Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington comprise Low, the minimalist alt-rock group that shares Northern Minnesota roots with talent such as Bob Dylan, Haley Bonar, Charlie Parr, and Trampled by Turtles. Low’s debut studio record I Could Live In Hope (1994) garnered raves from critics both locally to nationally, from publications ranging from SPIN to Le Journal de Quebec, putting the band on the map as they embarked on what’s now a 20-year-and-counting career, not stopping for more than a few years at a time in the midst of producing music that would send them on multiple world tours.
The Duluth trio are best known for extended instrumentals and bare-bones melodies. As described by Nashville Scene in 1999, the group have “reduced their music to its barest essence: brushes on snare, a quiet guitar strum, economically plunked bass, and hushed, plaintive vocals.”
Low’s sound is at calming with undertones of dread, managing “momentum without velocity,” to the ear of Peter Scholtes. Frontman Alan Sparhawk told DIW Magazine that Low’s music draws on influences including the Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sparhawk’s favorite musician—Nick Cave.
The subdued nature of Low’s music can captivate any standing-room audience. Duluth music expert Walt Dizzo speaks highly of Low’s ability to turn First Avenue’s Mainroom into a listening room. “The general consensus is that wherever they play to an audience that’s receptive there’s the hushed, quiet sound of a room that fits a thousand people…that’s especially noteworthy. First Avenue is not known for being a quiet venue.”
The trio’s unique sound is especially well-known to Minnesotan fans since Rock the Garden 2013, after they filled their entire set—nearly 30 minutes—with just one song. Low played a 28-minute, extended version of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” to raise awareness of the Drone Not Drones project. Gathering a variety of reactions from the crowd, some of anger and annoyance, the drone did just what Low wanted.
“They gave the crowd something unique, something unexpected, and something that provoked,” writes Andrea Swensson. Her review of the Rock the Garden performance sparked a discussion about what’s expected when a band takes the stage.
The infamous performance spurred a fundraiser at the Cedar Cultural Center that featured a 28-hour drone to raise money for Doctors Without Borders.
“The Duluth band firmly established themselves as innovators and iconoclasts within American independent music” after that performance, according to Tigger Lunney of City Pages. Low’s Minneapolis performances are “so quiet, in fact, that their love show often involved moments where the awkward clink of a beer bottle or the flick of a cigarette lighter was so audible that people had to be shushed,” he writes.
Defying distraction, Low’s performances are about much more than just playing a set of songs.
As Low release their newest album, Ones and Sixes, Sparhawk reflects on his history with First Ave and the Entry; from dreaming about seeing a show there, to playing the Mainroom and socializing with the staff.
When he was younger, Sparhawk would take trips to Minneapolis with his mom and admire the venue from the car window.
“We’d drive by First Avenue and I remember it being this bomb going off in my head—like, holy crap, I recognize that place! That’s it, right there, and I know it exists, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go see a show there or something like that.’”
Low’s first performance at the venue was in the 7th Street Entry, performing at a Tuesday New Band Night in 1994. After advancing to the Mainroom, Sparhawk developed an awareness and respect for the atmosphere of First Ave, first from the building itself and later from the staff that make the venue tick.
“The first time we played the Mainroom, I think our manager set out a bunch of tables to make a little relaxed environment. It worked out okay. We just realized that you have to let that room be what it wants to be, and it ended up being fine. You don’t have to go and tweak the vibe based on who you are or what you think the audience is going to be. Just standing-room ends up being the best vibe, and, I think, the right balance of tension and freedom.”
Above everything else the venue has to offer, the First Ave staff have made the biggest impact on Sparhawk’s memory of the club.
“I hear a lot of people talk about Conrad, and the staff there…the sort of legendary vibe that they give off when you’re new and it’s your first time working with them. It’s kind of intimidating because you get the sense of, ‘Oh, these guys are grizzly, hardened, club-going, backstage tech guys.’” Now that Sparhawk has gotten to know the First Ave staff, though, they have become “some of my dearest friends in the industry.”
Sparhawk elaborates: “Having just genuine people who are generous, running a club—it’s gold. Those are the people you count on. When you’re on tour, that’s the only contact with humans you have, and it dictates the whole day.”
Sparhawk’s favorite memory of the staff was playing at Music and Movies in the Park and seeing Conrad outside the club, playing a DJ set before the event started. “I just remember it being so surreal seeing him in daylight!”
Among Sparhawk’s favorite shows he’s seen at First Avenue are performances by Shoegaze, Fugazi, Pavement, Wilco, and the Verve—a group that heavily influenced Low.
Ones and Sixes is out today, and Low are returning to First Avenue for a Mainroom show on November 11. The crowd will be standing—and attentive.
Madie Ley is studying journalism and art history at the University of St. Thomas. She writes about music and art.