At Leisure is a series of films produced by Luke Turner, writer and co-founder of The Quietus music website and filmmaker Ethan Reid, in which they explore the hobbies and interests of cult artists, and examine the connections between those activities and their work. In this latest film - which you can watch on the Lush player Friday - we talk to Alan Sparhawk of Low about his love of American Football
IN A NUTSHELL
Born in Seattle in 1969, Alan Sparhawk formed Low with childhood friend and eventual life partner Mimi Parker in the early 90s. Based in Duluth, Minnesota, the band reacted to the loud grunge music of the time by exploring a quieter sound. The band has released 12 studio albums, and Parker and Sparhawk still reside in Duluth. In this episode of The Quietus At Leisure film, Alan Sparhawk took time out before a Low gig at London’s Barbican centre to talk about his love of American football.
The old cliché is that sport and music don’t mix. There’s a lot of us for whom an obsession with bands and singers and their art was an escape from the tough formality of team sports during difficult teenage years. Yet for Alan Sparhawk, founder member of American group Low and the subject of the latest Quietus At Leisure film, the two enthusiasms don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As Sparhawk reveals in our interview, his experience of the sport is about pushing the human body to its limits, and exploring the self while doing so. He says it with such a sensitivity that it’s hard not to wish there were more PE teachers like Alan working in schools - as he so eloquently proves, sports don’t have to be a traumatic experience presided over by barking oafs.
Indeed, sensitivity and complexity has long been at the core of what Low do. As we’ve seen throughout the Quietus At Leisure series to date, what our favourite musicians get up to in their spare time is rarely divisible from who they are as artists or human beings - it’s just another part of their innate selves, and within these hobbies we see a unique reflection of their artistic output.
Low is a band that refuses to be confined by expectations of who they are, or what they should sound like. Although they emerged as part of the American Indie rock underground, over a quarter of a century their music has never been limited by that. This surely is the result of a need (and ability) to tap directly into emotions, trials and the ebb and flow of life experience, rather than cynically rehashing old glories to pander to a loyal fanbase. If you’re going to go along with Low, expect an interesting, confounding ride.
There’s the complexity of the inter-band relationship, which reflects the differences that must be overcome in a sports team, seeking what skills might best be found in each person, and how they might work together towards a common goal. This is especially complex in Low’s case, given that Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have known each other since they were children, and have been married for over two decades. Sparhawk has previously reflected on special pressures that come from creating and existing with a loved one: “ Something that’s tense or a struggle in the band, you have to be careful not to let that affect your relationship too much,” he told The Skinny magazine in 2015
“That can be… yeah, claustrophobic. There’s times when it’s almost too close.” But, as Sparhawk tells us about his view on teamwork in American football, how in bands and teams alike, work revolves on “the idea of everybody working together, whether it’s knowing what you have and what your weaknesses and your strengths are”.
Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Low
Low - Rope
Low’s music was so sparse that in their early days a friend branded it ‘slowcore’, a term mentioned by Sparhawk in an interview that then stuck to them even as it doesn’t do justice to the band’s sound - “make a joke and it will haunt you for twenty years,” Sparhawk has said. Rope, from their debut album I Could Live In Hope, rather proves that ‘slowcore’ is a reductive term - this, like so much of their output, finds great emotional power from gossamer light songwriting.
Low - Little Drummer Boy
Something else that marks Low out from many of their peers is their strong religious faith - both Sparhawk and Parker are practicing Mormons. As he told Uncut magazine in 2011, “I’ve always recognised the spirituality of music.”
() In 1999, Low released an eight-song Christmas record as a present to their fans, including this gorgeous version of the traditional carol, Little Drummer Boy.
Low - Don’t Understand
The strength in Low’s minimalism still allows in noise, however. Again, this is part of the sonic diversity of their 25 years in music, and is brilliantly heard in the furtive guitar muttering, quiet cymbal crashes and atonal elements of Don’t Understand, taken from 1999 album Secret Name.
Low - Stay (Rihanna Cover)
Given that Low’s music is so much about reduction and deconstruction of songwriting to a minimal form, they’re a group that rather suits the art of the cover version. They’ve covered Neil Young and on an early EP they stripped the angst and pomp from Joy Division’s Transmission, and here perform a beautiful, elegant tribute to Rihanna’s Stay.
Low - Double Negative Triptych
Low’s new album Double Negative is arguably their most far out work. Heavy, fragmented and strange, their melodious instincts exist in dialogue with noisy textures, weaving in and out of the static with a wonderful delicacy.
“When we started the band we didn’t say, “Oh, we want to make that type of music.” It just seems to me, music has this power to deal with intense, emotional kinds of things. In a way, it’s the most noble thing, what music can do. Sure, it can lift you up, make you party and make you dance, but it’s also the fact that it can delve in and get to the most fragile and broken part of you. It can resonate with you through what can be the most alone, terrifying parts of your life.”
“The youthful side of me would love to make difficult records forever. I definitely have this bone in me that creatively I want to assault people somehow. Basically Low has been this effort to try and keep that in control, and try to let it out in ways that are constructive.”
“I’m not an intentional writer – I don’t sit down and write ABOUT things. Fragments and ideas come, if you open the window, then you try to put them together in a way that seems right. Most of the time, you don’t know what it’s about, but I’ve learned that it very often reflects what is going on more accurately than if you had planned it. I think everyone knows the up and downs of communication and relationships. I think “you don’t understand me” is probably one of the quintessential themes of rock & roll…”
“I think the older I get, the more concerned and the more irrationally frustrated I get with things in the world. Your awareness of misery and injustice only grows. You have to find new ways to detach. Hopefully in a positive way, whether just being hopeful, or realising, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do other than treat everyone that I meet today with respect.’ It definitely bears on you more; I wish it didn’t. I’m waiting for that serenity that comes with experience, but it’s just not happened.”
“The bearing that Trump’s election victory” has on anybody making art in America right now is undeniable. People are struggling with how they do this: a lot of things that were considered valid before are now kind of silly and petty. People are realising that there’s a lot more at stake and that the feelings they’re having are new and more tense. That’s where we were.”