Best of 2018: Nick Sanborn (Sylvan Esso) Can’t Get Enough of Low’s Double Negative

"Every record Low puts out is always the best work they’ve ever done."

In place of a more traditional year-end best-of list, Talkhouse has asked some of our favorite artists to choose their favorite album of 2018 and tell us all about it.
—The Talkhouse Team

I was in Minneapolis for the past couple of days working on some music with a friend, and we went to see Low. I had been listening to Double Negative a lot since it came out. They just blew me away, and I started thinking about… I can’t think of another band that’s 25 years into a career and making their best music. Bands like that can be counted on one hand. Every record Low puts out is always the best work they’ve ever done. They’ve been consistently getting better forever, constantly pushing against the boundaries of what they set their band up to be, and on this record especially.

So many records came out this year that I think capture the kind of inner emotional space that a lot of people are living in right now—this very tense, thrumming anxiety. And a lot of those are my favorite records this year, for obvious reasons. But Low finally figured out how to take that thing about their band and make it feel like the album itself was pushing against the borders of reality, pushing into your brain.

I hadn’t gotten to see them since Things We Lost In The Fire, back with their old bass player, at a church in Madison. I love them, but just hadn’t gotten to see them since then. The show this week was wild. They had this really simple but really intense back-lighting. It just seemed like Alan Sparhawk has taken his guitar playing into this really far-out psychedelic place that feels very cathartic. It made me think of Jim O’Rourke or Tashi Dorji at times. It seemed like he had dialed in his ability to express a very specific thing. I see a lot of guitar players get wild and get out with a pretty noisy rig or whatever, but it didn’t seem like there was a single moment where he wasn’t in complete control of exactly how it was sounding. It felt like it was coming from within him, rather than him riding the bull of it. I feel the same way when I see Nels Cline play. Alan was much more metered back in the day; this felt explosive in its controlled rage. It was amazing to watch.

And Mimi Parker just seems like her drums… Her kit has remained as simple as it ever was, but she can be like thundering or barely there. The dynamic range is gigantic now. The vocals are great. The bass player can do so much with his instrument.

But the record never loses control. It sounds like how being enraged and not being able to do anything about it feels. I was really curious how they’d translate to the show. You never really know unless you’re there when a record is being made. The album feels like a natural extension of what they’re doing on stage, it just pushes it into the next space.

I think BJ Burton, who produced the record, is a total genius. He’s kind of turned distortion into an instrument in a way that I haven’t heard other people do. In that record in particular, it seems like he took what was happening in those songs and him and the band kept pushing against the fabric of the record itself until that production treatment was almost its own reflection of what the songs were doing in the first place. What a choice. It just sounds insane. It sounds like you’re living inside of an explosion. You can feel their muscles all tense. Imagine trying to translate that into a sonic idea. They did that.

I feel like they’re constantly re-asking themselves what their band is. This new record and Things We Lost in the Fire and the Curtain Hits the Cast are all aiming at the same spot, they’re just doing it from different positions. It’s really inspiring in that way, because it’s a reminder that everything always has room for progress. In a band it’s easy to feel stuck in a groove, where people are expecting a certain thing from you. That can feel like a weird trap sometimes. You can twist and distort something to the ends of the earth, and if a song is still underneath there, you’ll always have human beings who want to reach through the distortion and find the soul of the thing underneath it.

As told to Josh Modell.

Nick Sanborn is half of the musical duo Sylvan Esso, and he also makes solo electronic music under the name Made Of Oak.