No Low Feelings about the Retribution Gospel Choir: An interview with Alan Sparhawk
J. Gordon
5/12/2008 10:06:33 PM

"My greatest fear is that it will be too toned-down, too easy to listen to..."

Having lived for over a decade being described as “lo-fi” and “drowsy,” Low’s frontman/brainchild Alan Sparhawk is out to prove he has an energetic side with the Retribution Gospel Choir, currently on tour as openers for Wilco.

RGC has actually been around for a few years, touring and even releasing two live EPs, so this harder edge to Sparhawk, and the band’s self-titled full-length CD [Caldo Verde Records] isn’t a complete shock to in-the-know Low fans. “Anyone who’s followed Low for a while has probably heard our louder moments,” Sparhawk says, aware that some may want to keep him in that drowsy box. “It’s definitely a departure from Low, however. I’m approaching the guitar differently, and certainly the singing kind of demands a different approach. It hasn’t been too much trouble, though. Haven’t been in any fights or anything…” he laughs.

RGC’s definitely amped it up in more ways than volume. There is a fierceness; an aggression to the music, without any ridiculous hardcore schtick. “My greatest fear is that it will be too toned-down, too easy to listen to. Retribution is more aggressive, and more improvisational live than Low ever was,” he says. “Volume, that potential for dynamic, lends a certain tone or drama. Not desperation, or violence, or anything like that. But we’re moving that much more air.”

The vocals are waaaay stronger, too, sounding at times like Elvis Costello in the chorus of “Kids”, to the down-and-dirty Queens of the Stone Age in songs like “Breaker” (which is commonly known as a Low song, although RGC did it first). And of course, there are the Crazy Horse comparisons that RGC just can’t seem to escape.

“Crazy Horse is definitely an influence,” he says. “Neil Young, for sure. I look up to him as someone who’s created something with integrity, with Crazy Horse, especially. The real raw, straight-forward, no-frills, not flowery, rock and roll of it. But anytime you get back to the basics, sort of sticking with raw tone, it calls comparisons like that up. Neil Young is talented on so many levels: his singing, [songwriting,] certainly his guitar playing. Records like Harvest have been around me my entire life. But Crazy Horse—I love those loud, raucous guitars. There was something about the delivery that was able to float into you without making you feel like someone was trying to peel your eyebrows off.”

The multi-mooded, many-dimensioned Sparhawk says he’s been switching back and forth between these bands, and one other, Black-Eyed Snakes, a sort of grunge/rockabilly outfit. “Retribution Gospel Choir would be something we’d work on for a few months, and then it’d be gone and we’d switch to Low.” The band members of Low and RGC are essentially the same, minus Low’s Mimi Parker (Alan’s wife).

“We’re a band that started out with just a little material and a couple covers. RGC formed out of playing and not necessarily writing or planning of any kind. It was just a collision of energy.” RGC’s opening slot for Wilco gives this collision of energy some exposure that most can only dream of. Sparhawk says he probably won’t be troubled if Low overshadows RGC, or vice-versa.

“I haven’t really thought about it too much. I’m just kind of trusting that things will fall into place. If Retribution Gospel Choir does well, great. We’ll fool around some more, and it’ll be fun. With Low, we’re always looking for ways to be home more and not tour so much, because we have a couple of kids.”

Alan’s wife, Mimi, in Duluth, Minnesota, doesn’t usually tour with RGC, he adds. “The Retribution Tour is just three stinky guys.” These other stinky guys include Steve Garrington on bass (who’s taken over for Matt Livingston who played on the album), and Low’s drummer, Eric Pollard. Singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek had been playing with the band in earlier tours, but he had a vision for the band and decided his place was to produce the new album. Acting in a sort of George Martin “Fifth Beatle” role, he helped out in a few arrangements, oversaw mixing and got all the sounds right. “He’s very good at getting sounds,” says Sparhawk. “This was not lo-fi, but very direct. It sounds like it was all done in one sitting. To get that consistency, Mark was vital.”

The RGC sound is pretty complementary to Wilco, too. Songs like “Poor Man’s Daughter,” with its noisier dissonance, could fit right into a playlist featuring the fun atmospherics of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born. In fact, Low actually opened some of Wilco’s tour last year, trading off that opener slot in different cities with Andrew Bird and John Doe.

“Yeah, some of the textures we’re doing there, we kind of step into that more freely in parts we play live. Wilco audiences are pretty wide-spanning. They’ve been an eclectic band, so the audience is pretty much open to what you want to throw at them, for the most part.”

Let the Retribution Gospel Choir throw it at you. The new album is out now, and if you can finagle a ticket on the mostly sold-out Wilco tour, you’ll be able to see them in the flesh:

Mon. 05/12/2008 Austin, Texas Stubb's Outdoors
Wed. 05/14/2008 Lawrence, Kansas Downtown Lawrence
Thur. 05/15/2008 St. Louis, Missouri The Pageant
Fri. 05/16/2008 St. Louis, Missouri The Pageant
Sat. 05/17/2008 St. Louis, Missouri The Pageant
Fri. 06/06/2008 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theatre
Sat. 06/07/2008 Chicago, IL Beat Kitchen
Sun. 06/08/2008 Cleveland, OH Grog Shop
Mon. 06/09/2008 Philadelphia, PA North Star
Mon. 06/16/2008 Washington, DC Rock and Roll Hotel
Tues. 06/17/2008 Brooklyn, NY Union Hall
Wed. 06/18/2008 New York, NY Mercury Lounge
Thur. 06/19/2008 Cambridge, MA Middle East Upstairs
Fri. 06/20/2008 Montreal, Quebec Casa Del Popolo
Sat. 06/21/2008 Toronto, ON The Rivoli
Sun. 06/22/2008 Pontiac, MI Eagle Theatre
Sun. 07/06/2008 San Diego, CA Casbah
Mon. 07/07/2008 Los Angeles, CA The Troubadour
Tues. 07/08/2008 San Francisco, CA Bottom of the Hill
Thur. 07/10/2008 Portland, OR Doug Fir Lounge
Fri. 07/11/2008 Seattle, WA High Dive

P.S. And if you’re curious as to what Alan Sparhawk does in his free time, check out his awesome school building project in Kenya. By-passing bureaucratic nightmares, Sparhawk has a friend in Kenya who was able to connect with people in a Maasai community and make things happen with just a few thousand dollars.

“I went to Africa. That’s the shortest way of saying it was amazing. It’s something you can’t explain. Very intense. Just the process of going over to put your hands on something that only took [me] two nights of work!”

Photos can be seen by clicking here.


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