Retribution Gospel Choir's Alan Sparhawk: We perversely replicated playing live

Retribution Gospel Choir's Alan Sparhawk: We perversely replicated playing live
Courtesy of RGC

It's easy to forget sometimes that, at heart, Alan Sparhawk is just your typical Duluthian. Call him during the winter, and there's bound to be a story involved: it could be something as mundane as, you know, cooking lentils under the hood of your car, or in Sparhawk's case, it could be that he just had to dig the umpteenth person out of the ditch in his front yard.

"It's actually been cold, which is refreshing," the Retribution Gospel Choir front man enthuses with his distinct, deep rasp of a voice. "I don't feel like you can really brag about being alive unless last winter had some bad, really cold days."

Of course, there's nothing particularly typical about Sparhawk's latest project with RGC. Their new full-length, simply titled 3, consists of a mere two songs, each one clocking in at around 20 minutes in length--one a snarling, swirling riff called "Can't Walk Out;" the other a mesmerizing dirge called "Seven."

Those two songs were fleshed out during a month-long residency at the Turf Club last summer, and this weekend RGC will return to the Midway to unveil 3. Gimme Noise caught up with Sparhawk to find out more about the record and his penchant for long songs.

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Gimme Noise: It would be difficult to pair these two songs with most other songs. But was there any particular reason you decided to release them in this fashion?

Sparhawk: To me the audacity, so to speak, of having just the two songs on a record was pretty inspiring to me. I liked that idea. When I think of some of my favorite records, some of them are extreme like that -- someone doing something a little bit pushing the envelope with the format. And the idea with that at the time was we'd just gotten done doing shows promoting the four-song seven inch we did [The Revolution]. As the longer songs were developing, we thought, "The only way we can follow up a four-song seven inch was a two-song full-length."

Does this record feel like a new direction for the band then, or is it just a matter of how these particular songs played themselves out?

Probably a combination of the two. From the beginning Retribution has been pretty expressive live... In some ways, I've given up on the idea--you know, everyone's always like, "I wish we could capture the way we are live" -- and you can, but it's not going to sound as good. It's going to sound like guys playing in a room, which is cool and pure, but really what you're going for is the feel of playing live. You want to find some way to perversely replicate that.

So you wound up taking a different approach here.

To me the idea of being extreme with the songs and saying, "Why not let them be the length they seem to want to be," and let that contrast with everything else out there be the tipping point. Technically [the record] already is an investment, but creating a situation where a person has to commit to listening to it is a perverse way of evoking something from people--or of grabbing them by the neck unfairly. [laughs]

These songs have already become staples of your live set, right?

Once we started writing them they definitely developed live; that was when it first started hinting at, "Oh, this could go a little longer." "Seven," I remember thinking, "I don't know, this doesn't really go anywhere." And Eric [Pollard] was like, "Dude, it doesn't have to go anywhere. Let's just let it go, just keep telling stories." That one for sure didn't seem like much to me until we played it live a couple times and it wanted to just go on forever.

Is there a certain art to writing songs of that length?

To me it feels so primal and almost driven by something very juvenile and childlike; I never felt any moment where I could intellectualize it. Every once in a while your mind wants to make sense of what's going on and wants to put structure into it, but there's something about when a song that simple forces you to be more visceral--no room to really over-think it. I really cherish that abandon, that disconnect from being too conscious of the decisions you're making from moment to moment.

Do you think you've been encouraged to be more "audacious" or "visceral" because of how Low and Retribution have developed into such distinct outlets?

Whatever I've been doing on the side [over the years] has always been pretty influential on Low. Maybe I give myself more license to take chances with other bands. [Pauses, thinking] It's because Mim's in the band, and I want to make sure I'm doing it right! [laughs] I take different sorts of risks in Low; that's maybe the best way to explain it.

You talked around the time that C'mon was released about how you've become more open as a lyricist. Do you think there's a parallel here with expressing something a more non-verbal side?

If you look at the two records I have coming out now, the Retribution one is probably the more challenging and out-there and non-commercial sort of record, whereas the Low record is very controlled and very meticulously pared down and specific. Like, every song's specific about where we go, how we begin, how we end... It's possible I wouldn't have been able to make that kind of record if I wasn't also doing this Retribution record. I think I need both -- the abandon and control.

It does seem like, between the two bands, you keep a pretty busy schedule these days. Do you write any more than you used to? Are you the type to always be working on something new?

I'll bet it's about the same as I've always done. [But] it's never enough. When the time comes to make a record I'm always against the wall, scrambling to finish ideas that aren't really there... Usually after I'm done with a record the subconscious settles down and goes, "Okay. Good." I always get a little lazy and take like six months off from writing. It's just to take the pressure off, to give yourself a break. Otherwise you'll be on the horse all the time, which can drag you down. Writing can sometimes be a detrimental endeavor.

Yeah, tell me about it.

It's like, "What other way can you, by yourself, turn yourself into a complete piece of shit?" [laughs]

RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR release 3 this Friday, February 1 at the Turf Club with Pony Trash and Southwire. $12. 9 PM. 21+. 1601 University Ave., St. Paul; 651.647.8486.

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