By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Today Sparhawk shudders at the mention of his pre-Low band, but he's happy to talk about his past. Raised Mormon in the northern Minnesota town of Leonard (population: 50), Al first met Mim in the fourth grade, when they shared a classroom in nearby Clearbrook (population: 600). Both kids had grown up on family farms, milking cows and baling hay (perhaps the ultimate training for the rigors of DIY), and the two developed a bond listening to Hüsker Dü and Siouxsie and the Banshees on old bedroom record players.
They became sweethearts in the 11th grade and attended college together at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, after graduating with a high school class of 28 students. Parker converted from nondenominational Christianity to Mormonism, and the two married in 1990. But Low's musical partnership began later, "just a half-notch above sitting around, playing guitars and singing John Denver songs," Sparhawk says. The idea of eschewing Zen Identity's buzz-saw rock for something minimalist took hold after Sparhawk saw the intentionally amateurish kid-pop band Beat Happening during a trip to Phoenix in the early '90s.
"I didn't know who I was after that," he says, laughing. "Seeing how music could be taken apart and stripped down to its rawest form was to me the beginning of whatever became Low."
It may seem strange that punk-rock ideals and religious faith are hidden pillars of strength for a band whose opaque, quietly sung lyrics often open themselves to myriad interpretations. Yet newer songs like "Weight of Water" are a bit more direct in their symbolism. "Just lead me to the river," sings Parker in her delicate vibrato. "Let it cleanse my face/I have no power to ward it/Like the baptism of the earth." American post-hardcore punk, especially its straight-edge subset, has always had a concern with purity, clarity of thought, and commitment that resembled devout Christianity, despite the two camps' cultural antagonism. For the young Sparhawk, the syncretism was obvious.
"In the mid-'80s, punk was a very underground, underdog kind of movement," says Sparhawk. "It was only a few people, who had their ideals, but they were looked down upon by the public. To me that was very parallel to growing up in the religion I did, because there's very few of us. It's not like we're tarred and feathered, but there's a little bit of persecution."
Still, the raised eyebrows and slammed doors Mormons sometimes endure were nothing compared with the hostile, cup-throwing crowds Sparhawk and Parker routinely encountered during Low's baptismal early years of touring. And it says a lot about the two that they laugh about those days now, even miss them, in a way. "There's something to be said for having to really earn it," Sparhawk says. Perhaps just being Low onstage has shaped the character of the band as much as anything else. Secret Name's coziest cut, "Immune," sounds at first like another love song, but it unveils Sparhawk's fleeting thoughts about being vulnerable onstage. "Am I still immune?/Am I naked, too?" he sings, echoed by Parker's humming.
"That's probably the first song I've written about being in a band and being in the business," he says. Yet the song has inspired alternative readings. Sparhawk, who works as a Sunday school teacher at his church, recalls that one student recently said he'd heard the song--"something about getting naked"--on the radio.
"I had to explain poetic symbolism for a few minutes," the singer says, laughing. "But everyone will have their own interpretation. That's part of what the song is about: exposing your soul, and being used."
Low will perform Thursday, March 25 at the 400 Bar; (612) 332-2903. Casino vs. Japan opens.