Low’s Mimi Parker Remembered

In tribute to Low’s Mimi Parker, who passed away this weekend, MOJO revisits our 2021 interview with the band.

Low 2021

by Victoria Segal |

From Dylan’s home town sprang the fragile ecstasies of LOW. For nearly 30 years a byword for quality in alternative rock. And that’s in spite of the unimaginable demons that have tormented on half of its married core, and the fallout for family and fans. “Testing people’s patience was an interest from the beginning,” they told MOJO in 2021.

Portrait: Nathan Keay

Last Spring, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker started broadcasting a more-or-less weekly show from the basement of their house in Duluth, Minnesota – way north on the corner of Lake Superior. During It’s Friday, I’m In Low they played songs from their 13 albums, including their new one, Hey What. There have been covers (Move On Up, What Goes On, and at the urging of son and occasional bassist Cyrus, Childish Gambino’s Me And Your Mama) plus Vansplaining, a segment on life as a touring musician. In even quieter moments, Sparhawk visited the vegetable garden to show how his tomatoes are coming along or explain how to harvest a beetroot. Equally wholesome – and inspired by the guitar lessons he gives to children at a nearby school – the man who has often said he feels his relationship with his audience is one of confrontation, taught viewers how to play Low songs. “It’s a lot easier than you’d think,” he deadpanned. “That’s what he insists,” laughs the brisk, friendly Parker, who has left her drum kit and is now sitting in her daughter Hollis’s calm green bedroom. “He never feels like the songs are that complex.”

“It’s kind of fun to show people that, ‘Yeah, it’s just these three chords over and over again; you can do this,’” says Sparhawk later. “It’s more about your creative decisions, and your personality, and the chances you take. That’s what makes it interesting – not the fancy chords.”

In this case, those who can, teach: their decisions, their personalities, have made Sparhawk and Parker one of the most fascinating musical partnerships of the past 30 years. “Low is one of the all-time greatest American rock bands, bar none,” says Jeff Tweedy, producer of their 2013 album The Invisible Way. “A great gift to anyone aspiring to make art. All you have to do is look to Low to see how high the bar is.”

Originally bracketed in the mid-’90s with Codeine and Bedhead as ‘slowcore’, the dreamy fallout from Galaxie 500 and American Music Club, Low have spent 27 years in quiet evolution, moving from the elongated shadows of 1994’s debut I Could Live In Hope to the end-times distortions of 2018’s ecstatically received Double Negative. Yet there is also a compelling backstage jostle between the transcendence of their music and the solidity of their domestic life. They are married, have never moved from Duluth, are Mormons, and when they had their daughter in 2000, she came on the road in her car seat. “The marriage is basically the band,” says Parker. “We’ve had a number of bass players and I’m sure it’s been challenging at times for them to deal with us.” Zak Sally, Low bassist between 1995 and 2005, agrees. “Navigating that stuff for everybody isn’t easy. Are they my bandmates? Are they my best friends? Are they my family? Arguments or disagreements – or even agreements – can come up and it’s like, ‘OK, are we talking about the band or the marriage?’” (Bassist Steve Garrington, who arrived for 2011’s C’mon, left during last year’s lockdown: “I wanted to acknowledge the weariness I felt from travelling and touring,” he tells MOJO. “I sensed another path and I want to be open to possibilities presented along the way.”)

If the British press in particular were quick to label them “quiet married Mormons”, did their congregation pigeonhole them as “in a band”?

“It’s still a conversation starter among people that we know,” says Parker smiling. “They have a lot of questions.” If she meets somebody who doesn’t listen to much music, she says, she might bring up Low’s Christmas EP from 1999 – a collection of carols and festive songs that saved their financial skin when Parker was pregnant with Hollis and their beautiful drone version of Little Drummer Boy was used in an advert.

“Everybody [in the community] wants everybody to understand that they’re well-rounded people and they’re not judgmental,” says Sparhawk. “I think it’s just refreshing when they have something they can point to and say, ‘They’re doing something interesting and edgy – but they still believe in being kind and they’ll sit next to you in Sunday school.’

