Kick Out the Jam Bands

Alan Sparhawk and Mark Kozelek form a supergroup--minus the incessant wanking

Alan Sparhawk, singer/guitarist for minimalist rock trio Low, wants to make one thing absolutely clear: The slowcore supergroup he recently formed with Red House Painter Mark Kozelek isn't a cover band. Or a jam band.

Sure, these guys--along with drummer Eric Pollard and bassist Matthew Livingstone--are eager to tear into and expand classics like Neil Young's "Down by the River," Pink Floyd's "Fearless" and the Rolling Stones' "Moonlight Mile." But Retribution Gospel Choir is mostly primed to play Sparhawk and Kozelek originals, songs written with their respective bands.

A music writer wouldn't be out of line to suspect plenty of choice covers, though. After all, Sparhawk and Kozelek have pimped some serious pop songs over the years. There was the now-legendary Misfits tribute set that Low executed at L.A.'s Spaceland in '98. And, of course, Low contributed "Back Home Again" to Kozelek's John Denver covers anthology, which the Red House Painter put together in between albums. Indeed, if Kozelek hadn't assembled another astounding band, Sun Kil Moon, and completed the 2003 avant-folk-rock masterpiece Ghosts of the Great Highway, he'd probably be better known as the guy who recorded Bon Scott-era AC/DC rockers as tender love ballads. (See Kozelek's What's Next to the Moon, Badman Records, 2001.)

Turns out Sparhawk and Kozelek have more in common than a love of covering classic music. They've been friends for years, and they have long toyed with the idea of creating a band. But Retribution Gospel Choir formed before Kozelek's involvement.

"It came together pretty quickly," says Sparhawk. "There's a music festival in Duluth every May. Last year, Low was scheduled to play, but we had just gotten off a tour, and suddenly, there were other commitments. Rather than bail, I called a couple of guys I knew and did a one-off show."

Those guys happened to be Pollard and Livingstone. The results were good enough that when Kozelek seemed worn out by solo acoustic shows, the Low frontman recruited him. As a result, Retribution Gospel Choir has tightened its attack.

"As a three-piece, we're probably more improvisational," admits Sparhawk. "I keep it from being a jam band, since I can't solo. But every guitar player wants to be in a band so he can wank, so there's always that temptation. Now, Mark will most likely come in and make us play actual songs," chuckles Sparhawk.

Still, Sparhawk thinks people have the wrong idea about him and his fellow songsmith.

"People think we're meticulous because of the way we write and record. We're a lot looser than people realize. I know Mark is open to whatever accidental things are happening. This is easily the most improvisational group of people I've worked with. And when I say 'improvisational,' I'm not talking about a jam band. I mean more like Ornette Coleman."

Even though Retribution Gospel Choir is not--I repeat not--a cover band, Sparhawk admits that as he grows older, he finds himself more inclined to perform a cover song.

"I can't speak for Mark," he says, "and I don't know if it's an age thing or what, but it seems the older you get, the more you find something in yourself in songs you've listened to for 20 years. I mean, you'll suddenly hear a Roy Orbison song and say, 'Holy shit, I didn't know that was there!' For example, I do know that Mark genuinely thinks Bon Scott is an amazing lyricist. I'm not sure if it dawned on him one day or what, but there it is.

"Is it an ego thing?" Sparhawk continues. "Well, there is that part of me that wants to make a song my own, that wants to hear my voice singing those words. But there's also a sense of curiosity, I think--of surrendering to something larger than yourself. I'm always humbled by the songs I've covered. Yet, it's a gamble, too. People get offended when you mess with their favorite song, and they'll let you know about it."

How did Sparhawk come up with the name Retribution Gospel Choir? He says the phrase just fell out of his head a few years ago, and he relished the idea of a choral group that was all about payback--and not in a benevolent way. At the same time, Sparhawk feels he does owe something to the rock 'n' roll canon. "I've taken so much from artists who have come before me," he says. And he's especially grateful toward Low fans.

"There's an art to playing music live, being one with an audience," he says. "Interaction is an essential part of being an artist. Getting up in front of people and performing music is when I'm humbled. It keeps me alive and honest. Low has been very lucky to do what we do. With Retribution Gospel Choir, I'm just trying to continue that good fortune."

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