From the vault – an unpublished interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low
Whether he’s slowing molecular movement to absolute zero (Low), summoning all deities to lose themselves in cornbread and whiskey (Black-Eyed Snakes), or testing the limits of your eardrums (Retribution Gospel Choir), Alan Sparhawk is responsible for some of my favorite music of the past few decades. (Check out the 2007 feature film Low: You May Need a Murderer to get the idea of this whole Low what-have-you, and hear soothsayer Sparhawk predict an economic crash). Part of the motivation behind my 2003 northward trek from Kentucky was the Minneapolis/St Paul music scene, and the ridiculous number of venues for bands, artists, and the like. However, the real advantage of Minnesota residency (outside of – the great Thai food? Yes!) is the opportunity to view Low in its proper setting, amongst fans that understand their responsibility as an audience. As Lloyd once frustratingly said (I’ll paraphrase because I’ll never recapture the spirit of actual diatribe), “This is Low – if you’ve heard the albums, you know they are a quiet band. There are all kinds of meathead bars for idiots that want to scream about soap operas – save your $15 cover and leave us the hell alone!” At the 400 Bar, a venue given the business by Robert Pollard in his must-hear record of nothing but between-song stage banter, a 2004 performance of Low (using a…secret name – you clever bastards!) was gloriously meathead-free. Fans even volunteered to forego cigarettes, in respect to Sparhawk and drummer/wife Mimi Parker’s newborn baby, who was in attendance. An audience attending a Low performance to hear the music – Lloyd, Hans Pfaffenberger and Eric Bachmann would be proud.
All of that gets kicked out of the windows for Sparhawk’s other projects. The Black-Eyed Snakes, as described by a few scribes, are the Saturday night to Low’s Sunday morning. While currently dormant, they may rise up when Retribution Gospel Choir takes a break. In early 2004, I heard the ‘Snakes debut record, which – dare I say – was quite the contrast to Things We Lost in the Fire. Looking to gain experience as a writer, and meet local musicians, I joined the staff at the nascent Rift Magazine. When asked for story ideas, I suggested The Black-Eyed Snakes, and editor Rich Horton said I should take it. The Snakes were slated to appear at the late Uptown Bar, a venue whose history was only exceeded by the dirty tap lines that rendered every beer undrinkable. On that April evening, accompanied by then-roommates (and current mainstays of the Columbus rock scene) Adam and Hannah, we ambled into the Uptown, perhaps the only rock venue with a drop ceiling and fluorescent lights. They could have hired Gary Cole to walk around with a mug of coffee, and nobody would have flinched.
After submitting my finished product to Rift, I nervously awaited the issue’s release. Unfortunately, the staff at Rift chose not to run my piece. So it’s time to free the beast – luckily, only about one-third resembles the interview style popularized by The Chris Farley Show:
“Now’s the moment of the concert where we challenge someone to a fight.” Alan Sparhawk, a.k.a. Chicken-Bone George, waited for the frenetic maelstrom of instrumental thunder to calm, so he could issue his dare to the audience. A loyal Snakes fan ambled up to the stage, grabbed a microphone, and spit out his own dare back to the bandleader. After finishing his solo, Mr. George and a punter only known as “Cody” commenced a shoving match which led both individuals to bounce away from the safe environs of the stage. Luckily, the Black-Eyed Snakes can count some very trusting brutes amongst their fans, as everyone standing in the front few rows provided leverage to our gladiators as they offered the circus to accompany our bread. The sight of Sparhawk, who you may know as the leader of Glacier-core outfit Low, thrown off of a moderately-high stage into the supporting army of revelers is not one soon forgotten. Nor was an earlier moment within this performance at the Minneapolis Uptown Bar. Sparhawk made a Bob Beamon-esque leap toward the heavens, with the sheet-metal ceiling cross-beam as his bounty. Unfortunately, this “beam” merely served as the resting place for the tiles in this low roof. Unable to support the weight of a man with two highly-touted bands on his resume, the metal gave way and George almost sustained some serious chicken-bone injuries. Unfazed, Sparhawk returned to the stage, grabbed the microphone, and finished the rollicking tribute to the Snakes’ spiritual forebear, “Bo Diddley”. Prior to their set at the Uptown, I had a chance to speak with Mr. Sparhawk about Diddley, the Blues, Duluth, and his wife’s secret basketball skills.
