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He blames it on the caffeine-free Pepsi, though that probably has nothing to do with it, as vile as a beverage labeled both "caffeine-free" and "Pepsi" might be. Likely, it occurs because although it's a "lovely, sunny day" in Duluth, Minnesota, he is stuck inside on the phone, talking to a complete stranger about an album he only recently decided wasn't a total failure. Only he's not supposed to say that because the album is on the verge of being released, and that would be like a farmer bringing his new crop to market and telling everyone it's infested with bugs.
That, you see, would be a bad thing. The kind of thing a good publicist is trained to make go away by claiming that he was "tired," or maybe "dehydrated." At the very least, he'd say he had "a lot of things on his mind." At the very least.
It is, however, the truth: When Alan Sparhawk first heard Things We Lost in the Fire (the new album) by Low (the band he sings and plays guitar in), he, well, he hated it. He liked the album that was playing in his mind, the one that had the same title and all of the same songs as Things We Lost in the Fire. Problem was, the album that was playing on his stereo bore no resemblance to the album Sparhawk wanted to make. Discouraging? No. Devastating.
"After we did the record, I just thought, 'Oh, jeez,'" Sparhawk says. "Because the vision of what the songs could be, in your head, definitely exceeded what we were able to do. There was a long time where I really thought, 'Oh, jeez, this is just horrid.' We thought, 'We need to go somewhere else and totally redo this record, because we let our imaginations get the best of us, and we've not been practical with what we're trying to do,' and all these things." His opinion now? "I listened to the record maybe a week ago, and I don't know if it was because I had it really loud and it was compressing the stereo in the van or something like that, but I thought, 'Hmmm, it's not terrible.' Whatever. I'm sure at some point we'll be happy with the record. We definitely need to get away from it even further."
So maybe Low -- which also includes Sparhawk's wife, percussionist Mimi Parker, as well as bassist Zak Sally -- missed the mark with Things We Lost in the Fire, at least according to Sparhawk. Maybe the songs don't sound the way they were supposed to. Maybe they tried to do too much and ended up doing nothing at all. Maybe so. But none of that matters. No, to Sparhawk, all that really counts is that Low moved the mark this time around, that the songs sound the way they need to, that he and Parker and Sally tried to do something.
More to the point, Things We Lost in the Fire was the first time in a long time that Sparhawk and company stopped being a Low cover band and started being Low.
"There's been occasions where we have to deal with the issue of, well, we have this song, and it seems to be faster and it seems to kind of snap along -- what are the ramifications of us doing this song the way we want to do it?" Sparhawk explains. "Are we gonna sound like we're trying to break away from our old thing? Or, are we gonna sound like we're trying to do something that we have no business doing? I don't think we've ever intentionally said, 'Let's do a fast song so people will realize that we're more than just a slow, quiet band.' I'm fine with being the slow, quiet band. There's plenty of bands out there that try to cover everything, and most of the time, it's a failing venture. I'm okay with what we've carved out for ourselves. I mean, as long as we can still find a way to push the envelope a little bit. I think this new record probably did that, a little bit.
"In the past," he continues, "we used to have long discussions and have furrowed brows about . . . we'd write a song and go, 'Okay, how do we make this song fit into what Low is?' Or, 'Where does this song fit in Low? How do we need to play it? How do we need to change it? How do we need to do this?' I think we maybe are coming to a point where we're stepping away from that approach. We're kinda saying, 'What does this song want to do? And we will try our best to play it in a way it wants to go. I think that's what's happening on this record. There are songs where we are scrambling, as hard as we can, to try to keep up with what the song wants to do. A song like, 'Dinosaur Act,' that song wants to do its thing, and we're doing our best to keep up to it. As opposed to us making sure that song fits into what we can do. Some interesting things happen when you do that. You end up forcing yourself to do something."
At that point, just as his momentum has reached its peak, Sparhawk picks up the other line, where he has a brief conversation with someone from Kranky Records, the Chicago-based label that will release Things We Lost in the Fire this month, and that also put out 1999's Secret Name. Trying to pick up where we left off, Sparhawk asks what he was talking about when he was interrupted. After hearing his strength-through-adversity mission statement and his theories about how to find a new Low, Sparhawk dismisses it all with a laughed-off "Yeah, well, whatever." Experience has shown him that it's futile, that the gesture is empty. The people who get it will always get it. And to the people who don't . . .
"We're still the slow, quiet, depressing band," he deadpans, referring again to the three-word tag that has haunted the group since it released I Could Live in Hope in 1994. "Right." Sparhawk laughs, sort of, sounding more like someone cheerfully clearing his throat. "It's a little frustrating," he says. "I mean, after you do it for a while, your ego starts saying, 'Well, I want to be respected as a songwriter, not as that slow band.' We ran into that pretty early on. By the time we'd done our second record, and started seeing that, you know, we were very quickly getting painted into a corner, I don't know that we fretted about it too much. It was just kinda like, 'Well, whatever.' The people who make those knee-jerk reactions, no matter how much you scream and holler and try to change their observation, they're still only going to listen to the first five seconds of a song. They're not going to listen to the record anyway. We were fairly confident that the people we really cared about would probably listen to the whole record."
