Skip to main content

Journalist Terry McDermott

McDermott, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times was skeptical of the way the Sept. 11 hijackers were portrayed. So he traveled to 22 countries to research their identities, motives and life circumstances. His new book is Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It.


Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 4, 2005: Interview with Terry McDermott; Interview with Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Terry McDermott discusses his book "Perfect Soldiers"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What were the motivations of the men responsible for September 11th?
Journalist Terry McDermott has traveled around the world and spent years doing
research trying to answer that question. His new book, "Perfect Soldiers,"
tries to explain how men who were mostly from apolitical and unexceptional
backgrounds became extremists.

McDermott is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. One of the
9/11 hijackers McDermott profiles is Mohamed Atta, who is believed to have
piloted American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston, which attacked the north
tower of the World Trade Center. Atta grew up in Egypt and went to Germany to
attend college. I asked McDermott how Atta was radicalized in Germany.

Mr. TERRY McDERMOTT (Author, "Perfect Soldiers"): ...first of all, was a more
active participant in the religion than he'd ever been in Cairo. His family
in Cairo didn't even go to mosque. His mother didn't wear a scarf or veil.
In Germany, he began to associate with people at one particular mosque that
had a very radical interpretation of Islam. This mosque called Al Quds, the
preachers frequently called upon the congregation to drop their lives and join
the jihad. And this was not a metaphorical exhortation; they were asking them
to go and fight. And Atta became more and more enamored of this idea, and he
and a small group of friends spent enormous amounts of time talking about
where they should fight, what it meant to fight, what their obligation was.
Literally years they spent talking about these things.

And so the process--these guys--I thought, you know, they were--I'll try to
find the person who recruited them into the cause, but they weren't recruits,
really. They were volunteers. I mean, they recruited themselves.

GROSS: Khalid Sheik Mohammed is the person who proposed the idea to bin Laden
back in 1996 of flying a plane into a building. Can you talk a little bit
about what that original proposal was like and how Mohammed became the person
to talk to bin Laden about it.

Mr. McDERMOTT: Khalid Sheik Mohammed was an ethnic Pakistani who grew up in
Kuwait and went to the university in North Carolina. And when he returned
from there, he went to Afghanistan to fight in the war against the Soviet
Union, which ended soon after he got there. And not long after that he and a
nephew became involved in a series of plots, almost none of which were
executed but all of which aimed at Americans and/or American allies.

The plan for the ideas came about when they were in Manila in late '94 and
early '95. They developed an idea that--to hijack commercial airplanes over
the Pacific Ocean and blow them up, with everybody aboard dying. The plan was
to have five or six people hijack a couple different planes, and they would
plant bombs on board and then at intervening stops would get off and the
planes would fly over the ocean and crash.

That was interrupted by Philippine police, and the co-conspirators were all
caught, but Mohammed never was. And he kept the idea, and it went through
various iterations. By the time he brought it to al-Qaeda in 1996, the idea
had changed from simple hijackings to taking the planes over, piloting them as
missiles. He proposed doing this to bin Laden, who wasn't quite so sure it
was a workable idea initially.

GROSS: What was bin Laden's objection?

Mr. McDERMOTT: It was too complicated and too hard to do. He wasn't so sure
that the bombers could plant bombs and then get away--because the great
innovation of modern terror is finding people willing to not get away, finding
people willing to commit suicide in the participation in these plots. So the
plan morphed into this idea of hijacking planes, putting their own pilots
aboard them and then using them as--targeting them toward their destinations.

GROSS: So did Khalid Sheik Mohammed and bin Laden decide together that the
thing to do would be to recruit suicide bombers to fly the planes into

Mr. McDERMOTT: They did. In fact, bin Laden had pilots in mind, or people
who would be pilots in mind, already, and he nominated four men to lead the
mission: two Saudis and two Yemenis. At that point the idea was that two of
the flights would be flights from Asia and two of the flights would be flights
within the United States. So the two Saudis went to California, and the two
Yemenis went to Malaysia. They were never able to bring that plot about. I
mean, they had visa problems. It quickly became apparent that Yemenis were
bad to have in these plots because it was hard for them get visas to go
anywhere. So the plot changed again, and they looked further for pilots who
could get into the United States and train, and that's when they found
Mohamed Atta and his friends.

