Think power trio as led by a rock 'n' roll preacher: Alan Sparhawk—long of the bands Low, Black-Eyed Snakes and this, his Retribution Gospel Choir—lays out the parables and the empirical evidence of his subject's misgivings, proclaiming that their actions suggest a hungry cat on a well-stocked boat, or a nervous fool uncertain of how to handle himself in front of the world. And then in a howl handling a hook as strong as any you'll hear in indie rock, he delivers the judgment. "You hide it away," he sings on repeat, his words ambiguous enough to make you wonder about your own life, his voice strong enough to make you really worry about it.
The band doesn't leave room for ambiguity or indecision, either, playing three-piece rock with power and finesse. Drummer Eric Pollard moves with and against the song, pulling away and pushing toward the meter, while bassist Steve Garrington decorates Sparhawk's vocals with countermelodies that swivel and rise.
We caught up with Sparhawk in Brooklyn.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How are the songs from 2 working on stage this tour? Are you used to these yet?
ALAN SPARHAWK: It goes good live. We'd done quite a few tours before the record playing pretty much all of these songs, so we're pretty familiar with the stuff. It's fun to get up there and have it down. I'm always on a roller coaster with the singing. It takes about a week and a half before my voice gets up there where it should be, and I'm nitpicking myself. But we're definitely in that spot right now, like, "OK, we're finally kicking in here."
Is it just a matter of practice?
Yeah. No matter how much you rehearse and warm up before, getting up there and the energy that's exerted unfortunately gets out of hand. Some of my other training helps, but none of it can prepare you for doing it every night. After 15 years with Low, singing is just something I'm ultra-aware of. But it's going good.
When did you write "Hide it Away?"
About a year ago. It's one of the latter songs we wrote in that group of songs. It came together fairly simply—three chords I was banging around on with the guitar in this open G tuning, this droning thing where sometimes you can get these chords that sort of ride down the neck. I had the melody—"You hide it away, you hide it away." That came first. And then one of the lines in the verse—usually for me, that's enough to make it work. That's a pretty good hand that you first get. Usually, you sit on a melody or a guitar idea for a long time, but that one had two or three elements to happen at the same time. That's a pretty good beginning to a song.
What were the lyrics in the verse that came so early?
I think it's probably the first—"You think you have what you own/ And that you had what you don't find." For some reason, that felt right to me—"Well, that's all right, and that's half a first verse. Let's go."
What's your normal method for writing?
I usually have to consciously sit down and spend time in a basement. I don't carry around ideas when I'm doing other stuff or on tour or whatnot. I usually have to sit down and have a few days and nights in a row working on something to really get my brain to start thinking along that line. That one, I was just in the midst of working on a few songs, and it sort of fell together.
There are, of course, those songwriters who rarely sit down to write songs as if in a workshop. Seeds of inspiration just happen, and they write around them. Are you comfortable with your own method and/or a bit jealous of that?
I don't know. I respect anybody's process, for sure, but I find for some reason with me that I really do have to sit myself down and say, "OK, it's time to finish up these ideas." It's not as easy as that, of course. It shifts, and it takes a few days of being in that moment before I feel like, "OK, now my brain's working in this line," and you come up with something. And at that point, you immediately get stuck. [Laughs.] I have to focus on it. I bet I've only written two or three songs ever on the road. I guess that may not be that way for most people, but my mind has to be in a different place, in a different rhythm or something to feel like I can think that way.
You're generally playing with two or three bands at a time, and you've done some solo work. When you sit down to write, is it ever for Low or Retribution Gospel Choir or Black-Eyed Snakes, or are you just writing songs?
It starts too vague and with so many fragments that it's never intentional. I never sit down and say, "OK, I'm going to write a song about this." Or, "I've been feeling this about this, so I'm going to write this or that." Naturally, I don't sit down and write for one band or another. I write, and usually by the end of the song, it's steering one way or the other—or it could go either way. I'd say about one-third of the time, it's a song that I could probably play in both bands, one way or the other. Early on, it was not as obvious. The first record had a couple of songs that were also on the Low record. Over time, as we've played and sort of found our own voice, it's been a little easier to see where songs would work and where they wouldn't.
