In the early 1990s, Duluth, Minnesota, was just another U.S. city conforming to the punk and grunge movement of the time.
Perhaps the last thing anyone expected to hear coming out of the northern seaport city was deep, melodic harmony and gentle, patient lyrics. But the stark contrast of what would later be dubbed "slowcore" was exactly what members of the band Low had in mind.
"It was the early '90s, you know, it was really exciting and there was all this music going on," Low founding member Alan Sparhawk said over the phone from his home in Duluth. "It was more than just grunge, there was a lot of building up of this very low-level, underground kind of word-of-mouth world, and when stuff sort of broke, it was just a big boom, a big opportunity for alternative music."
Low's success was born directly of that opportunity, Sparhawk said. Officially formed in 1993 by Sparhawk (guitar, lead vocals), Mimi Parker (drums, vocals) and John Nichols (bass), Low began performing at a time when music labels and fans were still eager to explore and support experimental music.
"Anybody that was doing anything 'underground' -- there were people that were like, 'Hey, what's this? Is this any good?' and even bands like us, who were doing something very different, got noticed. Record companies were like, 'Well, that's weird! Let's give 'em a try!' Whereas, nowadays, they wouldn't even think of doing that."
Low's minimalistic and elongated sounds stood apart in a sea of similar alternative rock acts. The group released its first album, "I Could Live in Hope," on Virgin Records' Vernon Yard imprint, just a year after forming, and began touring.
After a change in bassists (Zak Sally replaced Nichols), Low released "Long Division" in 1995. "The Curtain Hits the Cast" (one of Sparhawk's personal favorites) followed in 1996. The album was a success with critics and helped established Low's foothold as one of the key independent alternative bands of the decade.
Part of their success sprang from the chemistry and history between Parker and Sparhawk. The two have known each other since they were 9 years old, started dating and playing music together in high school and eventually married.
"We knew we were both into music and we knew we were both into kind of weird music, you know, punk and whatnot. We always kind of knew (we'd play together in a band)," Sparhawk said.
"I'd been playing guitar and dreaming about being in bands. (Mimi and I) would play together a little bit, but I always knew she was kind of shy about that stuff. It took us a couple of years before the opportunity came up."
It wasn't long after Sparhawk and Parker formed Low and started releasing albums that they began to be described as "slowcore."
Slowcore (also called "sadcore") is marked by stark, understated melodies, slow (sometimes painfully slow) tempos, soft vocal styles, minimalistic compositions and clean guitars, sometimes with heavy reverb. The term joined the ranks of other "core" labels created around the same time (cuddlecore, metalcore and others).
"It was sort of during the time when it was funny to (come up with) these terms, like a record store clerk being bored at work and making up genre names," Sparhawk said.
"Then it turned into something people started to actually take seriously. Although, somewhere it's written that we disapproved of the term," Sparhawk added, "We don't. It is what it is."
After several bassists (Steve Garrington joined the band in 2008 and has been full-time since), 11 full-length studio albums (three released on Vernon Yard, three with Kranky and five with Sub Pop) and 23 downtempo years, Low still has so much to say. The band's latest album, "Ones and Sixes" (Sub Pop, 2015), received a flurry of high marks from music critics after its September release. It easily made its way to many a "top music of 2015" list this past month, and for good reason. The 12-track, 57-minute recording is a minimal, moody and sometimes bitter expression of life's day-to-days.
Like the work of German Romantic landscape painters, "Ones and Sixes" holds a real brightness in its darkness. (Think Caspar David Friedrich's "The Abby in the Oakwood," or "Seashore by Moonlight.") The emotional build-up of many of the tracks weaves a relatable tension -- the pulls, the pushes and the releases mimic big moves and universal experiences: youthful forbidden love, sorrow in the arms of an ending, the uneasiness of resentment.
The album is a punch you never see coming. And the longer you listen, the more detail emerges. The murkiness may turn some listeners off, but if you have the time, it's worth the attention.
"A lot of the challenge of being in Low is the pace and the minimalism," Sparhawk said. "The construction only to deconstruct."
It's exactly what the founding members of Low had in mind. The divergence was fully intentional.
Katie Medred is a freelance music writer living and working in Anchorage. Visit her blog at beatandpulsealaska.tumblr.com for more.
When: 8 p.m. doors, show starts at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 15-16
Where: Tap Root Public House
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door for each night, or $35 advance for both nights