“We can do anything we want, and it’ll still be us,” Alan Sparhawk says with a mischievous laugh.
That was Low’s creative mindset as they recorded their 12th studio album, Double Negative. Guitarist/vocalist Sparhawk, drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker, and bassist Steve Garrington returned to April Base studios in Eau Claire, a “familiar and comfortable place” according to Sparhawk, where they had recorded 2015’s Ones and Sixes. The adventurous quality of that album carried over into the new sessions, with producer B.J. Burton (Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, James Blake) once again helping Low push their music in a more fractured, experimental direction.
“After the last record, we all knew that we could take our sound a lot further, and there’s new territory we could explore,” Sparhawk says. “I feel like it’s kind of an understandable trajectory for us. We’ve experimented here and there over the years, and it’s something that’s always on the edge of our fingertips—electronics, drum machines, synths, and stuff. We knew that if we were going to dive in with B.J., it was going to be another fruitful collaboration.”
On this new, fitful collection of pieced-together fragments, the electronic-laden arrangements sound bruised and battered, as though they’d break apart entirely if held onto too tightly. Sparhawk and Parker’s foreboding vocals are nebulously tethered to the instrumentation, their lyrics arriving like echoes from a dark cave that may offer a way out or may lure us deeper inward.
Double Negative was recorded in fits and starts over the past two years, with the group recording in Eau Claire for a few days at a time before heading home to Duluth. “It was important to get away for two or three days and concentrate completely on this,” Sparhawk says. “It’s good to be on the spot, and have a set time and a place to focus. And then to be able to step away and get some distance from it, and listen to what we’ve been working on, write more, and make plans for the next session. It’s obviously a different recording process from the early days, where we’d go in and record a whole album in two days. But this way worked good for us.”
Throughout the sessions, the band couldn’t help but let the unsettling news of the day seep into their songs. “This is very much a reaction to what was going on,” Sparhawk says. “It’s very much an expression of... sometimes despair, sometimes confusion, sometimes anger. There’s one line in the album [from “Dancing and Fire”] that I keep coming back to: ‘It’s not the end. It’s just the end of hope.’ A lot of the music on the record feels to me like, it’s very obvious that everything is completely flawed, and we are in a dire and almost traumatic situation here. How do you keep breathing? Once our fight with hope has ended, what now? What then?”
While raising these questions, the songs suggest that turning to music for comfort and answers simply isn’t enough at the moment. The splintered, distressed quality of the material speaks to the chasm between our heavily divided nation and its increasingly amoral government. “The fragmenting of the songs and the fragmenting of the voices is a reflection of how even more absurd structure and reality becomes with each passing day,” Sparhawk says with a deep sigh.
The adventurous quality of the songs is remarkable coming from a band 25 years into their career, as is their decision to work with a producer who challenges their recording methods. “Working with B.J., a lot of the studio process is manipulating things. You put down a simple sound and then twist it, re-record it, distort it, slow it down, speed it up—and you kind of use that as another palette,” says Sparhawk. “The sky is the limit with him. He’s very open to anything we want to try. He prefers to make sounds that no one has ever heard before. We’re always experimenting with structure, that’s just the nature of the band. The fact that a lot of our songs are slower, it forces us to be a little bit different with the way we structure and assemble a song. Sometimes the new stuff is so fragmented and so fractured it almost seems like, ‘Was this actually a song?’ And the hope is that it still is.”
As challenging, jarring, and moving as the 11 songs that make up Double Negative are, Sparhawk says that the studio versions will be transformed in a live setting. “I don’t think it’d be interesting for people to see us try and duplicate what’s on the record,” he says. “There’s a spirit about the record. And then there are the songs. Underneath all of that sound are still songs, and most of them we can play a version of on drums, bass, and a guitar. We’ve been comfortable with that separation [between studio and live sound] for a few years now. Making a record is a whole different process. That changes when you’re in front of people and your hands are on an instrument and you’ve got to sing a song in real time.”
No matter how experimental the new album is, Sparhawk still believes in the power of a group of musicians creating with rock instruments. “I think there’s still possibilities with drums, bass, and guitar. I really believe that if we stick to it, and keep making music that we feel strongly about, that will come through. I hope it’s not because I’m old-fashioned, but there’s just something a lot more real about people on stage actually using their flesh to hit something to make sound.”
Double Negative is an album of and for these times, an uncompromising examination of the here and now. And Low still manage to shock us after all these years.
“The studio, for us, is about surprises,” says Sparhawk. “Coming up with something you didn’t know existed, or didn’t know was possible. Surprising yourself, where an idea you didn’t think much of ends up being a really great song. That’s the fun of the studio. If you knew what you were going to make when you went in, I don’t think it would be nearly as interesting.”