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Interview: Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on 'Hey What'

Interview with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low
Interview with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of LowPhoto Courtesy of Nathan Keay | Graphic by MPR
  Play Now [10:21]

by Mac Wilson

August 27, 2021

Listen above, or read the transcript below of Mac Wilson's interview with Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker about their new record, Hey What, the new guitar pedals they favored on this release, the best time to listen to the new record, and the uncertainties of planning tours in this time.


Click here to enter to win tickets between now and 5 p.m. CDT on August 30 to attend Low's Hey What album-release event at the Square Lake Festival.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MAC WILSON: Hello, I'm Mac Wilson from The Current from Minnesota Public Radio and it is my privilege to be joined by Mimi and Alan from Low, good morning!


MIMI PARKER: Good morning, it's nice to be here.

It is. So the very first question that I have off the top of my head is something that you were up to this week that you played at the Water Is Life, the Stop Line 3 festival, if you want to call it a festival, up in Duluth just days ago. Can you walk us a little bit through the experience of not only being booked, but then performing to the show because it all happened on relatively short notice, which is tough to do anytime, let alone during a global pandemic? So walk us through a little bit about who communicated with who to get you on the on the slate for that show?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Well, I would say mostly David Huckfelt from The Pines contacted us. Yeah, like you said it was short notice, I think they're kind of--it was an idea that was put together with a lot of love and people who wanted to contribute and wanted to do something to help out the people that've been at the protests and people who've been arrested, and helping to raise some money to get them bail and stuff. But yeah, David contacted us, we had to do a little bit of run around, make some calls, see who was available and who could--you know, what format we could present and we put it together. But yeah, he did have to do a lot of scrambling and call phone calls and put it together, it was great to see a lot of friends there--Justin [Vernon] and Hippo Campus, a lot of stuff. That kind of came together.

For my set, I ended up contacting a couple Native American dudes from town here that are singers and drummers and I thought I'd do a little collaboration with them for that set. There was a lot of that actually--was a lot of bringing that in. And I know maybe some people like, "Oh, well was for that event and stuff." But I'm here to attest that Justin, and especially the Bon Iver camp has been, has been reaching out pretty naturally to the native community for a few years here. So this is not--it's not a new thing for them to come together to support that. So it was good to see everybody, and it was definitely a lot of love and good intention into that event.

One of the things that we sort of have drilled into our heads as Current hosts is the idea of neutrality on political things because being with The Current that we have a newsroom downstairs with Minnesota Public Radio, so we try to keep it quote unquote, neutral on a lot of things. But then you even look at the name of what this event was Stop Line 3. Now saying that, like in and of itself, that's a political stance in the title of the event to the point where when I was announcing, like, before it happened a couple of days ago, I wondered whether I should even be phrasing it this way.

ALAN SPARHAWK: That's kind of maybe--that's the genius of the title is to everyone that had to speak about it was having to speak truth. Water is--if you had to say the name of the event, you were speaking one of the most basic truths of the universe. And so maybe there was some genius to that. Yeah, the event mostly raised some money for some people that have kind of run into some unfair legal obstacles getting stacked up against them. Yeah, you know, we're older--I've been through different phases in my life where I've been passionate about certain things and there's times in your life where you feel pretty passionate, you want to lay your own skin down, so to speak, and in a game and in a cause, and life gets complicated and different things. And yeah, there's a tendency to kind of look at that, "Oh, Stop Line 3? Wait, really you're going to stop line 3?" You know, honestly, I don't know. Honestly, I don't know that they're going to stop line 3. And I think in some ways, I don't think that they are necessarily expecting that. I guess the thing that I've come to is that at the heart of this is a message: petroleum-based energy is unsustainable. It causes more suffering than it should. There are other options, and our society could change to a more cleaner option. We vote. We talk about it. We write letters to the editor, we write letters to politicians and that does some, but the feet have to be put down and people have to stand and say no. Now, will that stop that thing? I don't know, I don't think so, but the voice needs to be heard.

