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By Jeff Gage
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Commercial pop music has a knack for absorbing every sort of formal extreme, from breakbeat techno to no-wave punk. But how can a voracious and accelerating mass culture ever incorporate Low, the slowest rock group ever to emerge from the Southern lip of Lake Superior--or anywhere else? After a half-century of confrontational rock 'n' roll, it seems that the most contrary stunt a young band can pull is to slow down to 50 beats per minute and sing as quietly as possible. That has been Low's modus operandi since 1993, when the Duluth trio's molasses flow and understated melodies began splitting audiences into two camps--restless hecklers and mesmerized fans.
The band debuted at a punk show in the Recycla-Bell, a communal space in Duluth's old Ma Bell building. Before a crowd of roughly 200 mostly teenage punks, Low began singing their quavering boy-girl harmonies with monklike solemnity, as if simultaneously channeling the ghosts of Ian Curtis and Karen Carpenter in slow motion. But when the band looked up after one song, half the audience had cleared the room.
"I remember when we first started, we thought, 'People are going to hate this music,'" says singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk on the phone from his house in Duluth. "But at the same time, we thought, 'Wow, that would be great.'"
It's an oddly punk attitude for a band usually lumped together with such turn-of-the-decade slo-core acts as Galaxie 500, Cranes, and Slowdive. But Low's dry, majestic sound is more demanding and rewarding than comparisons to shoe-gazer alt-pop and the Twin Peaks theme would imply. At its best the group renders Roy Orbison pop with the time-bending minimalism of contemporary composers such as La Monte Young. Low's triptych of mid-'90s albums--I Could Live in Hope, Long Division, and The Curtain Hits the Cast--turned the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" into a zone poem, boiling Lou Reed's chamber-folk song down to its somber soul.
Though they're crisply recorded by indie-impresario Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard), nearly every tune on their soon-to-be-released fourth album, Secret Name, sounds like a blurred memory of some car radio classic--Del Shannon's "Runaway" dissolving into the mystic. What's missing are musical flourishes of any sort. Low underplay almost obsessively, and although they add a string ensemble to their standard bass/guitar/cymbal-snare combo (as they did on their 1997 EP Songs for a Dead Pilot), their compositions remain spare and simple. "Will the Night," a doo-wop -flavored number sung by Sparhawk and singer-drummer Mimi Parker, uses only a wash of strings, and it remains as nakedly intense as anything noisemeister Albini has engineered.
Last year this delicate balance of pop-song sense and avant-garde sensibility made Low the perfect remix fodder for the host of electronicats--including Neotropic, Porter Ricks, and Tranquility Bass--that retooled the band's tunes on owL remix Low. But that record's major-label backer, Virgin's Vernon Yard, had already dropped the group in 1997, after two albums and as many videos. Since the letdown, Sparhawk, Parker, and bassist Zak Sally have returned to the world of part-time jobs and no-budget recordings that is indie-rock life, arranging to put out records on the small Chicago label Kranky and building a basement studio at home where they'll record themselves and other bands.
Secret Name's "Starfire" is a nod to such DIY values, borrowing its title from the DJ handle of Duluth's erstwhile pirate radio owner Scott Lunt. Though the song takes its imagery from Lunt's day job driving an ambulance, the lyrics evoke the cramped environs of DIY touring. "I'll load the back up, you can drive," sings Sparhawk, who says he prefers playing for small crowds in relaxed atmospheres, a proclivity that couldn't have thrilled his former label.
Obviously, Sparhawk and Parker, the husband-and-wife team at the heart of Low, feel somewhat at odds with industry culture. But they're a unique rock pair in other ways. For one, the opinionated, intelligent 30-year-olds still live in Duluth, the sleepy, frostbitten college town that is claimed to have inspired Sinclair Lewis's satiric novel about small-town conformity, Babbitt. Few Duluth-bred musicians hoping to get noticed stay there for long. Most eventually join the steady stream of immigrants to the Twin Cities that has swept up everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rembrandts. But Low stayed and mailed their demo to well-regarded New York indie producer Kramer (Bongwater, Urge Overkill), who hastily invited the band to record with him and perform at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan.
"Literally, Low came out of nowhere," says Duluth native Adam Backstrom, lead singer of local space-rockers Skye Klad. "Despite all the bars, the college music scene there is pretty quiet. So when 'Words,' from the first album, became a college hit in California, I was amazed."
Though the echoing sound of the band's 1994 Vernon Yard debut, I Could Live in Hope was certainly trippy, Backstrom knew firsthand that Low's music wasn't drug-inspired. In fact, he had first met Sparhawk ten years ago when the latter appeared on his doorstep accompanying a group of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The college-aged Sparhawk impressed him as gentle and self-effacing when he discussed his Mormon beliefs, which preclude taking chemical substances including caffeine and nicotine. Months after their encounter, Backstrom was surprised to see Sparhawk on a local rock stage playing guitar in a noise-punk band called Zen Identity.
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.
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