Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Marriage and other band substances

Half of couple behind Low says musings on relationship bring depth to latest songs.
Low's Steve Garrington (left), Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Sparhawk says the groups stripped-back style has become a built-in language after so many years together. Photo / Supplied
Low's Steve Garrington (left), Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Sparhawk says the groups stripped-back style has become a built-in language after so many years together. Photo / Supplied

There is a song on the latest album by Low that, if you didn't know the band was led by a long-married couple then you might guess from the questions being asked in the lyrics.

"What part of me don't you know? What part of me don't you own?" sing Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker in a hypnotic harmony in the chorus to What Part of Me from last year's acclaimed Ones and Sixes.

Like much of the record by the band which has released 11 albums of stately hushed chamber rock - initially dubbed "slowcore" in the grunge era - it's both beguiling and unsettling.

"That one is half whimsy, half pleading," says Sparhawk from hometown Duluth, Minnesota ahead of returning to New Zealand for two shows.

"It's 'you know me, you have me, then why is it that you still don't know what I am trying to tell you?', he laughs. "Yeah, it's very direct."

But so far as the songs forming a portrait of the Sparhawk-Parker marriage ...

he's not so sure. It's not that simple or obvious.

"Yeah there are references to being in a relationship a long time and being in a relationship where ... you know each other so much you can't see where you end and they begin.

"But sometimes we are almost singing two songs at the same time and once in a while they intersect. I'm glad those moments are there - they sort of illustrate the depth of the interpersonal communication, more so than standing on the outside trying to tell stories."

In any discussion of the music of Low, the word "minimalist" inevitably crops up.

But as cover versions in recent years on albums by Robert Plant and Mavis Staples attest, they group's songwriting, with its indelible melodies and affecting lyrics, is as much of a defining factor as the low-decibel delivery. And on Ones and Sixes the tracks come with sonic grunt - deep bass rumbles and fuzzy, sometimes electronic textures.

The distortion levels caused a problem, says Sparhawk, when they went to get the album mastered for vinyl pressing.

"We had to remix a couple of songs to keep the needle out of the red."

The extra crunch factor was a natural move.

"I had a hunch after the previous record, the pendulum was probably going to swing the other way ... towards a little bit more tension and dissonance and noise.

"I've always been fascinated with extremes and there has always been ways of touching that without always being about being louder and faster."

No, Low hasn't sped up much over the years. And if they've got louder on parts of Ones and Sixes, songs like What Part of Me come delivered as conversations, not shouting matches.

"A lot of it is habit of course," says Sparhawk about their mild tempos. "We've built this language of doing things, to this phrasing, this physicality with how we play. That is just how it ends up at this point.

"When we first started it was a very conscious thing - 'let's see how little can be going on. People don't like things being quiet? Let's turn it down even more. We'll show you' ... .

"By the time you've written a few songs in that mode that has become your language. After all these years, it's in our bones."

What: Low

When and where: Bar Bodega Wellington tonight; Kings Arms Auckland Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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