These kinds of actions need to be done to get the message out and to tell people that this is serious, this is something that people care about, and sure it's not going to suddenly change. There's a massive industry that's behind this stuff that's going to--behind the petroleum industry, this is not going to budge quickly and easily. But if the message is out there it increases the possibility maybe someone will be up there, maybe someone will be be in that board meeting, and someone is going to raise their hand and be like, "You know what, I think if we just invested just a little bit of money here, we could reduce our pollution or our negative output here by 5%, maybe next year. But let's try that. That's how that's going to happen. Eventually, people are going to come around to this, but it's going to come around because people stuck out their neck, looked maybe a little ridiculous to the rest of the population for a while while they said, "No, this is important. This is happening. Look where I'm standing, what is happening right here. This is the result of the attitude we have, we need to change our attitude. We need to change the future." And yeah, new generations are seeing this.

When I was growing up I didn't see any protests about this stuff. I wasn't aware of that stuff. Generations now, they're learning about this stuff, they're gonna change things. They will and that is why this is justified. That's why sometimes these seemingly ridiculous protests and these ridiculous causes of like, "There's no way you're going to stop," you know, "this small group of people. How are they going to stop this thing?" Well, they may not, but they have to speak. And they have to change it. I mean, put yourself in the place of an oppressed person--under the most oppressed group of society. I defy anyone to come up with anything more constructive than the people standing up and saying that this is wrong. Yeah, it was funny. It's interesting. At the protest, there was literally someone who had hired a plane that had a flag going by it that said, "Go Line 3," and they were flying it back and forth to the crowd there. And that's what we're working against, and those are the attitudes that need to change. There's still people that literally get up in the morning and go, "How can I spend my money to stick it to these people who I don't like and I don't like the message," and I guess that's the battle. Everyone has their opinions, and I'm afraid to say it's very possible that one side might be right and I think they deserve to win. If that's what we're doing here.

Very well said, Alan, thank you. So as we we look ahead a bit to some of your shows that you have lined up later in the fall. Notably, your your album release show happening at the Square Lake Festival in northern Washington County in just a couple of weeks, the second weekend in September. Looking forward to that. Have you played at Square Lake in the past?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, Square Lake Festival's a pretty great festival. They've been doing it for a number of years--a few days of usually all local/regional acts. It's a great place, a lot of space. Kind of having to do it concert style--you come in, not as much as stay overnight kind of thing. You can pick one night or the other. Go to both if you want, but yeah, it'll be nice to be outside and fingers crossed for a nice evening.

MIMI PARKER: Yeah, we're really looking forward to it. It has been a long time. It's been a long time since we've played in front of a group of people and we're trying to get ourselves well rehearsed and prepared.

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, it's so weird--usually if you're like playing or something it's like, "Okay, it's a whole tour," so you can sort of spread the anxiety out over maybe 20 shows. Coming down tonight to prove it.

So with the new record on the way Hey What, you don't have to reveal this if you don't want to but do you have plans at Square Lake? Are you gonna play the record in its entirety? Are you going to sprinkle selections from it into your set on any given night? Can you give us a little insight into your plans?

ALAN SPARHAWK: No, I actually guess without too much discussion we've kind of just been rehearsing the whole record. Yeah, yeah, we'll usually do that, we'll usually feel pretty good about all the songs right when they come out. We'll go "Okay, let's let's go and play them all."

MIMI PARKER: So it is the record release. Yeah, we are considering doing the whole thing.

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, and then some--throw in some more old stuff, too. That's what we've been working toward and it's overtime, once we get touring again. Sometimes those there's certain songs that will jump out a little bit more, and you'll kind of go, "Okay, we'll definitely play this every night." Some that are like loud, and, "Oh that one doesn't work so well, maybe we should..

MIMI PARKER: This is all a grand experiment, so we'll see.

ALAN SPARHAWK: This will be all the successful and not so successful.