TS – What is it about Duluth that serves as a breeding ground to good music?
Sparhawk- Desperation. For 10-12 years, very little was happening, so those who made things happen had to work very hard at it. People who want to create quality music become part of that desperation. Combination of wanting it bad enough and the access to venues….I remember living here when there was nothing, if you were into bands, you’d go to a bowling alley to see a show, now there are a number of quality places and shows, one in particular, the Green Man festival, where Willie Nelson will perform (July 16 – 18, 2004, http://www.greenmanfestival.com).
TS – So because many Duluth acts are well liked nationally, many artists who aren’t even associated with the scene are coming to check it out…
Sparhawk – Well, they’re coming to play, but I don’t know if they are coming to check Duluth out. I’m not sure Willie Nelson is saying (in Willie’s famous Texas drawl) “Yeah, I heard about this music scene here in Duluth…” I don’t think there is anything magical going on here, necessarily, but when people decide to start a band, there is a helping community for that here, a large support network. People are going to help others in bands. Because it’s a small city, you become aware of almost everyone who plays.
TS – You have the RipSaw (The news and entertainment weekly of the Twin Ports, Duluth and Superior – http://www.ripsawnews.com/)
Sparhawk – A huge factor in the support of our scene.
TS – I was looking at your website, and it mentions that your T-Shirts are made in America, no sweat shop labor involved. You see, the little things sometimes make a big difference…
Sparhawk – …There’s a cool silkscreen joint in the city, which is great for the local scene.
TS – I also love the section on your site that asks your fans to tell the Black-Eyed Snakes what gives them the blues. You just don’t see stuff like that in today’s aggro macho rock environment.
Sparhawk – The guy who did our website had a lot of great ideas, including a Blues Name Generator, you van create your own blues name (www.friedlieb.de/music/bluesname.php).
TS – That reminds me of the Wu Name Generator, have you ever heard of that? (www.recordstore.com/cgi-bin/wuname/wuname.pl…Alan Sparhawk, if using his first name, George, would be “Ungrateful Ninja”)
Sparhawk – I’ve heard of that, too.
TS – Where did “Chicken-Bone George” come from?
Sparhawk – It is the first song we wrote as the Black-Eyed Snakes.
TS – That name is about as good as it gets.
Sparhawk – The song went (singing) “My Naaaame is Chicken-Bone George…” It sounds like the right language, and my first name actually is George, my middle name is Alan. I thought “Here’s a little alias to get my mind in the mood”, and of course, everyone in the band had to have a blues name.
TS – Smokin’ Brad…
Sparhawk – ..Smokin’ Brad Nelson, Big House Bob (Olson) the Hillside Strangler, and the Doctor (Justin Sparhawk). The first two guys in the band were called Boom-Boom Larson, and Slim, what was it, South-Side Slim, who are now, I don’t know if you have heard of the Vets, (http://modern-radio.com/vets.html), they are really good, they now live in Minneapolis, they were in the early incarnation of the Black-Eyed Snakes. The Vets are really good, you should check them out.
TS – So whom else would you recommend? Who are you listening to right now, who would that be in the background, serving as a pleasant distraction?
Sparhawk – Oh, geez. We listen to all kinds of music, at our age, you kind of realize there’s good stuff everywhere, I’ve listened to Califone, the Dames (http://www.the-dames.com/), they’re actually opening for the Melvins on the 19th of March, at Grumpy’s. They’re great. There are lots of great bands here you should check out.
TS – I’m a freshly minted Minnesotan, I moved here from Kentucky, and one of the reasons I chose Minneapolis is to live within a thriving musical environment.
Sparhawk – You should check out the Vets, the Dames, several others…
TS – Do you still dig the stuff you were into as a teenager?
Sparhawk – Yeah, some of it. The Clash…
TS – …You can admit it if you liked Poison or Journey, it’s OK.
Sparhawk – (Laughs) I was already, I was a little too old for that. Now if you’re talkin’ the first couple of Def Leppard records, now you’re where I’m at. I was too punk by the time it got too “hair”. You know. “I’m not gonna go down that road, with that Mötley Crüe crap”.
TS – What about rap?