“Having a mental breakdown a couple of years back really helped clear the air,” he continues. “I think everybody in the congregation knows that I’m struggling just like everybody else. I think everybody who needs to know knows that I’m troubled and that I’ve also had some drug issues from time to time and some pretty odd behaviour here and there. I’m pretty comfortable with that and anybody who would look sideways at you for that… I don’t know if that bothers me, really.”

Recorded, like Double Negative and 2015’s Ones And Sixes, with Bon Iver associate BJ Burton, Hey What continues their investigations into broken communication, internal struggle, survival. Yet unlike their predecessors’ craters and quicksands, these songs feel as if they have emerged from a fog into somewhere high and bright, briefly able to see above the clouds. The galactic folk-metal of More, says Parker, is a protest song. Opener White Horses, meanwhile, is about “this search for transcendence, this surrender to the universe,” says Sparhawk. “That song in particular came out of therapy. I’m always dealing with mental health stuff and there’s been some moments where I’ve come to the surface and maybe taken a deep breath and that song came out of that. Let’s try to see if there’s some sense of something rising out of the ashes. That last record, we’d really redefined our vocabulary more so than most other records and what do you do after that? It wasn’t necessarily, ‘OK, let’s make it even crazier’ – it was more, ‘OK, this is a really interesting new language. Let’s use this as a vehicle instead of a cage.’”

Low had this incredible power that a lot of groups didn’t. They could draw you into their world.


Duluth is the birthplace of Bob Dylan – and as a result, laughs Sparhawk, houses “a few more kind of grizzly folky songwriters per capita than other places.” Dylan is “in the blood of the community” and for young punks like Sparhawk, he was something to kick against. “Of course,” he says, with one of his many resigned laughs, “you also want to be that mysterious artist that has never-ending integrity no matter what twists and turns you take.”

Sparhawk moved to Minnesota from Utah when he was eight or nine, meeting Parker shortly after: his family’s home was “this sketchy 280-acre piece of land that was mostly swampy and had some fields. We raised cows. I milked goats by hand pretty much my whole adolescence, drove a tractor, harvested oats and hay. It was a farm and it sucked and it was dangerous. You see a lot of death and a lot of suffering.”

His father was a drummer, “kind of a jazz guy” with a country background; Sparhawk and his family would sing in church. “When I was 14 or 15 my parents were divorced and picking up the guitar was kind of my own thing. Punk rock was exciting, it felt like, ‘This is my own world, this is my language.’”

There were, however, problems with being an obsessed teenager “out in the sticks”. “There just weren’t hardcore shows to go to right away when I was 15 – I had to read about them or hear about them from cousins or friends who lived in bigger cities. I had to learn it all myself.”

Parker comes from a similarly musical background – her mother was an aspiring country singer and she grew up listening to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, a little gospel. Her sister played guitar with a performer’s ambition, taking Parker to sing Joy To The World at senior citizens centres. “She would sing the lead and I would sing the harmony,” says Parker. “I was pretty shy and didn’t really see that as my future. Honestly, it wasn’t until we started the band that I really felt like this was something I could do. I was still very timid and shy and it’s safe to say Alan kind of dragged it out of me.”

Parker’s voice remains one of Low’s natural wonders: Zak Sally describes it as “just like water going down a stream”. It’s not just beautiful – there’s an implacability to it, a clarity that’s key to the band’s ability to disturb and disrupt. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, she sounds like an angel,’” Parker says, “but mostly I’m thinking, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if I want to sound like an angel – it sounds maybe too nice.’”

Ask Sparhawk what Parker dragged out of him, and he smiles. “She dragged a shred of integrity out of me. I’m the id and she has helped me to point my chaos in more productive directions.”

Parker is, says Sparhawk, “very private” but he quickly realised there was nobody he would rather be in a band with. Working at Duluth’s lakeside DECC Arena, he found a drum in the basement and brought it home to her. “I’ve known her since we were kids; I knew that she had an amazing voice and I knew that she loved music and she had as acute a taste as anyone I knew. I coerced her for sure, coaxed her in, but that’s been the nature of our relationship. I had to convince her into kissing the first time we were out, too.”

He laughs and shakes his head. “That sounds terrible! To this day she’s very cautious and I have to consider that when we’re navigating in public.”

If Double Negative was the most dramatic wrenching of the band’s sound into new forms, their experimental impulse is not new, even predating the 14-minute Do You Know How To Waltz on 1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast, or 1997’s abstracted Songs For A Dead Pilot EP. Sally, who joined Low for 1995’s Long Division after original bassist John Nichols left, first met Parker and Sparhawk when he was 15. He and Sparhawk formed a band called 12:38, their fondness for Big Black and Joy Division cut with curiosity about Scratch Acid and Jandek. They would play over a backing tape that mixed Sounds Of The Barnyard sound effects and Madonna. “We’d play Sister Ray for way longer than anyone could or should. That’s only relevant to Low in that ‘testing people’s patience’ was an interest from the very beginning.”

In 1994, Sparhawk, Parker and Nichols drove to New Jersey to record I Could Live In Hope with Shimmy-Disc supremo Kramer. They were, says Parker, “Minnesota hick farm kids, basically – we’d been out of the state maybe once, to Wisconsin.” By their fourth gig, at New York’s Knitting Factory, they realised they were not destined to be hometown Friday night favourites. “We were weird enough maybe for just one or two people to come up to us and tell us that was really great. That was just enough.”

Their quietness was, in the early days, its own form of confrontation, forcing audiences to listen, lean in – or to react with hostility. “We played CBGBs in New York and the sound guy was like, ‘You guys sing like mice,’” says Parker. “But I guess it wasn’t enough to disturb us.” Warren Ellis toured the US with Low in 1998 after his group The Dirty Three released Ocean Songs; “Everyone was so loud and messy – we were still on the coattails of grunge. They had this incredible power that a lot of groups didn’t have. They could draw you into their world without pummelling you over the head with volume, which was certainly what we did with The Dirty Three. We went for it, blood and spit and just hammering it, but they had this incredible way of drawing the whole audience in.”

Since my breakdown, it’s been a process of trying to recover and not get that bad again. I’m glad I have music.” 


In 2001, Low asked the Australian trio to join them recording the In The Fishtank EP: “They were so precise and dedicated and so controlled – kind of like everything we weren’t,” says Ellis, who calls the band “extraordinary”. Sally confirms this. “It was, ‘How do we do this exact thing in the most precise and controlled way possible?’… If you’re invisible, you’re doing your job well.”

Low would go on to work with Steve Albini on 1999’s Secret Name and 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire, and Dave Fridmann on 2005’s The Great Destroyer and its 2007 follow-up Drums And Guns. In 2005, however, Sparhawk experienced a cataclysmic breakdown in which he believed he was the Antichrist; Sally would shortly leave the band. Sparhawk says: “We’d done The Great Destroyer with Dave Fridmann and we’d kind of got a feeling of, ‘This guy really likes to go more extreme,’ so coming into Drums And Guns we were, like, ‘Let’s take the lid off this and see if we can do something different.’ Again, meanwhile, I was losing my mind. Completely head on fire doing Drums And Guns.”

Sparhawk is, he says, “a little raw” today – he is sporadically gripped by nausea, shutting his eyes until it passes. Sitting in a darkened room, his long hair lending him the incongruous air of Robert Plant or a charismatic commune leader, Sparhawk is recalling a recent conversation with Sally. He lives two hours away in Minneapolis – “an indescribable wasteland right now of post-police violence and racial discord,” says Sparhawk sadly. As he repeats their discussion about music’s healing power, he begins to weep. “If the math of the solar system is the math of the music system, then there’s something going on here,” he says, his voice rising and cracking. “We need to be using that, we need to be having ceremonies, we need to be making music that heals this world. We’re not going to do it by arguing and we’re not going to be doing it by killing each other.” He wipes his eyes. “I’m sorry to go off like this in the middle of a question. I am trying, despite all my weaknesses and all my flaws, to try to send this stuff to try and tip this universe a little bit towards the positive. I’m just trying not to screw that up.”

He steadies himself. “This is good emotion,” he says. “This is acknowledging truth.”

Sparhawk is forthright in describing the effect his breakdown had on him. “It sucks. It makes people around me uncomfortable sometimes and I don’t want to do that. I don’t like beating myself up all the time and I don’t like having psychosomatic reactions every time something gets heavy or I start having to talk about anything. Since then, it’s been really difficult, a really step-by-step flawed process of trying to recover and not get that bad again. I’m glad I have music, I’m glad I have a creative place to process those things – I think it’s been really vital to any sense of recovery or any sense of survival. But I’d gladly pass it all.”

Did they ever think it was best they stop being Low? “Even though he was really a little ungrounded, he never lost his focus or his ambition for the band,” says Parker. “Maybe you couldn’t talk to Alan on that day, but you could talk to me. For the most part he’s so dedicated to it, he loves it so much and yeah, he’s definitely kept this band going all these years. My personality is such that I tend to bring a calmness to it but it’s his energy, and it’s his focus that really pushes us along. And at the time it was really stressful, it was really hard but he was not ever at the point where he stopped.” She laughs. “Which is kind of crazy.”

All night/You fought the adversary/It was no ordinary fight,” Low sing on Hey What’s wonderful prog spiritual All Night. Sparhawk identifies the adversary as “likely yourself – or the draw within you to pull away from a righteous place”. He might have joked their songs are “easier than you’d think”, but their continued existence feels like the opposite, a forward march through difficult terrain.

“The first album we did was probably 24 hours of work,” says Sparhawk. “The second one we did in a week. It was already pretty forward thinking for us even to be in the studio, so setting up and playing our songs and then overdubbing the vocals, that was new to us. And now new to us is running the vocals through a vocoder and on to a grid to get triggered by a drum machine and then we re-pitch it through something else and you get something different. That’s the frontier now. It’s a good struggle.”

“Every record we’ve ever made, at some point we’d scratch our head and say, ‘What is this? Is this anything?’” says Parker. “By the time we’re done with it, you hope you’ve figured it out and you’re at a place you want to be. And that’s kind of what happened this time.”

After all those words that have labelled Low down the years – slowcore, Mormon, married, quiet – she hits upon the one that fits best. “It’s miraculous.”

The Nether World: Six Of The Best Low Albums

I Could Live In Hope

(Vernon Yard, 1994)

This, then, is slowcore (a useful term, says Sparhawk wryly, for distinguishing Low from “black metal or hip-hop”). The drowsy closing cover of You Are My Sunshine isn’t entirely in keeping with the rest of Low’s Kramer-produced debut, a record that picks up dark threads from Joy Division and early Cure as much as Galaxie 500.

Secret Name

(Kranky, 1999)

“The light it burns your skin/In a language you don’t understand”: no Low song dances closer to the mystical edge than Two Step. Elsewhere on their beautiful fourth album, the sweetly stupefied Starfire (“I’ll load the back and you can drive”) showed Low could write a parallel-universe hit – improbably facilitated by working with Steve Albini.

Things We Lost In The Fire

(Kranky, 2001)

Their second recording with Albini, this album is almost lushly adorned with brass and strings. There’s no loss of strangeness on Sunflower or Dinosaur Act, though, while Parker’s Embrace and In Metal are cosmic additions to the small canon of poignant, visceral songs about childbirth and motherhood.

The Great Destroyer

(Sub Pop, 2005)

Robert Plant covered the ominous Monkey on his Band Of Joy record from 2010 – an indication of Low’s move towards a heavier sound. Maybe it was because it was their first record for Sub Pop or with Dave Fridmann; maybe it was just an expression of the band’s turbulent internal workings at the time.

Drums And Guns

(Sub Pop, 2007)

Tapping into the febrile geopolitical climate of the Iraq War and George W Bush-era America, Low’s fierce, fractured eighth album anticipated Double Negative’s last-ditch transmissions from a degraded planet. With the guitar stripped out and disintegration loops drilled in, it’s Low putting barbed wire around their comfort zone. Martial bliss.

Double Negative

(Sub Pop, 2018)

Twenty-five years into their career, Low made their boldest record to date, a collection of songs that almost buckled and blackened while they played. “It’s not the end/It’s just the end of hope,” sang Sparhawk on Dancing And Fire, which proved a crowd-pleasing sentiment. Made for these times.

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