The Current Rewind: 25 Years of Low

The Current Rewind
The Current logo above three black chevrons and the word "Rewind" in gray caps. (MPR Graphic)
Play/Pause
Listen:
Low: 25 Years In
Download MP3
| 00:48:50

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, married founding members of Low, have been experimenting with rock music since the early '90s. In this episode, we join them for an interview and a walking tour of Duluth, Minn.; we explore their quarter-century of a musical career; and we meet their "road nanny" (along with several other Duluthian characters). All with a dose of dry, dark humor. (Content warning: jokes about suicide.)

Listen on Apple PodcastsSubscribe: Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RSS, Spotify, Stitcher

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of Episode 6 — Low: 25 Years In

["What Part Of Me" by Low]

Mimi Parker: [to Andrea and Cecilia] Cut out all of my bad — my ignorant quotes. [laughs]

Alan Sparhawk: Napoleon said, "Duluth. Yeah, I spent a summer there one time—"

Mimi Parker: "I died of ennui."

Alan Sparhawk: "I died of ennui." Yeah.

[music fades]

Andrea Swensson: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, a married couple and founding members of the Duluth band Low, have a pretty dry and self-deprecating sense of humor about the place they've called home since the early nineties. Then again, they have a pretty dry sense of humor about... everything.

But along with the four different bassists who've rounded out the band, Al and Mim's impact has been anything but modest. Their first album, I Could Live In Hope, came out in 1994, and a quarter-century later they've become one of the most beloved indie-rock bands in the world. Their fanbase is relatively small, but it's global, fervent, and star-studded; Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin covered two of their songs on his 2010 album Band of Joy, and Jeff Buckley was a huge fan. In addition to touring internationally, Low remain linchpins of the Duluth music scene.

Dave Simonett: Low had been around for ten years before we started.

Andrea Swensson: Dave Simonett, the lead singer of bluegrass stars Trampled by Turtles, speaks for a lot of Duluth artists when he describes Al and Mimi's status there.

Dave Simonett: And they were—they still are extremely highly regarded in that town. They've just always been like the most creative force that I've known, and kind of fearless in how they approach the music. All of us little bands looked up to them and still do.

["Winging It" by Lazerbeak]

Andrea Swensson: And there are a lot of so-called "little bands" in Duluth. Considering the size of its population, its music scenes are surprisingly robust.

[Rewind sound effect]

Andrea Swensson: I'm Andrea Swensson, and this is The Current Rewind: the show putting music's unsung stories on the map.

For this episode, we wanted to know about Al and Mim's Duluth, so I headed upstate from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the northern end of Interstate 35 with our producer, Cecilia Johnson, to interview them at their home. Cecilia returned a second time to explore the city further, and she had some key Duluth experiences: eating smoked fish, throwing axes, and even watching a band rehearse underneath a brewery. She also talked to several community members—including engineer Eric Swanson and Duluth mayor Emily Larson—about Low and the greater music scene.

Unlike some of the other stories we've explored so far in this podcast, I have a very personal connection to Duluth. I grew up about 45 minutes south of the city in a small town, and I spent weekends as a kid making the trek to the Twin Ports of Duluth and the neighboring Superior, Wisconsin for groceries, trips to the mall, walks along Canal Park, and "fancy" dinners out at Red Lobster.

Because I moved to the Twin Cities when I was a teenager, it's always held a sort of mysterious and romantic place in my mind; it's a gray, industrial city that has a dark beauty to it, the bleakness of its shoreline gravel pits and factories contrasted by the massive blue waves of Lake Superior.

For years, I've had a working theory that it's because of the punishing climate and the gray landscape that the art that emanates from the city is so stark, earnest, and emotionally frank. When I listen to Low, I feel Duluth in my bones, but I've never been able to quite explain why. I wanted to talk more to Al and Mim about this, and so Cecilia and I did, sitting at the kitchen table of their guest house.

Andrea Swensson [to Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker]: I wanted to ask you about being in Duluth and the atmosphere here, the weather—everything from the politics to the city. Do you feel like Duluth has influenced your artistry in other ways that are maybe a little intangible?

Alan Sparhawk: It's all we've ever known. Changing the seasons, phases of how your mind works, sometimes isolation, darkness. I think the lake, on a cosmic level, I think there's all these electrolytes out there and there's waves. It's fluctuating at a frequency to this big giant electrical body of water that I think resonates into the land—the idea of being almost anywhere in town and being able to find some spot on the horizon where—there's the lake and there's where the horizon disappears, like the ocean. Something about always having an empty, endless thing in your perception that maybe shapes things a little bit.