GROSS: How did they find Atta?

Mr. McDERMOTT: Atta delivered himself. He and his friends from Hamburg in
late '99 decided, as I said earlier, to go to Chechnya, and they were told the
best way to get to Chechnya to fight the war against the Russians was to go
through the training camps in al-Qaeda, and they were told how to do this
through Pakistan, and they went. And they arrived in Kandahar and were
immediately seized upon by bin Laden as recruits for the planes operation, as
9/11 was called within al-Qaeda.

I think the thing that excited them about these men's potential for this plot
was, one, they were somewhat technically proficient. Atta was a degreed
architect and urban planner. And, also, being an Egyptian, it was easy to get
a passport--a visa to the United States. He also spoke fluent English and
German. Most of the people in the al-Qaeda camps didn't speak any other
language other than Arabic, and most of them came from places that it was
harder to get visas to America from. So I think it--Atta was from Egypt;
another fellow, Marwan Al-Shehhi, was from United Arab Emirates, a third pilot
was from Lebanon, and the fourth would-be pilot was from Yemen.

As with the earlier men from Yemen who tried to engage in the plot, the man
from Yemen never got a visa, so he was never part of it. The other three got
into the United States and went to flight school. They eventually found a
fourth pilot. Again, he just walked into the camps one day, a Saudi, who was
already a licensed commercial pilot.

GROSS: Did you get any sense of whether Atta or any of the other pilots, at
any point during the planning period, had any second thoughts about dying for
this mission?

Mr. McDERMOTT: Yeah, I think some of them did. I think Atta himself--before
he left for the camps in '99, two things happened. One, in the autumn of that
year, he asked for a private meeting with a friend of his, a German friend, a
Muslim convert in Hamburg, a younger man who Atta had mentored somewhat. And
he warned the man to beware of radical interpretations of Islam; that the man
should live a holy life and follow the Koran but beware of anyone who tried to
enlist him in other causes. And within weeks after that meeting, Atta, having
just received his graduate degree, went home to visit his family, and his
mother was ill at the time; she had developed diabetes. And he asked before
it was time to return to Germany--he asked her if he could stay in Egypt and
take care of her, to forego further studies. And she said, `No, your father,
who wants you to earn a doctorate, is right. You should go to America and get
a PhD.' So it indicated some willingness to be talked out of this.

GROSS: My guest is Terry McDermott, national correspondent for the LA Times.
His new book about the September 11th hijackers is called "Perfect Soldiers."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Terry McDermott, national correspondent for the LA Times.
His new book, "Perfect Soldiers," profiles the September 11th hijackers and
analyzes their motivations.

One of the people you spoke to was Mohamed Atta's former landlord, and she
told you that she felt in danger just being around him. And he'd look at her
wearing a sleeveless shirt and, you know, just be incredibly angry over that.
Was she afraid to talk with you? Did she think that if she talked to you,
somebody else who was a militant Muslim would get back at her?

Mr. McDERMOTT: I think she was more afraid of the media. There are so few
people who knew these guys...

GROSS: No, afraid to talk to you; I mean, you are the media.

Mr. McDERMOTT: Right, but I protected her identity. But she was afraid of
talking to anybody for fear that her name would be revealed.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. McDERMOTT: The two roommates--the two men who lived with Mohamed Atta
over a period of five years--one for three years, one for two years--have
never been interviewed by anybody except me. And it was, you know--you're
sitting there in Hamburg, you know, beating your head trying to figure out,
you know, `Who can we talk to? Who can we find who actually knew them?' And
the people who had talked prior, like, knew him for a week or a month or two
months. And you're thinking, `The guy lived here for seven years, you know.
Who'd he live with?' But you couldn't even get the names of the guys. German
privacy laws are very harsh, and you can't get anything. Reverse telephone
directories are against the law; I mean, that's how hard it is. A criminal's
name can't be published in a newspaper because the name belongs to the
criminal. So just finding these guys was just extraordinarily difficult. And
they didn't want to be found because they were afraid of just becoming
besieged by the media hordes.

