Mimi Parker Was The Aching Spirit That Shaped Low’s Incomparable Sound
Slowcore, like all genres, is nominally ambiguous until you hear it: the glacial pace, the minimalist arrangements, the soft dynamics. Once you combine those elements, something clicks into place. Although they appear in all kinds of music, their union is most prominent in the ever-nebulous slowcore. Low, the Duluth, Minnesota duo consisting of married couple guitarist-vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer-vocalist Mimi Parker, are one of the progenitors of the subgenre. In some ways, they define it just as much Nirvana define grunge, My Bloody Valentine define shoegaze, or Rites Of Spring define post-hardcore. Still, Low were always unapologetically Low; they had their own mode of musical expression that no one else could truly emulate.
Parker, whose death from ovarian cancer was announced via Low’s social accounts Sunday, not only defined slowcore as we know it today. She also defined Low’s signature sound. Parker was an undeniable talent: a drummer who knew how to serve the song and a vocalist whose harmonies lent a beatific gauze to Low’s oft-experimental compositions. Their ’90s output, including records like I Could Live In Hope and The Curtain Hits The Cast, reveled in quietude — a rarity for a drummer. But Parker understood the importance of restraint. She knew how to let her art speak for itself, anchoring Low’s songs with a steady heartbeat pulse while summoning a hazy effect with her mesmerizing voice. It’s the kind of music that requires patience and stillness yet remains fairly accessible all the same.
On the aptly named “Lullaby,” from the band’s 1994 debut, Parker’s voice hangs over Sparhawk’s resonant guitar like a gently billowing curtain. “I sang the words I meant,” she intones before repeating herself once more: “I sang,” one final utterance before her subdued ride cymbal enters the mix, ushering in a sprawling, seven-minute instrumental section. It’s a moment that shows just how singular Low’s sound was from the beginning and how much it hinged on Parker. Upon teaming up with loudness king Dave Fridmann and toying with a more blown-out sound in the mid-2000s, Parker’s playing remained artful and capable, and her voice in tandem with Sparhawk’s created a lineage with their earlier records.
When I had the fortune of speaking with Parker during the HEY WHAT album cycle, I asked her what she thinks defines Low’s sound. “Well, the vocals,” was her reply. “No matter what we throw them on top of, the vocals keep it what it is.” Regardless of what era of the band you listen to — whether it’s Long Division’s spaciousness or Double Negative’s abstractions — Parker’s voice is an imperative thread, haunting the silence and, at just the right moments, combining with her husband in startling, electrifying outbursts of harmony. It was as if they were conjuring some great universal ache together.
Toward the end of the 2010s, Parker and Sparhawk began dabbling in more experimental approaches to production. 2016’s Ones And Sixes marked their first endeavor with glitchy, fitful electronics, which they would masterfully refine on 2018’s Double Negative and last year’s HEY WHAT. Their live show, however, retained Low’s genesis as a guitar-bass-drums unit. One of the crucial facets of Parker and Low as a whole is that their later work adopted new forms through the stage. Even the most processed percussion would take on a new interpretation through her measured, delicate drum patterns. Piercing, clipping studio recordings were now presented in a different light, revealing alternate dimensions of beauty within the music.
One of the key characteristics of Parker’s music is how she took her time. Her drumming exhibited a tastefulness that prioritized the macro over the micro; she stepped back to gaze at what the song conveyed and how she could augment its meaning. Low’s work precipitates itself on measured builds, careful to never immediately overwhelm but rather invite the listener to lean closer. Most of the band’s oeuvre moves at this glacial pace, and their career trajectory mirrored it precisely. Parker and Sparhawk’s ascended ever so slowly as more bands came and went in their wake. When they signed to the iconic Seattle label Sub Pop for 2005’s Fridmann-produced The Great Destroyer, it was yet another milestone in their already prolific career. More than a decade after that, many heralded the BJ Burton-produced Double Negative and HEY WHAT as the sound of a legendary band still reaching an apotheosis, unlocking even greater potential within their distinct style.
Although Low have worked with various band members over the years, it invariably came back to the married couple at the band’s heart. There are myriad people involved in its extended web of musicians. Bassists Zak Sally, Matt Livingston, and Steve Garrington were all pro forma members at one point or another. Low have worked with household-name indie producers like Fridmann, Burton, and Steve Albini. But the music is perpetually tied to Parker and Sparhawk, lovers with an almost supernatural creative intuition. Mourning the end of Parker’s life inescapably includes mourning the end of that powerful connection. And mourning that connection inevitably involves celebrating it. On the Double Negative highlight “Fly,” Parker graces her upper register, evincing a resolve to live in perpetuity through her spirit: “And I don’t mind/ Take my weary bones/ And fly.”