Low's Alan Sparhawk finds comfort in noise with the Retribution Gospel Choir

May 14, 2008 at 4:00 am
The paradox of the Retribution Gospel Choir starts with its name. The Gospel, both the divine text and the divine music, is based in forgiveness and mercy, not revenge and punishment. The choir sings "We Shall Overcome," the lion and the lamb lie down and snuggle and a kingdom of peace is just a hallelujah away.

That is, if we don't get damned to Hell first.

Alan Sparhawk — who's best known as singer and guitarist for the Duluth, Minnesota, mood-core rock band Low — also fronts the much heavier, much louder and much fiercer trio Retribution Gospel Choir. Driven by burning, fuzzed-out guitars, a pounding rhythm section and a hail of lyrical brimstone, the band isn't fiddling with the locks on Hell's gate. It's taking a jackhammer to them.

Sparhawk originally conceived of the trio as a touring act, a knock-around-what-the-hell band with Red House Painter-in-chief Mark Kozelek, whom Sparhawk has known since the mid '90s. Kozelek finally talked Sparhawk into recording the band, which included Low bassist Matt Livingston and drummer Eric Pollard (from the Duluth band No Wait Wait). Kozelek stepped back into the role of producer.

"He got to see the band in a certain way, seeing it as a player," Sparhawk says. "He understood things. He really urged us to record, and there was a trust there. This is probably the most produced record I've ever been on. He really pushed us, made suggestions about different songs, trying different endings, using different amps.

"I trust Mark, but a lot of it is that I trust myself. I feel confident enough in what I do understand, what I can control. I can leave the rest up to someone else and be excited about what they come up with. It allowed me to be more bold with things I could put my heart into."

The ten songs on this year's Retribution Gospel Choir are shot through with guitar-rock swagger, but also with violence and resentment, accusations and assaults, riffs and voices shouting past each and returning to the singers and players. They bounce back as echoes of Crazy Horse filtered through a present defined by the bloodletting of war, the betrayal of religion and all the self-questioning that follows.

On an exhilarating, almost liberated, revision of the Low song "Breaker," Sparhawk sings: "Our bodies break and the blood just spills and spills/But here we sit debating math." But the singer wants to put an end to more than just debating the violent facts. "Being ironic and contrary doesn't work," Sparhawk once said. But does unbridled aggression?

"I don't know if it works," he answers, though he's clearly not comfortable with the question or the answer. "But it's true. Aggression doesn't fix it. It doesn't solve the problem. But it's there, so it's true. It's not a new thing for me. A lot of Low songs were pretty violent. Maybe the violence is coming out in a different way. That's the question. Non-ironic violence. That's the rare jewel isn't it? Who has found it? Maybe Fugazi. What was the last non-ironic, nihilistic band? Swans?"

If Sparhawk's latest project sometimes threatens to spill into nihilism-for-nihilism's-sake — the impenetrable parable "Destoyer" being one prime example — his themes and power trio approach argue against irony. Ultimately, the ironic mode can't be true — or at least it can never be honest enough to howl the truth.

"It's reaching more externally," Sparhawk says of Retribution's sound. "It's maybe trying to push something out there a little more, get a little more oomph behind it, a little more desperation, maybe. Even the last Low record was a kind of an outward, shouting record. It's a certain kind of shouting out to the world, where you're also shouting back at yourself. Or maybe back at man himself, and looking at ourselves as one. There's a number of different names for it: the whole of man, the dilemma of man. We are our own destroyers."

Retribution Gospel Choir makes its first appearance in St. Louis as an opener for Wilco's three-night, sold-out stand at the Pageant. The pairing is only paradoxical on the surface, as Low has opened for Wilco in the past, and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline is a diehard fan of Sparhawk's new direction.

"We're about as loud as a three-piece can kick out on a stage like that," Sparhawk says. "I know our job is to play something interesting while people are finding their seats and the mushrooms are kicking in. In a way, it's like, OK, here's the band. Either they were annoying or they were all right. Some [fans of Low] may have to adjust. Certain primal things kick in and people might have a different reaction. Some might feel like it's not the same give-and-take as what they're used to."

As for what Retribution Gospel Choir means for Sparhawk's primary project, Low, the answer isn't clear. Bassist Matt Livingston has left both bands (his replacement is currently Steve Garrington of No Wait Wait) for "personal reasons." Along with wife Mimi Parker, Sparhawk will take the summer to regroup and plan a new Low album. And though it's tempting to look for biographical turmoil to explain the existential attack of Sparhawk's recent music, the source, if there is any, lies in reconsidering what brutally honest rock music can do — especially when it comes to reaching an ever-changing audience.

"It's like this friend of mine, an old guy from church, said," Sparhawk tries to explain. "When I point a finger at someone else, there's three fingers pointing back at me. I hope that doesn't sound too selfish. Maybe that gets old to listen to. But even Dylan, when he was questioned about political songs and speaking out, at the end of the day, he knew you're still talking to yourself — or to some girl. You can't really claim to speak to anyone. 'Cause you can't."

8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 15 to 17. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. Sold out. 314-726-6161.