Andy Downing for RedEye
6:49 PM CST, January 31, 2013
While singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk generally has gravitated towards a slower, quieter sound in Low--the Duluth, Minn., trio he's fronted for nearly two decades alongside his wife Mimi Parker--he lets it all hang out in Retribution Gospel Choir.
The band's third album, simply titled "3," is an absolute monster, swinging from shaggy, Crazy-Horse-worthy guitar dirges to more blissfully spaced-out, hypnotic passages.
"When we started working on these songs, it was a shot in the arm for us, because we wanted to present something a little more extreme," said Sparhawk, who even in his early 40s shows no sign of mellowing. "We really took it as a challenge."
In a recent phone interview, the longtime Minnesota resident opened up about Retribution's misleading album title, his Wilco connection and the only high that equals the one he gets from performing.
It seems a bit misleading to name the album "3" and only include two songs, both of which clock in around 20 minutes.
[Laughs] Well, we wanted to make it very clear this was a full-length and that it was definitely the next step for us. We had our [self-titled] debut record, then we had "2" and we thought naming the new album "3" would just reiterate that it was more than just this side thing or this weird little experiment. It really is, in essence, where we're at right now.
People always refer to Retribution as an outlet for your noisier urges. Is that how you see it?
Well, the more boring explanation would be it's because I'm playing with different people and we give each other different license and different inspiration. There's a little bit of a different approach, but it's still me. When I'm writing songs I don't sit and think, "Where is it going to go?" You write, and certain ideas work better with certain people, and sometimes they work with both.
Do you ever run into people who are disappointed to learn you're not actually a gospel choir?
Man, we almost changed our name a year ago over that. I think every time we get a mention in the paper or in the press it gets kind of subconsciously overlooked. Then every few shows someone will say, "Oh, there were some old women here who walked out after the first 10 seconds and said, 'This is not a gospel choir.' " [Laughs]
Have you learned anything working with Retribution that you've been able to apply back to Low?
Oh sure. There are things you learn about the guitar. When you open it up and let it be loud the guitar reacts differently and you have to play differently and you hear things differently. It helps you be a better player. There are more times in Retribution Gospel Choir where I'm right at the edge of my physical abilities.
You have a number of ties to Wilco these days. Nels Cline plays with Retribution on this record, and Jeff Tweedy produced the new Low album, which is due out this March. Have you guys talked about taking all three bands on the road together?
[Laughs] Oh, I don't know. I think that would probably be a little self-indulgent. My longtime friendship with Nels is where that began and where it's based, but it's been cool. Those guys have been great to us, and we had a good time at their studio recording this Low record.
Obviously Jeff's kids have picked up his musical inclinations. Have your kids shown a similar aptitude for music?
Yeah. They both play piano. Hollis is actually pretty good at it, and she writes songs and plays drums as well. We played "Powderfinger" together the other day, so maybe she'll be like a Crazy Horse drummer or something. Cyrus is a little more interested in Minecraft right now, but I think that's pretty typical of 8-year-old boys.
I've heard you're a bit of a runner. Do you have a go-to soundtrack when you're on the trail?
Well, it's usually the sound of the birds or the snow falling. I've never been able to deal with headphones while running. And my brain's usually loud enough to keep me company.
Is there really such thing as a runner's high?
Oh yeah. It's weird. When you first start to run it's hard to go more than a mile or two, but once you can get past that first 10-15 minutes it gets a lot better.
How does it compare to the high you get from performing?
It really is similar. It's an ecstatic, slightly enlightened feeling, like there's a little sun shining right over your head.
Retribution Gospel Choir, 10 p.m. Sat. Feb. 9 at Schubas, $10-$12.
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