Listening to the whole record isn't absolutely essential to understanding that Low is more than just "the slow, quiet, depressing band." Okay, yes, Things We Lost in the Fire is definitely slow, more often than not quiet, and if you're in the right (or wrong) mood, it possibly could be depressing. Still, the album -- recorded by Steve Albini and featuring a guest appearance by Ghostcar's Daniel Huffman -- is more than just a Valium waltz, the latest in a series of albums that have inspired writers to hit their thesauruses for such words as "somnambulant" and "lugubrious" and "glacial." On the surface, those words seem to fitThings We Lost in the Fire too, the way Sparhawk strums his guitar just enough so someone won't take it away from him, and how Parker's voice hangs in the air like a pop-up to third base on songs like "Laser Beam."
The difference is, there is a warmth -- no pun intended -- on Things We Lost in the Fire, a bit player on previous records that the band finally brings front and center. To put it a different way, if the rest of Low's albums were a Monday in the dead of winter, Things We Lost in the Fire is a Sunday morning on the verge of spring -- calm and relaxed and full of life. When the horns finally announce themselves on "Dinosaur Act," it's like green leaves poking through the frost, a new road on an old map. Things We Lost in the Fire is the kind of transition album that doesn't reject the past; it refines it.
Taking everything into consideration, it's not surprising that Things We Lost in the Fire would be somewhat different from Secret Names or anything else Low has recorded, really. The band may not have changed since the last album -- and it hasn't since Sally replaced original bassist John Nichols after I Could Live in Hope-- but Sparhawk and Parker's life did: Early last year, the couple had their first child, a daughter, Hollis Mae Sparhawk. Which pretty much changes everything.
"I long for the days where I can just sit in the basement and strum my guitar," Sparhawk says. "But with the baby and everything, we actually have to plan ahead now [laughs]. When we go on tour, no longer do we just kind of play the show, get in the van, and go, 'Well, where are we staying tonight?' We actually have to do that in advance, which is a lot more complicated than it sounds."
"It changes a lot of things," he continues. "It's a little bit more of an organizational factor. You know? More people in the van now. We need more beds. We don't drive 12 hours a day anymore. Eight is about as good as it gets. Other than surface stuff like that, I don't know, it's kind of exciting. It puts a new spin on what we've been doing, and it's high time, I think. We're going on eight years now, and it's kind of a neat challenge to now have a new factor to kind of deal with. We did a couple of tours this past fall -- October and November -- and one of them was in Europe, so that was even more of a test."
Another recent change in the band -- thanks to the Gap and its use of Low's version of "Little Drummer Boy" (from 1999's Christmas) in one of its ubiquitous ad campaigns -- is that Sparhawk's family doesn't think he's wasting his life anymore. Or, at least, not wasting it as much. It figures that six years of well-received albums and a spotless live show would be no match for the people who brought you the $20 pocket tee.
To middle America, though, Magnet is something you stick on the refrigerator, and Alternative Press is the way your aunt irons her clothes. Appearing in those publications is slightly better than placing an ad in the classifieds. But the Gap is still the Gap, and television is God.
"This notion kind of creeps over you, that, you know, there's eight million people listening to your voice right now whether they're paying attention or not," Sparhawk says. "Not that everybody's like, 'Oh, wow! What's this music?' The sound of two million people walking to the fridge to get a sandwich, while somewhere in the background, I'm singing, is really freakish. Every day, it seemed like, we'd get a call from somebody we knew. 'Hey, wow, I saw your commercial!' From what I could tell, someone played it at least once a day. That was kind of neat.
"I always compare it to something like if you're reviewed in Rolling Stone," he says. "Something you could tell just about anybody. 'So, what do you do?' Like aunt so-and-so, who knows that you're in a band, and who probably on the side, sort of thinks it's kind of silly and what the heck are we doing doing this. It's one of those things where you can go to them and say, 'Well, we're on TV.' 'Oh, really?' Kind of like, 'You know Rolling Stone?' 'Oh yes, I've heard of that.' 'Well, our record was in there.' And they wouldn't know it if it was in a fanzine or . . . 'Yeah, it was reviewed in Magnet. They did this two-page article on it, and it was really great.' 'Huh?' 'So have you played with any famous bands?' 'Well, the Swans . . .' 'Who?' It was nice to have a little something that you could universally point to and say, 'See? We're not wasting our lives. We did something that people who do this, do.' If we're gonna be in a commercial -- which, generally, seems like a daunting thing to us -- that was probably about as close to a tolerable commercial as I think we would possibly be involved with. One, it was a cover, and two, it wasn't . . . beach volleyball." He laughs. "Or beer, or something like that."
Or caffeine-free Pepsi.