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Quiet storms
Low survive a near break-up to make their biggest album

In April of 2003, Zak Sally quit Low, the Duluth-based indie-rock trio he’d played bass in since 1994. At the time, he didn’t offer much explanation; Alan Sparhawk, Low’s guitarist and lead singer, told a Minneapolis paper that Sally "just didn’t want to do this forever." Soon after the bassist’s departure, Radiohead invited Low to open a string of summer tour dates in Europe. Sally quickly rejoined the band.

A year and a half later, he’s still not eager to discuss what exactly happened. "It was awful," he says over the phone from his home in Minnesota. "Awful for everyone. And I feel stupid talking about it, because in a perfect world we would have resolved that with nobody else ever knowing about it." Realizing it’s too late for that, he goes on, "A band is a relationship. We’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s a pretty intense thing to do with your life. And I think we were at a point where we couldn’t figure out the stuff that we needed to figure out. I couldn’t, and they couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t."

"They" is Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, Sparhawk’s wife and Low’s drummer and other singer. "It was hard," Sally continues. "And it hit way deeper than, ‘Yeah, I’m leaving the band.’ The chips came down, and it was important enough to me that we were able to figure it out."

Inasmuch as Low, who play the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square on February 5 with Pedro the Lion, are made up of a married couple and one of their best friends — Sally calls Sparhawk, Parker, and their two young children some of the most important people in his life — you’d expect an event like that to show up in their music. And so it does on The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop). "Pour yourself another cup, another cup, another cup, and wait," Sparhawk and Parker sing in "Everybody’s Song," a roiling blast of noisy fuzz-guitar set over drums that sound like a 10-foot-tall toddler banging on empty metal barrels. "I can’t wait forever." In the chorus — "Breaking everybody’s heart, taking everyone apart" — the singers harmonize coolly; the words sound less like an accusation than like an expression of disappointment.

Whether this disappointment is aimed at Sally is for the band to know and the rest of us to insist. But even in a discography as rich as Low’s, The Great Destroyer feels particularly intense, charged with the emotional upheaval of a big break-up and the invigorating effects of a bigger make-up.

When the band debuted, in 1994, with I Could Live in Hope, they did so as an avatar of what became known as slowcore: brainy indie bands reacting against the blunt force of ’70s punk and ’80s college rock by playing as slowly and quietly as possible, in a sort of confrontational inversion of youth-culture protocol. Since then, Low have struggled with the box they put themselves in: Trust, from 2002, included a zippy up-tempo single called "Canada" and featured a deep-pile mixing job by industry vet Tchad Blake. And though they began Destroyer on their own in the Sparhawk/Parker living room in Duluth, they finished the album in upstate New York with Dave Fridmann, the producer known for giving a rural-psychedelic sweep to records by Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. The sound they get is bigger than ever before, with sparkling keyboards and massed guitars and stacked harmony vocals filling in the vast chambers of echo that always make it seem Low are playing in a church. But it can also be small and human, as in "Broadway (So Many People)," which is about a bustling New York sidewalk.

Sally credits Fridmann with his role in that. "Dave just got it. Over the week [that the band spent at his studio], it became very apparent that he knew what we were up to. He has a great ear and the technical knowledge to get that in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to get ourselves."

But the bassist also acknowledges the effect that the chemistry he shares with his band mates has on Low’s music. As well as his recent crisis of confidence. "It forced all of us to think really, really hard about what we wanted and what was important," he says of his brief interlude away from the band. "Like, ‘God, I wanna do this.’ Despite everything, this is the three of us, and this is what we do."

Low perform next Saturday, February 5, at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, with Pedro the Lion; call (617) 625-5700.

Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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