An all-new Low

Jan 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

Low guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk is a busy man. Getting him on the phone from his Duluth, Minn., home has been difficult, but on the third try, a success. He's a family man, and his two children (with his wife, band percussionist-vocalist Mimi Parker) can be heard creating a ruckus in the background.

But he's got a lot to talk about: Low's upcoming tour, its new label and new member in Minnesotan Matt Livingston.

Longtime bassist Zak Sally split for quality family time. He explained the move in a statement on the band's Web site: "I sincerely hope that someday we can sit in the basement and make music together, but for now, there are more important things than music."

Sparhawk says Sally's exit has been "really hard" on the band, but adds that he's excited to see how Livingston adapts to road life.

Dates are booked throughout North America in the coming months. Sparhawk might be geeked for the road foray; but touring for him isn't always flowers in spring, especially stateside. He has some experience: Low has been touring extensively — a recent hiatus notwithstanding — since its 1993 formation.

"Here, I think rock is something that is still often viewed as the funny thing kids are into," Sparhawk says. "I think in Europe, you get a little bit more respect. It's viewed a little bit more as art. But touring here, you get a sense of what to expect, and what's possible."

And what's to expect from Detroit, where Low enjoys a solid fan base? The band loves gigging here, he says, recalling fondly a show in the band's early days at a coffee shop that was "basically a house." But the Motor City is still a difficult place to perform.

"I don't think there's any big city that's been more overrun by Clear Channel than Detroit," he says, complaining about the promotion giants and citing a local show where club owners began "freaking out" and demanding money for sold merchandise.

Low has been criticized for growing beyond its airy, hushed softcore to a fuller, more orchestrated sound. But the progression was gradual and natural.

Sure, Low is now a Sub Pop band, and the latest studio album (its seventh), the lush Great Destroyer, was co-produced by in-demand producer David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), but the band hasn't, as some claim, sold out.

Sparhawk says the move to the major indie had nothing to do with Destroyer's sound. For one, the album was done and getting mixed as the deal was sealed. "We have never made a record specific to any label and we will never change how things are done to adhere to a label."

That mind-set is what's behind Sparhawk's own label, the fledging Chairkickers Union, which has so far released albums by Kid Dakota and Haley Bonar.

"It's losing money," Sparhawk says, "but what small label doesn't?"

His main focus is still Low. The band plans to begin their next album later this year, and they've recently contributed to This Bird Has Flown — A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul, and released an EP (Tonight The Monkeys Die) featuring remixes by Bob Mould and Stephen Merritt.

For now, there's touring, and staying true to what they've always done. As far as the older, minimalist material, he says it'll sound as it always has; the band has opted to remain a trio, despite the complicated arrangements of its newer songs.

"Most of the old stuff is so simple and soft that it seems hard to change," Sparhawk says. Besides, "Who wants to hear Clapton to do a reggae version of 'Layla?'" he says, laughing.

Luke Hackney is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]