Charlie Parr and Alan Sparhawk: Moving air molecules around

March 10, 2014 @ 1:00 am
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The Duluth folk master and Low frontman discuss their new collaboration and more.

UPDATE: Both Low and Charlie Parr will also be playing the Shitty Barn in May.

Charlie Parr and Alan Sparhawk have racked up a truly bizarre and wonderful range of collaborators between them over the years. Folk--blues master and noted car-engine chef Parr has played with Duluth bluegrass outfit Trampled By Turtles and Appalachia revivalists The Black Twig Pickers. On his own and as singer/guitarist in Low, Sparhawk's noteworthy collaborations include Low's EP with Dirty Three, and singing on "Lunacy," the first track of Swans' 2013 album The Seer, his unmistakable harmonies with bandmate and wife Mimi Parker in haunting chorus with the gravelly foreboding of Swans leader Michael Gira.

Parr and Sparhawk (both residents of Duluth) recently worked together on Parr's first-ever instrumental album, Hollandale. The record's five long tracks find Parr unfolding his already formidable acoustic-guitar work into slowly evolving, mostly improvised instrumentals, and Sparhawk subtly accenting them with looping, droning electric guitar. In many ways it's a natural extension of what Parr already does, but it will challenge some of his fans. For those of us who've thrilled to Parr's brilliant, fierce rendition of Blind Willie Johnson and Leadbelly songs (and original songs in an often similar vein), it's important to remember that he's not simply out to regurgitate tradition or dwell on the past, and that he also admires the adventurous likes of Bill Orcutt and Paul Metzger. Parr will be playing at the Stoughton Opera House on March 15, and Low will be playing the Majestic on March 24. Ahead of their shows, Parr and Sparhawk talked Arts Extract about how Hollandale came together, how songs from Low's 2013 album 'The Invisible Way' change in the live setting, and more.

Tone Madison: How did the songs on Hollandale come together?

Charlie Parr: I don't have any kind of training in music, so everything has a bit of an improvisational feel to it, for me, at least, but these songs are 100 percent improvisation, except for the first couple of moments. They're all coming from different tunings that I've been experimenting with. Tunings are funny. Doc Boggs, the banjo player, would re-tune for almost every song he played, and he said it was because the tuning kind of implied the song. When you play his songs, and you tune your banjo to the way Doc Boggs had it tuned, you can hear what he was talking about. When I re-tuned my 12-string for example, to some of these tunings I wasn't used to, I heard things happening that implied other things, and I found myself just kind of following—this is going to sound really hippie—I found myself kind of following the songs. If I got myself into funny corners, I'd just be patient and hang in there with it, and the funny corners would find a way to something that led out of it. The way I normally write, I have a very specific story in mind that I want to put across, and I want the music to be in the service of the story.

Alan Sparhawk: I think just giving Charlie the opportunity or the platform to do that stuff, I think you've kind of always had that element in the back of the way you perform, it's spontaneous and a lot more improvisational live, even when working around a song structure. I wasn't necessarily telling Charlie what to play or not to play as much as providing the situation where, "Oh, it's this crazy guy, so I can get away with whatever I want."

Tone Madison: There's a definite element of pushing out of your comfort zone, even if you're using elements you've always used.

Alan Sparhawk: I think sometimes, actually, there's just a whole another level of comfort zone, but we're afraid to really let go and let something that's very natural and intuitive take over. I don't think it's suddenly a whole new direction for Charlie so much as a tendency that was always there, but was never given free reign to take over, so to speak.

Charlie Parr: It did feel real normal to me. I've been listening to a lot of that stuff.

Alan Sparhawk: Singing and structure can kind of put a certain air of knowing what you're doing, but—

Charlie Parr: Yeah. I've noticed that performing these songs in live settings, with you or without you, Alan, it's been a weird situation where I'm so impacted by the environment of the live setting that it definitely changes the songs.

Tone Madison: It'll be interesting to see how these instrumental pieces mutate in a live setting, because they seem to leave lots of room for different things to happen.

Charlie Parr: They've gone a bunch of different ways, actually. The one titled "I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night" has gotten really almost too close to what I normally do. It's a very percussive-sounding song, which is cool, but I'm just going to keep on stretching it and letting it do what it wants to do.

Tone Madison: On this record, Charlie's guitar is front-and-center, and Alan's a little more subtle and sneaky. It got me to go back and listen to Alan's Solo Guitar record. How did you go about making your parts for Charlie's record?

