Low is an American indie rock group from Duluth, Minnesota. The group was formed in 1993, by Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals), Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) and original bassist John Nichols (bass guitar). Zak Sally replaced Nichols after Low's first album and tour. In 2005, Sally quit the band; Matt Livingston replaced him shortly thereafter. Livingston has since left the band and has been replaced by Steve Garrington, creating the current lineup of Sparhawk, Parker and Garrington.
Their music is commonly described as "slowcore," a subgenre characterised by slow tempos and minimalist arrangements. They are one of the earlier bands to adopt and popularize the style, making them considerable contributors to the slowcore movement. (It is worth noting that the band dislikes this tag. In an interview, Alan Sparhawk says of descriptions of their music: "What's the cheesiest? Slow-core. I hate that word. The most appropriate is anything that uses the word minimal in it, but I don't think anybody's made one up for that. In another interview, Sparhawk claimed that a friend of his coined the term: "this friend of ours in a record store was always joking around...and he said, 'I got it! You should call it "slowcore"!'...It was a total joke, and I think I mentioned it at one of our interviews. ) Parker and Sparhawk's striking vocal harmonies represent perhaps the group's most distinctive element; critic Denise Sullivan writes that their shared vocals are "as chilling as anything Gram and Emmylou ever conspired on -- though that's not to say it's country-tinged, just straight from the heart.
Low's debut album, I Could Live in Hope, was released on Virgin Records' Vernon Yard imprint in 1994. It featured Nichols on bass, though he was replaced by Sally, who joined for the recording of the band's next album Long Division. Both I Could Live in Hope and Long Division were produced and recorded by Kramer. Long Division and its similar follow-up, 1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast, established the band as critical darlings; extensive touring helped them to develop a highly devoted fan base. "Over the Ocean," a single drawn from The Curtain Hits the Cast, also became something of a hit on college radio.
Low experienced considerable difficulties during their tenure with Vernon Yard, and by the time of their next full-length (1999's Secret Name) they had moved to the influential independent label Kranky. In between, they released several singles and EPs. In 1999, Low joined forces with Dirty Three to record an In The Fishtank session for Konkurrent records. All Music Guide called the six-song disc "some of the best material either unit has produced." Of particular note is the disc's lengthy cover of Neil Young's "Down by the River." 2001 saw the release of Things We Lost in the Fire.
The following year saw the release of the band's final full-length on Kranky, Trust. All three of the band's full-length releases on Kranky featured superstar producers: Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire feature the work of "recordist" Steve Albini (best known for producing abrasive noise rock and punk groups), who proved surprisingly sympathetic to capturing the band's strengths; while Trust was recorded by Tom Herbers along with Duluth engineer Eric Swanson and mixed by Tchad Blake at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios.
In April 2003, Peter S. Scholtes of the Twin Cities weekly paper City Pages posted in his weblog that Sally had left Low. The following month, the band posted an update to the news on their website: "We have all had to work through some personal things recently ... After sorting it out, the good news is that Zak is remaining in the band ..." In July 2003, they toured Europe with Radiohead, Sally in tow. Following a successful tour in early 2004 that vividly demonstrated the band's commitment to their fans (Parker was visibly pregnant throughout), the band signaled their intent to continue making music by signing with powerhouse indie label Sub Pop. To tie up the loose ends of the era, Low released a three-disc rarities compilation on its own Chairkickers label in 2004.
Beginning with Secret Name, the band have diversified their sound. The band use subtle electronic music touches to augment their sound, reflective of their tenure with Kranky and their exposure to the Midwest's post-rock scene. Adding a more overt rock element to their aesthetic, the band has used fuzz bass from Things We Lost on the Fire onward, and began using distorted lead guitar on Trust. The band's 2005 album, The Great Destroyer, nods even further in the direction of rock. Recorded with producer Dave Fridmann and released by Sub Pop in January 2005, The Great Destroyer has received mostly positive reviews; the Village Voice described the record's "comparatively thunderous verve."
Low cancelled the second leg of their extensive tour in support of The Great Destroyer in late spring of 2005. Sparhawk's informal statement, published on the band's web forum and addressed directly to fans, detailed the personal reasons behind the cancellation. In August 2005, however, Sparhawk announced his return to performance, embarking on a United States tour with fellow slowcore pioneer, former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek. In October 2005, Sally announced his resignation and has spent the last few years running La Mano, a comics art press based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Replacing him was Matt Livingston, a longtime bassist and saxophonist in Duluth's musical scene. In addition to playing the bass guitar, Livingston also plays an antique Navy chaplain's pump organ.
After appearing on 2007's Drums and Guns, Matt Livingston left the band in 2008, to be replaced by Steve Garrington.
Low are known for their impressive live performances. Rock club audiences often watch the band while seated on the floor. During their early career, the band often faced unsympathetic and inattentive audiences in bars and clubs, to which they responded by bucking rock protocol and turning their volume down. The huge dynamic range of Low's early music made it susceptible to background noise and chatter, since many of their songs were very quiet. A performance in 1996 at the South by Southwest festival was overpowered when a Scandinavian hardcore band was booked downstairs. The Trust album, marked a turning point, and Low's music has developed a more emphatic sound.
Their shows often feature drastically reinterpreted cover versions of famous songs by the likes of Joy Division and The Smiths, in addition to their own original material. Live, Low shows a sense of humor not necessarily found on their recordings; a tour in early 2004 featured a cover of OutKast's hit song "Hey Ya." At a gig in Los Angeles on Halloween 1998, the band took the stage as a Misfits tribute act, complete with corpse paint and black clothing.
At the 2008 End of the Road festival in Dorset, England, Sparhawk abruptly ended the band's performance by ripping the strings and lead out of his guitar, throwing it to the ground and then hurling it with vengeance into the crowd before exiting the stage. He had earlier informed the audience that it had been a "crappy day".
However, because of their minimal overhead expenses (the band makes very little use of professional recording facilities), Low have managed to develop a reasonably comfortable career.
On March 24, 2008, their song "Point of Disgust" was featured in the extremely popular show Skins in the UK, prompting a rush of download sales from iTunes. Another of their songs, "Sunflower" was featured in the following episode (episode 9).
Sally has toured as a bassist with Dirty Three, and Sparhawk has devoted considerable time and energy to his Black Eyed Snakes project, a blues-rock revival band quite far removed from the Low aesthetic. Recently Sparhawk has also been seen with a new side project called The Retribution Gospel Choir. Matt Livingston, who became Low's new bassist in late 2005, also plays in The Retribution Gospel Choir. On Retribution's first tour (fall 2005), they played the Low song "From Your Place on Sunset." Subsequent Retribution tours would feature additional material originally released under the Low moniker, such as "Hatchet" and "Breaker." (Similarly, Low and the Black-Eyed Snakes have played some overlapping songs, such as "Lordy".)
Sparhawk and Sally also made several recordings in a more synthesizer-driven style, reminiscent of the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, under the name The Hospital People. The most widely distributed of these was "Crash / We'll Be Philosophers", released as a 7-inch on clear vinyl by Duck Suit Records. Sparhawk and Sally have also played live as The Tooth Fairies, with Sally performing on drums and Sean Erspamer on bass; Tooth Fairies sets have typically consisted of cover songs by the Stooges, MC5, and similar bands. Sally has generated several works that fall in the 'graphic novel' genre, and also created the original artwork for David Bazan's (formerly of Pedro the Lion) first solo effort, the EP Fewer Moving Parts, which was recently re-released by Barsuk. At one time, Mimi Parker was rumored to have started a punk band called Rubbersnake , but this was an inside joke on the part of the band.