Cecilia Johnson: There's the void, over there.

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, there's the void. I know I can trust that. [all laugh]

Andrea Swensson: Low's story began early: Al and Mim met in fourth grade.

Alan Sparhawk: We grew up here in northern Minnesota, near Bemidji, up toward Red Lake Indian Reservation on a farm. I moved there when I was nine from Utah. And Mimi was in the same grade and class and all that, and we knew each other and started dating a little bit in high school. I went off to freshman year of college in Utah and she came to Duluth, and after about a year of that we're like no. Moved here, went to college.

Mimi Parker: Been here ever since.

Alan Sparhawk: Been here ever since, stayed. I remember there was a moment when we started the band and we were realizing that we were going to start traveling around and making records. We thought maybe we needed to move to a bigger city, but it just never seemed obvious—really needed necessarily. We could leave from Duluth just as easy as from Minneapolis.

Andrea Swensson: Al and Mimi were married within a few years of moving to Duluth. The school he went to for a year before returning to Minnesota was Brigham Young University—both of them are practicing Mormons. They were already musicians before Low began: Al had played guitar in a band called Zen Identity, while Mim had started drumming in sixth grade. When Al and Low's first bass player, John Nichols, decided to start a trio playing slow, quiet music, they recruited Mimi to round them out.

Alan Sparhawk: There was some discussion at the beginning of stuff we were into, and stuff we were curious about and some discussions about wondering what it would be like if we really took this concept to an extreme: or "This really simple, drawn-out music is kind of cool. I wonder if we could bring that into a pop or band element?" We were looking at postmodern stuff too—La Monte Young. I guess you'd call Brian Eno kind of postmodern.

Some of the bands we were inspired by—Spacemen 3, Joy Division, the Cure, Velvet Underground. They all had a little bit of a minimalist end to their spectrum, maybe some quieter songs that we thought, "What if everything was like that?"

["Words" by Low]

Mimi Parker: We really had no expectations of—

Alan Sparhawk: We thought we'd do one show—

Mimi Parker: —And see how it went. We kind of knew most people wouldn't really—

Alan Sparhawk: Get it.

Mimi Parker: Be into it, and I guess that was fine.

Alan Sparhawk: But at the time there was a pretty great little scene happening in Duluth. It was early nineties, and the younger generation had kind of been hit by "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and some of this giant wave that happened after that. There was a youth culture there for a while that was really excited about new music and into weird stuff and into forming bands and into putting on shows.

It was really weird that the scene in Duluth was mostly fueled by high school kids. There's a college here and there's bars and there certainly was a potential for something to happen here, but it was this young scene that we found ourselves in early on that was the catalyst. It was an automatic crowd, and you get on a bill with a few other bands and there'd be forty-fifty people there, and four or five of them really like what we were doing and the rest kind of wandered off. [laughs] So we knew we—

Mimi Parker: We had something.

Alan Sparhawk: So we knew we had something because we liked it and at least a couple other people liked it.

Andrea Swensson [to Alan Sparhawk]: Where would you play at that point?

Alan Sparhawk: There was a place called Recycle-a-Bell, which was an old Bell Telephone utility building out in East Duluth that somebody—there were hippies living in there and using it as an unofficial public space, like the Anarchist Club met there and some other odds and ends, and then they would let people do all-ages shows there.

Mimi Parker: We didn't play a lot of local shows at first.

Alan Sparhawk: We just played a couple.

Mimi Parker: We played a couple, and honestly, our third or fourth show was in New York.

Andrea Swensson: The reason Low was playing in New York is that they'd sent their demo tape to Mark Kramer, the owner of the label Shimmy Disc. His label had produced three albums by Galaxie 500, whose murmuring vocals and enveloping guitars had paved the way for what Low was doing. You'll notice that Kramer pronounces "Duluth" in his own way.

Mark Kramer: I was in a little town in New Jersey about ten miles north of the George Washington Bridge. I would go down to New York City once a week to pick up a bag of mail, which came to Shimmy Disc. We had a P.O. box there, and every single week I got a huge sack of mail that had cassettes. Remember cassettes?

I found out from somebody who worked at the post office who actually knew my record company that anytime they got more than a sack of mail they would throw away the second sack. So the reason I always got exactly one sack of mail every week was because they would actually throw away—there were people there who worked at that post office who had no integrity, and they would throw mail away if it just got to be too much for them. So we're double lucky here.

