To casual music fans, Low's prominent role at Rock the Garden on Saturday probably just seems an obvious choice — a deserved honor for a Minnesota band that made Rolling Stone's best-of-2021 list and toured Europe this spring.
For music nerds who closely follow Rock the Garden and underground acts like Low, though, the booking might also be interpreted as a makeup gig, a do-over, payback or even nose-thumbing.
Bandleaders Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk mostly see Saturday's festival outside Walker Art Center in Minneapolis just as a welcome outdoor summer gig close to home — one that does come with a bit of irony, though.
"They not only asked us back, but they also asked us to curate the other acts on our stage this year," marveled Sparhawk, whose band is due to play inside the Sculpture Garden between co-headlining main-stage sets by Sleater-Kinney and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
Low also hand-picked the bands playing with them on the garden stage: Californian psychedelic funk wizard Dâm-Funk and Australian instrumental doom-metal duo Divide & Dissolve.
"It was like: Let's give the problematic people even more chances to cause trouble," Sparhawk added.
The singer/guitarist was referring to the still-lingering fallout over Low's prior appearance at Rock the Garden in 2013, which was about as well-received as the last six Terrence Malick movies (bold and admirable but messy and boring).
Delayed by a rainstorm and stuck under lingering dark clouds, the band opted to fill its abbreviated set at that year's festival with one very long song, a droning, fragmented 27-minute version of 1996's "Do You Know How to Waltz?" Audience members were discernibly dazed and confused — especially those listening in live via 89.3 the Current who thought something was wrong with their radio.
Low has been baffling listeners like that off and on for nearly 30 years, though.
Small-town northern Minnesotan Mormons who met in high school and later married, Parker and Sparhawk dared to churn out quiet, slow, hauntingly harmonious rock music with their band starting near the end of the early-'90s grunge/alt-rock explosion.
Low picked up in volume as the years went on, especially after joining the famed Seattle label Sub Pop Records with 2005's masterpiece album "The Great Destroyer." But they never really lost that element of challenging their listeners' expectations.
Low's last three albums, in particular, took a turn toward more experimental, frayed, jarring yet still often soothing sonic territory.
All three of the most recent LPs were produced with Minneapolis studio wiz BJ Burton, who earned a best producer Grammy nomination for his work on Low's 2021 album, "Hey What." Rolling Stone described the record as "electronic stabs, drilling drones, and plenty of pent-up anxiety."
Talking via Zoom from their home in Duluth between European jaunts — they hit Spain's massive Primavera Sound music festival last weekend — Parker and Sparhawk said the wild sonic panache of "Hey What" has been stirred up even further as they played the record in its entirety on tour this spring.
"We ran into somebody in Switzerland who had been to one of the very first shows on our U.S. tour, and he was like, 'You guys have really changed it a lot,'" Sparhawk recounted.
"He said we became more aggressive and louder, and he heard more layers. I was really surprised to hear that. But when I thought about it, I did realize how we had spent all that time in between rethinking it."
Added Parker, "I think our confidence just grew, too."
In addition to breaking in the new material on tour, Low came out of the pandemic also debuting a new bassist: Twin Cities vet Liz Draper of Charlie Parr's and the Okee Dokee Brothers' bands joined after the making of "Hey What."
Though she's Low's fourth bassist, Draper was singled out by Parker for being the first woman besides herself in the band.
"It's just a different energy now," she said. "She and I are on similar trajectories, and as is often the case with women, the agenda feels different."
Some things will never change with Low, though. The band's lyrics have long been filled with end-times imagery, spiritual awakenings and solitary salvation, all themes that made "Hey What" sound like it was precisely made for 2021.
Another constant in the band has been the uniquely in-sync, stratospheric harmonies put forth by Low's married bandleaders. Not just through happenstance, their trademark vocals are as prominent and potent as ever on new songs such as the hazily rocking "Days Like These" and the haunted and heartbeat-paced "I Can Wait."
"When we got to recording the vocals on this record we were like, 'Whoa!'" Parker recalled. "They were kind of striking and centered. We were just singing pretty good. So that became kind of a cornerstone: 'All right, this is going to be a really vocal-oriented record.'"
About half of "Hey What" was already written when the COVID pandemic hit, so the pandemic played only a partial role in inspiring the lyrics. Sparhawk and Parker proceeded to test drive and rework many of the songs over the next year and a half in weekly livestream concerts from their living room that they dubbed "It's Friday, I'm in Low."
Coming out of the pandemic, Low seems to be enjoying an all-time high. The trio will hit the road again this fall touring with Death Cab for Cutie.
Sparhawk said performing live again in 2022 after canceling nearly two years of shows has reminded them they're not just in the business of "getting to the next gig." Especially his band, which — as Rock the Garden attendees well know — likes to play to the moment.
"When you've spent eight hours in the van, you can forget: We're dealing in heavy, fragile things," he said.
"We'll play a show, and somebody will come up afterward in tears and tell us what the music or the night meant to them. There's more of that now, and I think it has less to do with us than it does with them."
More from Low on RTG
Here's what Sparhawk and Parker had to say about Rock the Garden past and present.
About their still-widely debated 2013 drone performance at the festival. Parker: "We still kind of shake our head about it, like: 'Did that really happen?!'"
Sparhawk: "My only regret is we could've rehearsed the song more [laughs]. There was a lot going on there. We were doing something a little contrary. Social media was pretty fresh, so one or two people saying pooh-pooh about something could cause a social landslide for a week."
How this year's performance will compare. Parker: "I thought it would be hilarious if we just started with 'Waltz' right away, and see what the reaction is."
Sparhawk: "The decision to play it then was last-minute. Maybe the situation this time will call for something different. But otherwise we plan to just play. I think we're exercising our contrariness with those curation choices [Dâm-Funk and Divide & Dissolve], so I think we won't be contrary with our own set."
About Dâm-Funk. Sparhawk: "He's an artist we ran into at a festival in Germany or Belgium. We were loading in our crap backstage, and heard this just tight funk. I thought it was just a great DJ performing. But then suddenly there was this ripping synth solo, and I looked out and he was playing a keytar. It was just a big whoa. I started following him and got even further into what he does."
About Divide & Dissolve. "They're on a label in England that's run by people we know, so we heard them that way. They've been on tour with us these last two legs opening, and it's been really great. Just massive."
And RTG co-headliners Sleater-Kinney, who are Low's longtime Sup Pop labelmates. Sparhawk: "On a basic level, they're a punk band that has always hit the right angles as far as what their messaging is and their sound is. I played a bill with them in Boston really early on, and they had me come up and sing 'Summer of '69' with them. I found out later it was because they were laughing amongst themselves because about how much I looked like Bryan Adams. They suckered me and convinced this gullible farm boy to get up with them."
Rock the Garden 2022
With: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Sleater-Kinney, Low, Beabadoobee, Dâm-Funk, Bombino, Divide & Dissolve.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sat.
Where: Outside Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Tickets: $84, rockthegardenfestival.com