INTERVIEW : MIMI PARKER OF LOW

Low is a band in its own genre — a three piece that includes a married couple, Mimi Parker and husband Alan Sparhawk — with a dedicated following and the ability to snare new devotees with nary one or two measures of their haunting, impossibly attentive sound. As they embark on an international tour with their new album, C’mon, drummer and vocalist Mimi took time to talk about their nearly 20 years of playing together, and what goes into creating the meditative, connective energy in their music — not to mention making lunch, dressing like a corpse and sharing airspace with a Scandinavian hardcore band.

To celebrate their tour, we’re giving away tickets to this evening’s show at Neumos in Seattle, and Saturday’s show in Portland at Aladdin Theater. Enter here and we’ll let you know by this afternoon if you’ve won.
 

So, I have been a huge fan of Low since I was a teenager and am still spreading the gospel. 

Wow, thanks a lot.

And I remember the first time I actually saw you live, I’d already been listening to you for four or five years and it was such a different experience watching you and Alan sing together on stage — pretty amazing. I was with a friend that had never heard you before and when we left she asked, Are they married? They way they sing just makes them sound like they know each other better than anyone. What it’s like singing with Alan and making music together?

Yeah, I think, you know, there’s something to that kind of intimate relationship of a marriage. I guess I don’t sing with a lot of other people, but when I have, it almost feels like I’m doing something wrong, you know what I mean? Like I’m cheating on Alan in a weird way. So, it just adds weight to that relationship of — I guess it is what it is. You know, we have such a connection. I’m not thinking that [while performing], but I’ve been curious whether anything comes across at all, because it seems like we’ve been doing this a long time and there might be something that maybe somebody could hear.

Part of it is that with that kind of harmony, I think you have to pay so much attention to someone and it’s similar as a listener, as a fan, because the music is so quiet and that makes you kind of, like, turn yourself down and listen.

Yeah.

And, you know, it kind of demands a special audience and a special space. I remember reading about a show you had a really long time ago at South by Southwest, and there was a Scandinavian hardcore band booked at the same time one floor below you in the same building.

Right, that was our first South by Southwest experience. 

And it kind of overpowered your performance.

Yeah, it definitely drowned us out. 

So, do you tend to try to find spaces that are really quiet?

I don’t know. I think when we first started, we didn’t know the spaces we were playing and that just happened to be just really ridiculous and, you know, we didn’t know that that was going to happen. And we were young and probably didn’t think to check into those things. Now, we’ve been doing it long enough that a lot of the promoters just kind of automatically put us in really nice spaces. You know, we still play the occasional festival, and we still do kind of run into that situation every once in a while, where we’ll hear, like, beats pounding from another stage and we just laugh about it at this stage, because it’s kind of humorous and, you know — what can you do about it? It doesn’t do any good to complain or stop — you know, stop, throw your instruments down and walk off stage. But, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve been able to play in a lot of amazing spaces, a lot of cathedrals over in Europe and actually a few over here.

So, I mean, it’s not that we are super precious about our sets. It is great when that happens, but if it doesn’t, we can barrel through it and we might just change the set a little bit and do more of, like, a festival type set, where we tend to stay away from the really quiet songs, because you can’t really have that delicate dynamic going on — it kind of gets lost.

But, yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky so far.

Well, and your role as the drummer is interesting, because drums aren’t necessarily what you would see in your mind immediately as a quiet instrument. 

Right.

But, you play them with a lot of attentive quietness. Have you played with other musicians where you played the drums differently and actually used them for a lot of noise? Is Low different from your other experiences?

Yeah, not that much. People don’t really ask me a lot. Well, every once in a while I’ll play on somebody’s song or something. But, for the most part, people don’t really ask me to play in those types of situations. I guess it’s not that I would be opposed to it. It’s just that I’m probably one of the last people that comes to their mind. You know — Hey, I need this loud rhythm drummer. Yeah, let’s ask her. But, yeah, so that doesn’t really happen. 

Every once in a while, I get to bang on a drum. Actually, this local guy named Charlie Parr, who is actually getting pretty well known out there — I just played a little drum on one of his songs. I just beat on a floor tom really loud and that was actually kind of fun, which is what I’m used to, you know, simple, but, yeah, I could hit it pretty hard. And it is pretty fun. It’s kind of freeing in a way. 

I mean, in Low, this is kind of the first and only band that I’ve played a lot in. And so, I’ve basically just fashioned my playing to this band. And I wouldn’t consider myself a great drummer by any means. But, I guess there’s something to the fact that we’ve been playing together for so long and from the beginning that it’s just kind of made itself what it is, if that makes any sense at all.  I’m not sure. 

It feels like that. It feels like music that’s been constructed around something that you’re making together. That may be part of why it’s so special to people, you know?

Maybe, yeah. I wouldn’t even say — it wasn’t contrived or anything. I think it just kind of naturally occurred.

You were saying that you don’t feel precious and you don’t take yourselves too seriously and have kind of demonstrated that by, for instance, covering an Outkast song.

Well, I think Alan might have done that — yeah, I wasn’t really involved with that one [laughing].

You guys also did a Halloween performance, where you dressed up as corpses.

Yeah, years ago we did. Well, we barely dressed up. We put on some makeup like the Misfits and we did, like, a handful of our songs, Misfits style.