There was this one envelope that came in a plastic bag. In those days, when mail was damaged, the post office would put it in a plastic bag and put a little piece of paper on it saying how the mail was damaged but they were trying to deliver it to its proper address. And very often I would get mail that had half the address on it, but somebody at the post office who saw the words "Shimmy Disc" knew what box it was, etc.

And that's how it came to me. It was an envelope that had literally been torn in half, and I could see that the postmark said "Duluth, MN." I listened to the music—there was nothing professional about the recording, but the songs were beyond captivating. It's hard to describe what I was feeling.

The cassette had a napkin wrapped around it wrapped in a rubber band. The envelope had been completely damaged, but it was just a napkin around a cassette with a rubber band, and on the napkin, written in what looked like red crayon it said, "We are Low. We hope you like our music." That's all it said. It didn't say, "Find Al." It didn't have a phone number. So I thought, "I've got to find out who this is. This could take forever, but I'm never going to give up. I'm going to do everything I can to find this band."

And the first call that I made was to the college radio station in Duluth, and the guy picks up the phone and says right away, "Oh yeah, I know those guys. They're from around here. You want me to give—I know Al. He runs the band. I'll give him your phone number if you want me to." So what I thought might take forever and an actual flight to Duluth to hunt them down in a fashion that would surely be documented in some dramatic recreation of the band twenty or thirty years on turned out to be a single phone call.

They said they didn't have any money, and I said, "You don't need any money. Come on out here, let's make this record. I'm absolutely positive I can find you a record label." I felt that if I put them on Shimmy Disc, the chances were good that they would suffer the fate of 99% of the other bands on Shimmy Disc—they would be college radio darlings who would struggle to sell 1,000 or 2,000 records, and nothing would ever come of it.

But I was very close friends with Elizabeth Brooks, who had just been hired to run Vernon Yard, which was Virgin Records' brand new independent label. She put the cassette of the record that I had made with them on her cassette player. We listened to three songs. She stood up, walked over to the machine, turned it off and said, "Has anybody else heard this?" I said no. She said, "Don't you dare play it for anybody else. I'm going to sign this band."

Jessica Hopper: So the first time I saw Low was...

Andrea Swensson: Music critic Jessica Hopper was still in high school the first time she saw Low perform in the Twin Cities.

Jessica Hopper: I was in tenth grade. I saw them at the Speedboat Gallery in St. Paul. I had heard about them initially through the show's headliner, which was Azalia Snail, I think in, like, a postcard or a letter that she had sent me inviting me to come down to the show. We had corresponded. I went to Speedboat and I was the only person there that wasn't either playing in Low or Azalea Snail's band, aside from a handful of probably Macalester students upstairs drinking coffee and doing schoolwork.

I have a really distinct memory or sitting on the floor of the basement of Speedboat Gallery. They turned off the lights, and Low had one of those rotating projector lights, like old school kind of sixties projector lights, or maybe it was like something as basic as one of those hanging construction lights on the floor, but it's really just one super bright light on the floor.

Even though I hadn't seen a ton of bands before, I'd only been going to shows—DIY or punk underground shows for maybe about a year at that point, I'd never seen a band play this quiet. This wasn't an era of a lot of even like folky singer/songwriter folks within the underground. It was the era of loud rock bands, and so I was just sort of shocked that they were so quiet, and that they stayed quiet. They didn't turn into every other band that I saw all the time.

They sang harmonies. They sang together. They sang-sang, which at that time, every band I saw, it was like somebody shrieking into a mike, or trying to scream over the noise of it. And then also it was really strange to me that a band was coming from Duluth.

I'd never even heard of a band coming from Duluth. I'd heard of a few bands coming from Mankato. Mankato kind of had a skate rock scene at that time. Sometimes there would be bands from nearby in Wisconsin. I'd seen bands from Madison, probably. Low seemed like they'd just been dropped from another planet.

Andrea Swensson: Low made two albums produced by Kramer: 1994's I Could Live in Hope and 1995's Long Division. Between releases, John Nichols left the band and Zak Sally came in on bass. He would hold it down until Matt Livingston joined in the mid-2000s, and Steve Garrington has rounded out the trio since 2008.

After their time with Kramer, Low made their third album, The Curtain Hits the Cast, in 1996, with the Seattle producer Steve Fisk. For albums four and five—Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire—they traveled to Chicago to record with Steve Albini.

