit I’m currently using 4 pedals: Z-Vex Octane 3, Lo-Fi Loop Junkie, & Super Hard-On, with the SIB Mr. Echo. At the end of the day, I’m probably way more dependent on a good amp.
QRD – Do you prefer interviews that are articles or transcripts?
Alan – I have no preference. Both lie.
QRD – It seems a lot of people are looking at your record & its war references & saying, “Oh, he hates the republicans.” Would you say those people don’t get it?
Alan – I try to be tolerant, but when I see people who still have their Bush/Cheney stickers on their SUV I just want to slash their tires. The sad thing is that most intelligent people in America don’t realize that politics is a well-crafted facade, hiding the fact that the world is grossly run by the few people who have all the money. Politics is an invention of the rich.
QRD – I read a quote from you in an interview: “My perception of what is satisfying, & what I think my role is in what we do & the music we make is different now.” What was it & what is it?
Alan – Hard to explain, but the more we do this the less I understand myself.
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