When Clash speaks to Alan Sparhawk, Low are days away from heading out on tour and he needs to “mow the lawn one more time” and “harvest the pumpkins and sasquatch.”
The band’s truly remarkable twelfth studio album has recently been released and he’s pretty at ease with the early response: “We knew we were doing something kind of risky and a little bit experimental. The whole time we were like, if it’s going to go this far out, it’s got to be good. It can’t be just out for the sake of out. I’ve had some nice texts from some dear friends and they’ve been pretty complimentary, which is nice.” And that’s not to mention the deservedly glowing reviews that greeted the arrival of ‘Double Negative’.
The disruptive, explosive approach to their sound that Low have pursued is quite unlike anything else released this year, possible any year, but it was all planned well ahead. “We knew by the time we were done with ‘Ones and Sixes’ that this was definitely what we were going to do next.” Hints at this sonic direction had been there on that 2015 release, through tracks like ‘Gentle’ and ‘The Innocents’, but “right away we knew we were definitely going to go further with this; we could see this was a risk worth taking, already at that point.”
The willingness to utterly dismantle their sound took time to emerge, built on a positive experience working with producer BJ Burton on that last record. “We were new to working with BJ and we weren’t quite ready. We had to feel it out but, having worked it once and realising that it was a fruitful direction to look in, then it’s easy to jump both feet in. We’ve done that off and on. The Christmas record has a couple of songs on there that are kind of broken sounding. I can remember getting a couple of returns from our Christmas record. You know, people sending it back and saying ‘there seems to be something wrong with song three or four. It sounds like my speakers are broken!’ But the chance to dive in and make a whole piece and know what we needed was sort of new and pretty freeing and refreshing.”
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For some listeners, the intensity of distortion at the heart of ‘Double Negative’ has proved confusing. The temptation to perceive these songs as having been tampered with or disrupted is understandable but it really wasn’t the case that these were effects added to finished tracks, and the band didn’t want a scenario where “it’s just a song with a bunch of noise applied. Ultimately the goal was how do we come up with sounds that are the song? How do we come up with something that’s the rhythm, or does what the rhythm needs to do, but it’s not drums, not just sounds on top of what we normally do? It was something we were conscious of. It isn’t just a case of let’s try a different noise on top of it.”
Burton’s role was pivotal in Low’s willingness to venture as far into this disintegration of their sound and in the studio it was a case of “going along making decisions together, throwing things off each other. With the first song, ‘Quorum’, I knew the song just needed a pulse and we tried a bunch of stuff and we found this one sound, using that to make the song. At one point it kind of fell apart and it wasn’t working. We started deconstructing it until we kind of lost interest and then it sat for a month or two and we came back and said, wait a minute, let’s put the first verse back on and see what happens, because I really like these sounds and I really want to make this song work.”
“So, we went back to it and there are times when the journey is a dead end and you have to back up all the way and go back and be like, ok, I know at least at this point on the trail we were on track, so let’s see what else is possible. BJ’s like a facilitator and just when we were coming to a dead end with something he would get up early the next day and work on it for a couple of hours and suddenly it was back alive again.”
With the band currently touring Europe, thoughts turn to how to take such an album with so much studio-based endeavour out on the road. “There’s been a little discussion back and forth and kind of experimenting here and there. Do we want to try to present these songs in a similar format or a similar approach and, if so, to what extent? Does that mean sitting up there with laptops, does it mean sitting up there with a drum machine and a synthesiser and singing. Is that interesting? I think it would be great for about thirty-eight minutes, but I feel like it would be neglecting some of the event.“
“We’ve been touring for twenty five years, we tour a lot, and there’s something about the way we play that we long ago realised, trying to capture that, trying to make that also happen on records, is sort of impossible. Live is always a different thing. It’s in the moment, it’s in the room, it’s imperfect which, unfortunately, just doesn’t transfer to record. So the other side of that has been how do we present these songs live when the record is very different from the way we play live? Well, we’ll play them, they’ll just be different versions. We may do some shows, isolated things here and there, where we use some machines and do two or three songs like that.“
“It’s always been stuff we’ve dabbled in; we just came to the conclusion that we don’t think it would be our best foot forward. By the time people pay that much money, they want at least 90 minutes and we really want to give them ourselves, our honest selves, and I just feel like being up there pushing buttons and trying to make cues line up is not interesting and not an experience I would enjoy seeing.”