You know, finding was them was just, in some ways, a stroke of luck. We knew
where the house was, where they had lived, and we knew the house manager. And
we talked to him, more or less politely, initially about trying to get the
names, and it was against the law, so he wouldn't give them to us. And after
a couple weeks of trying other ways and not getting anywhere, myself and my
Arabic translator, my German translator, dressed in black from head to
toe--I'm 6'1", 200 pounds, and these guys both are much bigger than me. And
we walked into this guy's office, and my German translator, Dirk, handed the
guy--we had rehearsed this ahead of time. I said, `Just give him my card.
Tell him we want the information. We know he has it. If he gives it to us,
we'll go away.' You know, this is just pure stupidity. We walk in. Dirk
hands him the card and says, `We know you have the information. We came to
get it.' The guy reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a file and says, `Is
this what you need?'

GROSS: (Laughs) I thought you were going to say he pulled out a gun.

Mr. McDERMOTT: No. No--yeah, he--here's a file with the guys' names and
phone numbers, where they lived. And we tracked them down, and they agreed to
talk. So...

GROSS: So what'd they tell you? What'd they tell you?

Mr. McDERMOTT: Well, that's where I think the basis of the image of Mohamed
Atta that is in the book comes from, these people who lived with him and knew
him fairly intimately. And that is this sort of aggressive insularity. They
hated him. I mean--and one of these guys is, like, the most laid-back kind
of college guy you could ever meet, you know. He just likes to go out and
have a beer, and he's got a ton of friends, and he laughs. He was chosen...

GROSS: These were his roommates when he was in college, not when he was...

Mr. McDERMOTT: Right.

GROSS: know...

Mr. McDERMOTT: That's correct, yes.

GROSS: Right, OK.

Mr. McDERMOTT: In college in Germany...

GROSS: In Germany.

Mr. McDERMOTT: ...not at Cairo. When he was in college at Cairo, he lived at
home. Yeah, these were college--in Hamburg--roommates. And this guy lived
with them for two or three years--and just grew to hate even seeing him. You
know, here's what--you know, they shared a kitchen. Each had separate
bedrooms, but the common rooms were kitchens and bathrooms. And Mohamed would
walk into the room when the guy was there with his girlfriend, not acknowledge
anybody else even being in the room.

He never washed the dishes--just simple roommate stuff, right? He didn't wash
the dishes. He hated to eat, but when he would cook, he would, like, boil a
whole pot full of potatoes, mash them up, sprinkle them with cumin, then eat
them right out of the pot. And when he was done with that meal, he'd just
stick the pot, the whole thing, in the refrigerator. And the next time
mealtime came around, he'd walk to the refrigerator, pull out the pot and eat
some more, then stick the fork back in it. He was just--you know, just on the
most basic level, he was a bad roommate.

GROSS: Do you think information like that helps us understand how Mohamed
Atta became a suicide pilot on September 11th?

Mr. McDERMOTT: I think what it helps us understand is, you know, the classic
prey is the banality of evil. I mean, there's nothing particularly
exceptional about these people. They did exceptionally bad things, but
they're normal people, and they're as screwed up as everybody else. And, you
know, they're not uniformly bad or uniformly good.

You know, Marwan Al-Shehhi was--everybody liked to be around him. You know,
he was constantly--he carried candy with him everywhere he went, a little bag
of candy. And he gave candy to all of his friends. He'd sit at the table and
sing jihad songs or sing songs about how happy it would be to become a martyr.
You know, it's kind of a--I mean, happy-go-lucky, I guess, we would call that
here. But among that--his group of friends, that was regarded as quite

So I think the personal information tells you the degree to which they were,
more or less, normal human beings and the degree to which there are many more,
more or less, normal human beings who would do something similar. Khalid
Sheik Mohammed has said that al-Qaeda was oversubscribed for martyr
operations, more martyrs than there were plots to put them in.

GROSS: You know, in terms of whether any of the hijackers had any
reservations of dying for the mission of September 11th, one of the hijackers
was actually in love and had recently been married. Tell us about him and how
you think that his marriage may have affected his decision to participate.

