Low are – to borrow John Peel’s famous phrase about The Fall – always different and yet always the same. The group have spent two decades ploughing a lone furrow, the husband/wife harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker cutting right to the bone on each and every occasion. Within this, though, there is room for almost infinite innovation, for artistic about-turns and musical renewal.
New album ‘Ones And Sixes’ superbly demonstrates this. Sure, those gossamer, country-faded harmonies are present but so too are distorted guitars wailing in the night, a heavy low end and a near hip-hop clarity of production. It’s a potent mixture, one that grew ironically grew quite naturally from 2011’s sublime, stately album ‘The Invisible Way’.
Producer BJ Burton invited the group to stay in Justin Vernon’s Wisconsin studio, with those initial sessions helping to spur Low forwards. “We saw the studio and I guess it sowed the seed,” explains Alan Sparhawk, “and then over the next year, y'know, you write a couple of songs and get an idea where things are going and we sort of set some goals, some deadlines and called in. Small things.”
“I wish there was something,” he adds, “some specific moment, but usually you get a couple of songs going and get a sense of where the band is going over the next while and that's usually the spark – maybe we've got another record in us, let's go see what happens!”
Settling into songwriting mode, it seems that the choice of BJ Burton as producer was pivotal in helping the band intrude upon unexpected musical realms. Someone with a background more attuned to hip-hop than slow-core, Burton’s enthusiasm for the project gave Low the confidence to shake things up once more.
“We wanted him to challenge the band. Maybe push things in a way that maybe we wouldn't go before,” the singer explains. “It's more just working with someone who is brave – someone who's not afraid to tear it apart. I think there's times where – especially at this point, for a band like us – I think it'd be very easy for a producer to say: Low does their thing, I'm a fan so I don't want to mess with it. Whereas some of my initial dealings with BJ I just knew he was more aggressive. He does tracks for Kanye and stuff like that. He's pushing it.”
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Although the vivid variation of ‘Ones And Sixes’ stands in contrast to the classically Low sound of ‘The Invisible Way’, Alan insists that this simply mirrors the progressive patterns that have fuelled the band’s output to date. “We go back and forth with that,” he smiles. “I think every few records there's time where we... not necessarily abandon what we've been doing but let ourselves step away from the comfort zone. Let's use sounds that we don't normally use. Is there another way to do this? Other ways to be who we are? Other sounds that we can use? A lot of it, just from experience, no matter what we do it's still going to sound like Low.”
“There have been records where we've actually been very intentional about stepping away from the normal sounds and trying to do things differently. And it still ends up sounding like us!” he laughs. “I think there's a little bit more confidence now, knowing that it's always going to sound like us. To me, it's interesting to work with people who are going to push that envelope. It's nice with someone you're confident with and it's not so much that they're going to agree with you, or make the same decisions you'd make, as much as you trust that their decisions are going to be smart and they'll probably surprise you.”
‘Ones And Sixes’ certainly surprises. ‘What Part Of Me’ has a spectral, almost agonised feel, and while the sonics of ‘Gentle’ and ‘No End’ certainly recall Low’s previous work there’s a daring here, a willingness to absorb dissonance that feels fresh. ‘No Comprende’ was one of the first tracks shared from the record and was, seemingly one of the first to be written.
“I think, once you have a few things, and you start thinking about what you might want to do, setting a date is usually pretty important,” he explains with a grin. “Like, when I have it mostly written – setting a date, setting a goal. OK, you've got to be ready by this time – at least for me, that helps me finish stuff. Otherwise, I'm pretty ADD. I'll move on but I have to engineer stuff in my life to make sure I finish things. Whether it's: OK, I'm not going to work on anything else! That can be one way of getting by.”
It seems that this is one of BJ Burton’s most important characteristics – to prevent Low’s creative path leading to introversion. “He had ideas. To me, that's exciting,” the singer says. “It keep you focused, if there's another person helping you then that trajectory becomes a little easier to stay on. It's like you can put a bit of trust in that person – the trust that you can't necessarily give yourself. You can trust yourself a certain amount, but you need to trust something this much for this to actually happen... then it's nice to have someone else to fill that last bit which usually is the hardest to fill.”
A solitary songwriter, Alan Sparhawk only tends to understand his work in retrospect. Losing himself in the creative process, the singer/guitarist admits that he can become isolated, but that rather strange influences can creep through. “You just naturally absorb it,” he explains. “I think if you think about it too much then you get into problems. If you're influenced by what's going on in the world. What are these songs about? Well, I try not to think about it but in hindsight you realise that it's got a lot more to do with what's going on at the time than you realised. I think if you over-think it, at least for me, you run into problems.”
“It's a matter of absorbing it. And it's that easy. It's nice. Just go and enjoy what you like and trust that you'll probably absorb it and it'll probably have influence on what you create. Without copying something, y'know.” For the record, ‘Ones And Sixes’ was – perhaps inadvertently – fuelled by Alan’s addiction to roots reggae and hip-hop. “I doubt anybody would listen to this record and think: oh that guy's been listening to a lot of reggae and hip-hop,” he chuckles. “But maybe. If you listen to the whole catalogue there's something that's creeping in.”
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'Ones And Sixes' is out now on Sub Pop.
Photo Credit: Zoran Orlic