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Mimi Parker, of Duluth band Low, dies of ovarian cancer

Alan Sparhawk, Parker's husband and bandmate, wrote on Sunday that she "passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours." Over three decades, Low became one of the most acclaimed bands of its time.

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Mimi Parker performs with Low at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth during the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters Wild Waters Music Fest in August 2019.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Mimi Parker, a core member of the Duluth band Low, died on Saturday. The cause was ovarian cancer, with which Parker was diagnosed in 2020.

"She passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours," wrote Alan Sparhawk, her husband and bandmate, in a statement Sunday morning on social media. "Keep her name close and sacred. Share this moment with someone who needs you. Love is indeed the most important thing."

Parker and Sparhawk were the core members of Low, a band whose music broadly fell into the indie rock category but defied easy characterization. The band has been based in Duluth for its entire career, rising to become one of the most acclaimed acts of its era.

Their final public performance was a 25-minute set at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on Sept. 4 as part of the Water Is Life Festival. The band was in the midst of a long string of scheduled tour dates promoting its widely praised 2021 album "Hey What," but canceled a string of late summer and fall appearances as Parker received cancer treatment.

In Low's early years, the band's music was described as "slowcore," alluding to its steady pace and spacious, even minimalist soundscape. Over the decades, as the group released 13 studio albums and toured extensively around the world, its sound evolved and earned consistent acclaim from critics, peers and fans.

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Recent years saw a sort of renaissance for the band, as Parker (percussion, vocals) and Sparhawk (guitar, vocals), along with recent bassists including Steve Garrington and Liz Draper, experimented with new musical techniques and created an achingly evocative din.

Parker, who was in her mid-50s at the time of her death, and Sparhawk met in primary school in Clearbrook, Minn., where Parker grew up and where Sparhawk moved from Utah when he was 9, they told The Current in 2019.

"It was fourth grade," Parker told Chickfactor about the first time she met her life partner to be. "I just remember this little red-haired, freckled kid coming into class. He was cute." The pair began dating in high school, as Parker played drum in the marching band and Sparhawk started playing guitar.

The duo subsequently moved to Duluth. Sparhawk started a Duluth band called Zen Identity, which he told Uncut sounded "like really early Soundgarden, but maybe a little wimpier." When that band dissolved, Sparhawk and Zen Identity bassist John Nichols took their music in a new direction and convinced Parker to join the group they named Low.

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Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker performed with Low at Sacred Heart Music Center during the 2017 Homegrown Music Festival in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

From early on, Low made a splash on the surging alternative rock scene of the '90s. A key influence for their spare, atmospheric sound was the band Galaxie 500, whose onetime producer Mark Kramer helped Low land a record deal after hearing an early demo.

"Cast away most of what you have, and whatever’s left will mean that much more. That principle was evident in Low's music from the beginning," wrote Andy Cush in a rave review of "Hey What" for the music site Pitchfork.

In an even more positive review of "Hey What" predecessor "Double Negative" (2018), Rich Juzwiak described the band's early sound as "just a handful of sounds: the splat of a snare; guitar, and bass that sounded suspended in codeine; Sparhawk’s perma-mourn; the heavenly Mimi Parker on halo."

Both Parker and Sparhawk credited Duluth's landscape with influencing their distinctive, oceanic sound. "We’ve got a pretty great view of the lake," Parker told Vulture last year. "It’s open, just endless. It looks like the sea."

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While the band never had a commercial breakout as such, they did rise repeatedly to national and international airwaves and stages. In 2001, their version of "Little Drummer Boy" from a 1999 Christmas EP soundtracked a Gap ad. Their 2007 album "Drums and Guns" finally cracked the Billboard 200, if just barely.

In a January 2022 interview on the syndicated radio program Sheroes, Parker first revealed her cancer diagnosis. She told host Carmel Holt that it had been "so affirming and positive" to see "Hey What" receive a warm reception even as she was undergoing cancer treatment.

Despite the challenges posed by her disease, Parker remained active in music throughout most of this year. In 2022, Low performed at what would prove to be the final Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, not only playing their own set but curating a stage with an adventurous mix of acts.

Nine years earlier, Low played one of the most talked-about sets in that festival's history. Given a short set time due to a rain delay, they decided to let just a single, droning song — "Do You Know How to Waltz?" — stretch over the length of their entire set. That performance would inspire an entire series of marathon, multi-artist "Drone Not Drones" concerts to benefit Doctors Without Borders.

Parker and Sparhawk had two children: a daughter, Hollis and a son, Cyrus. Both children have pursued musical interests. Recently, Cyrus has been performing with Alan Sparhawk and other Duluth musicians in the new band Damien.

"There's the marriage and the band," Parker told fellow musician Sharon Van Etten in a 2015 interview for NPR. "Honestly, they're kind of one and the same thing at this point. But when the kids come in ... I'm 'mom' again. 'Mom' is a lot more work than just drummer in the band."

Steve Albini, a producer famed for his work with bands including Nirvana and members of Led Zeppelin, produced Low's 2001 album "Things We Lost In the Fire." Albini tweeted Sunday morning that when he learned of Parker's death, "I was momentarily overwhelmed, the sound of her voice resonant in my memory, beautiful and heartbreaking."

"We have no words, only tears," tweeted fellow Duluth musician Gaelynn Lea in response to the news. "Thank you for sharing with us your kindness, humor & honesty as a couple, and for the gift of your music. Mimi's legacy is love and beauty, and the world is better because of her."

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"Low were one of the most brilliant bands in American history," tweeted music writer Michael Tedder, "and Parker's voice and drumming style were truly singular. What a terrible loss."

In the wake of Parker's death, music critic Rob Harvilla called her "one of our greatest voices from one of our greatest bands. This hits me unexpectedly hard, but Low worked like that."

As musicians across Duluth and beyond paid tribute to Parker, Sacred Heart Music Center announced that it would host a vigil in the artist's memory at 7 p.m. Sunday night. "All who love the music of Low are welcome," wrote the Duluth venue's management in the announcement.

This story was updated at 11:52 a.m. Nov. 6 to add additional information about the life and legacy of Mimi Parker, and again at 6:05 p.m. Nov. 6 to add information about the Sacred Heart vigil. It was originally posted at 10:57 a.m. Nov. 6.

Related Topics: DULUTHMUSIC
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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