Musician Interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low
Name: Alan Sparhawk
Bands: Low, Retribution Gospel Choir, Black-Eyed Snakes, solo
QRD – What’s a myth about touring you wish people knew wasn’t true?
Alan – That it’s a 24/7 party where you make lots of money.
QRD – How many shows do you do a year & how many would you like to?
Alan – At one point, Low was doing around 110 shows a year, now we average 70 or so, which is about as much as we can stand being away from the kids.
QRD – How many shows does it take before you are in a real groove?
Alan – 3, usually.
QRD – What’s your preferred length of tour?
Alan – 3 weeks is as much as is healthy. By the 4th week, your perspective gets pretty out & it’s hard to really “be there” like you should.
QRD – Do you use a booking agent or book things yourself & what are the advantages of each?
Alan – We have had the same booking agent for our whole 22 years & that’s rare & lucky. We love our agent. We are friends & we have been through a lot together. I remember booking the band at the beginning & I’m glad I didn’t have to for long because it would have ruined me. Booking yourself is hard & humiliating.
QRD – With so many venues no longer having an in house promoter & promotions relying so much more on the band themselves how do you get the word out to cities you’ve never been to before or rarely go to?
Alan – We are fortunate to be on a label that is big enough to do that kind of thing. Ideally, our manager will organize things for each city, inform radio stations & press, then follow up to see if there’s any interest. It’s nice to have a devoted fan base who look to see when you are coming & then let others know. Sometimes those fans are in positions to help with media, etc.
QRD – How do you think the festival circuit has effected touring & do you enjoy playing festivals?
Alan – There are definitely more festivals now than there were 10 or 20 years ago. I think the concept of live music had finally filtered through the culture & reached the grants & public money level - a lot of them are put on by people who have no experience with live music, so it can be a crapshoot. It’s like playing college campuses in the 90s. It’s nice that the opportunity is there & it’s a great way to be heard by people who wouldn’t normally seek you out, but sometimes you end up playing to drunk people passing by on their way to the other outdoor stage that is close enough & loud enough that you can’t hear what you’re doing.
QRD – How do your songs change for your live show?
Alan – Most of our songs are live songs first & the studio version is the accommodation. We are limited to just the 3 of us & what we can fit in the van, so a lot of that is sorted out by necessity. Things change over time, of course, but the moment is where the song is.
QRD – Do you keep notes on how to play your songs?
Alan – No, but I should.
QRD – How often do you have line-up changes & how do they effect the band?
Alan – Low has had 4 bass players over the 22 years of existence, though Zak & Steve are the only ones who were with us for any significant time. It is a big adjustment for us. When there are only 3 of you, each person has huge bearing on what the music is going to be. It can be stressful trying to find that unity at first, but we have been fortunate to work with great guys who gave/give everything they are to this.
QRD – How do band practices differ from live shows?
Alan – There’s a lot more bullshitting between songs.
QRD – When you hear your live recordings are you generally critical or satisfied?
Alan – Critical. Maybe I’m delusional, but the moment always sounds better than a recording of it.
QRD – Do you think of recorded versions or live versions of your songs as definitive?
Alan – It took me a long time, but I now realize that there is no such thing as a definitive version of a song. To think there is, is an insult to the song.
QRD – Is there a song in your catalog you wish you never had to play again &/or one you wouldn’t mind playing every night?
Alan – We’ve never had any pressure to play any particular song every night (no big favorite hits from the deep past). There are old songs that I don’t want to play because we have better songs & there are one or two that I just don’t agree with anymore, but it’s no big deal. On the other end, there are songs I love & we play just about every time, but I’ve learned that even those change over time & other favorites come along...
QRD – What do you do to stay interested in your set each night?
Alan – We do a different set list almost every night. Play songs you are interested in, songs that push you. Try to remember that the people listening probably didn’t hear your last 10 shows.
QRD – Do you do the same set every night on a tour?
Alan – No. There will be a core of tunes we are playing every night, but a lot of it is fluid.
QRD – How does the audience effect what or how you play on a given night?
Alan – It effects me somewhat. I try to not get too up my nose about what everyone else thinks, but the tone of an audience can really dictate the evening & how we do what we do. It’s easy to forget that everyone there WANTS to hear you. I forget & my subconscious reacts as if I’m going into combat. Our audience built slowly over time, so it’s hard to see where/when that line was crossed.
