How Low Can You Go: High Times with Alan Sparhawk of Low.
[Alan Sparkhawk of Low] “I don’t know if that’s specifically the new direction. Going out on a limb was definitely a positive experience, and I think we’re going to do that more.”
Moses spoke with G-d, George Bush held private council with Pope John Paul II, and I, your lowly SLUG writer, had the opportunity to meet with (in person) Alan Sparhawk of Low. OK, it’s not my intention to deify Mr. Sparhawk, but let’s just say, he’s well-respected in my eyes. Alan’s other band, The Black Eyed Snakes, who, by the way, sound nothing at all like Low (check out our interview with them on the SLUG website, www.slugmag.com), were here in January and I jumped at the chance (literally) to speak with Alan about Low’s new album, The Great Destroyer, which was released on Sub Pop on Jan. 25. If you are familiar with Low’s older material, The Great Destroyer might catch you a little off-guard, but in a good way. The new album is full of rich textures, loud, distorted choruses, and songs that when compared to older Low materiel, are downright aggressive and fast. Yes, that’s right, the band that helped pioneer the “slowcore” genre of indie-rock have written some songs that you can tap your foot to.
Low’s last album, Trust, marked the beginning of the subtle change in direction that The Great Destroyer embraces from the first song to the last.
“This record definitely pushed the limits of out abilities,” says Alan. “It’s a new challenge.” Alan noted that when Low was in the studio last year, the songs that were working the best were the “more aggressive and louder songs.” When I asked him how he feels about Low’s new sound, he reluctantly replied, “I don’t know if that’s specifically the new direction. Going out on a limb was definitely a positive experience, and I think we’re going to do that more.”
Low’s music is extremely personal, and after 11 years, it should come as no surprise that Low’s sound has evolved just as its members have.
“Everybody grows,” says Alan. “From one year to the next, you’re going to be a little different. Sometimes you really are a completely different person just two years later. The last couple of years have been the most intense in my life. I’m surprised as hell that we were able to pull off a record during that time, much less a record that I’m really happy with.”
Alan and his wife, Mimi, who plays drums for Low, recently had their second child, which might explain the vehemence in Alan’s life. Time, it seems, is the creative impetus behind Alan Sparhawk’s music. “In the past, records have been a struggle, being short on time, everybody having different ideas, but on this record, we had enough time.” And it shows. “After 11 years, you think, ‘Well, we can do whatever we want. We’ve been doing this long enough.'”
This time around, Low had the opportunity to work with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse), who co-produced The Great Destroyer with the band. Traditionally, Low is known for having abundant open space in their music, which gives the trio immense harmonic berth to work with. Production on The Great Destroyer, however, gives the album sweeping layers of concinnities that fill every void and crack of the music in an avalanche of noise.
Alan confessed that Low has been talking to Fridmann for years about working together, and that until last year, their conversations remained fruitless. I asked Alan what it was like to work with Fridmann, to which he replied, “It was great. I’ve been a fan of his stuff for a long time. Wayne[Coyne] from the Flaming Lips suggested that we should work with him. He has definitely been on the short list of people we’d like to work with for the last few years.” The Great Destroyer marks the band’s second label change. After spending seven years with Chicago-based Kranky, Sparhawk et al. decided Sub Pop was a better fit for them.
“Ever Since Trust, we’ve kind of been thinking that maybe we need a more appropriate situation for the records we were doing,” says Sparhawk. “We’ve been getting busier and things have been growing.” Last year, after 10 years of self-management, Low finally got a manager. Their new impresario started talking to different labels around the country. Alan rolled his eyes as he told me how a few “big” labels approached them, but as Alan described it, “It’s very obvious that we’re not a major label band.” Halfway through recording The Great Destroyer, they were approached by Sub Pop, and decided that it was simply “the right step.”
“No matter how much you think it’s just about writing songs and doing your art, you still gotta figure out what the best way to do it is,” says Alan. “It’s like making toast. If you’re going to make toast, why not use a knife and a toaster instead of an iron and your finger, or whatever. If you have the chance to use a knife, let’s do it if it makes things easier, because really, what it’s about is making toast.”
Alan described the new material as being “really raw” live. “We like playing live, we like making records; the goal is to make them both as good as we can”- a goal that they have met with success for over 10 years. Low, who comes through Salt Lake on every tour, will be playing at the Velvet Room on Mar. 21.
TALKING HEADS: ONCE IN A LIFETIME – THE STORY BEHIND EVERY SONG
To understand one of the most eccentric bands in the history of modern music is a challenging feat. Thanks to brave authors like Ian Gittins, I’m beginning to do just that. As the title suggest, Once In A Lifetime explores the people, places, and most interestingly, the stories behind every Talking Heads song–79 album tracks and 13 B-sides and rarities, to be exact. It should be noted that this book is not a biography and only contains a brief summary of the band’s formation and a frustratingly abridged account of their 1991 break-up. Although highly informative, Once In A Lifetime’s limitations restrict it to the point of being no more than a supplementary guide for Talking Heads fanatics, whereas for the casual Talking Heads fan, it may be a better idea to start with an in-depth biography first, such as Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century, by David Bowman. With over 80 black-and-white and color photographs and an ample supply of interesting stories, Once In A Lifetime will whet the appetites of music geeks and snobs alike, especially those who like to impress each other (and themselves) with trivial and obscure musical facts (you know who you are): i.e., do you know the name of David Byrne’s first child? –Ryan Shelton
Every little girl wants a pony and never gets one. Every teenage boy wants to be a rock star and never becomes one. There is hope, however, in this world full of forgotten dreams and empty stables. Enter The Ponys, the Chicago four-piece responsible for making some of the most exciting music in years.
