The Heart of Low

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Last winter, I flew to Minneapolis to hear a funk quartet play at a bar. The weather was miserable: hard-frozen snowbanks in every gutter, skating-rink sidewalks, roads so ripped up by rock salt and plow blades that I had to return my first rental car, because it shook like a leaf if I took it above thirty. I had come to see the band Derecho (since rechristened the Derecho Rhythm Section), the newest project of Alan Sparhawk, who for three decades fronted the seminal indie-rock band Low, which he co-founded with his wife, Mimi Parker.

Sparhawk had grown his hair out during the pandemic, and the red-blond mane was still shaggy past his shoulders. He wore work boots, a black T-shirt, brown overalls, and a black beanie that came off as the room warmed up. As in Low, he plays guitar and sings lead. Cyrus Sparhawk, his and Parker’s nineteen-year-old son, plays bass and writes much of the music. On this icy night, the Sparhawk boys—abetted by Al Church and Izzy Cruz on percussion—served up two piping-hot sets of Roy Ayers, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Childish Gambino covers, alongside a handful of original compositions.

The audience numbered perhaps fifty people, including several dancing couples and two bootleggers, whose taping rigs sat on their tables, beside their chicken wings. Sparhawk noted their presence with bemusement but without concern. The music was tight, buoyant, punk-inflected, and exploratory enough to explain what the tapers were doing there. Between songs, Sparhawk joked about the band being willing to play weddings and bar mitzvahs—any gig that paid. It was a happy, high-spirited show, but there was unspoken sorrow in the air.

Low was supposed to have reached its thirtieth anniversary in 2023. The band’s past few albums had been critical hits. A pandemic-era live-from-home concert series had deepened the connection to old fans and won over a legion of new ones. Cyrus, Parker and Sparhawk’s younger child, had come of age. Low should have been out on tour, taking well-deserved victory laps across the U.S. and Europe, claiming its rightful place in the indie-rock pantheon alongside the likes of Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, and Yo La Tengo. But there was no more Low. In late 2020, Mimi Parker had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. After a brutal two-year struggle, she died on November 5, 2022. She was fifty-five years old. As Parker and Sparhawk themselves sing in uncanny harmony on the first single from Low’s 2021 album, “Hey What,” “When you think you’ve seen everything / You find we’re living in days like these.”

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were childhood friends turned high-school sweethearts turned longtime artistic collaborators. Across four decades, thirteen albums, five bass players, and two children—through Sparhawk’s semi-public struggles with mental illness and addiction in the early two-thousands, as well as Parker’s more recent and more private illness—they produced one of the most singular bodies of music in the history of rock. Low’s sound is solemn, sometimes glacial, with elliptical lyrics that often touch on questions of faith. (Sparhawk was raised Mormon; Parker converted before they married.) The band’s music demands patience and attention, which it repays in beauty and transcendence, punctuated by occasional bursts of earworm jangle-pop or cathartic, pummelling storms of noise.

Sharon Van Etten first heard Low in 1999, when one of the first friends she made at college played Low’s record “Secret Name” for her in her dorm room. “They are so deceptively simple,” she said. “I could feel their love and their pain.” Michael Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, spoke of the band’s “hymnal quality.” “There was a warmth to it,” he said. “But it was also really fucked up. The music is kind of fucked. And dark. That’s comforting to me, that those all exist at the same time.”

Rilke writes in “Duino Elegies” that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror” and that it is on this account that “every angel is terrifying.” I’ve thought of Rilke often while listening to Low, because so much of the band’s work explores divine love, dissolving the border between awe and fear. In “Nothing But Heart,” from the album “C’mon” (2011), Sparhawk, adopting what I take to be the persona of God, sings, “I would be your king / But you want to be free / Confusion and art / I’m nothing but heart.” That last line is repeated at least twenty times, with Parker harmonizing, in the next several minutes, while the music builds to a whirlwind roar. The song is at once openhanded and gnomic, elegant and menacing. It’s the song that converted me—at a 2011 concert at Terminal 5, in New York City—from a casual, even dismissive listener to an ardent fan. When the band kicked into “Nothing But Heart,” I felt the nature and depth of my attention shift. It was as though the music were a long-locked door to which I’d finally found a key—or, better, as if I contained a long-locked door, which the music had finally pried open.

