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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

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Low's minimalist music leads to maximum indie success

"I'd guess that an overwhelming majority of people who exist in the world do not like what we do."

This is not a typical interview sound bite. In most interviews, musicians and performers want to give a reporter quotes that will sell their product, their sound and tickets to their upcoming show.

Yet the quote from Alan Sparhawk, the lead singer and guitarist for the indie band Low, neatly encapsulates the stripped down, glamor-free and honest allure of the group's music, which it will bring to the Turner Hall Ballroom tonight.

The band originally formed in Duluth, Minn., in 1993. Sparhawk was in another band at the time that worked out of Superior, when he, his wife and the band's drummer Mimi Parker and John Nichols, Low's original bassist, starting toying around with some new songs with a very unique, sparse sound.

"When we started Low, it was sort of out of curiosity and out of this fascination with minimalism, repetition and those kind of things," Sparhawk said.

At the time, grunge music was becoming a mainstream brand of music, with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam moving from their underground origins into popular household names. As a result, Low's smaller, quieter music sensibilities served as a response and an alternative to the loud, punk sound that was dominating radio and pop charts.

"We weren't necessarily trying to be contrary," Sparhawk said. "It's just that when we started, we were looking at being very minimal, quiet and subtle. We knew it was going to be against the grain of what most people were getting excited about at the time. But I guess that was a part of the appeal: making something new and challenging people."

Low released its first album, "I Could Live in Hope," in 1994, and after a few more albums, the band began to develop a reputation on college radio stations, a quality fan base through touring and the label of critical darlings. As they and their unique sound grew more popular, however, people attempted to find a label or genre for Low's modest style of music.

The resulting title was slowcore, a label that Sparhawk at one time called the cheesiest category placed upon Low. After some time, however, Sparhawk lost his antagonistic feelings toward the branding and now sees its purpose.

"I'm perfectly satisfied with people starting out putting a tag on (the band's sound) and then spending the next couple of decades proving those people wrong," Sparhawk said.

"Labels are fine. I mean, heavy metal; okay, well then you have a pretty good idea of what that sounds like then. It's not going to sound like Bob Dylan. We were slow, and there's something about the word core that makes it sound DIY, punk and underground, so I guess that's pretty accurate as well."

Since the debut, Low has produced eight more studio albums, including its most recent, "C'mon," in 2011. The band has reached a nice level of indie popularity, with rock legend Robert Plant saying complimentary things about Low's 2005 album "The Great Destroyer," and a few songs appearing on television shows like the British teen drama "Skins."

However, even with this increasing public appreciation, Sparhawk still views the band as perpetually outside of the mainstream.

"I don't know if mainstream music really plays into what we're doing," Sparhawk said. "We've never been railing against or reactionary against something as much as this is just what we're really interested in. From day one, we knew that we were against the grain of what was going on, and we essentially planned for that as a band."

Despite that preparedness, Sparhawk admits that the line between audience accessibility and a creator's own goals of challenging and interesting content must always be discussed.

"The question is always there," Sparhawk said. "When you're writing something, the first question is always, 'Is this good? Do I like it?' Then the sub-question is, 'Do you think anybody else will?' Sometimes, the answer to that is 'I don't care' because how I feel about this is strong enough."

According to Sparhawk, it usually depends on a song-by-song basis. For instance, a song, like "Pretty People" off 2007's "Drums and Guns," needs to communicate with listeners since the lyrics find their importance and significance by explicitly addressing the audience. On the other hand, Sparhawk noted there are other songs that "I can sing to just myself, and I'd be just as happy."

Low just finished mixing its latest record, "The Invisible Way," which is aiming for a release date in March. In a change of pace from their previous records, Mimi Parker sings on about five of the album's 11 tracks instead of her usual one or two.

"I think a lot of people like her voice better than mine," Sparhawk noted with a laugh.

He also hinted that the new album will be "pretty stripped down" and one of the most minimalist records the band has done in a while, an aesthetic that Low is always looking for in its music. The band plans to play several of these new songs at the concert tonight at Turner Hall.

"It's gonna be like a prequel to what we've got coming up next year," Sparhawk teased.

The odds are good that the results will be more "The Godfather: Part II" than "The Phantom Menace."

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