What: Low with Germaine Gemberling and Rich Mattson
Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 S. Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
When: 8 p.m., Friday
Cost: $18 in advance, $20 day of show
Clad in a black leather jacket, Alan Sparhawk doesn’t exude the rock-inspired braggadocio his attire suggests. He speaks in self-deprecating tones, questioning whether he’s learned much after more than twenty years making music.
“All the things you sort of learn and go through — when you go to make a record you still end up feeling like it’s the first time,” he said, detailing the recording process for his band Low’s forthcoming tenth studio album. “You feel completely as ignorant as the first time.”
Singer-songwriter Sparhawk started Low in Duluth, Minn., in the early 1990s, somewhat counteracting the prevailing grunge sound of the time. Developing a down-tempo offshoot of the spacious post-punk of “shoegaze,” Low became part of an emerging genre labeled “slowcore” by critics. Sparhawk’s band performed for audiences patiently sitting on the floor. Vocalist and drummer Mimi Parker, bass guitarist Steve Garrington and Sparhawk play with a chilling clarity.
With weighty tempos and expansive instrumentation, the band’s songs continue to evoke surreal standstill, bordering on cinematic. The band’s eighth full-length “Drums and Guns,” inspired by the war in Iraq, evokes the subject matter with a tense use of percussion. Low recorded two of their albums including last year’s “C’mon” in a Catholic church turned recording studio, lending to some of the band’s spacious oeuvre. Moving from the altar to the couch, Sparhawk seeks an intimate sound for their soon to be released unnamed album.
“It’s very ‘in your living room.’ It’s pretty much just piano, drums and guitar,” Sparhawk said.
He describes the immediacy as a “double-edged sword,” a gutsy decision at a tried-and-true method Sparhawk sees as often overdone. He also sees the power in stripped down acoustic albums, citing country singer’s Gillian Welch’s record “Time (The Revelator).”
“That record holds that [expletive] together somehow,” Sparhawk said. He joked that 9 million others had picked up their acoustic guitars in an attempt to emulate.
Songs “Especially Me” and “Try to Sleep” from Low’s 2011 album “C’mon” explored more direct songwriting territory. Each song appears more transparent compared to past reverb-laden, cryptic efforts “The Great Destroyer” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Sparhawk credits Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, producer for the new album, as significantly aiding in the recording process.
“I remember one of the days working on a tune and realizing I would not have been able to get that out of me on my own,” Sparhawk said. “I would have been discouraged or lost perspective.”
Experimentation throughout Low’s history shows a band consistently pushing its own boundaries. From the high-energy indie rock of Retribution Gospel Choir and the subtle orchestration of his recent project the Murder of Crows, Sparhawk consistently challenges conventions, often revelatory in execution. For the upcoming album, the same holds true for the grizzled musician. The upfront acoustic sound poses a challenge the veteran Sparhawk recognizes.
“I’m a white guy with a guitar as well, trying to sing about my feelings, but there are ways in which that can be done really well — most of the time it’s not,” he said. “That’s why this is probably the riskiest record we’ve ever done.”