Sparhawk and Parker met on the second day of fourth grade in Clearbrook, Minnesota, a hardscrabble town of fewer than five hundred people. He was the new kid: his family had relocated from Utah because his father had bought a farm, pursuing what Sparhawk described to me as a “Mormon version of ‘back to the land’ ” for which the family was woefully ill-equipped. (Per the refrain of Low’s “California”: “Though it breaks your heart / we had to sell the farm.”) Parker also lived on a farm, and music ran in both families. Her mother had tried to break into country music, and her father sang around the house. Parker learned to sing by harmonizing with her older sisters. Sparhawk’s mother played church organ, and his father wrote songs and played drums in a country band. “If it were up to him, he played jazz,” Sparhawk said, “but, because of where we lived, that was the gig he could get. For a while, that was the only cash he made.”

In Clearbrook, alcoholism was rampant and violence commonplace. In a 2021 interview, Parker said that the song “Laser Beam,” which she wrote, was based on a childhood memory of accompanying her mother to pick up her intoxicated father from a bar and watching from the back seat of the family car as he was maced by a cop in the parking lot. Sparhawk’s parents didn’t drink—they were practicing Mormons—but his father was mercurial. “I got some broken ribs from tussles with my father,” he told me, though he hastened to add, “I got tons of friends who put up with way more shit than I did.” Sparhawk, who was diagnosed with severe A.D.H.D. and borderline personality disorder in his late thirties, now believes that his father had similar problems.

Some of Alan Sparhawk’s music equipment, in Duluth, Minnesota.

Music was a way to repair, or at least circumvent, the damage in the father-son relationship—a way to express love. Sparhawk would watch his father play guitar, and, as he began to learn the instrument himself, they were able to play together. “It’s a language that’s untainted,” he said. “You completely connect with this person, and all the other stuff falls away.” In fifth grade, Parker joined the school band, drawn to drums because banging on stuff was fun and she didn’t have to learn to read music. Sparhawk started playing guitar around the same age. He couldn’t pinpoint when they started dating, but he remembered the first time they played music together. They were fifteen, and he was over at her house one day after school. He started playing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” hoping she would join in on the harmony without his having to ask. She did.

Sparhawk spent a year at Brigham Young University before transferring to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where Parker was enrolled. They graduated and married. Duluth had a small but energetic music scene powered by an intensely communitarian ethos. “There’s a sense of camaraderie,” Sparhawk said. “We’re all trying to get through the winter, and the town is off the beaten path, with an underdog complex, so there’s a certain flavor to your determination.” Sparhawk and his friend John Nichols were in a rock band called Zen Identity, but they had grown restless. They were thinking about the inverse propositions suggested by loud, fast music. How much could you strip out of a song before it stopped being one? How slow—and, crucially, how low—could you play the remaining elements while still commanding the attention of a rock crowd?

Sparhawk and Nichols, who was on bass, coaxed a reluctant Parker to play drums. She devised a minimalist setup, playing with brushes more often than sticks. Sparhawk sang most of the leads, but it quickly became clear that the heart of Low’s sound was the harmonies that Parker and Sparhawk could achieve, along with Parker’s spare drumming. Their first album, “I Could Live in Hope,” was released in February of 1994 on Vernon Yard, then an imprint of Virgin Records. The music is hushed, skeletal, haunting. All the songs have one-word titles, and the album closes with a wrenching cover of “You Are My Sunshine” (listed simply as “Sunshine”) that is as bereft as a funeral dirge.

By staying in Duluth rather than defecting to New York or Seattle (or even Minneapolis), Parker and Sparhawk were able to keep their overhead low. They worked odd jobs when they had to but lived as full-time musicians as much as they could, which meant long stretches on the road to cultivate the following they were gaining in Europe and the U.S.

“The fact that we were married helped,” Sparhawk said. “I think it gave a certain license for creative intimacy and trust, though it also made us each other’s harshest critics and harshest editors.” Nobody knew that better than Zak Sally, who replaced Nichols in 1994 and went on to become Low’s longest-serving bassist. “We hit it very, very, very hard,” Sally said. “This is a band that makes music, this is also a marriage, this is also a matter of faith. This is also family, this is also friends, and it’s also a job, and some of those lines just cross over each other.”

Low released four albums between 1994 and 1999, as well as a dead-earnest Christmas EP with a cover of “Little Drummer Boy” that ended up soundtracking a Gap commercial the following year. “Slow Down” is a sixty-second spot in which seven people, bundled up in brightly colored Gap sweaters and scarves, have a fun-filled slow-motion snowball fight in a frosty field while Low performs one of the most moving versions of “Little Drummer Boy” ever recorded—not least because Sparhawk’s solemn vocals and Parker’s martial timing suggest that this drummer boy is aware his story is unfolding in the shadow of Herod’s massacre of the innocents.