Mr. McDERMOTT: Yeah. The man you're talking about is Ziad Jarrah, who was
Lebanese, a young man from Lebanon, from Beirut, who had moved to Germany in
1996 for university and fell in love with a young Turkish-German Muslim woman.
And they were--they became romantically involved very quickly after they met
in 1996 and remained that way until September 11th. In fact, the last thing
Jarrah did before he got on the airplane that morning was to call her. And
she was in southern Germany--in Bochum, southern Germany, and he called and
said `I love you' three times and hung up the phone.

I think, you know, because Jarrah's--because of this relationship, it's often
been supposed that Jarrah was more torn about the decision than others or less
certain about the decision and that he had something else to live for. And
I'm not sure that's true. I mean, in fact, that misconstrues the nature of
the beliefs these guys had. You know, committing suicide, martyrdom, to them
was not at the cost of your life; it was the signifying act of their lives.
It was something--he wrote her a letter that she got after the attacks. And
in it, he hoped that--he told her he hoped that she was proud of him, not that
she--he didn't apologize to her. He wanted her to know that he did it for
them. That's--it's an indication of the power of these beliefs, I think.

GROSS: Did you meet any members of the hijackers' families who regretted the
fact that their son or brother or cousin was part of September 11th?

Mr. McDERMOTT: You know, in any horrific crime or, you know, big disaster, as
reporters, you go out and you meet people. They talk to you largely because
of remorse. They feel some small degree maybe but some degree of
responsibility for the bad thing that happened; that if they had only done
this or that, they could have prevented it. And in the course of interviewing
probably 500 people for this book, I don't think I met five people who
expressed that remorse. Many of the members of these men's families are still
in denial about their participation in it. Those who are not in denial felt
some, you know, not responsibility but just utter bewilderment about it.

You know, I must say within the Arab world, which is sort of governed by myth
in a lot of ways--it's almost prerational society, and myth plays a powerful
role. And one of the overwhelming myths there is the omnipotence of the
United States and of the CIA in particular and of the Israeli intelligence
agency, the Mossad. If it was 10 people, it was 200 who told me that this
could not have happened had it not been planned by the Mossad or the CIA. And
it's not a casually held belief. You see it in the front pages of newspapers.
People still refuse to admit what actually happened--or not the events
themselves happened, but that who did it. And this includes the families of
the hijackers.

GROSS: Has writing this book about the September 11th hijackers affected your
experience of flying and how you look at people who are on your plane or who
are checking in?

Mr. McDERMOTT: Well, it's expected--writing the book hasn't affected my
experience with flying. The effects of 9/11 have greatly affected my
experience with flying. It often now takes longer to get on a plane than it
does to fly. I mean, it's just made it harder to get on an airplane. I'm not
sure it's made it harder for people to blow up airplanes.

It has affected my view of strong beliefs. I'm not a religious person. I was
raised in a religious household but haven't ever practiced religion. And, you
know, the thing I learned from the book most was how dangerous is the idea
that you have the one true belief. It's--and I think that the people who
think they are, you know, in possession of the one true way for anything will
do horrendous things to achieve it because they think everything is justified.
I mean, I think religion's a great thing. It gives people comfort, many
people great comfort. But it's just--wrongly wielded, it's a horrible,
horrible sharp sword.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. McDERMOTT: You're welcome.

GROSS: Terry McDermott is national correspondent for the LA Times. His new
book is called "Perfect Soldiers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, founders of the trio Low, a
group known for its slow tempos and grinding guitar sounds. We'll talk about
changes in their music and what it's like to be in the rock world as a married
couple, Mormons with a baby.

(Soundbite of "Just Stand Back")

LOW: (Singing) I can't decide, and I can't hide. Make up my mind, it's a
waste of time. Here comes the knife. You better just stand back. I could
turn on you so fast. It's a hit. It's got soul. Steal the show with your
rock 'n' roll. With a swing like that, you better just stand back. I could
turn on you so fast. Just like diamonds in...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk discuss their band Low

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Point of Disgust")

LOW: (Singing) I had in my sight lack of vision, lack of light. I fell hard,
I held fast. Mercy me, never last.