QRD – Do you take new songs on the road or stick with released material?
Alan – After a record has been out for a while & we’ve played the songs a while, we usually start including new ones we are working on for the next record. It’s a great way to work on the tunes & gain confidence with them.
QRD – Do you throw in cover songs & how do you select them?
Alan – Sometimes. It’s usually pretty random - we will get asked to do a song for a tribute comp or something & once it’s on our plate, it’s fun to play them out live. It can be a nice feature in the set, but if we have a new record out, we usually just stick with our own. It doesn’t seem like we do that many, but they have added up over the years & by now there are quite a few.
QRD – How do you deal with bad stage sound & bad sound guys?
Alan – You just deal with it. We played a lot of marginal punk squats, house shows, & shitty little clubs, & you learn really quick that you can’t let that get to you & you adjust to the situation. Keep your setup simple & don’t depend on so much technology. The more you give the sound person, the more they can screw up, so buck up & choose your battles. When you show up, most sound people are prepared for you to be an asshole, so at first they seem to be assholes too, but if you are nice & make an effort to be positive, dude will be your best friend by the end of the night. Put yourself in their shoes - they don’t get paid much, they are probably former musicians themselves who were way better than you, they have to put up with bad sounding amateurs every night who treat them like enemies & their girlfriend is probably texting them all night wondering when he’s getting home...
QRD – What do you do when equipment malfunctions on stage?
Alan – Freak out... but then try to move on without looking like a twit.
QRD – What have you learned to do to get better sound regardless of the venue?
Alan – Keep your set up simple, warn the sound person about oddities (like the fact that your drummer plays with brushes the whole time, so maybe put the drum overhead mic a little closer). Sing well & right into your damn mic. Figure out how to hear things on stage without having to have so much in your monitor - vocals only, if possible. Tone hits harder than volume & sounds way better.
QRD – What’s something you hate seeing other bands do?
Alan – there are things I quietly shake my head at, but they are things I see people do mostly because they’re new to it & don’t see the big picture - the same mistakes I probably made. Sometimes, I get proven wrong, so you have to be careful. Just when I think somebody has way too many guitar pedals, or is taking too long figuring their monitor out, they can bury you with something amazing.
QRD – What’s the best compliment/worst insult you’ve gotten after a show?
Alan – the best complements & “thank you”s are without words - a hug from a fan who is obviously having a tough life, a nod at the side of the stage from someone you admire & respect... as for insults, we’ve had things thrown at us & been called names on stage, but the thing that I’ll never forget was doing an in-store set at a record store in Chicago early on, we were playing a tune & some white hipster dude passed by on his way out & mumbled “keep on justifying” at me just enough so I could hear it. It bothers me to this day - probably because he was right.
QRD – Do you ever tour with bands other than your own as a hired hand & if so how is that experience different?
Alan – I played guitar with Lois Maffeo on a US tour one time. I really liked it & I learned a lot from her. Also, one time, our booking agent was booking a tour for Marc Ribot & he needed someone to drive him around & mix the gigs. I’m a huge fan, so I convinced our agent to let me do it, even though I wasn’t that experienced with mixing a band. It was everything I could hope - got to see him play every night, & got to hang out, hear stories & soak up the coolness. I don’t think I could do that as a regular job, but it was a priceless experience.
QRD – Do you prefer playing with another touring band or just locals?
Alan – There are plusses & minuses to both. We have made some great friends with some of the people we have toured with & met lots of cool local bands over the years. We are not the most bubbly, outgoing people, so there are probably a few “they didn’t even say hello or thanks” stories out there about us, but we’re lucky to be in a business where people are tolerant, generous, & forgiving, so mostly everyone is cool. There are a few nightmare stories out there about openers who go on late, play long, take too long to strike their gear, & throw attitude at you the whole tour, but those people don’t last long & they are probably still not very happy.
QRD – Do you try to listen to the local opening bands on tour?