Sparhawk – (Mishearing my question, my southern California enunciation doesn’t translate over the phone, I guess) – Ratt was one of the last drag away from metal for me, you know, Van Halen, then Ratt, “Yeah, they’re alright, But…”, In reality, I really just wanted to listen to the Doors.
TS – That had to lead you into more blues styles, like John Lee Hooker…
Sparhawk – …I don’t listen to much of the modern blues, but I love the ol’ stompin’ stuff, the old dirty, swampy blues. I really like it and I like the things the modern blues bands may have forgotten about. The more gut feeling, rhythm being up front.
TS – Like Bo Diddley
Sparhawk – Bo Diddley, yeah, everything’s distorted, they’re just trying to play loud, bad-ass as possible, you hear the recordings. The engineers made them turn it down; I saw footage of Bo Diddley on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Prior to Diddley’s performance, the producers asked him to eschew his tune “Bo Diddley” for the song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford! Bo played “Bo Diddley” anyway, the rest is history), the first appearance of a Black musician on network television, and it was smokin’. Everything was cranked, and it was like, soon after, TV got wise in the ways of recording live rock and roll. Because, I’ll tell you what, it sounded like a train running you over, runnin’ your ass over, it was great! (The Snakes give love to Diddley on their album Rise Up!)
TS – Maybe our parents were lucky enough to see that.
Sparhawk – Yeah.
TS – Now that you are about to become a papa again, in between serving as a father of music as well as children, do you ever get any free time? What do you do with your leisure?
Sparhawk – That covers everything. Music, play guitar…
TS – Cairkickers Union, so that is your label?
Sparhawk – Yeah, putting out records, that keeps me busy, I don’t know, shoveling snow, mowing the lawn…Spending time with my daughter, we’re really lucky that we (his wife Mimi is percussionist and singer for Low) get to be around her, together as a family as much as we are, it’s a cool thing.
TS – Speaking of local artists, have you heard the story of Prince and the Revolution challenging Eddie Murphy and his crew to a game of late-night, five-on-five basketball? All within Prince’s Paisley Park compound, and Prince’s group was still wearing their stage get-ups?
Sparhawk – oh really?
TS – If you guys could take on any band in a game of basketball, who would it be?
Sparhawk -On the merits that we are not the best – actually, Mimi is a smokin’ basketball player, she still holds her high school record for points in one game. It would have to be (dramatic pause)…
TS – You could guard Kerry King.
Sparhawk – That would be awesome. Since Zak and I are dopes on the court, can’t shoot, can’t dribble, it would have to be Mimi, the sleeper. They’d think, “Oh, a girl”, whatever, but she would totally smoke ’em.
TS – She’d give ’em her Iverson crossover
Sparhawk – Yeah, the Iverson crossover, the hook, the corner jumper, everything.
TS – Nice if you could get Tchad Blake and Steve Albini out there, too. You’ve worked with these two guys, who are at the top of the profession. Talk about that…
Sparhawk – If there is one thing I have learned in these bands, if we think of something interesting, we try it. “What the hell, let’s call Albini!” I grew up listening to Big Black records, this guy’s the baddest ass in the world, I’d be runnin’ the other way if I ever ran into him (laughs). We just thought, “Why not, he makes records, he might make fun of us ’cause we’re wimps and we play quiet (Low’s 1999 release Secret Name was produced by Albini), but let’s try it”, and it ended up being really cool. He was nice to us, and complemented us very well. It was the same with Tchad, we gained a great respect for the sounds he creates, so, “Why not call him and see if he’s interested?”, so after nagging him for about 3 years, he finally submitted.
TS – You covered a Joy Division song on an EP back in ’95 (The Transmission EP). Did you have any idea that style, post-punk, would become so popular of an influence, especially in the past year or two of indie rock?
Sparhawk – You figured it was coming, you watch the patterns of music long enough, one could confidently make a prediction that bands like My Morning Jacket, other bands, they sound like they are influenced by Wire, by Joy Division. It’s a cycle, where one thing leads to another, I imagine the next thing, there will be underground bands who do a good version of grunge, I suppose.
TS – Or they’ll copy your style and dress like Kiss or the Misfits.
Sparhawk – Maybe (laughs), yeah, I suppose if we stick with this long enough, we’ll become not hip again. Like we always have been. We’ve never fit the trends, they come and go, it would be nice to be on the cover of Rolling Stone some day, but I’m not holding my breath.