GROSS: The trio Low was originally known for its slow tempos, quiet sound and
close harmonies. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says, `Slowly, steadily, much
like the music they're best known for, Low has become one of the most
dependably surprising revelatory rock bands.' My guests are guitarist, singer
and songwriter Alan Sparhawk and drummer and singer Mimi Parker. They
recently toured to promote their latest CD, "The Great Destroyer." Life on
the road for them is different than for many bands. They're married to each
other, have two children and they're Mormons. Their latest CD departs from
the quiet, slow sound that they're known for. Here's "Everybody's Song" from
the CD "The Great Destroyer."

(Soundbite of "Everybody's Song")

LOW: (Singing) Pour yourself another cup, another cup, another cup, and wait.
I can't wait forever. Live your life, a stupid life, a stupid life, a stupid
life. Nobody does it better. Breaking everybody's heart. Taking everyone
apart. Breaking everybody's heart. Singing everybody's song.

GROSS: I asked Alan Sparhawk about the change in Low's sound. He told me
that when Low was formed nearly 12 years ago, he had an almost rigid sense of
how it should sound, and he wanted to sound different from the other bands he
was hearing.

Mr. ALAN SPARHAWK (Low): When we started the band, it was essentially just
myself and a friend of mine kind of exploring the possibilities of minimalism.
We were fans of Brian Eno and some of the post-punk things like The Cure and
Joy Division, even some of the quieter Velvet Underground records. And we
just kind of started experimenting with playing as little as possible, and I
think we kind of somehow roped Mim into the band by promising her that she
wouldn't have to do anything too crazy. And--`Here's a drum and a cymbal.
Just play these two things, and I promise we'll play really slow and quiet.'
And I don't know. I mean, starting with that extreme has been interesting,
'cause you're essentially starting from the beginning with nothing, and at
least in hindsight, I'm seeing that over the years, we essentially started
from playing nothing and over 12 years built to a point where we finally feel
like we can play anything.

GROSS: Did you like having rules to strain against?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah. I think the greatest accomplishments essentially in the
history of humanity or even nature have been because they were either, you
know, someone or something was left a limited amount of resources or
possibilities or ways in which to form the universe. And when you have those
limitations, those are the times when you're pushed to go beyond yourself and
come up with something that's...

Ms. MIMI PARKER (Low): Hopefully...

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...hopefully beyond what you could have done had you had
everything in hand.

Ms. PARKER: At your disposal.

Mr. SPARHAWK: I mean, I don't know. I spent a little--like, in undergraduate
school, spent a little time in the art department. I was a horrible drawer
and I couldn't paint, but I was really fascinated by the concepts of it and
the way professors would teach you. And I was--I remember being really
excited about--it's, like, `OK, for the next three weeks, you're only painting
with black and white.' And to me, that immediately made sense. It was, like,
`Whoa, of course. We're going to learn way more if we just use black and
white than we would if we just said, `Here's a bunch of paint, kids. Give it
a try.'

GROSS: Mimi, Alan said that he had to convince you that it would be OK to
join the band. You just have to play a little cymbals and drum.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you know, first of all, that neglects to mention how wonderful
your singing is and how much you've been singing in the band.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: So what kind of music were you making before Low?

Ms. PARKER: You know, Low was actually the first band I've been in. And when
I was in high school, I played in the marching band. You know that's my
experience. I played snare in the marching band, and so very limited

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. PARKER: My family was kind of musical. We would--you know, my mom had a
guitar, and she had aspirations of being a country star. So she had a guitar
and we would kind of just sit around and play music. And my role was always
to come up with harmonies, because she and my sister would usually sing the
lead, so from the beginning, I kind of--I don't know. I just learned how to
listen and kind of draw and come up with harmonies.

GROSS: I want to play another track from your new CD, "The Great Destroyer,"
and although we're talking about, you know, like, the new sound on the new CD
and how things aren't just, you know, quiet and slow...

Ms. PARKER: Right.

GROSS: they were on most of your earlier records, there are things that
are, in fact, fairly quiet and slow...

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.


GROSS: ...on the new CD.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: For example, the song "Cue the Strings." You want to say anything
about this song before we hear it?

Mr. SPARHAWK: I don't know. It seems--anyone who's followed us for the last
six or eight years knows that every record, I always seem to have one song
where I'm really, really trying hard to be Roy Orbison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPARHAWK: And I don't know. For some reason, I've always just been
infatuated with his song structure, these songs that just begin and build and
build and build.