Mimi and Alan, and this is the first time that I've sat down and to do like a session or an interview with you. So please forgive me if this is like a fairly naive question. Maybe this is something that other folks ask on a regular basis. And there's there's a very codified answer, but bear with me on this. So when you set out to make a particular low record, or particular low songs, are there multiple versions of every song that's out there? Like? Do you think about it like, well, this is going to be a really loud one, this is going to be a real quiet one. Do you write them in that fashion? Basically, what I'm thinking is if you we went into your vaults, would there be like an exact like flipped alternate version of every song out there? Or do you pretty much set out to make it in a particular way and go with that?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Well, the way we've been working the last few records--we'll write the song and we'll kind of have an idea of, well, here's how it goes if you play it on guitar, and maybe we'll have a little idea about how the three piece would work with drums and bass. But then we'll go into the studio and and it's kind of assumed that we kind of set that aside. And we're going in looking for a version of the song that's based in the studio, maybe there's a hint, maybe there's some sound like, "Oh, yeah, there's this synth sound I was messing with the other day, let's see if this will work," or some guitar effect or something we've been experimenting with. "Okay, let's see if we can make the song with this," and so yeah, the recording process is more, kind of digging around trying to find something new, trying to find something that surprises us. I would say just about everything we record nowadays--when we finally put it out, it's the surprise, you know? It's like, "Well, this, this finally got to a point where it's gone beyond what we imagined. Okay, so now it must be ready."

MIMI PARKER: So you wouldn't necessarily find a--

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, you wouldn't find a lot of versions recorded--

MIMI PARKER: Versions of it but every--you know, typically, we don't try to replicate or reproduce the recordings when we play live. So if you find the live recording, it's going to be an alternate version. So that's something I guess.

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, that's sorta the mix really. Yeah, the idea of there being different versions of things for sure. The last few years that sort of opened up that concept, you know, years ago, we were maybe a little more like, "Oh, there's got to be--we're trying to find the perfect version here. And the perfect way to do it," and it was like, well no, you can kind of open it up and like I said, surprise yourself. That actually is probably more satisfying than having an idea what you think it might be like and going in and trying to get it and maybe kind of getting it, you know?

I think what made me think of that was a couple of weeks ago, after you released "Days Like These," somebody on Twitter had the meme of "Well, here's what Low have been up to during the pandemic," and it showed the waveform of the song and it was just completely brick walled. Yeah, like you set out like, "Okay, this is the exact type of record we're gonna make." That was that was a pretty savvy meme. I thought.


ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, it's pretty extreme. We owe a lot of that to BJ Burton, producer. He's very interested in finding the outer reaches of the sonic possibilities and we're interested in finding the outer reaches of what a song and singing and sound can be.

So it's funny that you were talking about using particular instruments or like, deciding to go with particular tones, because this weekend, as we're looking ahead, the Saturday theme, it's the anniversary of the death of Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. So we're going to be playing a bunch of songs that feature--we're going to try to use the original Moogs too so we're doing some research. When you were recording the new record, did you find any new toys like, "Okay, we're gonna get the Moog out a lot. Were there any instances of that? That when we listen to the album, we'll be able to tell, "Oh, they enjoyed working with this on this album."

