Low, On The Freedom They Felt on Their New Album, HEY WHAT

all photos by Nathan Keay

It's hard to believe that the Duluth, MN-duo of Low is coming up on their 30th year as a band, especially when their 13th and latest album — HEY WHAT, out now via Sub Pop Records — shows the group at no point of slowing down. 

Formed in 1993 by married couple Alan Sparhawk (guitar/vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums/vocals), the band have evolved from the sparse, slower songs of their early days to the expansive, experimental sound they've become known for today. At the heart of their music is the unmistakable and impeccable harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker, a vocal pairing that could only come from 27 years together as partners, both personally and professionally. 

KEXP's DJ Troy Nelson chatted with the pair for KEXP's Sound & Vision series, which airs every Saturday morning from 7:30-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday and Thursday. Subscribe now.

KEXP: Here we are, 27 years into this musical journey and all of the accolades over the years. Most bands, by now, are either done or no longer making interesting music. How does it feel to release your 13th album and have not only universal acclaim, but have blogs like Pitchfork saying that it's the "best new album from a band who has never made a bad album?" 

Alan Sparhawk: Well, that's pretty complementary. It's been a long time coming. I guess we had to hang for a long time before people started talking about us. [Laughs] Seriously, maybe. But yeah, I don't know. Well, you know, being married is definitely one factor that kind of keeps us going and kind of keeps the band a little more of an eternal perspective, I guess. 

Mimi Parker: But then there's also the fact that we've never had... I talked about this before. We've never had a hit. We've never been hugely successful. So, we've never been beholden to anything. You know, it's like, bands that have been around this long, they're playing their hits, otherwise if they introduce something new, people, you know, they get bored or tired of it. So, yeah, we've always kind of been free. It's given us a freedom that we can kind of just do whatever we want. We can push things hoping that our fans will come along with us, which they always have. 

Sparhawk: Yeah, and there's a little leeway once you've sort of established that, well, we're never really going to do anything that makes total sense. Kind of takes you out of the obligation to deliver a hit, and then they have to look at you differently than, you know. 

I was curious, on the song "White Horses" in particular. How did you get that sound that one that sounds like a cello being struck in such a staccato way and fed through a distortion pedal? Is that what that is or my way off?

Sparhawk: A lot of songs on the record were actually generated with the guitar, and I'm using a lot of pretty advanced — I mean, that's kind of the first time I've actually been able to say like, Oh yeah, I'm using some pretty advanced technology. [Laughs] But guitar synth has really come a long way. And by that, I mean, like, it's really a responsive thing. That technology has been around a lot: transferring the guitar to a synthesizer, but the technology's gotten faster and even more detailed now. It's become a really expressive instrument. You can really use the dynamics and sort of the imperfections and the always-changing harmonics of the guitar, and it still translates through now to the synth world. And so, we're able to really, in a conscious effort, to come up with new sounds and insist that we come up with stuff that we haven't heard before and stuff that was new to us. I mean, that became a very powerful tool. And, you know, just immediately being able to use a familiar tool to create sounds that... 

Parker: ...Were unfamiliar... 

Sparhawk: Unfamiliar, that kind of were surprising us, that was really key to that. But yeah, since a lot of the rhythm is a gate — which for those who don't know what that is, a gate is a thing that you can program it to where it'll turn the sound on and off really fast at a rhythm if you want. The sound only goes up to a certain point and that cuts off real hard until the next beat. And then it opens it up and the sound comes through and then it cuts it off again. There are a few songs, actually, on the record where we use that to generate rhythm instead of a drum. 

I'm also curious if you could describe the themes on this latest album, like some of the things you were observing in the world at the time that inspired some of these tracks. 

Sparhawk: Some I think are fairly obvious to anyone who's been experiencing the world in the last couple of years. You know, fear, isolation. What carries you forward? Now that hope is possibly exterminated or, wow, it keeps getting crazier and crazier. There’re a few songs I think that are a little bit about, you know, kind of social interaction. Maybe a little bit of racial and gender, all sort of discovering and sort of looking at things and going, "Oh, wait, oh wow, I realize now that my perspective has been very ignorant my whole life and now I'm seeing this thing for the first time."

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