The relationship between Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker - both musical and romantic - has always been at the centre of the ethereal magic spell that Low cast. It’s a spell that intertwines optimism and despair; their music capturing both the harrowing nature of mortality - snapshots and moments of confusion - with the intense moments of otherworldly beauty.
But this otherworldliness seems at odds with a mum-and-dad from Minnesota who are parents of two teenage children. You may not think about their marriage when listening to their music - the focus is more often on the seemingly telepathic understanding that bleeds through their sound and gives it its unique quality. But new album ‘Ones and Sixes’ is unflinchingly about that very human, very real relationship between these two.
“Anybody who’s been in a relationship will understand that dynamic: there’s give and take, there are times when you are your best and there’s times when you are your worst. And if you can make it work, it’s still going to be ugly, it’s still going to be difficult. Sometimes you look back and say ‘Wow, I have no idea what we were doing’, and it’s a complete hell riot but it was totally worth it.” As with every Low album, tension seems to be the thing holding the songs together. “There are some songs when I listen back and there’s the back and forth between Mim and myself and I think ‘Wow, it sounds like we’re arguing.’ Like on ‘No Comprende’, I’m saying this and she’s saying something different – are we talking about the same thing? There’ll be tension there.
“I think that’s where a lot of problems come from in relationships where they say ‘They don’t understand me’. Well, they don’t, that’s ok. And, if they don’t understand you then don’t take what they said so personally. Just back up and make sure you’re on the same page and you’ll probably be fine.”
There is a lot of talk of confusion throughout the album. Of mistakes and crossed wires. Over previous albums Sparhawk has talked about seeing the themes after he’s distanced himself from the record. Has this one been a little clearer? “Yeah, there’s a lot of that. I don’t understand you. You don’t understand me. A song like ‘What Part of Me’ is about a person who you’ve been through everything with and you’re saying ‘We are one, you know me more than anyone, how else can I convince you?’ So there’s that and there’s always a bit of a state of the world observations going on – whether it’s the war or something else. The first song on there references torture – whether it’s political or a relationship.”
And there’s a fire in here too. A passion that’s shot through the lyrics and the sound. It’s clear that there was a desire to push themselves, to be braver. “I remember when we did it, I was like ‘This has to come out next month’. There are a lot of really great albums coming out, a lot of big steps forward - and by the time this is out people will be beyond us.” And this motivation came from sources that may surprise you. “A lot of the bigger hip-hop records – I mean ever since ‘Yeezus’ came out. The Kendrick Lamar album finally dawned on me the other day too and I was like ‘Ohhh, this is good.’”
Did those albums directly inspire the album then? “I don’t know. There are some extremes in hip-hop and I feel like it’s one of the genres that’s really pushing things. They’ve really been leading the way forward over the last couple of years. I think you’ll see people in rock trying to incorporate those extremes over the next couple of years. It wasn’t so much that we were trying to copy something’s that going on. More like ‘Wow, that’s reaching higher, I’m going to try and reach higher too.’”
‘Ones and Sixes’ pushes things in another direction to what emerged before. It’s something closer to the starkness of ‘Drums and Guns’ – there are static machine patterns, dramatic thuds, stabbing guitars, and electronics snarls throughout the record. It’s certainly combative in places – it’s an austere and extreme sound with the sprawling, experimental fare of the searing, 10-minute epic ‘Landslide’ or the downbeat ‘DJ.’ But it was first song the band shared with the public, ‘No Comprende’, which showed the way.
"The Kendrick Lamar album finally dawned on me the other day too and I was like ‘Ohhh, this is good.’"
— Alan Sparhawk
“That was the tune that we got first that showed the way. It’s kind of stark and then the end with that drop, that extreme kind of change. For me that song is the record in a nutshell: it’s stark, the voices go back and forth, almost singing a different song kind of feel. It’s darker and heavier and a little bit more extreme.” This idea of working within parameters, within the confines of the sound that they have made their own, can also be seen to come out in the album’s title. “It came from the idea of the controlled randomness of numbers. I pulled numbers together that are seemingly unrelated. So it’s the idea of orchestrating something that seems random.”
“Some of it’s from Pi too – my daughter’s kind of a maths dork and she memorised 160 digits of Pi for this school competition. She worked on it for months and she had this tattered bit of paper. I remember seeing it and your brains wants to see patterns. And on the other hand it’s Pi - it’s the most finite thing in the physical world. It’s constant, it’s defined and it goes on forever. It is a specific thing and it does a specific thing it’s very real in the physical world. To me that means it makes you wonder whether our number system is wrong. Everything is not 1,2 3, 4,” he pauses. “Maybe the difference between numbers actually varies.” Then he shakes his head. “But it doesn’t. If my daughter was here she’d say ‘No, maths doesn’t change Dad, that’s why I like it.’”
We’re back to this idea of Alan as the father. Their children now understand their relationship with music but it wasn’t always the case. “They get their fill of Low songs because we’re recording in the basement. They know the songs and at different ages they had different awareness of it. When they were younger it was a given thing, then as they got older they were like ‘So, this is a weird thing?’” And it can take your children to remind you of your place in their musical hierarchy. “I remember when my daughter asked me ‘So, you’re famous? Are you as famous as Green Day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh, ok.’” Not as famous as Green Day maybe. But Low remain as vital as ever.
Low's new album 'Ones and Sixes' will be released on 11th September via Sub Pop.