Alan – Yes, but I don’t just say, “That was awesome,” as much as most people. I know there are a few people out there who think I’m an asshole because I didn’t say anything to them when they played with us, but I do my best. I have huge respect for anyone who puts something together & presents it on stage, but I save complements for when it’s something very extraordinary or if it moved me specifically. I think in the long run, that has worked better than just smiling & saying “that was great” to everyone, no matter what. I never expect anyone to say “good job” to us & we’ve been snubbed by many. If you hang your art on the approval of others, you won’t last long.
QRD – What makes you like a particular city?
Alan – It varies. Sometimes it’s just a great show or great fans - no reference to the rest of the city & some times things about a city will endear it to you. There are shitty places we go just because the fans are so awesome or we have friends there & there are cool places to be that we never have great shows at. Traffic & accessibility to decent vegetarian food are big factors, but the shows are the reason we are there & they set the tone more than anything.
QRD – What makes you like a particular venue?
Alan – It can be anything. Great food, great sound, cool staff, cool vibe. Again, the show is a big factor - sometimes a shitty place will be redeemed by the people who show up.
QRD – What do you have for mercy?
Alan – We have no mercy, but we have merch: t-shirts, CDs, vinyl, pillow cases, magnetic poetry kits, kids shirts, tote bags, stickers, etc.
QRD – Do you try to have any specialized merch for live shows?
Alan – Once in a blue moon we will have a tour-exclusive recording, but it’s been a while.
QRD – What’s a merch item you think about selling but haven’t yet?
Alan – A Low cookbook. Our own endorsed dark chocolate.
QRD – Besides band members, how many people do you bring on tour & what are their duties?
Alan – For most of the 22 years, we’ve had a sound tech with us on tour. He also does a little show advancing & helps load the van.
QRD – When you’re on tour, does someone take a father figure role of responsibility?
Alan – Unfortunately, that roll fell on me. Not so much the father figure as much as that someone has to be the one that says, “Okay, let’s try to make a record,” or “Okay, we should get going so we’re not late.” Mostly it comes from the fact that it’s mostly my music & I’m the one who started it. It’s not MY band, but I’m usually the one instigating what we do & when. It’s stressful & puts a lot of real & unreal pressure on you. If things are not awesome, it’s your fault.
QRD – What do you do to keep your instruments & personal belongings from being stolen?
Alan – Don’t bring much, take care of it. Be paranoid & distrust everyone. Don’t be stupid.
QRD – Do you rent a vehicle or take out your own?
Alan – We have always taken our own.
QRD – What’s the worst car breakdown you’ve had on tour?
Alan – Rear end went out on our Dodge van once in Oregon on an RGC tour. Luckily we had the day off & the dealership we got towed to happened to have a perfect replacement for sale. Had the fuel filter go on two separate occasions driving in the desert southwest, but we figured it out & still made it to the gigs. Had a flat on the freeway first time we ever went to LA. Ended up towed to the gas station across from the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. Years later, we would be in that neighborhood countless times, staying with a friend who lived behind the building.
QRD – What’s your ideal touring vehicle?
Alan – I’m sure a bus could be cool, but our only experience with them was one tour in Europe on a really crappy one - the toilet didn’t work, no AC, & there was mold on the bottom of some of the mattresses. We have been in Dodge & Ford full-size passenger vans for most of our time & they work out great.
QRD – What plays on the radio as you drive?
Alan – It varies. We go through phases - some of them are long. Other touring bands, friends’ bands, AM radio, talk radio, classics, college radio, sometimes an obsession with one thing like The Beach Boys, Red Red Meat, The Congos, Dylan, Pink Floyd, Bunny Wailer, Spaceman 3’s “dreamweapon”, pop radio... sometimes we go through a time where it’s silent.
QRD – How do you occupy time in the van?
Alan – Thinking. Talking. Thinking. Talking.
QRD – What’s your main activity to occupy your downtime when not in the van?
Alan – Take a walk or a nap. Catch up on email, etc.
QRD – How do you try to find places to eat on the road?
Alan – Years ago, you would watch the freeway signs for a Subway or Wendy’s. If you were lucky, you knew of some place that was good, or someone would send you there. Now, it’s easy - you want to read reviews of the new vegan joint in town & be told how to get there? No problem. Look it up on your phone. There are way more & better food options today than there were 15 years ago.
QRD – What’s your in a pinch fast food meal?