Steve Albini: The first session I did with them was at my old home studio, and I remember feeling like the session had not done them justice, and so I was very glad that they came back to Electrical. The sessions we did here I felt were a lot more sympathetic, just because the studio was better equipped and I had a better collection of microphones, and I was more familiar with their music, so I didn't make any of the clumsy mistakes I had made initially on our first sessions.

I had mostly been working with raucous, noisy music, and their music is much more peaceful and much more contemplative, and I don't think I was equipped, technically. I don't think I had the skill-set to do it justice yet.

The critical thing about Low is that the two voices blend in a way that's unique to them. They're both fantastic singers with very charismatic vocal presence. You can listen to either of them sing the phonebook and it would be great. If you drop the ball on the singing with that band, then the music falls apart. The music is there to create a suspended atmosphere that you can live in while you're listening to them singing, and that atmosphere is, in my mind, best presented in a very naturalistic way.

Andrea Swensson: Beginning with Low's sixth album, the band began recording in their hometown, making 2002's Trust at Sacred Heart Music Center. While driving around Duluth with Al and Mim, we paused outside Sacred Heart, which first opened in 1896 as a cathedral.

Andrea Swensson [to Alan Sparhawk]: What can you tell us about Sacred Heart?

Alan Sparhawk: Sacred Heart was the premiere Catholic church in downtown Duluth here for years, and it was decommissioned. It was taken over as a non-profit. They turned it into a space where you could do shows. They would do organ concerts mostly, and then some weddings, and kind of over the years it slowly deteriorated because there's not a lot of funding to keep it going, so it was always scrambling to keep the roof repaired and keep the lights on and the heat on, etc.

I guess maybe twelve, fifteen years ago, a couple other people that we knew—we had pooled our resources and some gear that we had. We thought it would be a good idea to build a studio, and someone had heard from somebody that it was possible to maybe figure something out there, so we approached them, and they gave us the space to put the gear and use the church as a studio.

Eric Swanson: The church lady who played the organ bought it from the diocese for a dollar.

Andrea Swensson: Eric Swanson is the Sacred Heart Music Center's longtime sound engineer. He spent nearly a whole morning telling Cecilia about the history of the building, playing her demos recorded at Sacred Heart, and even dusting off the church's Felgemaker organ, which was installed in 1898. He had a stroke in 2015, so his speech is more fragmentary than it used to be, but he's as nimble as ever at the soundboard.

Eric Swanson: They were going to tear it down. Fortunately that didn't happen. A volunteer organization, the Sacred Heart board, scraped and skimped by, and now Sacred Heart is doing pretty well.

Andrea Swensson: Low recorded both Trust and their 2011 album, C'mon, at Sacred Heart. Swanson engineeredC'mon.

Cecilia Johnson: I was reading a little bit about your career, and I saw that you worked at Roxy and pretty prestigious venues in L.A. What are some similarities and differences of venues like the Roxy or other L.A. spots and this spot?

Eric Swanson: Sacred Heart is harder to do because the six-second reverb.

Cecilia Johnson: Here?

Eric Swanson: Yes. Basically, light touch. But studio: perfect. The piano, drums, everything: perfect.

Cecilia Johnson: But when people are recording is there a separate room somewhere?

Eric Swanson: All the rooms. Basically the sanctuary: reverb. Drum room: no reverb. Office or foyer or the bathrooms or the balcony or under the balcony: all different types of reverb.

Andrea Swensson: By the time they recorded Trust, Al and Mim had their first child, a daughter named Hollis, whom they'd been taking on the road with them. Soon, they asked a friend for some help.

Starfire: Yeah, The first traveling they did after Hollis was born, Mim's sister went, and went to Europe, and I think it was just all a little much for her, because as exciting and romantic as it seems, it's really a grueling—it's just tons of driving and hotels and—

Andrea Swensson: This is Starfire—born Scott Lunt. He's a Duluthian DJ, musician, and quilter who also became Al and Mim's road nanny, touring with them in the early 2000s.

Starfire: Anyway, So she didn't like it, and I had told them half seriously—I guess kind of pretty seriously—that I would do that. That'd be really cool, and then so when they asked me and—yeah, I just started going. I remember the first time I went over and started writing down the tour dates and where we were going to be, I just thought, "Wow."

Mimi Parker: Back in the day when we just had one, the reason it worked is because we didn't overthink it and we didn't know what we were doing. We knew that this was our job, this was our career. What are we going to do? We have to take the baby with. We got lucky. We got some really good nannies—this really good friend of ours, Scott—he just came with and made it work. We just did it.

