A favorite act on the Duluth scene is Low, a remarkable trio that includes Alan Sparhawk. Sparhawk is also responsible for the Black-Eyed Snakes and for countless more short-lived adventurous projects that continue to evolve ideas of music in the state.
There he is, Alan Sparhawk, singing an AC/DC song in his kitchen while he digs into the cookie jar. Two weeks ago he was on stage at the Green Man Music Festival at the Mont du Lac ski hill outside of Duluth, calling himself "Chicken Bone George" and cranking out distorted blues songs with the Black-Eyed Snakes and looking like he might throw his chair at the drummer just for the fun of it. A few months ago he could be seen riding a motor scooter toward the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church, on his way to record "slowcore" indie rock songs with another band, Low.
His wife is Mimi Parker. She'd be a little out of place singing heavy metal with a peanut butter cookie in her mouth or screaming about mojo into a harmonica microphone, but she's right at home singing those soft, slow songs that have earned Low worldwide recognition.
Sparhawk and Parker formed the group nearly 10 years ago, adding bass player Zak Sally after the first year. Sally is the dark horse of the band, Sparhawk says. "He kind of plays the part of the mystery man, with his ragged look and furrowed brow." While Sparhawk and Parker raise a two-year-old daughter in their middle-class Duluth home, Sally is somewhere in Minneapolis, probably drawing comics for a self-published 'zine or playing bass for Kid Dakota.
This fall, the trio will hit the road on a six-month tour to support their new album, Trust. It's arguably Low's sixth full-length studio album; even Sparhawk has to think about that for a moment before confirming. "Six, if you don't count the Christmas record and Songs For a Dead Pilot," he said, referring to two releases that were considered EPs.
The new album comes on the heels of the band's best selling release yet, Things We Lost in the Fire, which has sold over 50,000 copies worldwide and held the #1 slot on College Music Journal's album chart for four weeks, though Parker notes, "Our BMI checks have not substantiated that yet."
It's been a very gradual rise to semi-stardom for Low, which has kept the band members modest to the point of constant self-deprecation. The group was well-received from its very beginning, but its music has only recently seen serious mainstream recognition. The band has mostly been building itself on a decade of consistent good music combined with strokes of good luck.
Low started out with a four-track demo, sending it to producers they thought might be willing to give them a shot. The first break came from a producer named Kramer (no relation to Cosmo, we're told).
"He wrote back right away and said he liked our stuff and wanted to record us," Sparhawk said. "We said 'great' and drove out to New York. We recorded a few songs and he really liked it. He said he would give it to some people he knew in the business." The band quickly heard back from Vernon Yard, a subsidiary of Virgin Records. By 1994 Low had a major-label record deal and by 1996 it had a music video on MTV and was touring the nation.
Sparhawk said the timing just happened to be right in the early '90s. Major labels were creating "fake indie labels" and signing "anyone that stood a chance of being the next Nirvana. If we were starting today, nobody would be interested in us," he said. "We're just a trashy little band from Duluth that plays quiet."
By 1998 the Vernon Yard deal had gone sour, but the band found new life with its current label, Kranky. It was a move from a major label to two dudes in a Chicago basement, but the band continued to build a following. Touring expanded to the United Kingdom and France that year.
At the turn of the millennium, the band's music started popping up in unexpected places. A Low cover of "Little Drummer Boy" was used in a worldwide television commercial for Gap clothing. The song "In Metal" was used on an episode of Dawson's Creek. And, last summer, Sparhawk and Parker recorded opening and closing theme music for the film The Mothman Prophecies.
What's next for Low? Well, six months on the road for starters.
"We're at a point now where for six months we work pretty hard," Sparhawk said. "Then, for six months we watch a lot of T.V."
The band's new album, Trust, will be released Sept. 24. It was recorded at the Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth. The band chose Minneapolis-based sound engineer Tom Herbers to do the recording. Herbers has worked with a slew of major acts, including Roger McGuinn and Soul Asylum. The album was mixed by Tchad Blake, who has worked with everyone from Crowded House to Paul McCartney. Low is scheduled to perform at Pantages in Minneapolis on Saturday, Nov. 23. The band has added a Duluth show as the kickoff for its tour. Low plays at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday, Sept. 28.
Please go to chairkickers.com for Low's website, including concert images, journal, stuff to buy (the embroidered pillowcase is great), and recordings.