Alan Sparhawk easily ranks among indie rock's most gifted artists. He's also one of the most intriguing.
The singer/guitarist has managed to earn a devoted following, first with the achingly beautiful music of his exceedingly influential band Low, and now with his more rockist Retribution Gospel Choir. Sparhawk's work can be darkly apocalyptic yet strangely uplifting, something that could also be said about his world view.
Retribution Gospel Choir's second album, released earlier this year, is something of a revelation. The mysteriously titled 2 finds Sparhawk and his bandmates (bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard) rocking considedly harder than they did on their self-titled debut. The opening track, "Hide It Away," is especially infectious, its chiming guitars and soaring vocal hooks guaranteed to make it a massive hit in some parallel universe not all that far removed from this one.
"We were pretty determined to make this record more intense, a little closer to the way we play live, which has become a lot more aggressive and dynamic since the first record," says Sparhawk. "We realized fairly early on that we were a loud band, and we could use those tools and really get a lot out of each other. And it feels like this band really does have something to say in that language, and I don't think there are a lot of bands that are even attempting that at this point."
Slow and Low
Even on Low's moodiest songs, the Duluth, Minn., trio has conveyed a musical intensity that can stay with listeners for days. Over the course of eight studio albums, the pioneers of slowcore music (a term they'd just as soon never hear again) have established themselves as indie rock heroes, thanks in large part to Sparhawk's tasteful electric guitar parts and distinctively breathy vocals, which are as plaintive as Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt or Talk Talk's Mark Hollis at their best.
Then there's the spiritual element: Sparhawk grew up in a Mormon family and continues to practice the faith, while Low cofounder Mimi Parker converted shortly after the two were married. But the lyrics Sparhawk writes for both bands are so poetically elliptical that most listeners are unlikely to recognize the songs' spiritual underpinnings.
"I know it comes up a lot in interviews," he says with a laugh, "but honestly, I don't think anybody's really got in my face about it — the spirituality aspect of the music — which I know is there and which I know I talk about, or at least use.
"I mean, if I'm going to be doing this, I want people's lives to be improved," adds Sparhawk, whose self-effacing demeanor belies the lofty sentiment. "And if you can be bold enough to think that music or a musician can do that, then I guess I want to do something that's uplifting and that makes people want to live. Even though I myself have completely doubted that argument."
Still alive and well
In addition to Retribution Gospel Choir, the singer has worked in recent years with an amazingly diverse range of musicians, from performance artist Jarboe of the dark post-punk band Swans to his own daughter Hollis. (Alan and Hollis, who was 5 at the time, perform the first track on a children's album called See You on the Moon!, which also features Great Lake Swimmers and Sufjan Stevens; their song is called "Be Nice to People With Lice").
Despite the extracurricular activities, Low is still alive and well. Sparhawk and Parker are just finishing up the touring version of their collaboration with Minneapolis choreographer Morgan Thorson. And the singer now seems well beyond the personal difficulties that resulted in the cancellation of Low's 2005 tour. (According to Salon, he posted at the time that he'd "been speculated/diagnosed with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, bipolar whatever, suicidal depression/anxiety ... to paranoia, laziness, OCD, and good old-fashioned, two-faced asshole-ness.")
But while he calmly suggested the End Times are upon us in the 2008 Low documentary, You May Need a Murderer, Sparhawk is still managing to keep his head up these days.
"I'm as skeptical as everyone else, man, but we're still here talking and I'm still excited to see my kids tonight in Seattle. I don't know, I may be the opposite 24 hours from now."
Does he still have mood swings?
"Oh sure, I do, but I'm a lot healthier than I was, and I'm still around. You're a pretty optimistic and positive person if you're still alive. So enough with that. Everybody that's here has faith."
And, in Sparhawk's case, gratitude as well: "I'm the luckiest man in the world — I have a wonderful family and people who have taken care of me when I just could not, you know, when I've not been able to. And, I mean, what else do you need?"