A cast of international DJs remixes the quietest band in Minnesota
A few years ago, when a certain radio-friendly depressive took his own life with a shotgun and made grunge a memory, shell-shocked Nirvana fans couldn't have asked for a more melancholic antidote to the prevailing commercial winds than I Could Live in Hope, the 1994 debut by Low, a three-piece band hailing from placid Duluth, Minnesota. Paced like the setting sun, the album took its cavernous sound from Elvis Presley's zone-poem rendition of "Blue Moon." Live, the band sailed high above the mosh pit in a rain cloud of sadness all its own. With their Simon & Garfunkel-esque, boy-girl harmonizing, these hypnotists could have scored a David Lynch movie; this was "The Sounds of Silence" dissipating into the ether.
But however trippy the band's long, glacial pop slabs became in subsequent years, the trio remained utterly undanceable, and it would be hard to imagine a less likely candidate for an album of remixes, much less a great album of remixes. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the new owL remix Low is: a digital, often booty-kicking reinterpretation of the band's oeuvre that will throw both Low fans and electroheads for a loop.
Hoping to make good on the boutique-chic indie-remix trend, the suits at the Virgin/Caroline subsidiary Vernon Yard apparently tossed the band's masters to various DJs around the globe and crossed their fingers. The resulting electroni-product is both striking and troubling. Striking because the various DJs the label enlisted have managed to translate Low's melancholic Lake Superior sound into the specialized tongues of techno and trip hop. Troubling because Low was dropped from the label a year and a half ago (after two albums and an EP), and, as a result, had little input in orchestrating the project, for which they'll receive no pay. (Sales of previous Low albums failed to recoup label advances and recording costs.)
Given the circumstances, it's tempting to see the remix disc--or even remixing itself--as a poignant metaphor for the manipulation and appropriation endemic to the music business. "The album is just this strange entity to us," says singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk, from his Duluth home 10 blocks from the big lake. "In 1996 they'd said, 'Let's drop all the bands that aren't doing as well as the Chemical Brothers.' Then they came back and said, 'By the way, we still want to do this remix thing.'"
As the project moved forward, Vernon Yard sent Sparhawk cassette copies of the remixes, but the band's original input wasn't heeded. "We had suggested people we know, like John McEntire [of Tortoise], to be on it. But at the end of the day, the only involvement we had is the fact that our name is on there. Within the band, there's a range of opinions about the whole thing, from complete disdain to 'Oh, that's interesting.'"
That said, the resultant sound collages are more than interesting. Instead of tapping alt-rock crossover stars like Soul Coughing or Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire (as Low suggested), Vernon Yard sought non-name-brand DJs with no indie-rock association. Neither Tomas Koener (one-half of techno duo Porter Ricks) nor Neotropic (a.k.a. Riz Maslen) had heard of Low before they were asked to remix them. But Low's weird Duluthian dirges made an instant impression on both DJs.
"They sent me some CDs, and I was totally amazed by the sound," says Koener from his studio in Dortmund, Germany, the industrial suburb he calls home. "It's an extremely developed style, what they're doing. It reminded me of a Mondrian painting, very austere."
Kicking off owL remix Low, Koener isolates a lyric from "Down," an early Low tune about sexual frustration and guilt, couching the looped phrase "I guess the secret's out" in soothing wind-tunnel noise cribbed from a Porter Ricks track titled "Scuba Lounge." Koener lets Sparhawk's distinct guitar figure surface slowly, over the course of 13 minutes, as if the listener were walking toward a distant light in a snowstorm. "Actually, I had a vision of a bar with frogmen," laughs Koener. Either way, when Sparhawk received the tape in the mail, he thought Koener had successfully amplified the feeling of his original.
London's Neotropic contributed three zinger tracks to the remixer. On the phone from her home studio in London's East End, the DJ says she was similarly struck by Low's slo-mo, spartan pop. "I'd never approached anything in that kind of style before, but I love a challenge," she says. As one of the few women making headway in the still male-dominated DJ field (her new album, Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock, is due out soon on Ninja Tune), Neotropic responded to Low's male-female blend of voices. "Low's stuff has this innocence in the singing," she says. "It's not abrasive in any way. I've just done a Skinny Puppy remix, which was like going from one extreme to another."
If there's a single cut that will baffle Low fans, it's Neotropic's four-and-a-half-minute version of Low's 14-minute "Do You Know How to Waltz." The DJ takes a snippet of the original vocal, speeds it up, then loops it. Then she freezes a moment of piano--which was originally back-tracked--and loops it forward as the basis of a new, DJ Shadow-type track with a funk guitar break. Though the original built slowly into a rolling boulder of guitar noise, the tonal structure of the spin-off is unmistakably Low-ly.