Sustained excellence

The US indie rock band Low reaches new heights on its 20th anniversary.

'Low' band (photo credit: PR)
'Low' band
(photo credit: PR)
For a band that has released 10 albums and is celebrating its 20th anniversary, Low likes to keep a… low profile. No huge hits, no collaborations with Lady Gaga and no automatic iTune download gimmicks – just a steady stream of provocative, low-key gems by the quintessential American under-the-radar trio from the Minnesota northland. And that’s the way they like it.
“We’ve been lucky enough that we’ve never had big hits or one record that everybody’s been particularly into. There’s no constant reminder on stage that the audience is really only there to hear that one song. I don’t know that we’d be able to keep doing what we do if not for the fact that our fans basically come to expect about anything,” Low’s co-founder and main songwriter/ guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk told The Halifax Herald last year at the start of a tour to promote the band’s then-new album The Invisible Way.
Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the album marked the band’s 20th year with a new peak, as Sparhawk – together with his wife, Mimi Parker, on drums and vocals and Steve Garrington on bass – proved that they have perfected the art of creating haunting, low-fi classics that build slowly to swirling climaxes.
The soothing but foreboding harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker have been called the Americana indie evolution of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. And when Robert Plant traveled down the rustic road for his 2010 album Band of Joy, he chose two Low songs to duet on with Patty Griffin – “Silver Rider” and “Monkey.” At the time, Plant said of the band, “It’s great music; it’s always been in the house playing away beside Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf…” Low actually began as the result of a joke between Sparhawk and a new member of his first early 1990s 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.
Their steady recording and touring has built a comfortable audience for the band around the world, including Israel, where they first played at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv in 2008 to rapturous response.
“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 some place new is very different and exciting,” Sparhawk told The Jerusalem Post before that 2008 show. As part of its world tour to mark 20 years and The Invisible Way, Low is returning to the Barby on January 26 for one show.
Ahead of the tour, Low did a series of shows last winter in the band’s hometown of Duluth, where they performed their entire catalogue from start to finish.
“I remember Wilco did something similar, like a 10-year retrospective over three nights somewhere in Chicago, and I remember thinking at the time that if we were going to do that, it would take a long amount of time,” Sparhawk told The Halifax Herald. “And then we decided it would be impossible, but the idea was always there. We did the math and figured out we could do it over seven nights. We randomized it, picked the set and made sure we knew all the tunes and, of course, there were a number that we had to go and brush up on.”
In addition to providing their core fans with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the shows also enabled the band to look back at its past to determine how to move forward.
“Having done these shows, we’re starting to very specifically identify all these things we’ve done and start asking, ‘Well, what now?’ The trick is to not get confused. I think a lot of aging artists have a hard time being creative through the muck of their own past,” said Sparkhawk.
One aspect of the band’s music that is unlikely to change is the evocative harmony singing of Sparhawk and Parker, a blend that gently washes over the music.
“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,” Sparhawk told The Jerusalem Post before the band’s first visit to Israel.
“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.”
Those models are all known for their sustained excellence and longevity, and with 20 years under its belt, Low is a worthy member of the fold. For Sparhawk, that realization is both comforting and alarming.
“Wow… 20 years. I’ve been kind of pondering it for a while,” he told the music site Stereogum last year.
“You start comparing to other bands in history and stuff and you realize, ‘Wow, 20 years is a long time!’ A lot of stuff happens in 20 years, you know? I keep thinking of things like…if someone in high school came and saw us now – 20 years in – it’d be as if I went and saw Jefferson Airplane when I was in high school… So that’s weird. You know, the same band that did ‘White Rabbit’ but 20 years later is doing ‘We Built This City’ or whatever,” he said.
“I hope we aren’t at that stage in our career yet. I think for anybody at this age, obviously you go, ‘Well, I don’t feel this old. I’m the same idiot I was when I was 19.’ It’s sort of true and, as boring as it sounds, it simply is what it is,” he said.
For Low, what it was and what it still is are simply brilliant.
Low will perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on January 26. For more information, visit events/572896396190354/