Perhaps one of the world's current greatest bands is Low, who hail from Duluth, Minnesota. The trio, consisting of the married team of Alan Sparhawk (guitar, vocals) and Mimi Parker (percussion, vocals) with Zak Sally (on deep bass), create hauntingly beautiful nouveau-American gothic music. It is a mix of some unique desert-sparse folk draped by some clever and eloquent vocal harmonies. In a live se?ing, they attract the entire spectrum of music listeners and are given utmost attention — to the point where one can hear the proverbial "pin drop". If you haven't heard of Low, (you might even have heard their rendition of "Little Drummer Boy", from their Christmas record, which was used for a commercial by the Gap), then you simply should. Alan Sparhawk is also an accomplished recording engineer, and he has committed to tape some really amazing sounds and textures for other artiÌs as well, including his other band, The Black Eyed Snakes.
Can you describe sound/music as an intro to those who don't know about Low?
We are a 3 piece that plays mostly quiet, slower, minimal music. Someone once described us as a cross between Simon & Garfunkel and Joy Division. A lot of people make a big deal about how slow and quiet we are, but I hope there is more to it than that!
You recorded this new album, Trust, in a church?
It's this old Catholic church that they were going to tear down about 15 years ago. Some group of people from the community got together and basically saved it, and turned it into this non-profit community space that, up until now, was basically maintained for weddings and local concerts put on by colleges — like choral concerts. Also, there's one of the last-of-its-kind pipe organs in the place that they've maintained really well — there are two of this particular model that exist in the world today. We had some equipment and they had this interesting place to record so we gave them a call to see if they were interested in some sort of a long-term/temporary rental situation. They agreed and they let us have the crying room.
What's the crying room?
I guess it's something common in Catholic churches — a room off to the side or to the back that's enclosed that has windows in it so that you can still see what's going on. It's for mothers and their crying babies. It's great because it's kind of soundproofed, the shape is irregular, and there are windows — so it made a perfect control room. We moved in this 24- track machine and board, pooled some resources from other people in town, and there we were. Our friend, Tom Herbers, engineered on the tracking for this new record and we were very lucky to have him there. Tom is used to working with us on various projects over the years so he knows our pace, too. I think it would have been impossible to do ourselves because with the studio being in an unconventional space, there's a bit more setting up. You can't just jump every time you have an idea to put down. Plus, we were the first project to record there, so there's always kinks to work out. Tom and our friend Eric Swanson would usually stay behind every night, after we were done, fixing and soldering stuff.
And I take it the church is rather large?
Yeah. It's very large — high ceilings — very ideal for ambience. A cappella choral stuff is really stunning, especially. It's a natural, built-in "large hall reverb". At the same time there are also bathrooms, little corner rooms, and changing rooms, so it kind of turned out perfect. We did most of the stuff in the bigger room with ambient mics. You can hear cars going by on the record. We also did some tracking at a "real" studio in Minneapolis called Third Ear, then shipped it all off to England to get mixed with Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16].
And that was at Real World...
I think he went out there to start working originally with Peter Gabriel and he ended up getting married to one of the engineers there. Now they have a son and everything — meanwhile he is still working on the new Peter Gabriel record. It's quite a facility. It's kind of funny going from our little thrown-together studio to that joint, that's for sure.
So how did you benefit from mixing there? Was it because of Tchad or...
I've kind of talked with him on and off for the last few years and the original plan was when I heard he was going to speak at the Tape Op convention, I thought I'd somehow get him over to Minneapolis to mix our record, but then he said he wasn't going to do the conference and that it'd actually be cheaper if we came out to England and did it there. He said he'd talk to whomever to try to get us a deal on the rate. It was still expensive but we did it in only five days....