We have this one really amazing picture when Hollis was just starting to walk, and there are like four or five sets of hands ready to catch her, and that's how we did it. Everybody just kind of helped and loved her as she was potty training in the van and all this stuff.

Alan Sparhawk: Screaming.

Andrea Swensson [to Mimi Parker]: What would she do while you were onstage?

Mimi Parker: She'd probably be back at the hotel. Sometimes she was backstage. We had this little —it was called a 'pack n play' or something like that.

Alan Sparhawk: Just a little portable bed-cage to put toddlers in.

Mimi Parker: Put her in the bed-cage. Seriously, there'd be some shows where we could hear her crying backstage. I feel terrible. It was really hard to leave them. It was really sad, and we would end up having shorter tours, you know?

Andrea Swensson: Low began staying home in Duluth more. But it was around that time when the music scene there began picking up speed. Starfire played a big part in this, thanks to Random Radio, the hundred-watt pirate radio station he ran in 1997 and '98.

Starfire: Random Radio. I had the name before I had the radio station. I thought that was a good name. It was a thing for a while, and I had a good job and I had a little extra money, and this paramedic that I worked with briefly was studying to be a doctor—anyway like—I kept talking about it and he was like finally brought into work one day a little catalog with all the equipment and I was like okay, we just ordered it. Because I already had CD players. I had turntables. I had all that stuff. I didn't have a transmitter, and then so we just ordered it and set it up and kind of let it go.

There were a few of us that just did shows whenever we wanted, and there were a lot of times it just wasn't on the air, or sometimes we would just load up a twenty-disc or one hundred-disc changer. We did that experiment once, where four us each picked twenty-five CDs and then we just hit play.

Andrea Swensson: A threat of a one hundred thousand-dollar fine from the FCC put Random Radio to an end, but Starfire was ready to move on. In 1999, to celebrate his thirty-first birthday, Starfire helped put on the first Homegrown Festival, which took place in the mezzanine of downtown's NorShor Theater. The band Father Hennepin, then featuring Starfire on vocals and Alan Sparhawk on guitar, played the first of many Homegrown sets.

That same year, Low recorded a song that pays tribute to their friend, "Starfire," for their album Secret Name.

["Starfire" by Low]

Starfire: Well I have this really morbid idea like I'm probably going to cremated, but I thought, wouldn't be funny if they played Starfire and like as the song was kind of winding out, like the coffin just sort of slammed shut at the end. I'm a little drama queen, but— [laughs] Or Al could just kick the cover closed.

Andrea Swensson: It's not just Starfire, Al, and Mim who have a knack for gallows humor. Dark comedy is baked into Northern Minnesota culture, which we also encountered while climbing the city's Enger Tower. An older man standing near me began a conversation with a joke about suicide, and Al and Mim defused the situation with some humor of their own. Soon enough, Alan and the man were chatting about taconite, a staple of Duluth's mining economy. If you don't feel comfortable listening to this exchange, you can skip ahead about thirty seconds.

Passerby: If you're gonna jump, gimme your name. [all laugh]

Alan Sparhawk: Don't—

Passerby: So I can say I know her. I can say that I knew her before she ever jumped.

Mimi Parker: You sure you want to admit to that, though? Then maybe you're a cause. [laughs]

Andrea Swensson [to all]: Why didn't he stop her?

Alan Sparhawk: What did you do?

Passerby: Sure windy up here.

Andrea Swensson: Duluth was still pretty cold in May of 2019, and the wind was biting at the top of the tower.

Passerby: Boy, that wind is cold. How can you stand that? Haven't you got a zipper on that jacket?

Andrea Swensson [to passerby]:I'm from Moose Lake.

Passerby: You're from Moose Lake. You're crazy.

Andrea Swensson: So Al and Mim took us to the top of Enger Tower, and it's breathtaking. You can see the entire city. You can see the lift bridge, the aquarium, and all of downtown and the radio towers. There's a golf course behind us. People are golfing. It's got to be about 40 degrees out, but the parking lot is full. And Al is a really fast runner. He made it up here in like two seconds. It took us a little while to catch up with him. It's not about who's first.

Andrea Swensson: Located on the shore of Lake Superior, and nicknamed the Zenith City, Duluth was home to the Anishinaabe, a group of native people that includes the Ojibwe. By the mid-1600s, French fur traders had made their way into the area in search of more fur. The city's name recognizes the French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur—or Sir—du Lhut.