The ad ran in heavy rotation throughout the 2000 holiday season. And it came along at a critical moment: they’d just found out Parker was pregnant with their first child, Hollis, so they knew they were headed for a long stretch without any touring income. They used their Gap-sponsored sabbatical to write and record “Things We Lost in the Fire,” which closes with what might be the sweetest song in the Low catalogue, “In Metal.” “Partly hate to see you grow / And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal,” Parker sings to Hollis, whose laughter and babble can be heard throughout the track. It wasn’t dubbed in later; they’d brought her to the recording sessions. The album came out in January, 2001, and the band launched a tour to support it. Hollis was ten months old, her Pack ’n Play stowed in the back of the van amid the instrument cases and sundry gear.

A year later, Low released “Trust,” which found the band oscillating between extremes. “Canada” and “Last Snowstorm of the Year” are loud and catchy enough for rock radio, whereas “Little Argument with Myself” and “Point of Disgust” are among the most gorgeous and anguished faith songs in the band’s catalogue. But it was “The Great Destroyer,” from 2005—an angry, muscular, moshable record—that threw down the gauntlet. It was the band’s first record with the label Sub Pop, and it was recorded the same year that Parker gave birth to Cyrus. Parker and Sparhawk were well into their thirties, more than a decade into Low, and tired of being the standard-bearers of “slowcore,” a term that they’d been saddled with early on but had never embraced. Beloved now but divisive at the time (Pitchfork used the words “crass and boorish” and rated it a 5.5), “The Great Destroyer” proved its point—that Low would not be boxed in by critics, fans, or its own history—but the album’s tremendous energy can feel compulsive, as if the band is trying to stay two steps ahead of its own exhaustion.

They kept touring. Parker had mounting reservations about bringing both kids on the road, but the obvious alternatives—leaving them behind for months at a time, or Parker taking leave from the band—both seemed worse. Amid all this, Sparhawk’s mental health was deteriorating. He was treating his undiagnosed conditions with substance abuse, which for a believing Mormon presented a spiritual crisis on top of the practical one. In May, 2005, the band cancelled its summer tour because Sparhawk was having what he later described as a nervous breakdown. He had visions of the apocalypse and came to believe that he was the Antichrist. He spent about a week in a psychiatric hospital. “Long enough to get a little bit of antipsychotic medication and realize you are delusional,” he recalled. “And then you crash really, really, really, really, really hard. Because you realize this spiritual experience that you’ve been having is a complete joke and a lie.”

Sparhawk began to pursue formal treatment, including medication and talk therapy. He hasn’t had another serious episode since. But it was a tumultuous, halting recovery. Sally, the band’s bassist, told me, “There was a candle burning at both ends for many years, and it just stopped burning, and I had to leave.” He quit the band in October, 2005. In a message that he later wrote to Hollis, he told her, “Me and your mom and dad were mad at each other for a while, but we never did not love each other. Ever.”

Sally was replaced by Matt Livingston, who played in Sparhawk’s hard-rock sideband, the Retribution Gospel Choir. Low launched back into writing and recording, but now scheduled tours with some deference to the school calendar and usually limited itself to a few weeks at a time on the road. A couple years later, Parker and Sparhawk bought their neighbor’s house, in Duluth, and created a practice space in the light-filled living room next door. There was more space for Sparhawk’s collection of guitars and effects pedals, and they could even record if they wanted to, without having to go anywhere or pay for studio time. Technology had improved enough that weird or extravagant ideas could be attempted with the click of a button.

“Alan, in particular, took what he would otherwise do with a guitar and did it with electronic equipment and editing stuff,” the music writer Bruce Adams told me. (Adams is currently working on an oral history of Low.) “Also, I think Mim’s influence is in there: ‘What can we do with the vocals? How can we maintain these threads of melody through all this static?’ ” On “Double Negative” (2018), Low threw down another gauntlet. Released the year of the band’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the album is jagged and unforgiving—full of feedback, distortion, industrial stutter, and glitched-out chaos. The eleven songs flow into one another, like a long explosion detonating in waves. Sparhawk told me, “Say I have a song. I know the chords and movement and the arrangement in and out, but I want to hear it done with sounds I’ve never heard before. And I want it to blow my mind. Once you taste that, it’s really, really difficult to go back.”