"Breaker" was a song for both Low and Retribution Gospel Choir. Did you enjoy that process, seeing how two bands could handle the same material?
Yeah, I really enjoyed that. Actually, that song probably turned out the best possible. I really love both versions. Yeah, I like that. It's taken me a number of years to come around to that, and certainly side bands, like Black-Eyed Snakes, I think we did one or two songs that were Low records. I've become more comfortable with that over the years—keeping it open with the possibilities for different arrangements. I always, of course, secretly wished that the Foo Fighters or Celine Dion would cover Low, but what can you do?
The melody for "Hide it Away" feels like it could even work as a Low song. Have you thought about letting it cross between bands?
I don't know. Mim [Mimi Parker, wife and Low bandmate] and I have sung it, for sure, just kind of fiddling around. But right now, I'm pretty consciously trying to keep it separated. Whatever we do next with Low is probably more likely not to have crossover songs. We'll keep the song list a little more separated, at least on record.
You talked about the beginning of the first verse and the chorus. What does the rest of the song say for you?
A lot of times, finishing a song forces you to grapple with, "OK, what's this about? What do I have so far, and what is it saying? How do I finish this, or is there more to this?" Finishing the song, it definitely felt like speaking to someone from a fairly intimate place—whether it's a lover or a friend or, unfortunately, sometimes yourself. I find myself speaking in that language a lot in songs. Maybe it's because you know yourself the most, so that's who you end up singing about the most. Just being married and being in a relationship where we're creatively very tight and we've been that way since we were 16 or 17 years old, a lot of times I'm speaking to that other person, that sort of omnipresence. It's obviously specifically Mim, but in the broader sense, it's that other part of you that you're part of but you're also able to speak to. It's speaking to someone. The lyrics are calling the person into question: "You think you have what you own/ and that you had what you don't find" is looking at a person and saying a little bit about the idea, "What are you holding on to? What are you wasting your time worrying about and holding on to that doesn't matter ultimately?"
And the rest of the lyrics—I don't know. I don't know what "Cat on a boat" came from. The other guys in the band always make jokes about that one.
Well, what does that line mean to you?
I don't know. It's partially that, just lyrically, that phrase sounds nice. It's like looking at a person and saying, "Look at you, your ambition. Everything is handed to you, and you're a cat on a boat. Where are the rats going to go? You're set, man. You've got the next five months to eat all of these rats. Take your time."
Most couples have some separation in their life. That is, for eight hours a day, they go different places, and maybe at night, they don't share all the details of their job. But for you and Mimi, that doesn't happen. Your life seems to be your work, and vice versa.
Writing with someone that close? Yeah, it's weird. It can be very satisfying, but it's also extremely treacherous. You're dealing with a whole 'nother mind that can talk yourself out of something fragile. It can be hard. It's like having a very real critic right there waiting for you. It's not so much that it's a critic, as much it's a feeling that, "OK, there's this other mind that I'm working with here at the very beginning." You learn to adjust your self-confidence to accommodate because most people get to spend a little more time being confident in their ideas before dumping it in front of the most important person in their world. But I like it. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's something that we asked for.
Where was the video for "Hide it Away" shot? That's a grand scene.
Yeah, right there in Park Point, in Duluth. It's kind of an interesting beach. It looks like it could be anywhere. It was a super cold day, but it was fun. I was bound and determined to do it in Duluth and use the lake somehow.
The obvious question: What is or isn't in the box you're burying.
Well, that's the mystery. [Laughs.] You can't give that away. Look at our faces as the three of us our standing there, looking down at it. That's the key. That's the only way. It's something really, really great, though.
Retribution Gospel Choir plays with Free Electric State and Rat Jackson at Local 506 Friday, Feb. 5, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.