Ms. PARKER: And then...

Mr. SPARHAWK: (Singing) And then it's done.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: So I don't know. I just--I've always loved that, and this is
the song for this record that is that element that we--I don't know. I kind
of worked it out on a little cheap keyboard--not very Roy Orbison.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear "Cue the Strings" from the new Low CD "The Great

(Soundbite of "Cue the Strings")

LOW: (Singing) Before you speak, the words are plain to see upon your skin,
they sing, they dance and spin. So what, pray tell, will save you now? Here
comes that cold sunrise.

GROSS: That's music from the CD "The Great Destroyer" by the trio Low. My
guests are Alan Sparhawk, who is a singer and guitarist with the band, and
Mimi Parker. She's the drummer and other singer with the band. And they're
also married to each other.

And one of the things I love about the track that we just heard is your
harmonies on it and how your vocal harmonies also match with what the
instruments are playing, and there's these nice held notes in which you just
hear these harmonies kind of suspended, you know, in the air and, you know,
resonating really nicely.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Thanks.

GROSS: What's your process like for figuring out the vocal harmonies and how
you want the vocals to harmonize with the instruments?

Mr. SPARHAWK: I usually kind of come up with some chords and the basic melody
for the song and then--I don't know--just sit around with Mim, and she usually
comes up with at least the first harmony pretty quickly. And then, I don't
know, if we add anything like third and fourths, it's usually just...

Ms. PARKER: It's usually just off the cuff.


Ms. PARKER: It's just in the studio and...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Trying to get fancy.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: But...

GROSS: Well, I was going to say, it seems to me your harmonies need to be
pretty precise in this kind of singing...

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because it is often slow.


Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah, the long-held notes is something that we've--I forget
sometimes that people just don't sing that way. You know what I mean? I
don't know. We've just--early on, because of the slowness of the songs, we
developed this ability to hold...

Ms. PARKER: I think we just--yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...long notes and kind of hold these steady, close harmonies,
and it's something really that we developed just from practicing and working.
It wasn't--it's definitely not something that's natural to me. Mimi for sure
has, I feel, a natural sense for harmony. She has a very smooth voice. But I
think one of the weird things is that--well, one of the factors there for sure
is that, I mean, you know, we've known each other since we were nine years

GROSS: Whoa!

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...and been--yeah.


Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah, we've been--we've since we were nine years old.

Ms. PARKER: It's pretty ridiculous.

Mr. SPARHAWK: And we've been dating essentially since ...(unintelligible)

Ms. PARKER: Yeah. We're high school sweethearts, so maybe we've just...

Mr. SPARHAWK: We've been listening to each other...

Ms. PARKER: Way too long.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah. For so long, that it's just easy for Mim to fall in

Ms. PARKER: I think so.

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...follow my phrasing and influctuations and stuff.

GROSS: So you met when you were nine. How did you meet?

Ms. PARKER: Just...

Mr. SPARHAWK: I showed up for fourth grade, and my family just moved from
Utah to Clearbrook, Minnesota, and showed up for fourth grade with the other
28 kids.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: And there she was.

GROSS: So you were boyfriend and girlfriend in fourth grade?


Ms. PARKER: No. I think he had a crush on my best friend, actually.

Mr. SPARHAWK: First girl I kissed.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: My guests are Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the trio Low. Their
latest CD is called "The Great Destroyer." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the trio Low. Sparhawk
and Parker are also married. Low's latest CD is called "The Great Destroyer."
Here's another track from it called "Monkey."

(Soundbite of "Monkey")

LOW: (Singing) Oh, my, my, little white lies. I swear I'm going to make it
right this time. It's not the radio, turn it way down low, telling me things
I do not know I know. Tonight you will be mine. Tonight the monkey dies.
Tonight you will be mine. Tonight the monkey dies.

GROSS: That's "Monkey," the opening track from the new CD "The Great
Destroyer" by the trio Low. My guests are founders of the group, Alan
Sparhawk as a singer and guitarist. Mimi Parker is a singer and drummer.