TS – Right now, I guess they’re too busy trying to find an anorexic model for that.
Sparhawk – Or maybe a band that just dresses right.
TS – So do you keep up with the news, do you have any thoughts for our readers on the political scene of this country?
Sparhawk – It is messed up. I think Bush has exceeded his financial expectations for the first four years. I can see him lying down and letting Kerry take the presidency because he and his buddies are laughing all the way to the bank. Why stick around for another four years and have to do all this work, when you could be relaxing in Bermuda, or take a chance that someone could get into trouble with the law? Actually, I have a sliver of hope that people will wake up and see that something very, very wrong is going on. Hopefully people will see it, and try to change things for the better. Sure, though, a part of me is still skeptical of that.
TS – So you’re hopes have been dashed before?
Sparhawk – I went to college for a few years, as a political science major, the main thing you learn, unfortunately, is that anyone who commits themselves to a political science degree, they trap themselves into having to be a liar for a living. If you’re an honest person, you go into political science and learn that it is the most worthless crap in the whole world. You either have to eat it and find a different motivation to go on with politics, other than making the world a better place because there is no way that anyone learning about political science can continue on thinking that they are making the world a better place. They actually have to take a side and ask, “Do I want to make a lot of money, or do I actually want to help people?” If you can get through, then you proved that you can lie to yourself. Say, if you are still motivated after learning all of this stuff, then good riddance, good luck, have fun, see you on TV. I think Math and Theology are a lot more interesting. The rest is in between.
TS – I’ve taught math at the high school level, and while most kids aren’t into it, there are those bad-ass kids who get how math can be awesome.
Sparhawk – They may not all like it, but some do, and later on they learn how cool it can be.
Todd – As a songwriter in two bands that have high regard in the independent rock circles, do you get tired of people comparing Low and the Black-Eyed Snakes, people asking you “How can you play in two groups that basically exist in different galaxies?”
Sparhawk – No, I think it’s good, it’s good for people to be faced with two things that don’t make sense. I think there are similarities between the bands; I think it’s a good exercise for the mind to examine that. However, I ask, “What is the big deal?”, since every human being has opposites, contradictions, there is a million ways to skin a cat. You can be the same person, and have different ways of doing things. If someone likes one band more than the other, that’s fine, too. I don’t get mad if Low fans think the Snakes are too loud, it’s not a big deal. I may have felt the same way during certain parts of my life, or certain bands. This is stuff I enjoy doing, we’re gonna do it, sometimes people show up, it’s a fun time.
TS – One of my favorite quotes about your two bands, from a reviewer at Pitchfork Media.com, “If the experience of listening to Low approximates the aching sublimity of freezing to death, spinning the Black-Eyed Snakes is akin to bursting into flame”. A compliment of high order, saying you guys are damn proficient at both sides of the equation.
Sparhawk – Wow, that’s cool. It’s nice that some people like both things, because I like both things. It’s cool when people say it, I don’t really expect it, but it is understandable if someone thinks one side is better than the other. If I was that concerned about what people though of our music, we probably wouldn’t create any.
It’s nice when people show up and have a good time; we’re not just up there for ourselves. We’re trying to get people into it, have something cool happen, that involves other people getting into what you are doing. Especially with the Snakes. We want them to have a good time. I want people to think, “Wow, this was more fun that if I stayed home and watched TV.” that’s all I hope for, really. It’s especially cool when they bring their friends. The Triple Rock show (February 20), was a great time, people really seemed to enjoy it.
TS – Yeah, your cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” fit within your set well.
Sparhawk – We only did that a few times, first in Duluth, we like to give them something different each time, unexpected. One time we had a giant snake, we also passed out 200 rubber snakes, we had 200 shakers, a fog machine, that didn’t work so well.
TS – You gotta experiment, you know, for the kids.
Sparhawk – You gotta try, man, and we’re trying.
TS – Maybe next time you could throw cornbread.
Sparhawk – A pan of cornbread, with the Devil in it.
TS – In Kentucky, we love good cornbread.
Sparhawk – Yeah, I love cornbread, put some jalapeno peppers in there, oh yeah.
[While the Black-Eyed Snakes are on temporary (?) hiatus, Retribution Gospel Choir is touring Spain and Italy until June 3, when they return to the States. Low will play The Great Destroyer in entirety at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona on May 28th. ]