Alan – A burrito. The oatmeal at Starbucks is a godsend.
QRD – Do you try to make any meals for yourself on the road?
Alan – No. We are rarely in a situation where that is possible.
QRD – How many days does it take before your body is in sync with the touring lifestyle?
Alan – 3 or 4. Sometimes more if you crossed time zones.
QRD – Do you prefer to stay at people’s houses or hotels & what are the advantages & disadvantages to each?
Alan – For many years, we would stay with people when we could - ask from stage & all that. We made a lot of great friends that way & were able to experience those places more thoroughly through them & their homes. It can be hard to go for a long time without having your own space, but you get used to it. Once you start staying in hotels, you start to depend on that time in your own space. It makes the other times easier if you can get a break. Hotels cost money & are often more of a hassle to deal with after a long day, but once you’re a certain age, sleeping on dirty dorm room floors is just not practical.
QRD – Do you have separate clothes for onstage than daywear?
Alan – Yeah, I will usually at least change my shirt. It varies - we go through phases sometimes where we dress up really nice. People pay too much for tickets to see us for me to just walk out there in whatever. Dressing up a little helps us focus on the task at hand.
QRD – How many changes of clothes do you take on tour?
Alan – Couple things for stage & a couple things for day to day. Sometimes I wear the same clothes for weeks, so I could bring less, but you can never predict what you will settle into once you’re out there, so I bring options.
QRD – How often do you do laundry on tour?
Alan – We usually have to hit laundry after a couple weeks, then we are set for the rest.
QRD – How often do you try to bathe & how do you schedule in everyone getting bathed?
Alan – I have to shower every other day or so or it gets pretty rank in the van & my hair gets greasy & flat.
QRD – What do you do when a band member has totally different ideas about hygiene?
Alan – Just say something. Most adults who smell like homeless people know they do & probably secretly like it, so it shouldn’t offend them...
QRD – How often do you try to schedule a day off?
Alan – We take Sundays off from playing if at all possible. We’ve taken exception to the rule if we are touring opening for someone else & it would be a hassle & impolite to make them find someone else to fill the slot for one night... otherwise, 6 shows a week is ideal.
QRD – Any tips for not getting sick on the road?
Alan – Wash your hands a lot, wipe down the handles on the van if someone in the group is already sick, don’t eat so much sugar & don’t drink so much alcohol (both destroy your immune system), & get some sleep. If you stay up & party every night, you will get sick.
QRD – Do you have a set drinking policy (none before performing or a nightly total)?
Alan – No, but there have been several occasions over the years where someone had to be talked to about being too drunk on stage & screwing things up. Alcohol has been a major factor in us parting ways with at least one of out bass players, so there is a point where it’s too much. Usually, if someone in the band is drinking too much, there’s probably something else going on.
QRD – What’s a lesson from touring you keep forgetting & re-learning?
Alan – That adjusting to coming home is often more treacherous than adjusting to being on the road. You expect the road to be an adjustment, but when you come home half of you is adjusting back & confused & the other half is freaking out because you thought you would suddenly be yourself the moment you hit your own mattress. Coming home has been more psychologically damaging than being away.
QRD – What do you do the week before tour to get ready?
Alan – Rehearse a little, get very neurotic.
QRD – How long does it take to convert back to day-to-day life?
Alan – I usually have some sort of peak episode after being home for 3 days, then I’m usually fine...
QRD – How do you test for personality conflicts between band members before touring?
Alan – Any way you can. Get to know them & be confident with them - if you don’t it’s going to suck & you will not enjoy playing your music.
QRD – How has touring effected how you feel about playing in your hometown?
Alan – I’m probably more nervous playing in front of people I know, but home does become a place to try new things & interact with friends. Sometimes I’ll see something that a scene in some other city is doing & try to make that happen in our town (back in the 90s, I started a little self-printed ‘zine that tried to cover the local music scene a little, because I’d seen them elsewhere...). Also there’s a couple bars in town that we are tight with such that if I have some things I’m working on & want to try them out, we have an open invitation, even short notice. There are some great artists here that I wish more people heard. The fact that we are heard, & they are not, is a constant reminder of how lucky we are.
QRD – How do you feel about fans putting live cell phone videos up on YouTube?
