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Artist of the Month: Low

by Barb Abney

February 04, 2013

This year, we’ll be spotlighting a prominent Minnesota musician or band each month with our new Artist of the Month feature. You’ll be able to hear a variety of songs from throughout the artists’ career on both the Local Current stream and the Local Show, and you can read more about the artists' history and their role in the community right here on the Local Current Blog. Our local artist of the month for February is Low.

Bio: On March 19th, Low will release their 10th full length studio effort The Invisible Way in celebration of their 20th anniversary.

I was introduced to the music of Low at the beginning of my radio career in 1994. Back then, I felt that their material was mostly delicate and relaxing. I didn't pay too much attention to the actual lyrics.

Their song “Over The Ocean” changed that.

It dawned on me how so few words could fill an entire song so beautifully. Over the years, their sound has matured and at times taken on a Hitchcock-like quality where the darkness and intrigue is only subtly implied and hidden in the deafening silence.

I've had the pleasure of seeing Low perform in intimate studio settings and on stage in front of dozens or hundreds of others. Their live performances solidify the intimacy within the band and the power of Alan Sparhawk's and Mimi Parker's union. They can be standing on opposite sides of the stage, completely out of eye contact, yet you can watch and listen as their musical movements and voices mingle to lend the other support. But don't be fooled, Low is not a “lullaby band.” Alan's voice and guitar, combined with Steve's bass and Mimi's drumming can melt your face off.

In their 2004 box set, A Lifetime of Temporary Relief, Low covered the Bee Gees classic “I Started A Joke.” It's a delightful irony considering the band began as a joke of sorts. The band took shape in 1993 as Alan was working as a courier and performing in the band Zen Identity. He and bassist John Nichols enjoyed playing quieter, minimalistic music, and with the help of Alan’s wife Mimi, they formed Low thinking it would be a hoot to see how Duluth audiences would react to their slower and more subtle sound.

They taped themselves playing some tunes and sent them off to a few people whose work they admired, and were happily surprised when producer Mark Kramer got back to them with interest in helping them to record. Kramer recorded their debut, I Could Live In Hope, and helped the band get signed to the Virgin Record label imprint, Vernon Yard.

Of course, there is no balance if there is no darkness to offset the light. While the beginning of Low’s story may have had a romantic ring to it, they’ve certainly seen their share of music business strife over the past 20 years.

They've done the “record label shuffle,” beginning on Vernon Yard, then to Chicago-based indie label Kranky and finally landing at with the mighty Sub Pop. From the rotating cast of bassists (founding member John Nichols, Zak Sally, Matt Livingston and now Steve Garrington) to Alan's very public struggles with mental illness, the band has triumphed in spite of adversity.

Over the years they have released numerous singles, EPs, live albums and collections, as well as forming their very own label, Chairkickers Union. They've been featured on several tribute records and worked with Steve Albini, Kramer, Dirty Three, Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard and most recently Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, all while garnering a voracious cult following that stretches the globe.

Their legion of fans include such high-profile names as Type O Negative’s late vocalist Peter Steele, John Waters, John Stamos and Phil Anselmo of Pantera. Robert Plant, considered by most to be a rock God, thought so much of their work that he covered two of Low’s songs on his album Band Of Joy (for which he received multiple Grammy nominations).

If you want a crash-course on the band, I suggest that you watch David Kleijwegt's 2008 documentary You May Need A MurdererYou'll find deep insights into the personal stories of Mimi and Alan's religious views, their home life and the challenges of touring with two young children in tow, as well as a very frank discussion about Alan's personal mental health and addiction struggles. And for just a moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of Eric Pollard (a.k.a. Actual Wolf), the drummer for Retribution Gospel Choir.

Notable side-projects:

Personal geek-out: One of the most profound moments of my career was standing on the First Avenue stage with some of my beloved co-workers, Tapes 'n Tapes and Alan Sparhawk, surrounded by a few hundred friends singing “Purple Rain” at The Current's 7th Birthday Party.

Favorite video: Half Light” remixed by Tom and Andy for Mothman Prophecies. I find this song and video to be the spookiest work the band has ever recorded.

You might not know: While working for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Alan spent a day driving Paul Simon around. Songs For A Dead Pilot was inspired by a plane crash near Alan and Mimi's home in Duluth. And in the last decade, Low have helped to raise money to build a school in Namucha, Kenya.

Related stories:

The Current Sessions at the Fitz with Low (coming up March 23, 2013)

Low performs in The Current studios (2011)

Low performs in The Current studios (2007)

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.