Duluth's first wave of European settlement came in the 1850s, due to the discovery of copper ore. The city boomed in the 1860s and '70s, as railroads began to connect the port town with the Mississippi River and, further south, St. Paul. Meanwhile, the timber and mining industries flourished, and a huge influx of immigrants moved to Duluth. The population grew to almost 100,000 people by 1920.

That number was projected to keep growing, but it never ended up getting much higher. Prohibition had gone into effect in 1919, cutting down the city's breweries until its repeal at the end of 1933. Other local industries took hard hits during the Great Depression. The steel crisis of the seventies and eighties helped contribute to a Duluth exodus, but the population has stabilized somewhat to about 86,000, making it Minnesota's fourth-largest city.

Alan Sparhawk: It's a port town—the history of the port. It was the second biggest immigration stop-off point behind Ellis Island. So there's some funky history here. It's interesting—the machinery and the harbor. It's large and you see large things—the hand of humans kind of interacting with these large structures of nature. It's interesting. Maybe the human trafficking element has something to do with it too.

Andrea Swensson [to Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker]: I guess there is a real dark side to Duluth as well.

Mimi Parker: Yeah, there is.

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, the isolation, the darkness. Suicide is a little high. A lot of domestic violence, and strangely enough, human trafficking, which we're only learning a little bit more about lately. Very dark.

Andrea Swensson: On our walking tour, Al stopped us at the corner of East First Street and North Second Avenue, and he pointed out a memorial to three young black men—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—who were lynched downtown in 1920. Along the top of the memorial, an Edmund Burke quote reads, "An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent."

[Sound of seatbelts unbuckling, wind]

Alan Sparhawk: There's the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie memorial. It was put up about ten or fifteen years ago, and it's a memorial for a very unfortunate thing, and that was that there was a lynching here in Duluth. There was basically a mob busted into the jail. These guys were suspected of something that ultimately it turns out that they didn't do. As mobs do, unfortunately took their lives. So this memorial basically was put up to memorialize them.

Andrea Swensson: Duluth is also the birthplace of Bob Dylan, who wrote about the lynching in this song, "Desolation Row."

["Desolation Row" by Bob Dylan]

Andrea Swensson: Duluth's current mayor, Emily Larson, spends a lot of time thinking about the past and present issues facing her city. But she also emphasized Duluth's status as a crucial international shipping port; a vacation spot for families; and a place where locals get political.

Emily Larson: We are the highest voter turnout in the nation, and definitely the highest in the state, and the state of Minnesota leads the nation. So we have a really strong history of democracy, and it's deep and it's engaged and like I can't go anywhere without somebody talking with me about an issue. I think that's awesome.

But I would say the politics here are really personal. They're very rooted on people's daily lives. We are a history of working people and people who work really hard. As a city, we have had a fairly important industrial past of blue-collar jobs, and then we also are this higher ed community and now a medical institution that spans the spectrum of workforce, and so I think you see that reflected. People are really active politically. They are very effusive in their values and their beliefs; they share them. It's really, really cool to live in a city where people are activating all the time.

Andrea Swensson: That activism also extends to the music scene.

Brittany Lind: My name is Brittany Lind. I'm the new host of The Current Duluth Local Show, and then I do a bunch of other stuff.

Andrea Swensson: That other stuff includes promoting shows and running a popular Twitter account about local music, @EllipsisDuluth.

Brittany Lind: So Ellipsis about ten, twenty hours a week, depending on what I'm personally doing, working on project-wise, as well as what's happening in the community.

Andrea Swensson: Brittany went to college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She makes the distinction between what she calls "College Duluth," which is full of sports bars and cover bands, and "Real Duluth," or the parts of town that tourists rarely touch. Our producer, Cecilia Johnson, asked her the inevitable question: Why does she stay in Duluth?

Cecilia Johnson: And I don't mean that to seem—to sound like insulting or anything like that, but like the why do you stay here question—I ask people that about Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Brittany Lind: Oh no, 100 percent. I'm not insulted by that at all. Everyone asks me that.

Cecilia Johnson: Really?

Brittany Lind: Yeah.

Cecilia Johnson: What else do people ask you when they find out that you're from here?

Brittany Lind: "How are winters?" And I say, "Awful." I don't like them. I don't like the cold, and every winter I go, "Why do I live here?" I don't actually have a car. People are like, "How do you do that?" And I'm like, "I walk everywhere and my legs are very strong now."

Andrea Swensson: Musicians have remained rooted in the city, too, even as their careers have grown past the city limits.

