One of Minnesota’s most internationally renowned rock bands — thank Radiohead, BBC disc jockey John Peel and a Christmas EP for some of that — Low made it all the way to China to perform this summer.
The short trans-Pacific tour inadvertently made the band’s frontman give his lyrics a long, hard look. He had to submit them to concert organizers to meet government approval.
“They said they didn’t want any songs that are overtly religious or political,” Alan Sparhawk recalled, his lips curling upward into a smirk before he could finish.
“So there were a few songs we had to pull.”
Just a week after the Chinese trek in July, Sparhawk sat backstage for an interview between his second of three sets at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival in Eau Claire, Wis. The inaugural fest was the first place that Low’s faithful Midwest flock heard songs from the trio’s new album, “Ones and Sixes,” which comes out Friday via legendary Seattle grunge-era label Sub Pop Records.
Not so coincidentally, the Eau Claire area is also where the Duluth trio recorded “Ones and Sixes.”
Sparhawk and his bandmates — drummer/singer Mimi Parker (also his wife) and bassist Steve Garrington — encamped at Vernon’s April Base Studio using the studio’s chief engineer, BJ Burton, as a co-producer. Burton also recorded the new Tallest Man on Earth record there and worked with Sparhawk when the Low frontman produced Trampled by Turtles’ last album, “Wild Animals.”
Surprisingly, though, the new Low record was actually more influenced by another record Burton worked on, Lizzo’s “Lizzobangers,” as well as Kanye West’s “Yeezus.”
Once again, Low breaks new sonic ground without breaking the Low mold on “Ones and Sixes.” Mind you, there aren’t the giant, hard-pounding dance beats and hyper-wordsmith rhymes of those records, but there are occasional electronic drums, looped vocal effects and an overall electro-staticky sonic ambience that works well with the Duluth trio.
“With good hip-hop, there may not be a lot going on in terms of musical instruments, but if the parts are just really slamming the right way, it can sound really big and interesting,” Sparhawk explained.
“Trying to sound big with as little as possible is obviously sort of what we do.”
Out of their comfort zone
Low made rock ’n’ roll minimalism a new art form on its first few albums of the mid- and late-’90s, earning the long-outdated term “slowcore” in most of its critical write-ups.
By the early-’00s, though, the band (with prior bassist Zak Sally) started building/amping up its sound more and more with help from producers like Nirvana collaborator Steve Albini, and with support from other indie figureheads like late BBC Radio legend John Peel.
By the time of the triumphant 2005 album “The Great Destroyer,” Low had turned into a full-volume, reverberating rock band, the kind that would go over great playing amphitheaters opening for Radiohead on tour (as the Duluthians did in 2003). But the trio also never lost the intimacy that marked those early albums.
“Along the way, we’ve figured out that no matter what we do, it’s always going to sound like Low when it’s Mim and I singing together,” Sparhawk said. “There’s actually a great amount of freedom in that.”
“Ones and Sixes” is certainly a departure from the last Low record, “The Invisible Way,” a charmingly low-frills, straight-ahead, semi-acoustic collection that was produced by Wilco frontman and longtime Low admirer Jeff Tweedy.
“ ‘Invisible Way’ really was a comfort zone kind of album, with a lot of acoustic guitars and piano,” Sparhawk said.
When it came time to make the new record, the band sort of snapped rubber-band-like in the opposite creative direction, he said.
“I knew I wanted to do something a little more challenging and intense. The songs we were already coming up with were pretty dissonant-y, desperate, stark and dynamic.”
“Dissonant” and “desperate” are certainly good words to describe some of the album’s best tracks, including the darkly electro-rhythmic first single, “No Comprende,” and the dramatic, dire closing track, “DJ,” which once again brings religion into the lyrical fold. (Sparhawk, who’s Mormon, has long sprinkled songs with Christian imagery and end-of-days themes.)
Another tempestuously toned standout track is “Spanish Translation,” inspired by the 2014 sci-fi movie “Interstellar” and Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger.” Said Sparhawk, “It’s about thinking you know the meaning of something, and realizing you don’t.”
There are also some lovelier, serene moments on “Ones and Sixes.” In a perfect world the poppy gem “What Part of Me” would be Low’s first major radio hit, with its light, echoey beat and simple, catchy hook. Of course, the lyrics themselves belie the brighter, airier sound: “What part of me don’t you know? / What part of me don’t you own?” Sparhawk and Parker sing together in their uncanny harmony.
Coming from spouses who have known each other since childhood (and now have two school-age kids themselves), “What Part of Me” stands out as one of Low’s most definitive songs.
“There’s not really a wall there,” Sparhawk said of the separation between his marriage and his music. “If something gets too descriptive or close to the source, I’ll usually edit it or shy away from it.
“But there’s a general reverence for [marriage] in my songs, I think, and recognizing it’s a shared experience. If something is going on in our lives, it’s usually happening in other people’s lives, too, and that stuff usually resonates.”
After an in-store set at the Electric Fetus on Saturday, Low doesn’t have another Minnesota gig booked until a Nov. 11 date at First Avenue. In between, the trio will hit the West Coast and head back overseas to Europe, where they have a particularly strong following.
“Our Christmas record caught on by surprise over there, and people took us more seriously after that,” Sparhawk said, recounting Low’s “Christmas” EP of 1999, which still earns attention and airplay every December.
“I think the thing that John Peel had for us and other weird, arty American bands is a big thing over there. People seem to appreciate we’re not another ironic, silly American band.”
Maybe the Chinese will follow suit. Or even more Americans.