Gospel according to Alan Sparhawk

Low's frontman returns to the trenches and the Sub Pop label in his hell-fiery new band.

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Retribution Gospel Choir from left Eric Pollard on drums and vocals, Steve Garrington on bass and Alan Sparhawk on guitar and vocals.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Eric Pollard hunched across the booth and lowered his voice as if he were about to drop a bombshell.

"I don't know if you know this," he said, "but he's Mormon. So is his wife.

"Oh, and another shocker: He actually lives in Duluth."

The members of Retribution Gospel Choir had just finished their second radio session of the day in the Cities last month and were minutes from hitting the road for a six-week tour when the drummer revealed the two worst-kept secrets about Alan Sparhawk.

Stuck in line ordering some hearty stew, Sparhawk would not have objected to his bandmates joking about those over-told facets of his background. But the singer/guitarist might have cried foul if Pollard had mentioned the third bio bit that always gets mentioned right away: He plays quiet music.

Not anymore. RGC is as quiet as a munitions factory with Side 2 of Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Rust Never Sleeps" blaring over the loudspeakers.

Actually, Sparhawk's better-known band, Low -- which he still plays in with his wife, Mimi Parker -- grew noisier on its last two albums for Sub Pop Records. But not like this.

While Low was partly an antithesis to Sub Pop's old grunge and riot-grrrl roster, RGC's bursting new Sub Pop disc "2" comes off as a counterweight to the wimpier, lighter indie-rock bands now associated with the label (Wolf Parade, Blitzen Trapper, Fruit Bats).

"I sort of did it in reverse," Sparhawk said after joining the conversation. "I started my mellow, quiet band when I was young and my loud, heavier band after I grew old."

Sparhawk, 41, nonetheless is approaching RGC with the zeal of a young go-getter. He happily played his umpteenth in-studio gig for students half his age at Radio K that day (airing 3 p.m. Friday on 104.5/100.7 FM). He also sounded gung-ho about hitting small clubs again on RGC's winter tour, which winds up Saturday at the Triple Rock.

Starting a new band made sense practically and creatively. Sparhawk and his wife cannot take Low on tour as often as they used to because their two kids are now in school, and the economics of traveling with the whole family are harder to manage. With RGC, he said, "It's a cheap date: one hotel room, and we can do longer hauls or crash on floors if we need to."

He added dryly, "Mim and I went at it hard with Low over 16-17 years. On a certain level, if people haven't seen us yet, then that's their own fault."

'Every night was a brutal test'

RGC is sort of the indie-rock version of an unplanned pregnancy. Sparhawk has a propensity for biding his time in Duluth by messing around with other local musicians. That's what also gave us his (sadly dormant) blues-stomp group Black Eyed-Snakes.

He and Pollard met while playing on another musician's album in 2007. They started jamming with ex-Low bassist Matt Livingston and then suddenly made their stage debut as RGC when Low had to back out of Duluth's Homegrown Festival. Their first set was all Duluth-related covers (Bob Dylan, If Thousands, Keepaways and, yes, Low).

Before they knew it, they were out in California making Retribution Gospel Choir's 2008 eponymous debut in the studio of Sparhawk's friend Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters fame. Said Sparhawk, pointing to two Low songs on the album, "We didn't have enough material and weren't really ready, but we still felt good about the direction the band was going in."

After lanky bassist Steve Garrington joined the band (he also now plays in Low), RGC's foundation was cemented when the trio hit the road opening for Wilco in 2008.

"That sort of legitimized us -- at least in our minds," Sparhawk said. "Every night was a brutal test of trying to grab people who didn't know who you are or what you're doing, and we felt we went over pretty well."

Last summer, the trio went on another formative tour with the rebounding Meat Puppets. Before that outing, RGC tried recording its second album at several different times and places, including Nirvana/Pixies producer Steve Albini's studio in Chicago. The band was never quite satisfied, though.

Said Pollard, "We worked our tails off. None of us has ever spent this much time making a record. And we learned that's not a bad thing."

They wound up back at the place they know best, producer/engineer Eric Swanson's Sacred Heart Studio in an old church in Duluth, where they hammered out "2" in one mighty swoop immediately after the Meat Puppets tour. The timing was essential.

"There's something you obtain playing shows night after night that you can't get no matter how much you rehearse," Sparhawk said. "It's a combination of the pressure of being on stage in front of new crowds, and of just playing the songs every day to where they become a part of your bones.

"We knew we were finally there. And when you're confident like that, I think it naturally makes you play fiercer."

That in-the-moment, going-for-broke quality is exactly what makes "2" a remarkable album. "Fierce" can be applied all over the place. It describes the straight-ahead, hard-chugging rockers "Working Hard" and "White Wolf" as perfectly as it does the album's stormier, blustery fare, such as "Your Bird" and the eight-minute Crazy Horse jam "Electric Guitar." Even the haunting, guitar-less closing track, "Bless Us All" -- where the band really does sound like a choir -- shows a fierce conviction because it's so different from the rest of the record.

'This is God's language, man'

One thing "2" makes clear is that RGC's biblical-sounding band name isn't just for kicks. From the vaguely sacramental lyrics (especially "Poor Man's Daughter") to the preacher-like gusto Sparhawk brings to the songs, there are numerous clues of his much discussed, sometimes maligned -- and really never hidden -- spiritual beliefs.

You can read into RGC's religiosity as much as you want to, he said.

"I've always been comfortable with having [Christian] imagery in my music, and I think there are some really great things to say with that language. It's maybe a little more obvious in this band, just because we're sort of a more obvious, up-front band."

Sparhawk simply doesn't see the divide that many outsiders envision between his Mormon lifestyle and his rock 'n' roll career. "Making music is one of the most spiritual things in the world," he said. "This is God's language, man, and you don't touch that [stuff] without feeling something bigger than yourselves. If you don't come to terms with that and call it what it is, you're going to have a long fight."

But Sparhawk is hardly a strict, buttoned-up, G-rated rock 'n' roller. Within minutes of arriving for the Radio K session, Pollard cracked an especially foul urination joke that left others a bit aghast but didn't faze the singer. Later on, Garrington pointed out that RGC's shows are often wilder than Low gigs.

"We're definitely seeing different kinds of crowds," the bassist said.

"Yeah," Sparhawk added, feigning disgust, "with Low, it's just a bunch of librarians and scholars in the crowd. And nobody ever tries to get backstage at a Low show.

"Finally, I have more of a backstage kind of band."

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

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