a visit from Low

interview by Mike Appelstein
photos by Callie Appelstein
April 2001, Seattle

When Low came to town, I didn’t want to ask them about music.

Mind you, that’s no reflection on this Duluth, MN trio and their stunningly beautiful songs.  It's so hard to make quiet, slow music – certainly harder than loud rock 'n roll.   There's so much more room for error when you choose to turn down the tempo.  Low succeeds not only because they write good, evocative songs, but because they turn the spaces between the notes and drumbeats into integral parts of their sound.  The result is that you as a listener feel actively engaged; you're hanging on their every note.  Tracks like "Dinosaur Act" and "Canada" suggest a hurricane approaching in the background, but their musical core is almost always peaceful and comforting.  

But no, I didn't want to ask them about music.  What I really wanted to discuss is that most personal of subjects, religion.  As I grow older, I become more interested in seeing how art and spirituality mix.  It’s no secret that two-thirds of Low – guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker, also husband and wife – are practicing Mormons.  They don’t proselytize, either in person or through their music.  References do pop up every now and then, though.  Take their 1998 album Secret Name: it includes a song called “Missouri,” which is at least tangentially about the Mormons’ settlement in that state on their way to Utah.  The album title itself appears to be a reference to the Mormon endowment ceremony, which is part of the church’s initiation – all church members receive a new “secret name” at that juncture.  And, of course, Low released a Christmas album that was far more devout and sincere than the usual holiday cash-in.

I was especially curious to know what kind of contradictions and compromises they might face as a touring indie-rock band.   Practicing Mormons follow a strict moral code that includes abstention from alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee.  Obviously you're going to come into daily contact with these and other substances if you're playing bars.  I was also wondering whether they had a following among young churchgoers – there’s not really a “Mormon rock” scene the way a Christian rock scene exists.  I didn’t want to ask them snickering questions about polygamy, underwear or Osmonds .

In the spring of 2001, on a tour to promote Things We Lost In The Fire, the members of Low were kind enough make a pit stop and discuss all this stuff with my wife Callie and me.  In retrospect, I suspect they were a little uncomfortable with our line of questioning.  It must have been odd to face us, a couple of Jews, asking detailed questions about campus life at Mormon-run Brigham Young University.  It was an interesting discussion all the same.  In the background, Alan and Mimi’s young daughter Hollis chattered happily and played with our cats.  The next night, they played the Paradox Theater in Seattle with the Danielson Famile, who are far more upfront about using Christian and Biblical imagery in their art.  It was a wonderful evening.

(Note: Yes, this interview is appearing about two years late - but I still think it was an interesting conversation worth sharing.  Respect due to Mike McGonigal of Yeti, who inspired me to do the interview in the first place.)

Alan: …Both my parents were Church members.  They were kind of your stereotypical strict Mormons, I guess.  There’s a certain mentality that goes with Mormon families: they’re generally conservative and strict, and kind of surface-related.  My mom was a lot more strict than my dad, but I think that’s typical in most families.  My father went to church and held positions in the Church, but he’d also swear like a sailor when he tried to fix the car.  He was a jazz musician; he liked all kinds of music.  He wasn’t necessarily like a record collector as much as he liked singing and playing.  

Did you grow up in Duluth?
Alan:
  We’re actually from Clearbrook, which is 3 hours west of Duluth.

Is there a temple there?
Alan: There’s a temple in Chicago.  Very recently they built one in St. Paul; it’s a smaller temple.  Two years ago there were 50 Mormon temples, and now there are more than 100.  The first 50 were built over the first 150 years, and they’ve doubled them just in the past two years.  

At what age did you begin getting into music?
Alan: We lived on a farm, so we weren’t necessarily in contact with “culture,” so to speak.  There wasn’t much there beside the radio, and the stuff my dad had.  Twelve or 13 years old was when I got into music, and I was 14 when I had a guitar.

Was that a problem in your household?
Alan:  Not at all.  The kind of music I was listening to, my parents generally didn’t get too upset about.

Were you active in the Church yourself?
Alan:  Yeah.  My mother made sure that we all went to church.  We kind of didn’t have a choice until we were 16 or 17 and mouthy enough to protest.  Which I think was fine – I don’t think kids should be allowed to decide until they’re old enough to understand what they’re deciding on.

