There's nothing like the threat of hyenas on the Kenyan high plains to put a mid-life crisis in perspective. Lowâ€™s singer and guitarist, Alan Sparhawk was still a little shaky from his 2005 emotional breakdown and hospitalisation when, in August 2006, he visited the Maasai and a school built thanks to Low's 2005 Christmas benefit gigs. It's an experience he recounts bashfully, hating the idea that it'll come off like some clichÃ©d "run through of someone's trip to Africa", but carrying clubs for protection, living in mud huts, and the fresh sugarcane, zebra watching and friendships free from Western dysfunctions was a necessary awakening, as well as a focusing jolt to his musical sensibilities.
"The boldness and the simplicity that's going on [in new album â€˜Drums and Gunsâ€™] for sure was inspired by that trip," he says, speaking to Gigwise at his home in Minnesota. It wasn't that he arrived in Kenya as Alan Sparhawk of Low - music just naturally found it's way into his experience. "This particular [Maasai] tribe," he says, "their music is all verbal. They don't really have instruments, and so the school kids would grab my guitar and just start whaling on it like a drum and they'd just immediately sing -- it wasn't music unless you're singing." The same could be said of Low's album -- remove the vocal harmonies and you're left with barely-musical static mixed with the relentless clatter and whirr which sounds like broken machinery -- all as sleek and stereotypically electro as Portishead falling through a crack in the earth mid-gig.
The percussive lifelessness, folky melodic warmth, and lyrical anger mesh uneasily in a way that actually makes perfect sense because an album about war and violence shouldn't coalesce into something comfortably digestible. For example, â€˜In Silenceâ€™ is crushingly beautiful, but set against ricocheting snare that builds to what sounds like the rhythmic detonation of landmines. In fact, all the album's songs sound like they've been purposely damaged to keep us from feeling OK about what they express.
Naturally, it took a lot of discipline to make something sound so disjointed, a fact reflected by Low's attitude entering the studio to create â€˜Drums & Guns.â€™ "We knew it was going to be uncomfortable," says Sparhawk. "We knew we were going to be setting aside familiar instruments, sounds and approaches. It was really two or three days into recording that we kind of found some voices that we were excited about. We just knew that if we kept it simple and stepped out of our comfort zone, we would probably be happier than if we went in and did things the normal way."
However, the album arrangements aren't so crucial that they'd forsake guitar and drums when they play live. Says Sparhawk, â€œI personally don't think it would be very interesting to have us all sit up there the whole set twiddling knobs and buttons. That [electro] element will be there - references that we're bringing in to the live thing with just a sampler and a keyboard. But we usually play guitars and drums live - itâ€™s a language we've developed over 13 years of touring.â€
In fact, a few of the songs actually pre-date their 'Drums and Guns' interpretations and have already been played live with Crazy Horse grittiness by Sparhawk's and Livingstone's other band, Retribution Gospel Choir. Live, Low can be a gentler and genuinely mesmerising experience, although Sparhawk's perspective is far darker. "I never get the sense that everybody there is mesmerised as much as I think everybody's going to kill us," he says. "It feels more like an antagonistic situation and I have to remind myself that 'no, no, no - these people paid money to come see us. At least at the beginning they're on our side." It's not so much the feeling that they're being provocative, as it is a steely lack of emotional interchange that makes him paranoid. "I'm just kind of more aware of the silence and the breathing... I don't know. In an ideal situation you do feel like there's some give and take, some interchange that's happened. But looking at faces and perceiving that is usually pretty difficult. As wrong as it is, sometimes I catch myself thinking that itâ€™s the three of us against this crowd that's going to eat us or something."
Sparhawk would be the first to deflate the myth that psychological instability has anything worthwhile to offer him as an artist. â€œComing back from there, is where the creative process is," he says. "When you get sick, there's no creativity going on. You're barely able to put two rational sentences together. We wrote some songs before that [breakdown] and some songs afterwards - I donâ€™t necessarily see any distinct line. Dragonfly maybe refers a little bit to the question of mental health - the mind, chemicals and easy answers."
A deeper influence on Low's music is religion - Sparhawk and his wife Mimi Parker are Mormons and he is unapologetic about how his beliefs shape his music. "In a way, I've always felt like these songs were written and performed in the presence of God," he sighs as though it's as obvious as saying he plays with the lights on. "If you keep that mindset," he continues, "it'll definitely keep your ego and your selfishness a lot more in check." So it's music made in the hope that God will like it, and whether you think that's creepily inhuman, the result of mainlining peyote extract into your spinal cord, or as valid as any notion of creating with a set of principles in mind -- religion, for him, is so deep-rooted it's almost a genetic inevitability; part of him whether he likes it or not.
â€œMormonism in many ways defines who we are before we're even defined as musicians,â€ he says. â€œIt's always been an influence - some of the language and some of the subjects come up, and songs that stem from a personal conflict or darkness... when you're dealing with those more serious things, more personal things - whether you feel it or not - youâ€™re dealing with your own spirituality, relationship with God. I guess for me the relationship with God is a struggle. I think the struggle is a very desperate, dark, scary struggle sometimes, and it doesn't mean itâ€™s negative itâ€™s... I think coming through those things is what makes us better and therefore, closer to God.â€
As devout as he is, thankfully his beliefs don't inspire any self-righteous disdain for non-Mormons. "I don't think people run around cursing God and raping each other,â€ he says. â€œI donâ€™t think people have to adjust their lifestyle â€˜cause Mormons are hanging out. I mean, spend a day hanging out with us and we've got as many faults and things that are contrary to ideal Mormonism going on as anyone else." He's much more disturbed by the thought of people restraining themselves for fear of incurring Mormon wrath and relishes an instance when acid-tongued indie-legend Steve Albini approached the issue while recording their album 'Secret Name'. "[Our daughter] was newly born, so we had this girl we knew from church come with us [to the studio] and watch Hollis while we were recording. We were there with Steve working and during a moment of silence he turns around, pivots in his chair and goes, 'you know, I think it's really great that you can bring your second wife with you to take care of your kids while Mim's working.'" He laughs gleefully.
Sparhawk is genuinely irritated by the â€œlukewarmâ€ press Drums and Guns has been receiving in the States. In particular, Spin magazine called the "antiwar themes" "overwrought". â€œI was thinking â€˜What? Overwrought?!â€™" sputters Sparhawk. "Three decades ago people were getting up on stage and saying, â€˜fuck the governmentâ€™ and lighting fires and blowing up stuff and now in America we got Conor Oberst singing some song about George Bush, and everybody jumps down his throat about that.â€
Sparhawkâ€™s anti-war sentiments stem from watching the 2000 presidential elections in a hotel room after a Paris gig. â€œIt just felt very weird,â€ he says. â€œI remember just the perception of being outside of America and realising, 'Wow. America has just turned one of the most important things into a big joke, and there's no way any one in the world will be able to look at this and not realise that there's something really wrong going on in America.â€ And seven years later 'Drums and Guns' seems an almost understated reaction to wartime violence and moral contortions. It's neither sophisticated nor self-important, it's just the propulsive effect of the world around Sparhawk clicking into perspective. He entered the studio with two questions in mind: â€œWhat do you send out during your life, and why not give a crap a little bit more.â€ â€˜Drums and Gunsâ€™ isn't about dictating answers, it's simply the uncomfortable resonance of vital questions that can't help but move anyone within earshot.