Alan Sparhawk: Initially, right away the overwhelming thing was a recognition of what Charlie's doing and how complete, in many ways, what he's doing is, and a respect enough to know that you don't—it was sort of a trick of, can you insert another instrument in here without it detracting from what already is going on, or does it narrow what's already so full? That was a trick that actually took a while for me to figure out. Charlie would come and do tunes, then he would go home, then I would sit the next four hours, smashing myself in the head trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to play along with this that doesn't sound horrible. It wasn't so much forcing myself onto it as going, "I know there's a way to hook something in there where it blurs it a little bit and you can't tell necessarily where that other instrument is." What I'm pretty sure happening is that it can be really subconscious and very subtle and yet it makes it three-dimensional. A couple of songs, I'm literally just playing one note over and over again underneath Charlie. He can't necessarily hear specifically what I'm doing so much as there's a little bit of harmonic interplay going on with what Charlie's doing. When I found that, I know, "Oh, OK, now I know how to do this." It very much had to do with staying out of the way. You can be clever and stuff like that, but I was really excited by the fact that, unless you're listening really closely, you can't tell that there's something else going on.

Tone Madison: Sure--for the most part, you could almost mistake Alan's parts for just overtones and sympathetic strings ringing out.

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, as if just one string of Charlie's is hammering and bouncing off the wall in a certain way.

Tone Madison: Charlie, why hadn't you made a proper instrumental record before?

Charlie Parr: I tried twice. The instrumental guitar records I really like are the ones that everybody really likes--John Fahey records, Leo Kottke's first record, early Peter Lang. Jack Rose was a good friend and an inspiration to me. I sat down a couple times and just tried to play like that. I realized after I finished recording those earlier ones is that I was sitting down and trying to play like somebody else, and what's the point of releasing something like that? "Here's another guy trying to sound like the guy that all these other guys are trying to sound like." What you should do is go buy that first guy's record, because this is the record that that guy wants to sound like! This is the first time that I actually felt like I'd finally clicked into a way to approach instrumentals that sounded like me, now. I look at these songs the way I'd look at all my other songs—these songs are actually about stuff. My songs are usually about some kind of thing that I'm trying to put across, and these are the same way. I wasn't singing words about the thing, but the song is still about that. You may or may not get it from listening to it, but that's not the point.

Alan Sparhawk: They have inspirations. I thought it was interesting when we were doing it and I was asking you about titles. And you said, that most of these songs you're naming about the place where you wrote them or the place that inspired the tune. Instrumental can be really tricky. It can be cold and mathematical, even kind of a mimicking process, but Charlie can look at it as a song the way that a song would have a lyrical trajectory. Having them be from a source had a lot to do with making it more personal and allowing it to play the way you play.

Tone Madison: And there's so much interesting solo-guitar stuff out there right now, whether you call it folk or "American primitive" or what have you. Charlie, you've mentioned Paul Metzger and Bill Orcutt, and what they're doing just comes out of really embracing their own eccentricities.

Charlie Parr: Yeah, as soon as you hear Bill Orcutt play, you're not gonna think of anybody but Bill Orcutt. Same with Paul Metzger. But their brilliance doesn't come from their oddball approaches. It's just something inside them.

Tone Madison: Alan, you put out that solo-guitar CD in 2006. Have you continued to explore that kind of playing at all?

Alan Sparhawk: The way I play on that record is more accurate to the way I play live—not quite as looped and out there as that. When we make records, that sort of all goes out the window and it's more about what the song needs, instead of just going in and playing my vibe on every song. Maybe I should change that, actually. Maybe I should finally make a Low record that just goes on our vibe instead of trying to write a bunch of songs. Every once in a while I think it'd be interesting to make another solo record like that. To justify it, I think I'd have to probably try to do something different or force myself into something extreme that would create a different situation. I'm not sure I'd want to duplicate that record, but it's definitely an accurate depiction of the way I've come to play guitar over the years. Making it was very much, "OK, quick, let me capture this, I just got back from tour, chops are up, kind of got some ideas, let's do this quick."

Tone Madison: And when you play live in Low or Retribution Gospel Choir, there is a different feel. Once I saw you play this one-off solo set opening for the Meat Puppets in Madison, and you did some Low songs and some reggae songs.

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, I hardly ever play solo. That was goofy.

Tone Madison: Have you found a lot of the 'Invisible Way' songs mutating as you play them live?

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, they're a little dirtier and a little more dynamic. 'The Invisible Way,' without necessarily intending to, we ended up falling on quieter, and there's very little electric guitar on the record, but live it's back to dirt and echo.

Tone Madison: Charlie, what do you have planned for the Stoughton Opera House show?

Charlie Parr: I'm kind of a one-trick pony mostly. I've been throwing in versions of [the 'Hollandale' tracks] here and there. I've been writing a lot lately and I've been throwing in some new songs too. I've also been going back through a lot of stuff that I wrote early on and revisiting that with a different point of view, because songs are kind of never done. I've been feeling pretty good about music lately again.

Tone Madison: Did you not feel good about it for a while?

