Highs and lows
Low's Alan Sparhawk is a serious sort, but his features crease into a smile as he contemplates his place in the grander scheme of things.
"My daughter once asked if I was famous," says the singer with a husky laugh. "I was like, 'not really -- well, maybe a little bit famous'. She said, 'are you as famous as Green Day?' That settled it for her: I'm not as famous as Green Day. It gave her the perspective she needed. She was only six at the time."
If Brandon Flowers of The Killers finds himself at a loose end any time soon, he could do worse than look up Sparhawk. Both are practising Mormons and the Low singer jokingly contemplates them forming a religious supergroup. "We could call ourselves the Mormon Mormons," laughs the singer. "It would be great."
Just imagine: they could hit the prayer books while the non-Mormons in the band loaded up on groupies and liquor.
"There are a few of us [Mormons] here and there. It would be fascinating to meet him." says Sparhawk. "But I should probably find out a way to like their music first, though. He [Flowers] is an odd one. He's not at all perfect. There are plenty of instances where he's shown his ... ah weaknesses."
It's midday in Duluth, Minnesota, the vaguely down-at-heel, American midwest town where Sparhawk and his wife and Low partner Mimi Parker have lived for the past 20 years (it's also where Bob Dylan was born). In that time, the couple have left an indelible impression on the face of independent rock. Their sad, dreamy sound -- dubbed 'slowcore' in the mid 90s -- has influenced a wave of bands and won many high-profile admirers. The trio (bassist Steve Garrington completes the line-up ) have played the Letterman show; their music features regularly in the UK 'schooligan' soap Skins; and a few years back Radiohead hand-picked them as support for a US tour.
"They had the most amazing catering company," remembers Sparhawk. "They looked after Bob Dylan, Aerosmith and Radiohead. It was awesome. They would set up their tent and start cooking this amazing food. I hate to admit that this was in many ways as memorable as the shows."
Juggling family and career is a challenge at the best of times. If you're a globe-trotting independent rock band, it can be next to impossible. "It's harder to tour, whether we're bringing the kids or not," he says. "If we bring the kids, it's quite an operation: it's like an organised circus, or a semi-organised circus, at least. And when they stay at home, and we're away from them, it's hard. They're getting older and they stay at home most of the time now. We definitely miss them."
Still at least they have each other. How many other musicians get to travel the world with their spouse? Sparhawk nods. "I feel lucky. I think a lot of musicians who have to leave home for weeks at a time -- it must be very hard on them. That is probably why musicians have a bad track record for relationships. Even on stage, there is a certain intimacy, a certain flow between Mimi and I, when we're singing. I've probably taken it for granted over the years. I really wasn't aware of it until someone mentioned it to us."
That's not to say life on the Low tour bus is a picture of domestic bliss. A few years back, the normally sanguine Sparhawk had a mid-tour breakdown. In a wrenching open letter to fans, he described slipping into a spiral of 'mental instability'.
"When we got home, I had to go to a hospital, get it sorted out," he recalls. "It was definitely the most intense derailing I've ever had. It started with sleep deprivation. Everything sort of snowballed. Lack of sleep led to a chemical imbalance. Not eating healthily doesn't help. It spirals. You're stressing on the stress and other things feed into it."
He spent the best part of a year off the road, signed up for an intensive course of therapy and started taking medication. Now? Touch wood, everything is okay. But never say never.
"Touring is different now. We're kind of careful with it," he says. "I need sleep. You can't let yourself get behind on that. I eat better, too."
As to his and Parker's Mormon beliefs ... well, it never really occurred to the couple that there might be a contradiction between their religion and their rock lifestyle until journalists started to point it out to them.
"It's funny. The first time it became an issue was when we started doing press in England. Some of the first interviews we did over there in the mid to late 90s, they seemed to get pretty excited about it. I remember a headline, 'Less is Mormon'. For Americans, it's a little more taboo to bring up someone's weird religion. The American press picked up on it slowly. In Europe, you can be matter of fact about those things. Here, there's a serious undertone to it that people can't deal with. America is one of the most religiously hung- up places in the world."
All of that aside, isn't it difficult to abide by a strict moral code when you're fronting a rock band? "That's always the question: 'is it hard being a Mormon when there's all that rock and roll debauchery out there?' Well, sure. On the other hand, I'm surprised how many musicians I run into who are fairly level-headed and open to whatever in terms of new experiences, but aren't as negative or destructive as the image."
It's been two years since Low's last record, an electronica-influenced piece entitled Drums and Guns. In places, the album was claustrophobically bleak and viscerally ill at ease with itself. So much so that it was tempting to read it as a commentary on the mental trauma Sparhawk had been working through (it was the first album he'd written since his breakdown). Far from channelling personal angst, however, the LP addressed wider concerns, specifically George Bush's eight-year plot to wreck America. With Saint Obama now installed in the Oval Office, will Low's next record be more upbeat? Don't count on it, says Sparhawk. The Obama effect may have inspired much of America, but here in the midwest, they're still in a post-industrial rut.
"Where I live, it feels as we're always on the edge of some kind of economic collapse, some industry abandoning the area or whatever. Duluth suffered big in the 70s and 80s and sort of missed out on the boom of the 90s. A lot of my friends have it tough. You have to work so many hours to pay your bills. If your income drops even 20 per cent -- that's a big deal. A couple of friends of mine are flat out losing their homes. They bought a few years ago when things were up and now they've been laid off six months and it's falling to pieces."
Low play St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, Saturday August 15 as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, www.kilkennyarts.ie