One of the most revered bands to emerge from the '90s indie-rock era, Low is also one of the most intriguing. Centered around the ethereal harmonies and sublime songwriting of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the group's work has a sonic and emotional resonance that's both strangely serene and starkly powerful.
The husband-and-wife musicians have developed an immediately recognizable sound that's taken them from the bar circuit to theaters, festivals and, at this year's SXSW, the altar of an Episcopal Church. While Sparhawk and Parker are both Mormons, the interdenominational gig worked out perfectly (as did the decision to record 2011's stunning C'mon album in a converted Catholic church).
"I think this is the first time we played a church down there, and it was really great," says Parker, who contrasts it with their first SXSW engagement back in the '90s. "We were on the bottom floor next to a big open stairwell. And right above us was a Norwegian metal band. So we kind of went undetected that night."
Such situations were par for the course during the Duluth, Minn., band's formative years, says Parker, who in addition to singing and songwriting, also keeps time on a downsized drum kit. "We would get thrown onto new band showcases, in between who-knows-what — it could've been anything! — and I guess we came to the realization pretty early on that you were either gonna love it or you were gonna hate it.
"Or," she adds with a laugh, "you were gonna just ignore us. Which it was possible to do, for sure."
Don't look at the camera
Still, the world would not ignore Low for long. Early singles like "Over the Ocean" earned substantial airplay on college radio, back when stations were largely student-run and played a significant role in breaking new bands.
In the years since, they've toured with Radiohead and have had two of their songs covered by Robert Plant, one of which went on to earn a 2011 Grammy nomination. ("It really came out of the blue," says Parker of the Zeppelin crooner's decision to cover their work. "We were shocked and, of course, extremely excited.") Low also recorded a 12½-minute long cover of "Down by the River" that managed to be even more dirge-like than Neil Young's original, and released what may be the most hauntingly beautiful Christmas album of all time.
In fact, the sweet, hushed strains of C'mon's first single, "Try to Sleep," might have gone on to become the next viral children's lullaby, were it not for the disconcerting hook lurking in its chorus: "Try to sleep / Don't look at the camera / Try to sleep."
"That's Al's song, and he doesn't always tell me what has inspired them," says Parker of the ominous sentiment. Still, she does reassure me that they don't keep a surveillance camera trained on their kids. At least not yet.
"You know, the kids are pretty good. The little one, the 7-year-old, he tries to get away with a few things, but he usually eventually will fess up to any bad behavior. So we don't have to go to those extremes."
In fact, the couple used to take their two kids on tour with them. But now that they've both reached school age, the kids stay home. "When we had our first one, she came with us all the time, for four or five years," says Parker from the road. "I miss it. I'd like to take them, because they'd love to come along."
After all, how many kids get to go out on the road with a rock band?
"I know, it's gotta be the best life in the world, huh? As I sit in the van, driving for hours."
Shut up and listen
Parker's own childhood was spent in a more sedentary musical environment. "My mom and sister both play guitar, and I grew up singing harmonies with them. I was never, you know, trained or anything. It was always, 'OK, you find the harmony,' and so I did."
Parker grew up on '70s country acts like Waylon and Willie, whose best music shared a quiet intensity with the decidedly non-country Low. "They had some really powerful music," says Parker, "but they weren't forcing it down anybody's throats."
As for drumming, her minimalist style dates back to playing percussion in her junior high school band. "I never really did play the whole kit," she recalls, "so when Alan conceived of the band, he thought, you know, Mim could play this. She wouldn't even need a full kit, she could just play a snare and a cymbal. And so that's kinda how it started."
As for the future, Low continues to outdo itself with virtually every album (even commercially, with the latest reaching a career-high No. 73 on the Billboard 200), so there's little chance of them returning to the noisy bars where they started out.
"We were never really precious about it," says Parker, reflecting on days gone by. "We didn't take offense, and we didn't storm off the stage. We figured that if you shut your mouth and listened for a few minutes, maybe you would get interested. We basically would just kind of hope for the best."