Singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk reveals how the band came up with its most groundbreaking album yet, 2018's 'Double Negative'
To make Low’s 2018 album, Double Negative, the band again recruited producer BJ Burton and decamped to April Base, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin recording studio of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The place has a reputation as a collaborative space where Vernon and others in his ever-expanding musical universe pop in and out of sessions, tinkering with each other’s projects.
But that wasn’t the case for Low. Singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk has known Vernon for years — well before Bon Iver’s breakout 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago — and because of that, Vernon knew the way Low likes to work.
“We’re pretty private. We don’t want anybody around,” Sparhawk said by phone recently while sitting in the Minneapolis airport. “Justin knows us, and he’s kind of a fan. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it's really cool that he’s respecting our space and just letting us do our thing.’ He has this kind of mystical vision of the way we work and where we come from. He actually admitted to me, ‘Part of me really wanted to come in there every day and be like, “Hey, what's going on?” But I just had to catch myself and be like, “Ah, no. They have their thing and I don't wanna throw them off their game."' He gave us room and gave us encouragement without intruding too much.”
In the studio, Sparhawk, drummer/singer Mimi Parker (Sparhawk’s wife) and bassist Steve Garrington were in the process of stripping Low’s trademark slowcore sound down to its studs. “The idea for it was brewing when we were doing [2015 album] Ones and Sixes. You look back and say, ‘What were the things that were most satisfying? What were the things we’re really proud of?’ Well, the part where we really pushed ourselves and went out on a limb and tried to find something that hadn't been done before,” Sparhawk said. “We wanted to make something a lot more extreme, a lot more removed and original. Something timeless.”Read Alive's original and timeless email newsletter, made daily under the warm, creativity-inducing glow of flickering fluorescent lights: Sign up here
To do that, the trio rethought Low’s most essential elements, particularly rhythm. “How do we make rhythm without just saying, ‘OK, here's the drums?’” Sparhawk said. “BJ Burton does a variety of stuff, but he works a lot with hip-hop, so we're asking someone who heavily works with beats to try to find what else we can do [rhythmically] without using beats. And he was very primed for that. … Once you realize that you can create rhythm without going into the same cliche sound everybody's been using forever, it really opens it up.”
“Quorum,” the very first track on Double Negative, illustrates that rhythmic experimentation, the sound of a clipping compressor providing a crunchy, hissing pulse that gives the song movement. And once Sparhawk’s voice enters, it’s clear the musicians had similar discussions about the role of vocals.
“Voice has been a cornerstone of the band, and I think with each record we're constantly trying to expand that. … 'Let's go further with mutating the voice,'” Sparhawk said. “Sometimes it's really close, raw and real and easy to discern, like, ‘Mim is really sinking into my skull right now.’ And then there are times where the voice is fragmenting into something that sounds like an instrument or something synthetic.”
Tearing something down and then rebuilding it takes time and a heap of courage, so when things finally started to coalesce into actual songs at April Base, the bandmates breathed a sigh of relief. “No matter how confident you are, you have doubts where you're questioning yourself, wondering if you're just barking down an empty hall,” Sparhawk said.
In the past year, the band has also had to decide how to reinterpret the songs live. On tour, which includes a stop at the Wexner Center tonight (Tuesday, Sept. 10), the bandmates initially wondered if they could ditch most of their instrumentation and just go onstage with a drum machine and a couple of microphones. “In the spirit of the record, what if we go out there and just have this completely blown-out white noise for 20 minutes and then sing some stuff underneath it?” Sparhawk said. “One of the things that I kept coming back to is the band Suicide. There's just a couple things going on, and it's so strong, so powerful and singular.”
Eventually, though, the band decided that route didn’t make sense for Low. “We've been playing these instruments onstage for 25 years. For me to drop the guitar and pick up this synthesizer and pretend that I even know what the hell I'm doing, it could be interesting for the first 15 minutes, but we have 90-minute shows to do,” Sparhawk said. “There’s something that happens when you're using your hands and your own voice in real time live, and there's real people in front of you. They’re taking this in the same moment you are. I’m uncomfortable hitting the space bar and just letting tracks run and then singing along to it. ... We spent all this time honing this skill. To take that away and just turn our back on that — I'm not sure if that would be creatively productive.”
Looking ahead, Sparhawk anticipated the band will re-enter the studio sometime this winter, and Low may also release recordings made as part of a project in which the band was commissioned to perform in churches accompanied by nothing but Garrington on a pipe organ (“It was almost like having a side band,” Sparhawk said). And while it's possible Low could go the opposite route of Double Negative and record an entirely acoustic record, Sparhawk said it’s more likely the band will continue to use technology in ways that push the band to further experiment.
“Once you've taken that lid off, it's kind of hard to put it back on,” he said.