The line starts to crackle as soon as Alan Sparhawk picks up the phone. As he greets me from his home in Duluth, Minnesota, the Low frontman’s voice booms and sizzles, as if it’s bristling against the wires in the phone line and wrestling to break free. Although I could easily adjust the volume, I can’t help but take a moment to appreciate the metaphor: In his 20-plus years of songwriting, and especially on his band’s new album, “Ones and Sixes,” Sparhawk has endeavored to merge pop music with elements of noise and drone, and to challenge the audience’s desire to be soothed.
“Ones and Sixes,” which features Sparhawk’s longtime bandmate and wife Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Steve Garrington on bass, pushes forward with a similar crackle, bursting with an electric energy and swelling into enormous, cavernous moments. It’s easily one of the finest albums of the band’s career.
I have no idea what “Ones and Sixes” sounds like on anything other than headphones, because I’ve never had the desire to listen to it any other way. This is consuming, absorbing music, mixed to kick sounds through your skull, pulsing beats from left to right and then blowing the whole thing wide open with a massive bass drop. Moments later, you’ll be left hanging on the sound of a single guitar note, wondering which underworld the band will lead you into next.
It is remarkable how much presence Low can create with so few instruments. Even the noisier tracks on “Ones and Sixes” can be traced back to Sparhawk’s electric guitar, which alternates between clean tones and cacophony. Parker’s drums echo and boom like they’re being played in Lake Superior’s ice caves. Garrington pounds out a persistent, percussive bass. On dynamic songs like “Gentle” and “Landslide,” you can’t help but marvel: How are they even doing this?
Sparhawk is eager to chalk up the album’s new textures and overall direction to their producer, BJ Burton, who primarily works out of Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where “Ones and Sixes” was recorded.
“He’s pretty brave,” Sparhawk says. “He does a lot of hip-hop, which is all about getting the most out of these sounds, and placing things where they can make the most grandiose gesture—and just not being afraid to use new sounds.”
Sparhawk and Burton met each other at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, where Sparhawk produced and Burton engineered Trampled by Turtles’ latest album, “Stars and Satellites.” They connected over a shared admiration for Kanye West and a mutual desire to push Low in a new, more expansive direction. “This one, I wanted both feet forward,” Sparhawk says of the new album. “Not one foot in the past, or one foot in that familiar sound. It’s like, no, let’s make new music. We just talked about pushing things and making things bigger. Getting the most out of just a couple simple parts.”
“Despite being kind of known as the quiet, slow band, or whatever, we’re actually really pretty into aggressive music, and into stuff that’s sort of on the edge of breaking,” he continues. “I think that’s the essence of a lot of great music.”
Now that “Ones and Sixes” will be out in the world, Sparhawk says he no longer feels like he has much ownership over the songs—it’s up to the listener to develop their own relationships and experiences with the music. In fact, this idea of ownership courses through “Ones and Sixes.” What part of me don’t you know? What part of me don’t you own? Parker and Sparhawk sigh in delicate harmony.
But musically, Sparhawk says he’s pleased to give his songs over to his audience. “I think, slowly, you start playing a couple things for people and it crosses over and you realize that it’s not yours anymore. It’s out there, and it’s someone else’s now,” Sparhawk reflects. “You let it go when you release something. To me, that’s more satisfying than keeping it, you know? When you write and create something, and you’ve had that moment where it exists, your next thought is: I want someone else to feel this, or, I want someone else to hear this. People hearing it is a vital part of the existence of the song.”
As Sparhawk muses about his creative process, I can’t help but wonder: What has kept him pushing forward for so long? Not only has Low passed the 20-year mark, but Sparhawk also bounces between his hard-rocking Retribution Gospel Choir project and his long-running bluesy punk band Black-Eyed Snakes, not to mention various one-off drone performances like the one he recently did at the Eaux Claires Music Festival. He is constantly creating, constantly pushing forward. What keeps him pressing full-steam ahead?
“Probably naiveté, mostly,” he says, breaking open into a hearty laugh. “I think it’s the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know how to do it. At a certain level, kind of all along the way, that’s probably been the biggest factor. I guess I still feel like I’m trying to figure it out, and it’s still sort of a mystery.”
When I express surprise over his modesty and ask him if he ever has moments where he sits back and marvels over what he’s created, he laughs again. “No, never. No, no. I think that’s kind of the whole drive of songwriting—it’s something that you do, and sometimes something really amazing and really satisfying will come out of it, but then you’ll go back to start again and you’ll have nothing. I mean, you might have a little more endurance to stick in there for a few more minutes, you know, creatively, but you still start with nothing, you know? You don’t get better at it. You just get more patient with the fact that it doesn’t happen all the time.”
“It’s frustrating for that long,” he admits, “but you have to realize that that’s actually what pushes you along. I think at a certain point I realized that even when it’s not working and it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anything, you have to just keep working. Keep trying. And then the light will come back on and you’ll kind of gain a new perspective of what’s going on, and you’ll keep going. I think the best advice I ever got was, you gotta do it every day. You gotta do it every day. And it’s not so much writing, you know. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to sit down and write a song every day.’ Just sit down and work with your tools a little bit. Use your hands a little bit. Or just touch on that part of your brain that does that. And if you can keep that light going, you know, it’s going to keep producing. You’ve got to trust that stuff will come—if you keep working.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find more great music content at growlermag.com and thecurrent.org.