The first episode of Low’s streaming series, “It’s Friday I’m in Low,” was broadcast on YouTube on April 3, 2020, a few weeks after the first COVID-19 lockdown began in the U.S. We see Parker and Sparhawk, slightly out of focus on what is clearly a cell-phone camera. She’s haloed by a full head of curly dark-brown hair, perched on a radiator behind her trademark minimalist drum kit: one cymbal, one floor tom, one snare. He’s sitting on a plain wooden chair, steadying his electric guitar on his thigh with one hand and holding a pint glass full of water in the other. They’re both wearing black button-up shirts and black jeans; Sparhawk has begun to let his hair grow out. The first thing you hear is Hollis off camera, twenty years old and home from college, telling her parents, “You’re now live. All right, go.” Sparhawk introduces the project: “This is for everybody who is out there alone, especially, and people going through some tough times and some questions and some fears.” Their five-song set included a Hendrix-homage take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the début of an unnamed song that would go on to become “Days Like These.” It wasn’t long before Cyrus joined the streaming series to sit in on bass.

Low was putting the finishing touches on “Hey What” when Parker’s ovarian cancer was detected, near the end of 2020. The diagnosis came late, and the prognosis was dire. There were multiple surgeries and heavy chemotherapy. For a while, she seemed to have beaten long odds. When “Hey What” was released in September, 2021, she was well enough that the band toured to support it. But the cancer returned in the summer of 2022, and it had spread to her lungs. Low played its last show on September 4, 2022, in Duluth’s Bayfront Park. It was a cold, gray, blustery day, and everyone onstage was wearing winter coats. Parker’s voice sounded as strong as ever. The next month, she was told that she had a month to live. A week after that, she was gone.

There was no question of Low continuing without Parker. “Mim was the glue,” Sally told me. “She had this effortless melodic sense. Me and Alan would be banging our heads against the wall downstairs in the practice room trying to get at the core of some song, and she’d just walk in and do something first take—it was intuitive for her.” Some people close to her say she was shy or guarded, but onstage that reserve came across as impeccable cool. Lois Maffeo, who records as Lois, and who met Sparhawk and Parker when they started touring, told me, “ ‘Majestic’ is a word that comes to mind for Mim, not in the sense that she held herself in a position of power, but that her essence as a person was to be so comfortable with herself.”

As word spread of Parker’s death, tributes poured in from across the music world. Death Cab for Cutie added a cover of Low’s “The Plan” to the acoustic version of their album “Asphalt Meadows.” Phoebe Bridgers and Storefront Church covered “Words,” from Low’s first album, which came out the year Bridgers was born. “I probably took a lot of inspiration from Low, because my music tends to be pretty slow and drawn out,” Bridgers told me. “There’s sparsity, letting people fill in the gaps, to feel something that isn’t directly handed to them.” Like many of the women I spoke to about Parker, Bridgers emphasized that she had been a role model: a female drummer (rare enough in rock) who was also co-lead singer and songwriter, and who didn’t try to hide the fact that she was a mother. “I have a friend who saw them when Mimi was, like, very pregnant,” Bridgers told me. “And that rocks to me—that image really sticks in my mind.”

Like their parents and grandparents, Cyrus and Hollis have music in their blood. They both play multiple instruments and sing. Cyrus had stayed on as bass player until the end of the streaming show’s run, and, before long, he and his father were jamming and writing songs together. “It feels right to be playing this music with my son,” Sparhawk told me soon after I met him. We were at the practice space in Duluth, eating a couple of sandwiches at one corner of a large dining table, most of which was given over to a circus-themed jigsaw puzzle that Parker had been working on before she died. He’d made the statement with confidence, but the phrasing had emphasized that the arrangement might be temporary, or at least conditional. I asked him recently whether he still felt that way. “Well, we’re still playing,” he said. Derecho Rhythm Section now has ten songs up on Bandcamp, six of which feature Hollis on backing vocals.

In late 2023, Sparhawk began to play more often as a solo act: there was a short European tour in November, and this year he’s played shows in New York City, Chicago, and a handful of cities around the South, all of them with Cyrus playing bass in his backing band. (Hollis sat in on drums at the New York shows.) He’s also been recording again, experimenting with improvising guitar and pitch-shifted vocals over a preset synthesizer clocked to a drum machine. “I was messing with this rigid stuff. There were moments where it would quickly become very visceral, very spontaneous,” he said. “You’ve created the structure for it to happen and come through you, but you’re trusting the universe about what is going to come in.” The fruits of this work will be released this fall under his own name, as a record called “White Roses, My God.” ♦


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