Alan Sparhawk: From time to time there will be little boosts. Trampled by Turtles—when Turtles first started and as the scene was just so primed and ready for that, and it just really exploded and it was really positive aspect of the scene. When a band does well and gets out of town and gets some notoriety, I think it's inspiring to others. Charlie Parr and Turtles for sure have done that.

Andrea Swensson: Brittany Lind and Homegrown Festival executive director Melissa LaTour talked about Parr this way, too.

Brittany Lind: Charlie Parr is huge in Australia. He was in a commercial, and so he just blew up in popularity, so he does an Australian tour almost every year.

Melissa LaTour: I sent many of his records to Australia7#8212;and Spain, actually. Spain loves Charlie Parr.

Dave Simonett: I moved up there in 1998 and Trampled started in 2003, so I played a little bit of music and played in a few bands in Duluth before Trampled started.

Andrea Swensson: Dave Simonett lives in the Twin Cities now, but he fondly recalls his formative years in Duluth.

Dave Simonett: The first year I was there I was in school, and I was living up in the dorms, and the school in that town is pretty removed. I don't know if it's still like this, but at that time it felt like a completely separate town almost than downtown where all the music was happening. After a couple years when I was starting to play in bands and I got to be a little more immersed in it, I'd say at that time it was thriving. It had a really cool DIY punk rock vibe, where a lot of the bands were kind of grungy and kind of raw rock and roll, which I always thought was fantastic.

There weren't a lot of what maybe we here in Minneapolis would consider real venues. There were clubs that had bands, but a lot of these bands were bringing their own PA, or maybe there's some ancient sound system hanging on the wall. But that being said, I learned a lot in that way, where I didn't get spoiled as a performer. You really had to figure it out yourself and learn how to do all that stuff to put on a show.

Our first show was in a place call Sir Benedict's Tavern, which was kind of like a sandwich shop/bar thing, and running our own sound. The venues have gotten a lot better everywhere, and the sound is better. But I still kind of treasure that experience.

Brittany Lind: We kind of go up and down with the venues. Some of them have really good qualities for one kind of show but not others. We don't have a lot of huge shows in Duluth that are on, like, the local level. I love doing shows at the Rex. They have a great sound system. But it's so big that if you don't fill it up, which is like two, three hundred people, it looks empty even if it's not. And then the Herring no longer exists, but Black List is really awesome. It's a good medium size. Blush is amazing, but they're super small. They have like a forty-six-person capacity, so they're very limited. Our venue situation is just really spread out and odd.

Andrea Swensson: But one musical event in particular unites the city, and brings in a good number of tourists as well.

Melissa LaTour: My name is Melissa LaTour. I'm the executive director for the Homegrown Music Festival. I'm also a commissioner on the Duluth Public Arts commission, so I'm very much into the local music and arts scene. My first Homegrown was the first Homegrown, 1999.

Andrea Swensson: Today, Homegrown showcases nearly two hundred bands, all from Duluth, every spring—not bad for a city of less than a hundred thousand people.

Melissa LaTour: It's gotten bigger. We started with two nights at the NorShor Theatre, five bands each night. Now we are an eight-day event with a children's showcase included, poetry, fire spinning, and then the bands. We're up to two hundred bands now, versus the ten, and forty venues one.

We have a steering committee of fifteen, we have a board of five, a volunteer pool of about two hundred and fifty—and then the spectators that come for the crazy stuff.

It's still a local music showcase, so when we're on our website and we check the email and everything else, we get a lot of correspondence from people that play all over the U.S. and even outside the United States, looking to perform at Homegrown, and when we explain it's a local music showcase where there should be some sort of tie to this area, they're shocked that we can carry a festival for that long with local music.

Nola Wick: Over the years, it's grown immensely,

Andrea Swensson: Nola Wick is a dance DJ who spent many years playing parties in Duluth, before moving down to Minneapolis.

Nola Wick: And now it's basically I think the biggest party of the year in Duluth because everybody comes out for it. All the different venues in Duluth host it, and then you can barhop, and they also have a free trolley, where they have music on the trolley. It's really cool.

I love playing it because there's always a huge crowd of people, and I can never get that at any other point in time in Duluth. I could never get that many people to show up, and it's also kind of like an after-the-winter time for everybody to meet up again and reconnected after staying indoors all winter.

Emily Larson: It's so much, so much fun.

Andrea Swensson: Mayor Larson is reliably part of that crowd.

