Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brad Kopplin
For being a guy who lives in Duluth, Minnesota, when he decides he wants to be home, Alan Sparhawk has one helluva aura. The general framework for that aura is his life's work being devoted to continually dispatching his various fonts into their different and effective forms. One day he's working with his wife on some Low material, just adding onto the already legendary lo-core, slow-core, feather-core resume. The next we'll be recording extra experimental music under his own name and then he lets his aura unbuckle the belt a notch or two to just let the pants out, to get some breathing room and some mobility. It's his version of the Cerberus inside, the guard dog minding the other projects, hoping for a chance to just seize the jugular.
The aura that Sparhawk takes to bed with him every night is as three-headed as anyone's, but it's mostly influenced by a precisely limited number of things, which make for very consciously focused music that is short on accouterments. He's taken to that purple-y green haze of weed like there's no tomorrow and it's been a defining chemical in his simple life that involves a happily married life, fatherhood and some of the damnedest winters known to any man.
Most people, if told to give the greatest reason that Sparhawk writes the way he does, plays the music he does, at gunpoint, would be goners because they wouldn't be able to choose between the weed and the winters - not for the life of them. They'd stammer and hesitate and then the hammer would come down and a cloud of smoke would float invisibly away from the snuffing. It would be a story so good and so harrowing and so heroically tragic that Sparhawk - even as the main, conflicting source of the act - would want to write about it immediately. It wouldn't even so much be that he wanted to write about it. It would be more like he had to write about it. He must. These guns and the violence that they drum up are some of his most reliable muses, two ideas and realities that keep giving to him without ever asking anything in return.
The way that Sparhawk approaches his time spent playing Retribution Gospel Choir songs is like unbridled fire cutting across a field of dry grass, just catching more and more of it in his mouth. It's a take-over, a mad gobbling up of everything suspended out in front - a dash to just bend notes and pile-drive through the smoke, smoke that the band brought on itself. You can look at Low as masculinity for the sake of wooing women and Retribution Gospel Choir as masculinity for the sake of big, bleeding green ink bicep tattoos, having the kind of arms that could chop down trees without the assistance of an axe, batting clean-up, watching two grizzly bears square off with one another in a fight to the finish, and getting all of the toxins out of the body from the night before. It's about being so loud and so relatively ferocious that nothing hurts anymore. The headaches and the atrocities are just little blips on the worry chart. It's just the ears in a red-hot pulse of full-blown aggressiveness.
You listen to the songs in this session - such a marked contrast to the Low session that the band recorded within the first few days of April the previous year - and there's no accurate indication of the time of day that these menacing and devastating songs were recorded. They were done before the first coffee had even settled into the stomach bottom. Though they are late-night roasts, these songs were laid to tape at 10 in the morning, oddly enough. The band rolled up to the Big Orange in Austin, opened the doors, letting out a wall of smoke, and then made the sunny morning dark and foreboding. It kind of felt okay, though we shook for a while afterwards, from the jarring and the volume of it all. It couldn't have been all wrong.
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