Low turned whispered fumbling into artful music when they first began playing in 1993. Now, over 30 years later, no matter how often they hope to distance themselves from the title, the slowcore indie rock giants have returned to a sound of slouched tempos, minimalist arrangements, and emotive lyrics that impress with their simplicity. It turns out guitarist and singer Alan Sparhawk, drummer and vocalist Mimi Parker, and bassist Steve Garrington are ready to share the secret to their slow, slow success, even if they hate being pegged with the “slowcore” label altogether.
This year’s Ones and Sixes came to fruition when Sparhawk changed the drum machine’s BPM from numbers divisible by fives to numbers divisible by—you guessed it—ones and sixes. “Once that happened, numbers started coming up a lot, like the number pi,” he explains. “This idea of ones and sixes was, to me, the symbol of controlled randomness, of creating organized spontaneity. Time’s going to move forward and everything is always going to be in flux. What are the things we have control over? How do you steer that chaos in a way that it still goes where you want it to go? What do you control in your life? Oftentimes you think you’re in that position, but it turns out you actually aren’t.”
Leave it to them to feel lost at sea in the presence of numbers — and to turn that instability into tangible work. We think of music as being an art form about control, about illustrating fear and love and acts of pure humanness. Low argue otherwise. To sketch a live interpretation of these things is one thing. That works after a few albums. Capturing those visuals for more than a decade, however, requires an embrace of outside forces and the ways in which they’re stronger than you can ever be. Music discusses the ways in which we force ourselves on movements we can’t bend. We are human, and so is music. When we let notes interacts without interjecting constantly, their involvement with one another forms a tighter bond, making for the few interjections we do thrown in all the more dramatic. It’s about learning how to be a backseat driver who only chimes in when they must.
When Low began, 10-minute songs were the norm, especially if they captured a certain solemness. On this album, they not only trim with sharp scissors, but place the emphasis on minor key changes, lending crescendos or simple chord shifts a massive blow of tension. They’re toying with control even more, and it’s paying off. It’s the type of mastery that comes from decades’ worth of persistence.
“I remember coming across an effects pedal by Red Panda that’s like an echo pedal, except it cuts up that echo sound and randomizes it,” says Sparhawk. “Eventually it disappears in its own white noise. It fed into this idea of what you control. What happens once something leaves your mouth and your hands? A person’s hearing will interpret dialogue or a song differently than you thought… every time. In some ways, you have to let go of that and realize it’s out of your control.”
Lyrically, the trio probe those harrowing echoes for answers. “What Part of Me” asks what there’s left to discover in one another as bandmates, as romantic partners, and as humans coming to terms with existentialism each time Sparhawk asks, “What part of me don’t you know?” It’s a call of defeat. “It’s like you’re looking at yourself as someone who has moaned and groaned about music for 20 straight years,” he laughs. “You wonder who on earth wants to hear you whine about something else.” And yet their fans continue to turn up, eager to hear songs full of beauty and sadness equivalent to that of “Amazing Grace” (which, it should be noted, the band semi-covered back in 2002). Defeat does well because everyone can relate.
“I feel really lucky that we’ve been around long enough to take all this time to learn,” Sparhawk says with the utmost sincerity. The way they see it, sharp penmanship comes from years practiced, not knowledge stored. Who are we to say otherwise? “It’s true, a lot of people figure it out quicker—by, like, record one,” he says. “Unfortunately, that fades. People forget. We stuck around—and honestly, I think that’s most of the battle. If you keep doing it, whether you’re a writer or a musician or filmmaker, and keep going, it will rotate and turn so it keeps paying you off.”
LOW + ANDY SHAUF + DJ CARBO. WED 9.23. BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL, 158 BRIGHTON AVE., ALLSTON. 7PM/18+/$20. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM/BRIGHTON-MUSIC-HALL.