Charlie Parr: The last year, there's been things I really wanted to do, but I was feeling pretty low in the confidence department. I'm not an overly confident person in general. But now with this thing coming out, it went really well, and I felt really good about it, and that's brought me a lot of needed confidence. This last tour went really well. Sometimes I have a tendency to get stuck in my head, thinking that I need to be doing more stuff that I'm doing, or I'm not doing enough stuff, or what the hell am I doing? This last tour, I fell into this place where every day was starting again, and every time I sat down and played it just felt right. Normally what I do is question why and try to figure out how to exploit that, and I need to do this all the time, and I'm a failure because I don't, but this last tour, I just accepted gratefully that, "Hey, this is going pretty good tonight, and I'm gonna kill the snake when I see the snake for once."

Tone Madison: There's this whole other conversation to be had here about collaboration, because between the two of you, the collaborators run from Trampled By Turtles to Swans. Do you both feel like collaboration is important in helping you stay energized and confident with music?

Alan Sparhawk: For me, yeah. I pretty much thrive on collaboration. At the end of the day, it's mostly just me writing and sitting in the basement, hunched over a guitar by myself trying to figure out songs and stuff, but collaborating, working with different people, and pushing yourself in different directions has been really key to that, whether it's working in the other bands I play in. We have a small town here, so you can't really afford to say, "Well, dude, I'm metal, and all I'm gonna do is hang out with my friends and go to metal shows." Well, there's gonna be about two shows a year that you go to. I think anyone who appreciates music can attest to the fact that there's great music everywhere. You can find stuff that will blow your mind that on the surface seems very contrary to what you do yourself.

You were talking about everything from Trampled By Turtles to Swans, and it's not that big of a stretch. It's just people who love music and who are trying to make something interesting. You'll find that it's a lot easier to find that common ground with people than you think.

Tone Madison: That's a good point, but it would be interesting to take some Trampled By Turtles fans to a Swans show and see how it goes over. [Editor's note: Yeah, so I'm a smartass.]

Alan Sparhawk: On yeah, well, that's a whole different thing. We did some shows with Swans this last year and it was unrelenting. I've always loved working with other people, whether it's a producer who's helping us with that last 10 percent of figuring something out, or working with other people. Playing with Charlie is way more synonymous with playing with Swans than I think people realize. Anything that's getting down to the primal, real raw, human experience of making music gets closer to the same light.

Tone Madison: And there are some legit similarities in the way Charlie and Swans both use dissonance—

Alan Sparhawk: And repetition, yeah. The point being, whether it's just being a musician or hanging out in a community long enough, you learn quick that there's a big picture out there and there's great things to be heard and learned from in just about any approach to music.

Tone Madison: What's next for each of you?

Charlie Parr: This summer I'm gonna go out to Raleigh and hang out with Phil Cook [of Megafaun] for a few weeks and maybe record a little bit, and at least play some songs with him. He's been a buddy of mine for quite some time and he and I have been chatting about going out there and changing my venue of writing and recording, just to see what it's like in a different spot. He's got access to a farm out there. He said we could just go out and camp and have a fire and play songs, and that sounds pretty nice to me. That's one of my favorite things about music, is the best music I've ever made is music that no one will never hear. You're moving air molecules around and when you're done doing that, they move back to where they were, like nothing ever happened. Some of those experiences are really valuable to me, just sitting around and playing with someone, living so much right in the moment. It makes me very, very happy to be able to do that.

Alan Sparhawk: We're not necessarily in a big hurry to get a record out—maybe by the end of the year. I'll try to get some recording done with Retribution Gospel Choir, wait for that Trampled By Turtles record to come out.

Tone Madison: Alan, in the course of the shows you did in Duluth where you went back through the whole Low catalog, were you inspired to revive any old songs in the sets for the upcoming tour?

Alan Sparhawk: Yeah, maybe six or eight tunes were definitely a surprise. There's a song called "Last Breath" that was sort of an obscure B-side. I remember when we wrote it, it was very difficult to sing, and in context with what we were doing it didn't quite fit, but revisiting it was really interesting. Sometimes you get distance from a song and you're like, "Oh yeah, you just sing it. You open your mouth and there it is." Also, there are these tunes we did about 10 or 12 years ago, this little EP we did with a this kind of pre-EDM group from England called Spring Hill Jack. We did this collaboration with them, and there were songs that we never played live. Going back and revisiting those songs, just about every one of them, once we figured out a way to play it live, we went, "Why haven't we been playing this?" Also, there's a lot of songs that remind you how far you've come and how different you are—not different, necessarily, as much as the old you get I think the harder your self-editing becomes. You'll see a few things that you let go, that you were OK with, 14 years ago, and you're like, "Nah, I think I should've worked on that song a little longer." It's both affirming and sort of encourages you to go, "OK, you've done that, set it aside and move forward." It gives you a hankering to do some more, and a better idea of what you like and what you don't like.


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last updated: April 03, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

Scott Gordon

Scott Gordon

Scott is the editor and co-founder of Tone Madison. He has covered music and lots of other things for outlets including The A.V. Club, Wisconsin Public Radio, and WORT-FM.

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