What you do for Halloween with your kids?

They love Halloween. If we’re here, you know, we just do the traditional trick or treating and they dress up and we go out and hit the houses. I’m just talking to one of them right now, who’s interrupting me — So, let’s go back upstairs, okay? Because I’m on the phone. — So, he’s going to probably sit here and talk to me and annoy me for a while. They start school tomorrow, so it’s the last day… Everybody’s pretty — I don’t know. They’re trying to get the most they can out of this last day. Yeah, they’re really bad when I’m on the phone.

You know, there’s barely any summer left here, too, so we’re doing the same thing. Do your kids play music? Do they like having musicians for parents? Do they talk about it?

Yeah, a little bit. We have an 11-year-old and she talks about it a little more and asks questions.  We used to take her with us all the time on tour until we had the second one and he got a little older and then they both started going to school. And so, now, we don’t take them along very much. But, I think they think it’s pretty cool. They don’t really talk about it too much. 

We have our basement that’s full of instruments and the drums are always set up and we have a couple keyboards down there. They’re both taking piano lessons and Alan gets them down there as often as he can, playing drums with him. 

They seem to take to it pretty naturally and I’m not sure if it’s just because they’ve been around it so much so they just think it’s kind of normal that people play instruments and people sing and people write songs. They just kind of do it. It’s really great watching them as they figure things out. 

Alan and I never took piano lessons, so they’re already farther along than we are ever in that world. I tried to keep up with them for the first year or so, but then I realized, Wow, this is really going to take a lot of dedication and I do not have a seven-year-old brain, so I don’t absorb it as much — it’s amazing how fast they are. They learn things so quickly and they remember them.  So, it’s kind of inspiring to watch them and they don’t even try really. It’s not fair. 

It is kind of intimidating, like — You’re able to learn any language, any instrument. 

I know, I know, yeah. So, we try to encourage it we don’t push them or force them and they’re happy with where they’re at. Hopefully, they’ll get a passion and go with it. You know, that’s kind all you can hope for is that they will just start to love it and go with it. 

Were you raised in a house where people played music?

Yeah, my mom, when she was younger, was an aspiring country singer. She had a guitar and she would play. She actually never really recorded anything, but she loved music and kind of taught herself how to play. And so, when I was growing up she had an accordion and we just sang old country songs and gospel songs, just for fun. Occasionally we’d play at church or a funeral or something like that, so, nothing too serious.  But music was always there and it was important in a way, you know. 

And with you and Alan, did you start playing music together pretty naturally? Was it just like a natural part of your relationship?

He started playing guitar when he was a teenager. And we’ve known each other a long time. So, we were friends and he’d play guitar a little bit. But, he kind of kept it to himself for a while and he would play with other people. And then, when we got to college, he joined a band or, you know, tried out and got into a rock band and played guitar with them for a few years. 

Meanwhile, we would always kind of sing together a little bit, but it was nothing really serious. You know, we would write little songs and do this and that, but it wasn’t until shortly before we started the band that we really started thinking that hey, this might actually be something that we could do together that would be really great. So, it came together pretty quickly once we decided. 

And how do you keep kind of inspiring each other and creating more music together? I mean, you’ve been playing music together forever, it sounds like.

Yeah, I know, 20 some years, yeah… That’s a good question. I wonder about that, why that still happens. I think, for one thing, Alan is very passionate and dedicated to it. He is much better than I am; probably every day, he plays guitar. He’ll go down to the basement studio and just play for maybe an hour or two or more. And so honestly, I would credit him for keeping it together. Yeah, he’s just really passionate and dedicated to it.

Honestly, my attention gets distracted a lot, you know, because of the kids — not that Alan doesn’t participate. But, you know, I’m the mom and I do all those things — all the school shopping and all the this and that and the planning of the lunches and snacks. You know, so I get distracted a little bit.

But, Alan always sends me subtle messages. Hey, you know, we’ve got a tour coming up. We need to refocus a little bit… And so, it works out really great, actually. We try not to get too freaked out, because he can easily point his finger at me and say, you are not participating or you’re not contributing enough, you know, and he’s right. But, I can do the same thing with him. Well, hey, you didn’t make lunch for these kids and didn’t do this or that, you know. Yeah, so it’s really give and take and he pushes me on that end and I push him on the other one, so it works out really great. 

Do you think that in the course of your life you’ll have other musical projects? Do you want to stay totally dedicated to this one?

You know, I would like to. I would like to. And I think I just kind of have to make it happen, because there are people out there who would be willing and want to work with me. But, I just — I don’t know — I’m not quite there yet.

Maybe when you’re not making lunch every day.

Yeah, exactly. And now that these guys will be in school, so, outside of the tour, I’ll have all day to kind of focus on things. I think it’s really healthy for people to play with other people music-wise. I’ve read a few different biographies of musicians and it seems to be the consensus that everybody [thrives off of that] so, I would love to and eventually, I think I will. I need to step out and do that.

You know, being in Low, it’s almost a comfortable place to be. And I’m realizing that I need to push myself a little bit out of that element and see what happens. So, that is my goal. Whether I attain it or when I attain it is the question, though.

Well, I am looking forward to it.

Oh, thanks.   


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