Alan, what is the monkey in this song?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Oh, boy. Now you're getting personal. I don't know. This
record was written during a lot of confusion of my own, and I don't know.
It's that moment where you're, like, sitting there going, `That's it. I got
it. This has got to break right now.' And that's that song. And I don't
know if I've really written anything like that in the past. Usually it was
always writing about something that happened and your feelings about something
that happened, you know. And "Monkey" is, `All right, that's it.'

Ms. PARKER: In the moment.

Mr. SPARHAWK: In the moment. `This has to stop now.'

GROSS: What kind of confusion were you going through?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Well, I don't know. I mean...

Ms. PARKER: Mid-30s.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Mid-30s. Let's see.

Ms. PARKER: That time of your life where...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Mid-30s, that time of your life where people buy Corvettes.
Some people go do this or that, but for me, I just plain kind of lost a few of
my mental capabilities, spent a little time in the hospital, and now I'm
doing a little better.

GROSS: You spent a little time in the hospital?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Well, not--I don't know. I don't want to go into it too much,
but nonetheless, the last couple of years, I've been--it's been an interesting
mental struggle, and it's kind of strange to be sitting here talking about a
record that essentially illustrated that whole time. And it's a weird
feeling. I mean, a lot of artists have bored many a public about their
struggles. But I don't know. What are you going to do? This is my way of
expressing things, and it's exciting. I'm glad it turned out to be a good
record, because it could have been really, really horrible.

GROSS: So was it like an emotional crisis or a musical crisis, you're saying,
that precipitated whatever this was?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Well, I think honestly, it was--I'm still kind of working out
what it is with some therapy, but through meeting with the people that I've
essentially had to meet with because of mental illness, I've learned since
then that this is a common thing. Men sometimes in their 30s can't hold it
back anymore and if there's something they're dealing with from childhood, or
not dealing with, it tends to exercise its leverage a little more when a male
gets in his early 30s. And you--I don't know if it's depression or
bipolarism, that's when that stuff sets in usually with a lot of males, and at
least that's what I'm learning.

GROSS: So that was like the issue, depression or bipolar disorder?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah. Depression, you know, suicidal, so to speak, and then
just the process of coming to terms with that and realizing that that's
enough. I can't do it on my own. I need to go get help, and I need--and I've
been--and that's been a long process, and it's been so far positive, the fact
that I'm still here speaking.

Ms. PARKER: And pretty much this whole record was written...

Mr. SPARHAWK: This whole record was...

Ms. PARKER: ...during that...

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...written during that time, so it's been--it's interesting,
because especially being in the middle of touring right now, I mean, to get up
and play some of these songs feels really--I get to review my breakdown, so to
speak, every night. But strangely enough, it's actually feeling pretty

GROSS: You know, something I often wonder about, and I know a lot of people
do, is, like, what's the connection--with an artist, what's the connection
between their artistic gift and whatever, like, emotional or mental issues
they have that might seem extreme? Do you know what I mean?


GROSS: So, like, if--is, like, the music connected to the depression? And if
so, what...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Oh, which comes first, the suicide or the Ozzy Osbourne? Or...

GROSS: No, but, you know, like, there's a certain almost obsessive quality to
being an artist that also has its kind of down...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Drives one mad?

GROSS: Yeah. That has its real downside in the rest of life.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah. I don't know. It's a strange thing. I mean, I try not
to think about it too much, because if you're in the middle of it, the last
thing you need to be doing is doing any romanticizing of it necessarily. But,
yeah, it's a really strange thing to write or to create or to make art or
whatever where you acknowledge that there's something higher kind of inspiring
you, and that feeling, that sense that there's something else coming into you
or through you as an artist or as a creator or whatever. I think there's
something about that. It's kind of like, you know, if the window's open,
every once in a while the wind's going to blow in stuff that's not going to be
so easy to get out of the carpet, you know?

And I think just--yeah, the same struggle that inspires an artist to do what
they do, I think, about 95 percent of it, it never goes away. And after a
certain point, you know, it gets--it can be pretty strange, dangerous and
ugly. I mean, there's a lot of--we know a lot of musicians who were
essentially our contemporaries five, six years ago who are either really
having a horrible time right now or they've, you know, at some point turned
to drugs or alcohol, you know, lost in that, or they've just had to just walk
away and really be away from that part of their life to function and to go on.

