Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.
For more than two decades, Low has carved out a niche with minimal music that yields maximum results. The new Ones And Sixes stands as one of the trio’s best works, an experimental and emotional collection of songs that define what makes Low so unique. The band recorded the LP at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios, so we asked the Bon Iver frontman to interview Low for MAGNET.
I think it’s important to say that for me, interviewing Alan Sparhawk of Low, an interesting thing about it is that Low was a band I always knew about and always felt like I should know more about. And it wasn’t until The Great Destroyer that I got to hear them. In many ways, I feel like a latecomer to Low, but Alan Sparhawk’s name specifically and what he stood for was always around, even more omnipresent than the band itself, especially in the Midwest because everyone from Duluth, Minn., knew Low. B.J. Burton recorded Low’s new album, Ones And Sixes, at my studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisc., and I didn’t stick my head into it too much. But it was cool to see Alan still thrives in that space—it makes me feel excited to be old, or not afraid to get old. To get older and be able to know that you just need to go back to the well and be amazed at what you discover every time. Every time you make a record, you are a new flower. You’re like a freshman in high school. I constantly can’t stop thinking about the kid who is 14 lately, with all my friends making records, and I consider Alan to be one; I’m always telling them, “Man, there’s gonna be some kid listening to this!” You know, someone’s gonna listen to it, and I can’t stop thinking about how important it is, and how exciting it is that some kid’s gonna get a Low record like that. I just also enjoy that you might just randomly get a CD on your desk, and it just says “Low Ones And Sixes.” You might listen it, and it might change your life. —Justin Vernon
Justin Vernon: I’m not a good interviewer or anything, so I just have a couple of questions about a few things …
Alan Sparhawk: Nobody is!
Vernon: [Laughs] Could you kind of talk about how you ran into B.J. Burton and how you met him and his role in Ones And Sixes?
Sparhawk: He kind of took the initiative on this one. I think he knew who we were, maybe had seen a few shows or something, or maybe knew of us through you. He reached out to us, contacted our manager and said, “Hey, we have this studio down here. We’d love to have you down here.” Now that I know B.J., I think that’s probably as far out on a limb as he could have gone.
Vernon: Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re right.
Sparhawk: He doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who would go out of the way to wrangle things in his life too much.
Vernon: To me, it seemed like the energy of the record fits with you guys as a band … it was so cool from my perspective to look over you guys’ shoulder and hear what was happening and see how excited everyone was. B.J. excited to be with you, you guys excited to be with B.J.—it seemed like super fresh music.
Sparhawk: It was super flattering to be getting interest from you guys; that grace that was sort of being extended to us was flattering and exciting, and it sort of spurred us along a little bit. It was nice; that energy and that gift was there without you guys having to be hanging around and involved. You were popping in and out, and I know that sometimes you just kind of do your best to not poke your head in …
Vernon: Yeah, I couldn’t help myself.
Sparhawk: I could sense that it was definitely a good place. I appreciate that; it was fun to be in that space.
Vernon: I think it just was cool … I was excited as shit to have you guys there.
Sparhawk: I imagine that’s half the fun of having that studio—you guys have been able to have a few people out, people you respect, and that’s gotta be fun, being able to watch people you know and love using something you’ve built.
Vernon: It totally is; that’s totally part of it. People, I’m sure, have talked to you and I both about, like, “Hey man, what’s it like being from the Midwest?” Which is kind of an impossible question to answer. But I was thinking about that when I was getting ready to ask you about some of these things, and speaking of the studio here and the Duluth scene, the Minneapolis scene, the Eau Claire scene, kind of how you and I have been a part of that triangle for a long time. That question about the Midwest, the only thing that I have to say about that is that we just are looking for what feels cool to us. What is saving us from daily life? Where can we play a show?
Sparhawk: Part of it is being a little bit on the edge of isolation. Being a little bit away from, you know, Chicago, New York, L.A., San Francisco, the coasts where the anchors of culture are. We’re up here feeling very outside that. So, whenever we can touch that in a way—whether it’s us experiencing what those things represent or when someone from that world comes to our world and stays in our town or does a show—that’s exciting and that’s an invigorating thing, I think, and it’s sort of unique to the Midwest, especially in the north. Every part of that feels like something you never thought would happen.
Vernon: Exactly, and this seems to be something you’ve known for longer than I have. In relation to that and the Midwestern thing, I’d be very curious to pick your brain about why it’s interesting for people to talk to people like you and me. When, really, I feel very connected to the people I live around and my community. In general, the “fame game,” or whatever it is, people recognizing you or understanding who you are or think they understand who you are—where does your brain sit in all of that? Why do you think people want to talk to folks like you and I sometimes?
Sparhawk: That’s a heavy one—that’s a hard one to talk about without sounding like a complete asshole. [Laughs]
Vernon: Well, you’re not an asshole! And I’m not an asshole. I feel like we’re doing the right thing. Just in general, was it partly important to you, or was it not important to you and music was always the thing? I guess that’s kind of what I’m asking.
Sparhawk: The desire for people to like what you do or want to know you? That kind of thing?
Vernon: Yeah. I mean, it seems like music has always been the driver for you. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.
Sparhawk: Yeah, music is certainly the anchor for that, but I think it’s always … I’m old enough to look back and admit to being driven by the idea of wanting to get known. It’s this primal desire of wanting to be understood; it’s kind of what drives people, I think, sometimes to make art, to make anything that they then share with someone else.