[The Ponys]With their second In The Red full-length, Celebration Castle, which will be released “sometime in May,” The Ponys prove that the term “sophomore slump” need not apply to them. The Ponys are back, three inches taller and driving a Trans Am. Celebration Castle is a unique musical cocktail of 80s post-punk, 60s garage and 90s indie rock sure to please the ears of even the most pretentious scenesters this city has to offer.
Jared Gummere, lead singer and guitarist of The Ponys, is as humble as they come. I spoke to him over the phone one afternoon in April before he had to go to work at a Chicago dog kennel.
SLUG: How would you describe The Ponys’ sound?
Jared Gummere: A lot of guitars. We’re all into lots and lots of music and I just really like rock n’ roll. A lot of the bands we get compared to aren’t really even ones that are my main influences. They’re bands that I like, but they’re not ones that I grew up listening to.
SLUG: How did The Ponys get the opportunity to work with legendary musician and producer Steve Albini on the new record?
JG: We really wanted to record in Chicago. I didn’t want to travel anymore, and that was the first name that popped into my head. So we went to go tour the studio, which is a really awesome building … a really nice place, and basically called him up and said, “Can we record here?” He said yes. “Can we use you?” He said yes. It was a lot easier than I really imagined, and the label was excited about it, which is always a good thing.
SLUG: What is your favorite Albini-produced record?
JG: I really like the Brainiac record. That was one we were definitely rockin’. We just went through our record collections and tried to find records we liked. Most recently, I really like that Electrolane record.
SLUG: Is there a My Little Ponys connection with the title of the new record, Celebration Castle?
JG: [Laughs]We’ve been trying to figure out what we want to call this new record and we were in a hotel room one morning and the [My Little Ponys] commercial came on. We were like, “That’s fuckin’ hilarious.” When we were recording with Albini, we told him about that name and he was like, “That name’s awesome!” So we decided to go with and just see what happens.
SLUG:I heard through the record-store grapevine that some of the songs on the new record are actually old ones. Any truth to that?
JG: A few of them are … at least, three are almost three years old that were demos that we never got onto Laced With Romance. Most of the record is brand new stuff- seven out of three is newer stuff that we wrote last year. “Today,” “Get Black” and “Discoteca” were super old, but they were good songs … otherwise they’d just go down in demo history, and I’d like to see them make the cut.
SLUG: Do you have a favorite song on the new record?
JG: I really like “We Shot The World.” I think it’s a cool one … it’s really dark.
SLUG: The Ponys recently had a little lineup change. Why did Ian [Adams] (second guitarist/vocalist) leave?
JG: I can’t really speak for him, but obviously he wasn’t happy with things and didn’t like the touring aspect. It really sucked, actually. We have a new member now, and we just did a two-week tour, and it went fuckin’ really good.
SLUG: Who’s the newest Pony?
JG: Brian [Case]. He plays in 90 Day Men. We were just kind of acquaintances from around town. We were talking one night, and he said he’d jam … and it worked … the first time it sounded really awesome.
Melissa Elias, Jared’s girlfriend, plays bass and keys in the Ponys, and makes her singing debut on “She’s Broken.” Former Mushuganas drummer Nathan Jerde does an outstanding job behind the kit, allowing Jared and Brian to explore numerous musical tangents, an attribute that keeps the listener on the edge of their seats.
SLUG: Do The Ponys have a format for writing songs, or is it more organic?
JG: It kind of just happens. Usually whoever is singing writes their own lyrics. A lot of it is done in rehearsal when we’re just dicking around like, “That sounds really cool, let’s work with that,” and we end up working with it for hours. Some people have parts of a song together; they’ll be like, “I need help with this,” and we all give our two cents and get it together.
SLUG: What do you think about the post-punk revival going on in pop music today? Is it a fad like swing was in the late 90s?
JG: I’ve always really been into punk rock music, and that term itself is so loosely used these days … I didn’t really even know what post-punk was until people started calling us that four years ago. I had a bunch of records that would be considered post-punk; I just had no idea know that it was a term. Everything comes and goes. We’ve been doing our thing for quite awhile now.
The Ponys will be playing Kilby Court 5.16 with The Gris Gris.
Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction
Da Capo Press
When I was in middle school, Jane’s addiction was my life. “Three Days” was my anthem, and Perry Farrell was my God. In Whores, Brendan Mullen has compiled over 300 pages of quotes from just about everybody who was ever associated with Jane’s(including the members), and uses them to tell the story of one of the most influential bands of the late 80s/early 90s. At times, Whores reads more like an open forum of dope confessions/bragging and self-justification rather than talking about the music, but it’s still entertaining as hell. From pre-Jane’s goth-music experiments to the heartbreaking disappointment of 03’s Strays, Whores is a must-read for every Jane’s fan–oh, and for anyone who listened to music in the 90s. Almost all of the quotes came from separate interviews throughout the years, which adds an interesting spin to the stories because everyone seems to remember things a little differently than their peers do. The only complaint I have as a reader (and a fan) is that there just aren’t enough pictures–other than that, it’s a great read. Thank you, Brendan Mullen, for letting me relive my Jane’s Addiction fanaticism, and thank you Jane’s, for kicking ass. –Ryan Shelton