GROSS: Mimi, Alan was talking about, like, his, you know, depression...

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that this record grew out of.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: And, man, when you're with someone who's depressed, that means a

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: terms of how your life is changing because of that. So stop me
when this gets too personal.


GROSS: So how did this period kind of change your life, both--not only as a
wife but as a member of the band? I mean, did you have to convince Alan to
play more, to come back to the band?

Ms. PARKER: No, I never had to convince him of that. He never--that was
never really an option for him. He's very driven, a very driven person when
it comes to that. But you know, personally, it's just been challenging, you
know. It's just been challenging to--it's kind of hard to separate the
marriage from the band sometimes. You know, unfortunately, for good or for
bad, they kind of get intermingled, and you know, if there's, say, a personal
issue between us, it's kind of hard to not make that a band issue.

GROSS: My guests are Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of the trio Low. Their
latest CD is called "The Great Destroyer." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the trio Low. Sparhawk
and Parker are also married.

You're both Mormon, right?

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yes, we are.

GROSS: So you know, you'd think that there'd be part of, like, you know, the
rock 'n' roll ethic, you know, the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll thing or the
music scene in general that would so go against your values. So has it been
hard or challenging to kind of redefine the music or the scene for yourself in
a way that kind of suits...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Works with our beliefs and...

GROSS: Yeah, suits your personalities and your values and your life?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Well, when you come into making music from kind of the
underground DIY ethic, I mean, there's only going to be five people at your
show anyway. Why bother with the trappings of making sure it looks like a
rock 'n' roll show or that it functions like a rock 'n' roll show? I mean, I
don't know. I mean, we just--we get in the van, go play. Just because the
drinks are there don't mean we have to drink them. And we get back in the van
and we...

Ms. PARKER: Yeah. It's...

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...stay with friends and we go to church when we can. And...

Ms. PARKER: It's never really been--yeah, it's never really been a problem, I

Mr. SPARHAWK: No. In fact, most of the--we've met some really crazy, hairy,
scary rock 'n' rollers...

Ms. PARKER: Rock 'n' rollers.

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...over the years. And most of them are a lot mellower and a
lot more morally aware and clean than you would think. I mean, I think it
would surprise most people. The rock 'n' roll myth is--it's alive somewhere,
but man, we haven't found it anywhere in 12 years. So...

GROSS: What has it been like for you to have a new CD, and I'm sure you've
wanted to tour for it. I don't know how much you've been able to tour, but at
the same time, you have a baby now.


GROSS: So, you know, touring is probably much more complicated than it ever
was. So how are you trying to manage, you know, being the parent of a baby
with touring?

Mr. SPARHAWK: Well, first you just have the baby, and...

Ms. PARKER: It is. It's really...

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...the world kind of...

Ms. PARKER: It's a crazy combination.


Ms. PARKER: Honestly, if you think about it too much, you would never do it,
you know, because it's kind of daunting, thinking of all the things you have
to bring, you know, the preparation, the...

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah. If we were to explain to you how hard it would be...

Ms. PARKER: You would never do it.

Mr. SPARHAWK: one would ever pack up their children in the van again.

Ms. PARKER: Again.

Mr. SPARHAWK: No, it's...

Ms. PARKER: No, you know, we've kind of--we're working out the bugs right
now. But with the second child, it definitely has added a bit of...

Mr. SPARHAWK: A new level.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, a new level to the touring experience.


Ms. PARKER: But fortunately for us, he's a very good baby, so he kind of just
goes with the flow. And really you just do it, you know.

Mr. SPARHAWK: You just do it, yeah. Kids...

Ms. PARKER: You just pack him up and you just do it. And they will adjust.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Yeah, kids will adjust to anything. It's the parents that...

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, it's the parents.

Mr. SPARHAWK: ...have the problems.

Ms. PARKER: There you go.

Mr. SPARHAWK: It's true.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, thank you both so much for talking
with us, and good luck to you both.

Mr. SPARHAWK: Thank you so much.

Ms. PARKER: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the trio Low. Their latest CD is
called "The Great Destroyer." You can hear a couple of tracks from it on our
Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue