Retribution Gospel Choir Swings Low

From the gospel according to Alan

Having led the influential trio Low since 1993, Alan Sparhawk’s legacy was assured some time ago. While Low’s most recent album is now 3 years old, the band’s collective work has bewitched fans around the world for 17 years and inspired the term “slowcore” to describe its spare, drowsy delivery.

But Sparhawk hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs in the intervening years. In 2008, the self-titled debut album from his more recent trio, Retribution Gospel Choir, was produced by Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek and released on Kozelek’s Caldo Verde imprint. A follow-up, simply titled 2, has just seen worldwide release on Sub Pop, altering the perception of RGC from a side project to a proper band.

It’s not just Sparhawk’s long history with Low that made his new outfit initially seem second fiddle. After bassist Matt Livingston exited Retribution Gospel Choir, the trio recruited Low bassist Steve Garrington. That means the two bands’ lineups now differ only behind the drum kit: Mimi Parker, Sparhawk’s wife, drums and sings harmonies in Low, while Eric Pollard handles those tasks in RGC. The first RGC album even included one song, “Breaker,” that featured Parker’s singing and had previously appeared on a Low record.

“We started as just a fill-in for a slot at a local festival,” says Sparhawk, holed up in Sweden during a European tour with Retribution Gospel Choir. He recalls how Low’s then-bassist didn’t want to do the festival, and so RGC came into being and wound up playing cover songs by bands from Low’s longtime home base of Duluth, Minnesota. “The show went well, so we started writing songs,” he says. “From there it slowly grew, playing around the region.”

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The band’s name is a reference to the traveling church choirs Sparhawk would sometimes encounter on tour. But despite the fact that Sparhawk is a practicing Mormon, Retribution Gospel Choir don’t overwhelm listeners with religious themes. It’s mostly just a name; if anything, the band are a choir of three, and there’s certainly little trace of traditional gospel music in their cascading rock songs. That said, 2 does end with a track called “Bless Us All” and repurposes some probing questions as refrains elsewhere.

Yet it also spans the instrumental psych rager “’68 Comeback” as well as the salt-of-the-earth anthem “Workin’ Hard,” along with other rugged detours. There’s an enlivening range to the songs, not just stylistically but in terms of length: Three-minute nuggets sit next to even briefer, tighter pieces. “We took a few tries at making this record,” Sparhawk explains. “Each time we would learn more and play better, so by the time we finally did it right, we knew how it should be.” That explains the short songs. As for the eight-minute feast that is the ballad-turned-jam “Electric Guitar,” he simply answers, “I like short songs and long songs—not so much the middle.”

As rewarding as Retribution Gospel Choir are—and 2 is a magnificent, thunderous album—it’s only natural to ask Sparhawk about the status of Low. He reveals that the band have been working on new songs and are planning to play some festivals this summer.

“We will probably finish a record and tour toward the end of the year,” he confirms, although he’s not entirely sympathetic to fans’ continued calls for Low tours. “We’ve been touring for 17 years,” he reminds.

The songwriting process is identical for both bands: Sparhawk writes songs first and then figures out which band will play them. “I don’t really write for anything,” he admits. “The songs find their own place. Some could work any way, so I try them with both [bands]. The [other] people playing have a lot of bearing on what it ends up sounding like.”

In general, Retribution Gospel Choir are a grittier, stormier band than Low, but it’s worth remembering that Low bucked their reputation rather nicely with a noisier pair of albums for Sub Pop. And whether loud or quiet, Sparhawk’s songs always offer a sigh-like release. “I’ve always been into heavy, visceral music,” he muses. “Even in Low, it’s very physical and cathartic, but more in a static way.”

He’s right: Low may be slower than most bands, but there’s a gravity there that most bands couldn’t hope to maintain, especially over so many albums. That’s because, as Sparhawk concludes, “I don’t think I could make light music.”

Retribution Gospel Choir perform with Two Guns, the Relative Strangers, the Fling and Sam Outlaw at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; Mon., 8 p.m. Free. 21+.

This article appeared in print as "Swing Low: Alan Sparhawk’s mostly not-preachy Retribution Gospel Choir church up OC."

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843 W. 19th St.
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