Emily Larson: And I have seen increasingly over the years the percentage of women participating as artists in Homegrown has increased. There's a band called Superior Siren who I really love. I love who they are. I love what they're about.

I have seen the representation of different cultures and voices be expressed in the programming of Homegrown to be inclusive of indigenous people of color and African heritage. I have seen the attendance of Homegrown shift a lot in terms of age demographics and who is participating and showing up.

I have seen a much bolder and stronger embrace with and of GLBTQ community, and non-binary gender community, and so the community. The arts community has evolved as our community has, and has expanded that web of relationships.

I have teenagers, and so I get to see through their perspective and experiences and their friends what they are talking about and what seems neat to them, and watching them engage in the arts in a new way, and seeing young people move into that space, and walk into Homegrown venues—it's their festival too.

Andrea Swensson: In 2018 and 2019, Trampled by Turtles headlined a show at Bayfront Park, drawing more than ten thousand people each year. We talked to Dave Simonett shortly before this year's event, and he was still buzzing about last year.

Dave Simonett; We had been off the road for a couple years. I don't know if maybe that had something to do with it, but just to kind of be at where we started, playing and have our biggest show happen there is kind of emotional, to be honest, and it was a really special thing. Just to feel the love coming from that town, a place that we all loved so much, it felt right. It felt great.

Andrea Swensson: For all its recent visibility, though, Duluth remains a small town, in the best possible way.

Brittany Lind: So I was having a beer at the Red Herring with Dave Simonett, and then Alan Sparhawk came up from the basement where there was a recording studio, and he goes "Hey, I just finished mastering some tracks. Do you want to hear them?" So Dave Simonett and I went down to the recording studio of the Red Herring and we listened to the tracks that he had just finished, and that's the first time I ever heard Ones and Sixes.

["No Comprende" by Low]

Brittany Lind: And I was like, "This is the weirdest thing I've ever had happen, and it's so cool, and who is going to believe me?"A then I was working at the Electric Fetus at the time, and then a couple months later Ones and Sixes came out and I was like, "Yeah, it's cool, guys, I know these songs. I've already heard them."

Andrea Swensson: Now 25 years into their career, Low have continued to release new work at a steady pace, including the critically adored Drums and Guns, The Great Destroyer, and 2015's boundary-pushing Ones and Sixes.

In addition to his work in Low, Alan has also played in numerous side projects, including the raucous blues band the Black-Eyed Snakes, the anthemic rock group Retribution Gospel Choir, and the experimental Murder of Crows, a collaboration with the violinist Gaelynn Lea. Both Al and Mim also remain committed to supporting the emerging artists in the Duluth scene.

Remarkably, they also continue to reinvent their band and challenge their listeners. In 2013, their entire set in front of a sold-out crowd of 11,000 at the outdoor festival Rock the Garden, which The Current co-presents with the Walker Art Center, was one long, drawn-out 28-minute performance of the song "Do You Know How to Waltz?," which Al punctuated with the simple phrase "Drone, not drones."

And just last year, their 12th album, Double Negative, surprised listeners with its distorted, crackling effects, which Pitchfork said "described 2018's pervasive dread like nothing else" and which The Guardian and other outlets called one of the best albums of the year.

["Fly" by Low]

Mimi Parker: And then it's just been a very gradual growth.

Alan Sparhawk: There've never been any big hits that then we had to follow up, or like "Wow, that record was really huge. And these last couple haven't been quite as—"

Mimi Parker: Yeah, so with that and with just enough encouragement to keep us going, we just—

Alan Sparhawk: It just kind of makes sense.

Mimi Parker: We're very grateful that we've been able to do it as long as we have. It's kind of miraculous. You know?

Andrea Swensson: The Current Rewind is produced by Cecilia Johnson. Michaelangelo Matos is our writer, Marisa Gonzalez Morseth is our research assistant, and Brett Baldwin is our managing producer. Our theme music is "Winging It" by Lazerbeak from the album Luther. Michael DeMark mastered this episode.

Thanks to our guests: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low, Dave Simonett from Trampled by Turtles, Melissa LaTour of Homegrown Music Festival, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, The Current's Brittany Lind, Sacred Heart Music Center's Eric Swanson, record producers Kramer and Steve Albini, writer Jessica Hopper, musician Starfire, and DJ Nola Wick.

If you've been digging The Current Rewind, please go rate and review our podcast. We would really appreciate your support.

Go to TheCurrent.org/rewind to find past episodes, transcripts, and bonus materials.

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.


comments powered by Disqus