You went to BYU for awhile.  How was that?
Alan:  I went for one year.  I can see where it would be a good school for some people, but I was not into it.  It was a combination of I was going through a rebellious age, and my own ideas about what I wanted to do.  The place kind of was bad place to go when you’re in that frame of mind, because 98 percent of the students there are very strict.  Then there’s the 2 percent that deviate.

We took a tour of BYU once, and the only thing I could think of was, “What happens when you don’t adhere to the honor code, or if you’re in a questioning frame of mind?”  How does one rebel in that kind of atmosphere?
Alan:  Well, it depends on what you’re questioning.  One thing is to question the culture, which I think was probably the first thing for me.  I saw around me a lot of people that I didn’t really feel that I identified with.  I was looking for something that I did identify with, and it just so happened that those were the people who weren’t adhering to the rules or guidelines.  So you hang out with that crowd, and you feel all cool because you’re with the rebels.  The trouble there is…someday it would be interesting to write a book about what happens when you concentrate a bunch of imperfect people into an assumed perfect society, what happens when there’s a tendency for a certain amount of people to rebel, and a certain amount of denial with the people who are supposedly keeping the rules.

At BYU you have to agree to this whole code that tells you how to wear your hair, how to dress and act…
Alan:
  And of course you want to rebel against that.  Any other 18-year-old kid, if he feels a little rebellious and go against what his parents say and find his own roots, he’ll go out and have a few beers and get it out of his system.  But there’s no casual rebellion at BYU.  It’s not so much in the way the rules are set up as much as your mentality.  It’s just a quicker slide into whatever.  I hadn’t done anything against the rules of the Church prior to going there.  Well, I guess I had, but nothing dangerous.  But it didn’t take more than a month at BYU before I was regularly taking drugs and hanging out with all kinds of hooligans.  All kinds of anti-Church people.

I would imagine it’s hard to score drugs in Provo.
Alan:
  Actually, it’s really easy to score drugs in Provo.  I’ve got my theories as to why that is.  In the big picture, I believe that the Church teaches the gospel, and it’s the true gospel.  It’s something that I’ve grown to understand, love and have great faith in.  (But there’s) a weird social structure there, and a bunch of 18-year-old kids in this kind of culture.  Most people who go there, it’s fine; they learn a lot of stuff, get their degree, hang out with a lot of people who have the same religion as themselves.  They probably find who they’re going to marry there, and they go on happily ever after.  But for any person who’s struggling with some things, it’s a really dangerous place to be.  One of my theories about why that is: OK, if indeed Mormon church is the church of God, if you were the adversary or the devil or Satan or whatever, where would you go?  If the Church is true and all these missionaries are preaching the gospel, where do you go to knock out as many young men who are about to go on missions?  You go to Provo, because that’s where most of them are: at BYU for their freshman year, and then they go into the Missionary Training Center.  From the beginning to the end of the year I was there, I saw many guys come in who were not unlike myself, and left in no shape to go on any missions.

I had to get out of there.  Mimi and I had been dating the whole time, and I was getting into trouble.  There was actually a point two-thirds of the way through the year that I had everything packed and was going to leave, just take the last money I had and buy a train ticket.

It’s just a weird place.  There’s a lot of good things going on there, but also a lot of bad.

Is there a music scene on campus?
Alan:
  Just like any town, it comes and goes.  There was music; I played in a band.  There were maybe a dozen bands there, some good and some not.

Mimi, did you ever visit?
Mimi:  I went out over spring break. I hated it.  It was one of the worst places I’d ever been!  I just felt uneasy the whole time.

Did you have a temple wedding?
Mimi:
No, we got married at the little chapel in Duluth.  It was pretty small.  Later on we went to the temple, a year later.

So at some point, you converted as well.
Mimi:
Right around that same time.

Was it a difficult transition for you?
Mimi: It wasn’t, really.
Alan:  Some people who join the Church have a lot they need to change: smoking or whatever.  A whole lifestyle.  Or their family disowns them.
Mimi: But it never was a real problem for me.

