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(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you ever meet Alan Sparhawk, just don't call the music he makes with his American indie rock band Low slowcore. The thoughtful, pleasant guitarist/singer/songwriter can finally laugh off the moniker which he may have thrown out himself in a moment of whimsy when he was at a loss to describe Low's music, but at one time it really bothered him.
"I'm not sure where slowcore came from - I may have uttered it on the spur of the moment. It's sort of a 'punny' term that has sputtered out. I'm not sure if it describes us, but there's no point in fighting against it. It was a convenient way to characterize where we were coming from at some point," he says with a rueful laugh from his home near Duluth, Minnesota.
"I guess 'minimal' would be a more accurate term."
Whatever you call it, the mesmerizing music that Sparhawk and his drummer/singer wife Mimi Parker make with Low has struck a chord with off-the-beaten track music fans who prefer that sound doesn't fill up every song.
Low's music - featuring evocative vocal harmonies by Sparhawk and Parker that recall such male-female duos like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and Paul Kantner and Grace Slick - has been described as delicate, austere, hypnotic and haunting. It's not the everyday stuff you're going to hear on pop radio like Galgalatz - but fitting into the mainstream has never been a priority for Sparhawk since he and Parker formed Low in 1993.
Low actually began as the result of joke between Sparhawk and a new member of his first early '90s band Zen Identity. During rehearsals, they turned their equipment down really low and played quiet, atmospheric music. Jokingly, they asked each other what would happen if they played such quiet music in front of Duluth crowds, which at that point clamored for the loud, grunge rock that Nirvana had popularized. The joke turned serious, however, and Sparhawk left Zen Identity and recruited his wife to play a minimalist drum kit for Low.
Comfortable with the large cult status that has enabled the musical couple to be at-home parents for their two children, Sparhawk and Parker, along with current bass player Matt Livingston, are able to set their own agenda and record and tour when they want to. And it turns out they want to come to Israel, where they'll be performing on Thursday night at the Barby Club.
"It's somewhat of a surprise that we have fans in Israel. We were first contacted four or five years ago, but it never worked out. Ten or 15 years after starting to do this and being able to go someplace new is very different and exciting," said Sparhawk, adding that the current tour consists only of London and Tel Aviv.
"Our daughter is eight and our son is four. We don't take them on tour - there's too much flying - so we like to keep it short. Luckily, we have family back home."
BUT WHEN Low isn't on tour, Sparhawk says that he spends an abundance of quality time with his kids.
"There are moments once in a while when it reaches out and slaps you in the face - like when we're playing with the kids - when we realize how lucky we are. Most American families don't have the freedom and time to be able to be home with them so much of the time," he said.
Traditional family values are important to Sparhawk and Parker, who are practicing Mormons, an uncommon phenomenon in the indie rock world. Sparhawk even went to Brigham Young University for a year in 1980, and he admits that traces of his faith can be found within Low's lyrics.
"It's not really intentional, it's just sort of what emerges when you write. It's natural to write about things close to your heart," he said, adding that as a Mormon, he finds an increased sense of curiosity about visiting Israel.
"Like many religions, Mormons are interested in the region for its rich history. It's not surprising that a lot of Western culture religions hearken back to the imagery from Israel and its historical stories. For me, it's a backdrop as kid growing up and hearing the legends and history from this imagined world, so my finally coming here is a very significant and exciting moment for me. From traveling around, I've come to respect the resonance and spirit of a place. You can feel its history, its people and it intentions. I'm curious and excited to feel Israel," he said.
While Sparhawk's cryptic, literate lyrics help define Low, it's the way that those lyrics are sung which really set the band apart. Sparhawk's and Parker's mournful, yet comforting harmonies are the focus of the sparse arrangements, and their originality is something that Sparhawk says is more intuitive than learned.
"Mimi grew up in a family that sang a lot - they were American folkies. And since she was the youngest of three sisters, by default, she grew up singing harmony," he said.
"You could get all technical, what kind of harmony is this, what style should we use, but we just don't think about it that much, so it doesn't end up forced. I suppose our main role models are The Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. But there are some great rootsy, American folk harmonies that we love, like Gillian Welch's music.
"Harmony's more of a mystery to me. I'm in awe of people that can open their mouth and out comes a beautiful sound. So for myself, I don't try to intellectualize it too much."
IN 2005, Low signed up with the Seattle label Sub Pop, ironically best known for being grunge pioneers, and has since released two acclaimed albums - The Great Destroyer and most recently Drums and Guns, which focuses on the war in Iraq with a spare and simple rage. While many bands at Low's success level are increasingly relying on electronic methods of sales and promotion, Sparhawk is happy to leave it to the traditional mode of sales.
"Our label has always been appropriate for us. They're not expecting huge sales and aren't demanding. We've always been on a label, it's just cleaner for us. Of course, we also have a Web site and a Myspace page. But even with that, it's nice to have a record label, to navigate the electronic promotion world, to have someone hold your hand through all that," Sparhawk said.
Through its critically acclaimed music and sustained career, Low has joined the all-star list of artists with roots in Minnesota, which is disproportionate to the state's population. According to Sparhawk, a common sense of being perceived as underdogs might have something to with the state producing great musicians. And for him, knowing that there was world-class music coming out of his own state provided him with inspiration and solace.
"Maybe it's the weather that caused all the creativity," he laughed. "For me it was kind of exciting in the '80s that Prince and bands like The Replacements and Husker Du were known around the country, and came from Minnesota. I latched onto those bands when I was a teenager. I think that growing up in the rural Midwest, there was a sense of isolation and detachment from the normal flow of society growing up there. That may feed into it, a perception that you're maybe not as sophisticated as other regions of the country, and you have to try harder to measure up."
And of course, there's the ultimate Minnesota musician, Bob Dylan, who set the bar for all that arrived after him.
"Where Mimi and I live is very rural and detached. But Dylan came from the most detached part of the state [Hibbing] - it's far away from the rest of the world."
Whether or not it's because of geography, it's clear that the element of otherworldliness has permeated Low's music - whether its slowcore, minimalist or just beautiful - to dazzling effect.