Alan – I assume by now that people recognize that phone videos are going to sound shitty & lack any vibe that may have been there in the room. I imagine people who really love music will seek out the real experience.
QRD – Do you see touring as mainly a promotional tool for your new albums?
Alan – No. We started the band on the premise of playing this music for people in the same air space. Timing & the economics or it all make touring shortly after a release the most advantageous, especially these last few years. With media as fast as it is now, things turn over quick & you need to get out there while people are aware of your new thing. Promoters now a days would rather book you if they know there’s also going to be promotion going on from the record company, etc.
QRD – Do you try to practice as a band while on the road or just stick to the performances?
Alan – We will work on songs at soundcheck sometimes, maybe go over an old song we want to play that night...
QRD – Do you have time to practice your instrument while on the road?
Alan – Yes. Backstage, waiting for the gig.
QRD – Does your time with your instrument go up or down on the road compared to normal?
Alan – Those 90 intense minutes on stage every night really help your chops. At home, I try to practice an hour or so each day, but something about being on the spot every night really sorts you out. I love those times when you’ve been playing a lot & things start to become more fluid & free.
QRD – Do you try to hit museums or any touristy things while you travel?
Alan – Sure. We’ve seen some amazing things, but it always feels like we miss out on a lot because we rarely have the time. Often the drive takes all day & there is barely enough time at the gig to find some food before you go on & then it’s all over. Sometimes the touristy things are not that great. The best memories are unexpected & mundane.
QRD – Do you try to get any rudimentary grasp of a language before touring in a foreign country?
Alan – Sometimes we will learn a little. People in most other countries really appreciate a “thank you” in their language - I’m talking about like in the cab or at the customs desk or the grocery store. Most people assume that if you are american, you don’t know anything other than english, so they will adjust to you; but like I said, any effort to meet them part way is golden.
QRD – Do you have any pre-stage rituals before each set?
Alan – I try to sing a little - nothing crazy & organized, just so it isn’t a shock to my system on the first two songs. Drink water, pace around...
QRD – Does “what happens on tour, stays on tour” apply for you?
Alan – I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s possible for what happens on tour to stay on tour. From what I’ve seen, it eventually comes home.
QRD – Have you ever or would you like to do a bus/train/mass transit tour?
Alan – Have done a little. It’s cool, but the american in me craves the control of driving myself.
QRD – What are your favorite & least favorite seasons to tour?
Alan – Well, it’s no fun when it’s 102 degrees out or when you’re risking your life every day to drive through the snow, so spring & fall are the best. I like the fall.
QRD – If money were no object, how many months a year would you spend on the road?
Alan – It would be fun to justify playing more, but I think we play about as much as our fans can stand, so I’m not sure if doing it more would be good in the long run, plus we have kids & part of me would rather just be around all the time for them. I love music & could play it for people every day, but that’s not practical or necessary.
QRD – What would make you start touring more or start touring less?
Alan – At the end of the day, it’s money - we make most of our living from playing shows, so if somehow there was a sudden greater demand, it would justify being gone from home for a little longer (especially since we can’t do this forever & it would be nice to save up for when it ends...) & for the same reasons, we would tour less if less people came & we couldn’t afford it any more. I’ll always make music, but I gotta feed these kids.
QRD – What’s something that would cause you to cut a tour short?
Alan – I suppose there are millions of possible reasons. We cancelled a few shows once because Mim’s grandmother died & we wanted to go to the funeral, & Mim was so sick on tour one time that we had to cut it short by a couple dates. We cancelled a trip to Spain for this big festival once because it just didn’t feel right leaving our daughter at that particular moment...
QRD – What could happen to make you stop touring?
Alan – Lots of things.
QRD – What’s something about life in general that you’ve learned from touring?
Alan – People all over the world have the same hopes, dreams, & fears as you do. Governments are not the people. America is a violent, ignorant country. If you have a dream, live it, don’t wait to feel like you know what you’re doing first, because you never do. It’s OK if you get lost, eventually you’ll figure out where you are. Your mind & body can tolerate more than you thought. The human voice box is an amazingly flexible organ. Anyone can sing. The era of the gentiles is over. Most of the people in the world would/do not like or understand the art you make - you are weird.