"Hey, we're in Duluth"

A radio pirate-turned-country rocker who doubles as a nanny. A newspaper that rips the establishment. A deconsecrated church. And a very quiet band called Low. Notes on a tiny counterculture.

Other people in this room have left and come back, like Chris Monroe, the cartoonist who took the death of the revered Charles Schulz as an opportunity to introduce a sphere-headed boy of her own who vomits up "gummi wrestlers" from the Walmart, only to see them lapped up by his dog "Snoppie." A mother of a nine-year-old, Monroe strikes me as particularly in tune with little-kid belly laughs.

Speaking of, a knock on the door announces Low's Sparhawk and Parker, who greet everyone while cradling their blanketed baby. They're trailed by a reporter for the Star Tribune, who also happens to be my roommate in Minneapolis, Simon Peter Groebner. "Isn't there some antitrust law against that?" Sparhawk jokes.

The general coincidence of this roommate reunion amuses everyone, and perhaps allows us to seem less like "big"-city media intruders. And though it's my first visit to Duluth, I begin to feel at home. This is the "vibe," I think. A moment's pause from recording--and reporting--and the all-important end product suddenly doesn't seem all that important.

Teddy Maki

 

If there is one certainty at the heart of Duluth's mystique it is Lake Superior. The lake is always there and always cold. It will always be there and it will always be cold. Nothing about the physical landscape of the lake's corner should make a visit this spring more pressing than one the next. In summertime the highway to the south will always feel like an ear-popping ramp into heaven. In winter, the endless rows of roadside birch will always look gray, like the dull edge of a spotlight on the earth. The hillside at the center of town will always be steep enough to allow downhill skiing on Lake Avenue.

Dylan couldn't bring himself to face this hill again for most of his life, and a lot of residents speak of the panorama as if it were some sort of general reminder of our insignificance. "One of the many pleasures of living in Duluth is that you have to look at the lake a lot," writes Barton Sutter in his 1998 book Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map. "You might only mean to get some groceries or a hammer from the hardware store, but on your way you see something so grand, so terrible and beautiful, that you absorb your daily requirement of humility just by driving down the street....I finally realized that the lake was God."

Certainly the thought must have crossed the minds of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, who reside in a modest brick-and-stucco house overlooking the neighborhood that probably qualifies as the town's slum, with the vast lake looming beyond. You can see Superior from the kitchen, where a few Jesus postcards on the fridge offer the only outward sign of the household faith: Sparhawk and Parker, who are married, belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their only chemical indulgence is Toblerone, which Parker graciously offers before placing little Hollis Mae in a Jolly Jumper, one of those bouncing chairs suspended from the doorway's arch by springs.

Shuffling quietly into the adjoining living room, the band's three members gather to watch the caterwauling baby. Hollis announced herself ten months ago during a band rehearsal in the basement--that's where Parker went into labor--and has been "singing" ever since. She may yet inherit her parents' serenity and angelic curls, but for now she's as thin-haired and loud as Ian MacKaye and seems ready to release all the rock 'n' roll energy Low have been sublimating for eight years. A week later, her vocal improvisations will be all I can discern on my interview tape.

In person, these musicians are as farmer-quiet, intelligent, and, ultimately, inscrutable as their famously glacial pop. Bassist Zak Sally, a dark-eyed Duluth native who has since moved to the Twin Cities, still retains a certain rural wariness. That this is the band that might put Duluth "on the map" may be hard to believe. Low's use of stillness, their loud privacy, their elderly pace--all recall the suppressed passion of an Ozu film, hardly the new beat that's sweeping the nation. Their response to the challenge of covering the hackneyed "Blowin' in the Wind" on Duluth Does Dylan was to sing the words without the slightest inflection rather than take them into their mouths and personalize them. Their music is a lot like Lake Superior: a beautiful blank that withstands considerable projection from those observing it.

But I have little doubt that whatever God is, Low write about it. No band is more suited to singing lines like "What is the whore you're living for?" inside the Sacred Heart Music Center, the words hovering ethereally in the room. Even Zak Sally's Chester Brown-inspired comic book, Recidivist, contains a tale of Dostoyevsky's faith-reviving brush with the firing squad--and Sally would seem the most secular of the trio.

The arrival of Hollis might explain why Low sound more musical--dare I say happier?--on their new Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky), a chamber-pop opus augmented by strings, keyboards, horns, samples, and roomfuls of overdubbed Als and Mimis. Low are a production now. And in Minneapolis, they will play their largest CD-release concert ever at the Woman's Club Theatre on Thursday, February 8. Last year they collaborated with big names in drum 'n' bass Springheel Jack (call it poetic justice after the major label that dropped them released a remix album without Low's participation in 1998), and soundtracked a Gap ad. They were more recently featured in Spin and GQ--coverage that Sparhawk jokingly attributes to the fact that their fans have gotten better jobs.

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