Comes with a Smile # interviews
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an interview with Alan Sparhawk by James Hindle

I cannot seem to escape Low. Over the last couple of years our musical paths have crossed on numerous occasions, almost to the point where I am starting to get a wee bit freaked out by it all. From DJ-ing at their Echolalia show in Leeds last year (my Fairport-heavy set going down a treat) and appearing on the same record (last year's John Denver tribute), to sharing a similar fetish for big toothed antipodean brothers (I recently recorded a version of the Gibbs' I Started A Joke, later to find that Low had, indeed, tackled the very same song for a Mammoth Records compilation.) And now I am interviewing them for Comes with a Smile...hmm, curious. What's the score Mr Sparhawk? are you stalking me, or what?

I can honestly say that we are great fans of all the people we have done tributes to, he begins. We love John Denver and the Bee Gees as well - and even consider them influences. It's perhaps a surprise to some people. A true music fan should be able to listen to, and appreciate, both the Swans and George Jones.

It is odd to think that the beautifully sparse sounds that occupy the amazing new record Things We Lost In The Fire have their roots in such disparate influences but, as Alan points out, the style that Low have championed over the years is as a result of more than just simple plagiarism.
When we started, we were trying to find something that hadn't been done before. Of course there were some elements in Joy Division, Velvet Underground, even The Cure, that were perhaps tips in the direction we were looking.

Six albums into their career they have definitely achieved the 'uniqueness' for which they strove, consolidating their ear for melody along the way. The new record is positively brimming with hummable tunes and, perhaps most significantly, the songs are much shorter and concise - pop almost... a deliberate shift?
On this record we threw out our preconceptions of what Low is and let the songs go where they seemed to want to go, he says.
It wasn't so much a conscious decision to be 'more pop,' but there was a point during writing and preparation to record where we discussed the fact that a lot of the songs were very direct, even on the edge of our playing capabilities. We decided to give them a long leash because in the past we had regretted stifling some of our more poppy songs. It's as if the songs ran us this time instead of us running the songs. It was very confusing at the time but we're happy with the results.

So no radical change in direction then, just a new angle from which to approach their music. Perhaps the decision not to radically fuck with the formula - instead mould and tease it - is the reason those note perfect harmonies still work so well. After all, when people have messed with Low, the results are not always that favourable - take the ill-advised remix album from a few years back.
The remix recording was done very much out of our hands, Alan explains. We were already off the label when they put it together and all of our suggestions went by the wayside. I like and respect many of the artists on there and some of it is quite good, but we don't really consider it part of our discography - despite our name being on it. I like the idea of someone taking our stuff and placing it in a totally opposite setting. If I had my way, we'd have had Alec Empire remixing us. (A scary thought!)

There is something very precious about Low - not in a twee indie way, more that there is something pure about their approach and music. I am loathe to use the word innocence (especially considering songs such as Whore on the new record), but there is always a feeling of 'otherness' at work, something pure. I guess there is always the religious angle (they're mormon y'know). Alongside Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado, Low are the front runners in an - admittedly small - 'scene' where belief is not something to be mocked or dismissed, rather embraced. Low's most explicit example of this was, of course, their Christmas record of '99. Something they had planned on doing for some time?
My religious beliefs are all over everything we write. Some people can hear it, most don't, and that's fine with me. The Christmas CD came very naturally to us. It started as a single one year, a radio show the next, and - before we knew it - we had enough for the whole thing. We've always been somewhat sober in tone with all we do, so it was not a big jump to do a Christmas recording that was honest and irony-free.

Curiously enough it has become Low's biggest selling release to date, and with the album having been re-released once here already in the UK, it looks set become a classic amid the Low catalogue. Despite his belief in the project, it was, perhaps, Alan himself who was most shocked by its success.
I'm surprised it did so well in the UK. You folks are known for [your] irony.

CWAS #7 - Spring 2001