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Sparhawk’s clear delineation of the difference between the sound of the studio and on stage performance makes him naturally disinclined to the idea of a live album, but can understand the appeal given the re-workings this material will warrant. “Maybe in the right format or maybe at some point, especially for this record, it would be interesting to capture the way we play these songs, just for reference and maybe there’s fans who would appreciate that, but it would really have to be presented in the right way. ‘This is not necessarily a record, it’s just capturing a bit of us playing live, warts and all, thank you fans, see you on the field’ kind of thing.” As another caveat looms, we inadvertently stumble upon a possible title for such a curio. “Bear in mind, this is just three very flawed people up on stage trying to wrangle some music out of some instruments.”
Given the fraying state of global politics and the particular case of the deranged narcissist in the White House, ‘Double Negative’ feels like an album for our times. How directly did that context impact upon the writing?
“I think it definitely gave a little bit of dialogue to what we were working with. We definitely as a band spend a lot of time talking about that stuff. All three of us are on the same table about a lot of the world view, our hopes and fears for humanity and what’s going on, especially in the States. I’ve spent a long time grappling with the language of social consciousness and social protest and I’m fairly confident with the way we express it. It leaves room for personal experience and people’s own personal connection with the way the world is affecting them and I guess that’s the only hope you can have; you’re not necessarily going to tell people how to live but you can give them encouragement to follow the light and follow what they know is right.”
Talk turns to the title of the record, ‘Double Negative’, and how that is also a response to living in this world. “When that phrase came up, I thought well this sounds perfect. It’s sort of cryptic enough that it can have several meanings and there’s a mathematical thing which, for some reason, for me, comes up a lot. I like mathematical terminology. Of course, in mathematics a negative times a negative is a positive, so what’s going on there? For a lot of people in America, there’s the last couple of years where you catch yourself sometimes just being like ‘oh man, this is horrible, I can’t believe it,’ just wishing things on certain people that you never really did ever before. I never thought this way about anybody; I’ve never had these words so on the tip of my tongue about a person in my life. What is going on here?”
“You fluctuate between being in despair about reading too much news and then sometimes being like, ‘ok, I gotta think about the positive and find something to do that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on’. So there’s the question ‘what should we be doing?’ Is it productive to be lashing out? Is it productive to be frustrated? Is it productive as an artist to be expressing something that may very well not be at all productive? So then the question is ‘is that not sometimes all you can do?’ And, therefore, double negative: is there something positive out of being negative against something that’s negative? You know, is peaceful protest right or do you turn and strike after you’ve been hit twice? After you’ve turned the other cheek? You only have two cheeks!”
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With ‘Double Negative’, the actual sound of the music is arguably at least as political as the words. While not explicit, the sentiment is marked and heartfelt, the urge to create remaining incredibly strong.
“I don’t know if it’s a frantic character flaw or something, but I’m always really anxious about what else is there? I’ll put it off sometimes and there’ll be definitely months and months where I don’t want to write because it’s hard and most of the time it’s humiliating when you don’t come up with anything that’s very satisfying. So there’s definitely a part of my subconscious that’s sort of afraid of it, but it’s always on my mind.”
As a band that has never taken a backward step, with a catalogue that can be broken down loosely into different musical stages, where next after the striking sound of this record?
“It’s a bit of a dilemma. We’ve talked about it a little bit. What do we do after this? I’m up for the adventure but I’m not sure how impressive it’s going to look! It was intense and it was a good challenge to reach what we did. We’re already kind of working on stuff for this next thing. We’ve already tried a bunch of things with BJ. It’s kind of hard to say. What do you do after you’ve kind of blown apart the system? Well, you can’t blow it up again! It would probably look redundant and indulgent. Unfortunately, once you’ve blown up the model, it’s like ‘how do you top that?’ What are you going to do? Suddenly build something with the parts left over that’s completely sublime and flawless? Ok, alright, good luck. I think the journey to getting there might be interesting, but I assure you it’s going to take at least a decade.”
As alarmist as that might sound, Low clearly have no intention of waiting that long to offer up their next direction. Surely, working with Burton again already was an attempt to head off any paralysis around where next? Sparhawk reveals that numerous options have already been discussed and at one point they wondered if they should “do an EP just going in this direction really hard. There was the thought of how do we keep this momentum – where does this go next?”
Ultimately, there's no risk of Low stalling under the pressure. “All these years we’ve worked under limits, so I guess now we’ve just got to find some new limits.”
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Words: Gareth James
'Double Negative' is out now.
Catch Low at the following shows:
16 Manchester Cathedral
17 Dublin Vicar Street
29 Glasgow Tramway
30 Birmingham Town Hall
31 Brighton St. George’s Church
1 London Barbican
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