ALAN SPARHAWK: Yeah, I'll kind of give away a couple little secrets here. Yeah, one thing that really kind of sparked my imagination--there's this guitar effects pedal by this company called Boss and it's the synth--guitar synthesizer, whatever. They've been doing a pedal like that--years ago, back in the 90s, there was one called the bass synthesizer, and you plug your bass in, and kind of made it sound like wah, wah, wah, wah or something like that. But this one's kind of interesting, and for people don't understand what it does--effects pedals sort of change the sound of the signal of the guitar before it goes into the amp, and then kind of changes. Sometimes like an echo or sometimes a distortion or something that's generated by a pedal or an effect, but this particular effect takes the information that you're giving it with the guitar, like the notes, and okay, you're hitting it here, and here's the notes--and translates it to a synthesizer sound, and there's some variables on there, you can change to kind of get different sounds. But that paddle was really useful because it made it possible to kind of open up the sonic possibility of what kind of sounds you could create, but still using the guitar, and using basically an instrument that I'm sort of more familiar with, you know? I don't spend a lot of time with keyboards and drum machines and stuff. So being able to use something that was more organic and personal, and sort of immediate to translate to sounds that are more pliable, and therefore new really was a key to that. Yeah, you know, things like that--we use a lot of distortion, you can distort anything. Distortion is just about sending too much signal into something and then seeing seeing what it does with it. Circuits, when you sense too much information, they start shaping the sound and kind of crushing down, that's what distortion is. So there's a whole world of different textures and different ways you can shape sound by just throwing it over here and see what happens. Or let's throw this against the wall and see if it busts a hole in the wall. So yes, a little bit of that. That was a new thing. We discovered new confidence in our singing, partly to do with some technology, and just some happenstance and just some good accidents that happened in the studio early on that kind of helped us see, "Oh, maybe this is what's going on here." So yeah, it's a fun process. And we've really been lucky to be able to do it periodically over these years and learn each time we do it. It's really a great--I don't know, just lucky.

Mimi and Alan, you alluded a little while ago to looking ahead to the Square Lake Festival as you're doing the two shows for the release of the album, and sort of having the mentality that it's possible that you'll be compressing an entire tour into those two dates. Do you have like multiple sets of plans for what the next couple of months have ahead or are you just trying to--I mean, I understand that you sort of have to plan to an extent, or are you also just setting back with whatever happens happens?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Well we're just a little bit of a mix.

MIMI PARKER: Yeah, so we've got some definite plans, and we're crossing our fingers that things will pan out and we won't be in shutdown mode again. But honestly, that's kind of all we can hope for, you know?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Well we have some shows booked for next year. A lot of stuff has to be kind of booked really far in advance. So yeah, I don't know why, I think this spring we just kind of had a feeling like, "Yeah, maybe we shouldn't fill up dates in the fall," even though we knew we wanted the record to come out in September. So we just kind of thought, "You know, I don't think it's going to be quite right." And then for us, maybe we're not going to be quite ready and have the right things in place. Yeah, in hindsight, of course, looking at it now we're definitely glad that we're holding off because, yeah, there's a lot of friends and people we know on the road and they're having to come home because people are getting sick and and it's pretty real and I think it's hard. I don't think people want to talk about it right now. But I think it's something that we're gonna have to get real with here again this fall.

So we do have the record to look forward to, Hey What, it'll be out in September, like you said. One thing that I've really noticed as a music listener, not even as a Current DJ, but just as a music listener, it's tough to listen to albums nowadays. You can listen to things chopped up, and at The Current we try to find, you know, the best stuff from the best records to play on the radio. That's what radio is. When it comes to being at home. And you're, you're juggling the 10,000 things during a global pandemic. It's tough to listen to albums. As somebody, a music listener, who will be making time to listen to the new album, what is the context that you would suggest that somebody try to find for it? Like, should we carve out time in the evenings? Should we get up before the sun rises? Should we listen in the middle of the night? If you're encouraging somebody to listen to this album for the first time when should we go about doing it?

ALAN SPARHAWK: Oh, man--I've heard everything from on their run in the morning, to last thing to hear at night. Yeah, I don't know. Yeah, go with the extremes. Either wake yourself up at 5:30 in the morning and put your head phones on--

MIMI PARKER: Stay up all night.

ALAN SPARHAWK: ...or stay up all night and listen to it at about 2:00 a.m. when you're when your brain is starting to fall apart. Yeah, don't--stay away from lunch. Lunch and naptime.

Sounds like a plan. Well, Alan and Mimi, thank you for taking the time out of your day to chat about the upcoming shows and about the new record as well. We're looking forward to the shows. We're looking forward to the album. And you know, thanks for being you all these years.

MIMI PARKER: Yeah, thanks.

ALAN SPARHAWK: Thank you. It's a great community to make make music in, man. Thank you.

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