Low is an American indie rock group from Duluth, Minnesota, formed in 1993. As of 2010, the group is composed of founding members Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums and vocals), joined by newer addition Steve Garrington (bass guitar).
Their music is commonly described as "slowcore," a rock subgenre characterised by slow tempos and minimalist arrangements. Though Low's members disapprove of the term slowcore, the band is among the earliest to adopt and popularize the style, making them considerable contributors to the slowcore movement.
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."
The band formed in the spring of 1993. Sparhawk had been playing in the Superior, Wisconsin band Zen Identity, the core of which was formed by drummer Robb Berry and vocalist Bill Walton. That band needed a new bassist and recruited future Low bassist John Nichols. At that time, Nichols was a senior at Superior Senior High School, and bassist in the band Lorenzo's Tractor. Sparhawk taught Zen Identity songs to Nichols and during practices, the two started improvising with some very modest, quiet themes. As a joke, they wondered what would happen if they played such quiet music in front of Duluth crowds, which at that point focused around the loud, grunge, "post-punk" sound. Soon, the joke became a serious thought. Sparhawk left Zen Identity, who continued to perform and record without him, and he and Nichols recruited Sparhawk's wife Mimi Parker to play a very modest drum kit composed of a single cymbal and a single floor tom. She was to use brushes almost exclusively rather than drum sticks.
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.
By the time of their next full-length album (1999's Secret Name) Low had moved to the 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. Allmusic 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 recording engineer Steve Albini, who proved 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 In 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 canceled the second leg of their extensive tour in support of The Great Destroyer in late spring of 2005. Sparhawk's statement, published on the band's website, addressed directly to fans, detailing his personal problems with depression resulting in the cancellation of the tour. In August 2005, Sparhawk announced his return to performance, embarking on a US tour with former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek. In October 2005, Sally announced he was leaving the band. Low replaced Sally with Matt Livingston, a bassist and saxophonist from Duluth's musical scene. In addition to playing bass guitar, Livingston also played an antique Navy chaplain's pump organ in the group.
After appearing on 2007's Drums and Guns and touring with the group, Matt Livingston left Low in 2008, to be replaced by Steve Garrington.
Low are known for their impressive live performances. Rock club audiences sometimes 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. In performance, Low shows off 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 into the crowd before exiting the stage. He had earlier informed the audience that it had been a "crappy day".
In 2010 they performed the Great Destroyer at Primavera Sound Festival
The band's mainstream exposure has been limited: their best-known song is arguably a hymnal version of "The Little Drummer Boy," which was featured in a Gap television ad that depicted a snowball fight in slow-motion to match the song's glacial tempo. A remix of their "Halflight" was featured in the Mothman Prophecies motion picture. The band made their network television debut in 2005 by performing the single "California" on an episode of Last Call with Carson Daly.
On June 11, 2007, Scott Bateman, a web animator, announced that his video for Low's song Hatchet (Optimimi version) would be one of the preloads on the new Zune.
Also in 2007 they recorded a song called "Family Tree" which featured in the "Careful" episode of Nick Jr's kids' show Yo Gabba Gabba!
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).
The 2008 movie "KillShot", starring Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane features the song "Monkey" early in the film.
Until now three of their songs have been featured in the UK TV series Skins : - "Point of Disgust" - episode 7 Season 2 - "Sunflower" - episode 9 Season 2 - "Breaker" - episode 4 Season 3 As the music supervisor of Skins declared in the Episode Track Listing section of the Skins official website: "You may have guessed by now that we are all pretty huge fans of Low in the Skins office..."
The 2003 documentary film "Tarnation" by Jonathan Caouette features the Low tracks "Laser Beam", "Embrace" and "Back Home Again" alongside tracks by artists such as Red House Painters and The Magnetic Fields.
"Laser Beam" also featured on episode 4 season 2 of Misfits.
Low was the subject of the 2008 documentary Low: You May Need a Murderer.
In 2010, Robert Plant recorded two Low songs that were included on his album Band of Joy. In an interview, Plant said of Low's The Great Destroyer, "It's great music; it's always been in the house playing away beside Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf, you know. There's room for everything.". It is rumored that Plant was introduced to Low's music by guitarist/producer Buddy Miller who has worked with both Plant as well as Low in the past, including playing guitar on Band of Joy. Curiously, writing credits for both "Monkey" and "Silver Rider" are listed in the "Band of Joy" liner notes as "Zachary Micheletti, Mimi Parker, George Sparhawk" per the official listing in BMI's publishing database. It is notable that Sparhawk performs under the pseudonym "Chicken-Bone George" in his side project The Black-Eyed Snakes.
The band were chosen by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in March 2012 in Minehead, England.
Sparhawk and Parker are married, have two children, and are practicing members of the Mormon faith. (Sparhawk was born into an LDS family in Seattle, and for some time lived in Utah before moving to Minnesota at age nine; he also briefly attended Brigham Young University. Parker is a convert.)
In 2006, Sparhawk was involved in raising funds for the construction of a school in Namuncha, Kenya, which he visited in August of that year. On Low's website he is quoted as saying, "My visit to Namuncha, Kenya in August was one of the most impressive experiences of my life so far."
Low owns a record label, Chairkickers' Union, which releases material by other musicians such as Rivulets and Haley Bonar, as well as some of their own material. Sparhawk is notably active in Duluth's small but vibrant independent music scene; he operates a recording studio in the town, in a deconsecrated church that naturally provides the lush reverb characteristic of Low's sound. The Chairkickers label offers another outlet for Duluth musicians, as most groups on the label are from that city, or at least from Minnesota and surrounding areas.
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 bassist in late 2005, also played in The Retribution Gospel Choir, and was subsequently replaced by Steve Garrington. On Retribution's first tour (fall 2005), they played the Low song "From Your Place on Sunset." Musical crossover between Sparhawk's bands went in both directions as two songs originally released on a RGC tour EP, "Hatchet" and "Breaker", were later covered on Low's Drums and Guns release (before making it onto RGC's self-titled full-length debut). 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. In 2007 Sparhawk did a Take-Away Show acoustic video session shot by Vincent Moon.