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Bad Reputation

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."

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Zac Crain