Retribution Gospel Choir's Alan Sparhawk: I don't write intentionally
Retribution Gospel Choir would not be the band you go to for power pop gems, clapping verses, and cowbell-fused tunes. Best known as Low frontman Alan Sparhawk's other (very loud) baby, RGC has a reputation for bringing frenzied, serious rock to life.
That's not to say it doesn't happen on the band's new four-track, ten-minute EP The Revolution; it just happens in a very unexpected way. On Revolution, you get foot-tapping, sunny songs, with, yes, cowbell, and it's as strange as it is delightful. As Sparhawk chilled in the band van (which, according to him, smelled of "corn chips and strawberry smoothies"), Gimme Noise caught up on the details on the new release, the band's new tour, and what the boys are listening to these days.
Gimme Noise: Tell me about the new EP, The Revolution. It feels very different from the previous work on 2010's 2. The songs sound just a little brighter--certainly for the first three tracks, which are really poppy. How did this EP come about?
Alan Sparhawk: Well, we've done two [albums].... And we've done a lot of touring, and we had a lot of songs that we were working on. We were recording them to kind of get our heads around them, and the idea of just putting four songs out just came out... You know, short songs, short EP, keep it all on a 7-inch which is cool. It also sort of gave a place for those songs, because I'm not sure that we would necessarily do a whole record of that. Plus, with the Low record and touring this winter, by the time we got together again to record, we would probably be ready to move on [from the Revolution songs]. But I liked the way they were going, and we needed that... We just had a handful of songs that sort of had that ring to them, and that's not what I always write, obviously, it's definitely different... I guess the way we play live sort of teeters between really tight short songs like [the ones on Revolution] and longer songs that are sort of improvised, so I like presenting the one side, and then the last song "I'm A Man" hints at the other side.
GN: Was the change in sound deliberate? Are you trying to tell us something with the title of the EP?
AS: I don't really write intentionally, so it wasn't like, "Let's write some pop songs and have some hits," you know? It was really more that these songs seem to have something about them, and they just kind of worked well together, even if they weren't totally representative of the band. The song "The Stone (Revolution!)," that was sort of the flagship of the group of songs, and the one that was pointing toward the bright, poppy sound. It ended up being kind of a theme, like a quick flash of something.
GN: Is this EP a pre-cursor for anything? Can we expect a full length album from RGC sometime soon?
AS: We're planning on doing some recording this summer. After this tour, we're going to go home and sort of jump in. We have some songs that are three-quarters finished, and we'll see what happens... it's sort of a daunting task, but it'll be interesting to try to capture something that sort of gets at the improv-side.
GN: Though you have similar members in Low and RGC, the difference between the two bands, sonically, is pretty big. Low has maintained a minimalist sound over the years, while I feel like RGC has evolved and grown in some ways. Do you feel like Retribution Gospel Choir is your chance to play around?
AS: There are definitely certain aspects that are a little more open to interpretation. There are certain things that are easier to pull off live, certain sounds and a variation of dynamics. It's definitely evolved, and when we first started we had a different bass player, and when Steve [Garrington] joined it was definitely a step up in terms of what was possible and what sort of territory we could grab on to, and that was a main factor. We've also been able to go on tour a lot and get a lot more confident live, and that has led to taking more chances. Even if it's one extreme like a two-minute pop song, I think we're a little more confident in stepping in drastic directions. I'm excited to see whatever we do next.
GN: What makes a song a RGC song versus a Low song, or a song for any other project?
There's not necessarily any formula. You can kind of just tell. Sometimes when you write a song, it's obvious early on that it has a certain lean. Part of me wants to think that the songs could go anywhere and still work, but there are certainly songs that belong in a certain place. In some cases there have been certain songs that have been tried by both bands, or whatever I'm working on. There's not much mystery or wringing of hands--it's not that heavy of a thing. The song eventually finds a place, and hopefully does what it needs to. Again, with the unintentional writing, I think it'd be a lot more difficult to sit down and think, "Okay, I'm writing Low songs, and now I'm writing Retribution Gospel Choir songs."
GN: So, you just returned earlier this month from some time spent in England with RGC, then you wedged in some Low dates, and now you're about to embark on another RGC tour through Brooklyn, DC, Memphis, Nashville, and the Midwest. Are there any shows you've played so far that have been really memorable?
AS: We've had a lot of great shows... We played in Chetfield, England in the upstairs of this sort of coffee place/bar, and I was sort of nervous because we had done some Low shows before that and there's definitely a sort of cardiovascular demand that Retribution Gospel Choir has compared to the steady Low stuff. They ended up really loving us, and Chetfield kind of ended up being our home in England for sure.
Photo by Brandon Olson
GN: Are you excited about any local bands at the moment, Duluth-based or otherwise?
AS: Mark Gartman, he plays with Trampled by Turtles a lot, is working on a new thing called Fever Dream. This other stuff is sort of new wave, kind of 80's, it's great. We played with Crimes a few weeks ago... I really like them, there's something about the melodies and the phrasing, it's really unique, and their record is really good. Peter Wolf Crier, we keep running into those guys--I want to give a shout out to them, we played with them a couple times last year. Oh, and Darin Jackson--Kid Dakota--he is Minnesota's best songwriting secret.
GN: Awesome. So, to switch it up a bit... I don't really think of you guys as very funny--you're definitely serious on stage--but your Facebook page is actually kind of a riot. It has some recent jokes about you guys getting in shape for tour, but you're kind of in shape already. I feel so like I'm interviewing for Seventeen with this question, but: Any special routines? Kale and Kombucha diets?
AS: That's great that you think we're funny! I'll let Eric [Pollard, drums] know, that'll make his month. Eric is to blame for most of our Twitter/Facebook action... So, our basis is jogging and running, but our big thing--and I don't think this has even been mentioned--is water aerobics. Eric is really into water aerobics--he could be a swim coach, really. So when we're on tour, you can do that in the pool at the hotel. It's great. But yeah, I love running.
Retribution Gospel Choir perform on Friday, May 4, at Triple Rock Social Club; 612.333.7399
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.