Low (Contemporary Musicians)
The underground rock group Low trio that often draws comparisons to acts like Galaxie 500, Codeine, and Red House Paintersreates music that defies conventional rock and may leave typical pop audiences both disoriented and mesmerized. Their minimalist formula centers on low volume, a slow tempo, sparse instrumentation, whispered vocals, and personal, carefully thought-out lyricism. According to drummer and vocalist Mimi Parker, the concept of silence remains central to achieving Low's atmospheric quality. "We like to play with time and space in our music," she revealed to Brad Jones of Westword. "We intentionally create gaps in between notes, because we feel they're just as important to our music as the music itself."
Low, formed in the town of Duluth, Minnesota, in April of 1993, also features guitarist and vocalist Alan Spar-hawk, who is married to Parker, and bassist Zak Sally, a friend who joined the group as a permanent member in 1994; he replaced original bass player John Nichols. Sparhawk grew up in Utah until the age of nine, when his family relocated to Minnesota, and Parker was raised in a farming community in the northern part of the state and played drums for her high school's marching band. The couple first met in Duluth while attending college. Both Parker and Sparhawk, who attended Brigham Young University his freshman year in 1986, practice Mormonism (Parker converted when the two married), but they do not consider Low a religious or preaching sort of band. Sally, in fact, does not subscribe to any organized religion.
Initially, Low existed as a reaction to the popularity of grunge rock. Over time, though, the trio's original motive to poke fun at the mainstream evolved into a preferred means of self-expression. "It was a bit of a novelty at first, but then we started enjoying it," Spar-hawk admitted to Applesauce magazine's Omar Rodriguez. "It was rebellious at first, kinda against the grain. It became something that was fun to do and seemed satisfying and exhilarating."
As word spread of Low's experimental sound, they attracted fans such as Shimmy Disc producer Kramer. He soon invited the trio to visit his Noise studio in New Jersey, assisted Low in recording demo tapes, and helped the group land a recording contract with Vernon Yard Recordings. Kramer subsequently produced Low's first two full-length albums: I Could Live in Hope, released in 1994, and Long Division, released in 1995. "Low allows each note to hang in space, to breathe and shimmer momentarily before the next tone emerges. Low's debut is a gorgeous exercise in minimalism," a CMJ reviewer said of I Could Live in Hope in 1994. Both albums possessed an understated, sublime feel that immediately grabbed the attention of independent music fans and critics. Low's reputation continued to grow throughout 1995 and 1996, during which time the group appeared on a Joy Division tribute album entitled A Means to an End, covering the song 'Transmission" (expanded for Low's Transmission EP), and toured with established acts like Soul Coughing, Luna, Pell Mell, and Spectrum.
Also in 1996, Low returned with a third album, The Curtain Hits the Cast, featuring the absorbing, epic track "Do You Know How to Waltz?" Produced by keyboardist and Pell Mell frontman Steve Fisk, it, too, won critical praises from such sources as Rolling Stone and the CMJ New Music Report. In 1997, Low made their first appearance for the Kranky Records label with the EP Songs for a Dead Pilot. The EP features "Born by the Wires," a 13-minute "glacially paced exploration of aural textures that finds Sparhawk out front languorously scraping and strumming his guitar as he sings," according to Michael Yockel of the Miami New Times Online. Afterward came Low's acclaimed 1999 album Secret Name, an example of how simplicity and understatement can result in vivid, powerful songs. The set, which included the ominous "Don't Understand," was recorded with producer Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. "The hypnotic patterns leave you sitting on the edge of your seat, savoring the clarity of each note and wondering what's to come next," concluded CMJ contributor Wendy Mitchell in an assessment of Secret Name.
That year also saw the release of the group's Christmas album, which included the cover of "Little Drummer Boy" featured in holiday season television commercials for the Gap clothing stores. Sparhawk still views the advertisements with a sense of humor. "You see visions in your head of people that you knew growing upomebody who watches way too much TV sitting in Pierre, South Dakota, having a Diet Pepsi and a Twinkieearing us and our messed-up, distorted, out-of-tune, too-much-reverb song careening out of their 27-inch TVs. That to me is perversely delightful," he told Simon Peter Groebner for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2001. "It kind of gets back to when we started the bandhe idea of, 'Wow, what would it be like to play this stuff in front of people? It's gonna really make them uncomfortable.'"