Does Low have a Mormon following?
Mimi: Within the last year, we’ve heard that maybe there is a little following.
Alan:
  We just did some shows with Pedro the Lion, and there were Church people there.  Yeah, there’s a bit of that (Mormon following).  There’s a little bit of a buzz about, “These guys are Mormon!  That’s weird!”

To what extent do spiritual themes influence your music, or the way you operate as a band?  Or don’t they?
Alan:  They do definitely influence especially the writing and the way I’d ideally like to see a performance.  First you have to define what our religious or spiritual understanding is.  To me, everything around us has spiritual connotations.  So in the broad sense, everything you sing about would be spiritual.  But yes, I think we tend to gravitate toward things that have that depth that at least I would define as spiritual.  Someone else might just define it as, “Wow, you guys sing about heavy stuff.”  I mean, our understanding of who we are and our relationship with God is such that we believe that talents of all nature, creativity, are gifts of God.  There have been times when I’ve been writing something where I’ve felt like beyond a shadow of doubt that there’s been some kind higher influence there inspiring the song.  Or the feeling when we play.  So yeah, it’s definitely an influence, and a big part of how I view what we’re trying to do.

Would you say you’ve been addressing it more directly as you go along?  The earlier records were maybe a little more vague.
Alan:
  I think the more confident we are with what we’re doing, the more comfortable I feel being less cryptic, maybe a little more direct with some things, and more comfortable laying that out on the line.  Years ago, when we were playing in front of mostly hostile audiences, it felt a little too scary to be pulling out too many religious references.  Not so much that you’re scared, but why make things more difficult?  You can bare your chest but keep your ribs.

Playing the indie-rock circuit, you’re often playing in bars, and you’re inevitably dealing with people who are drinking and smoking.  To what extent is it a compromise to put yourself in that position?
Zak:
They’re too busy dealing with that in their van!
Alan:  Yeah, if it was that big of an issue, Zak wouldn’t be in the band, I suppose.  It’s not so much a conflict.
Mimi: It has nothing to do with the religion thing…
Alan:  Other than the fact that you sometimes feel bad asking family and friends from the Church to come down and see you play at some smoky place.  Inviting them to a place they would never go to.  It’s not such a big deal.  That’s the place where you play, and believe me, there are definitely worse problems that people have to solve than drinking or smoking.  Believe me, on a list of things that we think are wrong in the world, smoking and drinking is mild.  It’s just hard to sing after half an hour of sucking down cigarette smoke.

Do you ever get heat from members of the Church for doing what you do?
Mimi:  Never.
Alan:  I think they get excited about it.  When I was 18, if there was a band like us that I could have looked to, I’d think, “Here’s some people who are doing something interesting and challenging, and they still go to church, and they still seem like they have the same faith as I do.”  I probably wouldn’t have gotten in all the trouble I did.
Mimi:  I think things are a lot different now.
Alan:  People are a little more used to…I don’t want to use the word “diversity,” because that gets overused, but I think there’s an awareness in the Church more that there are different people, they don’t all dress, look and talk the same.  Ten or 15 years ago, there wasn’t enough of that attitude.

I found out from one of your earlier interviews that Mick Ronson was Mormon!  I had no idea.
Alan:
  Yeah.  There are stories of him having problems with some of his stage antics with David Bowie.  And I don’t know that he was necessarily ultra-active during those times, but apparently up until he died, he was an elder in the Church, which means that he was a worthy templegoer.

Conversely, do you ever get heat from secular rock fans?
Alan:
  Everybody’s different.  If people are turned off by that, that’s the way it goes.  We run into it every once in awhile, people are a little freaked out by it, but it’s never been in our face, never been a heavy scene.  I think if anyone’s being honest with themselves, they can sit for 45 minutes and occasionally hear something that sounds like someone’s sort of saying something.

I don’t interpret it as preaching.  Like with Danielson, it’s just who they are and obviously they’re going to draw on it for their art.
Alan:
  Danielson is definitely more blatant than we are.  In fact, I noticed that last night.  After watching them last night, I started thinking about us: we don’t really have any songs that lay it out there as much as they do. I found it admirable.  I think it’s really great that they’re able to represent it the way they do.

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