Low's road to The Invisible Way

Talk to the menacing hand of Alan Sparhawk
Zoran Orlic

On a chilly Monday in mid-March, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi "Mim" Parker are bearing down for yet another season of touring as Low. On the week's agenda is packing, rehearsing, obtaining papers to cross into Canada, and setting up their children, Hollis and Cyrus, with a sitter at their house. "The hard part is getting myself ready to get out the door," Parker says, amid another pre-tour obligation, this phoner with City Pages.

This year, Low's 10th full-length studio album caps Sparhawk's recent recording renaissance. Among these sonic chestnuts are two soul-searing, 20-minute songs on a just-unleashed LP called 3 via his noisier, gnarlier side project Retribution Gospel Choir. There's also last year's Imperfecta, an EP from A Murder of Crows, his experimental chamber collaboration with violinist Gaelynn Lea. Hitting somewhere in between, at least in terms of decibel heft, is Low's The Invisible Way.

Rich with well-miked piano, and an unprecedented high of five songs led vocally by Parker's reverberating middle range, the group's fourth Sub Pop masterpiece redefines North Country Americana, and details run-ins with the law, liberty, and the Lord. Aptly, it was produced by the man who wrote nearly every alt-country rule, and then broke them all — Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.

"It got a lot closer to perfect than we've ever gotten," says Sparhawk, now in his mid-40s, over the audible bustle of his Duluth home. Then he detours into self-deprecation — as he often does. "I don't know if that means it's a good record or not, whether it's something that's going to resonate with other people. But for me, it extended my reach significantly. After all these years, that's all I'm interested in."

Even considering Low's fruitful studio work with Steve Albini, Tom Herbers, and Dave Fridmann, this recording arrangement was a career coup. With engineer Tom Schick (Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, among many others) assisting, Tweedy's loaded Chicago studio the Loft provided a creative haven for Sparhawk, bassist Steve Garrington, and Parker. With Tweedy's encouragement, she sculpted material she correctly characterizes as sweet and simple, but beautiful. "We were singing halfway decent," she modestly offers.

Though "Just Make It Stop" is "a freakout of not having control," Parker confidently channels anguish into a powerful statement. She extends even further on "So Blue" alongside a roaring piano that'll sound familiar to fans of recent Wilco material. But the biggest surprise is her gorgeous country lilt on the Sparhawk-penned affirmation of faith in the world's wilderness, "Holy Ghost."

"[Alan] was suggesting that I sing more, so I kinda stole it away from him. I think he really wanted to sing it," Parker says with a laugh. "My daughter heard it, and said 'What's going on? This sounds kinda bluesy to me.' She's 12 and she's not used to hearing me sing like that. Honestly, I love to sing like that. I grew up listening to a lot of country, and I can pull that country twang when I need to."

Through 20 years of challenges as a band, and longer as a couple, Parker and Sparhawk are both versatile enough to pull the skills they need to keep it all going. Today, their artful use of restraint and the occasional outburst — 2005's blistering The Great Destroyer in the latter category — has garnered a musician-heavy fan base. But even with Robert Plant, Radiohead, Nick Cave, and obviously Wilco on board, Sparhawk feels the U.S. still doesn't quite grasp the nuances of Low's evolution.

"In America, we're still kinda that quirky, slow band from Minnesota," he says with a twist of distaste. The topic comes up when he's asked how Plant's admiration — and subsequent covers of "Monkey" and "Silver Rider" on 2010's Band of Joy — affected their trajectory. And after stammering and sidestepping the question, he admits that the endorsement awoke a few writers, and a string of older rockers have appeared at shows, including some of the Led Zeppelin vocalist's drinking buddies during a Low stop in England.

"We met his friends from the bar before we met him," recalls Sparhawk. "Something short-notice came up, and he couldn't do it, but his drinking buddies came, and we chatted for a bit. They were middle-class British dudes, and one said [inflects accent], 'Oh, Robert just loves your music, and played it for me at his house one time. It's just beautiful.' It was a funny thing. Thanks, Robert. That's three more tickets sold."

Thus, the beauty of Low's music still spreads. Like a copper sunset melting a northern Minnesota icicle, this mix of delicacy and burning devotion comes across in the way Sparhawk and Parker harmonize and build the spines of songs, and in their intimate knowledge of each other's thoughts. "I've heard Alan describe it as a path," Parker says of The Invisible Way's meaning. "For one, the path of making a record. You know you're gonna get there, but you don't really know how. It's analogous to life. We don't always know how we're gonna get to where we're gonna get to."

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