After the issue of the well-received EP Dinosaur Act, Low teamed with Albini again for the recording of Things We Lost in the Fire. The album, released in early 2001 and considered their most refined to date, included stark songs like "Whitetail," the minimalist track "Embrace," and the lush "Kind of Girl," as well as the quiet, yet explosive "Dinosaur Act." "It's difficult to imagine a more perfect expression of their vision than this," asserted New Musical Express in one review, while Colin Helms in CMJ insisted, "Low's music needs neither force nor speed to deliver its emotionally exacting message."
Low spent much of 2001 and the following year touring, including an appearance at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England. In 2002, the group also recorded and mixed songs for a new album, expected for release later in the year. In addition to Low, Sparhawk and Sally are active in the side projects Hospital People and the Tooth Fairies; Sparhawk also formed a band with members of the Early Americans called the Black-Eyed Snakes.
I Could Live in Hope, Vernon Yard, 1994.
Long Division, Vernon Yard, 1995.
The Curtain Hits the Cast, Vernon Yard, 1996.
One More Reason to Forget (live recording), Bluesanct Musak, 1998.
owL Remix Low, Vernon Yard, 1998.
Christmas, Chair Kicker's Union, 1999.
Secret Name, Kranky, 1999.
Paris '99nthony, Are You Around?, P-Vine, 2001.
Things We Lost in the Fire, Kranky, 2001.
Low, Summershine/Vernon Yard, 1994.
Transmission EP, Vernon Yard, 1995.
finally/, Vernon Yard, 1996.
Over the Ocean, Vernon Yard, 1996.
Songs for a Dead Pilot, Kranky, 1997.
(With Spring Heel Jack) Bombscare, Tugboat, 2000.
Dinosaur Act, Tugboat, 2000.
The Exit Papers Soundtrack, Temporary Residence, 2000.
(With Dirty Three) in the fishtank, Konkurrent, 2001.
k./Low, Tiger Style, 2001.
Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me, Chairkicker's Music, 2001.
A Means to an End: A Tribute to Joy Division, Virgin, 1995.
Indie-Rock Flea Market Part 2, Flip, 1995.
Don't Get Too Tense, Vernon Yard, 1995.
Jabberjawure Sweet Hell, Mammoth, 1996.
A Tribute to Spacemen 3, Rocket Girl, 1998.
Duluth Does Dylan, Spinout, 2000.
Naked in the Afternoon: A Tribute to Jandek, Summersteps, 2000.
Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver, Badman, 2000.
Applesauce, September 7, 1995.
Baltimore City Paper, September 8-14, 1999.
Brain, Volume IV, Issue #40, October 14, 2001.
Chairs Missing, January 1996.
CMJ, February 14, 1994; May 29, 1995; February 5, 1996; August 12, 1996; June 2, 1997; October 27, 1997; August 3, 1998; March 29, 1999; September 11, 2000; February 12, 2001.
Daily Texan, January 31, 2001.
Dallas Observer, January 25, 2001.
Dead Angel, Issue #45, March 2001.
DIW Magazine, March 2000.
Duluth News Tribune, February 9, 2001.
Florida Flambeau (Florida State University) January 1997.
Grip Monthly, Issue #5, April 1997.
Independent, November 17, 2000.
Miami New Times, April 16, 1998; October 12, 2000.
Milk Magazine, June 4, 2001.
NME, November 13, 2000; November 18, 2000; February 3, 2001.
Oculus Magazine, February 1999.
Opuzine, January 13, 2001.
QRD, Issue #14, October 1998.
SF Gate, April 12, 2001.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 4, 2001.
War Against Silence, December 11, 1997.
Westword (Denver, CO), October 1996.
Whirlpool, March 1995.
"Low," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 9, 2002).
Low Official Website, http://www.chairkickers.com/low (May 9, 2002).
Miami New Times Online, http://www.miaminewtimes.com (May 9, 2002).