Originally published in The Irish Times, February 5th 2010
IT ALL began in the early hours of the morning. Ben Knox Miller, a visual artist from New York, and Jeff Prystowsky, a jazz aficionado from New Jersey, shared a love of baseball, music and shooting the breeze from 2am to 5.30am on weekdays at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
The pair took the graveyard shift at the Ivy League college’s on-campus radio station, and played in several bands of varying descriptions during the day. Little did they know that those college days would provide the foundations for The Low Anthem, a band who’d creep out of the woodwork in 2009 to international acclaim.
Knox Miller is aware that his band caught a lucky break of sorts with Oh My God, Charlie Darwin . Although the album was released in 2007, it wasn’t until US label Nonesuch Records stumbled upon it and decided an international re-release was in order, that the accolades began to roll in. “The Low Anthem happened very gradually,” Knox Miller says. “By the time we graduated, we realised that we had a sound that we were actually interested in pursuing seriously.”
When Jocie Adams joined the band in 2007, the dynamic changed and Knox Miller took over the role of gruff songsmith from departing member Dan Lefkowitz, a bluesman who “sung like Tom Waits”.
“It was a very different energy,” he explains. “We never got any recordings with Dan, so there’s not much proof of this – but for a short time, the band was really dynamic. I was singing really quietly, he was singing really loud. When Jocie joined the band, I think I shifted more to fill the role that Dan had vacated, with the yelling and the upbeat stuff. We were playing in a lot of bars, so you couldn’t just play quiet stuff all the time. But Jocie was way on the other side with the classical music – she pushed me more towards that space that had been vacated.”
Having recently added a fourth member, Matt Davidson to the mix, The Low Anthem line-up seems to have been finalised after years of mixing and matching. Davidson, a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from the musical saw to the accordion, joined up to lend a hand to the recording of the follow-up to Charlie Darwin , which is due out later this year. Having another jack-of-all-trades on board is certainly an advantage for a band that plays more than 30 instruments between them at any given show. Touring must be a nightmare for their roadies.
“Well, we don’t always bring the same ones on tour with us,” he laughs when I ask how the Tibetan Singing Bowl fits into live performances. “We’ll make different arrangements at each venue, so when we come back to a place, there’ll be a different way of playing the song.
“It’s probably frustrating for some people who hear the record and come out and want to hear the concert just that way, too, but whether they know it or not, it’s good for them that we keep the arrangements new – it keeps it fresh for us. The record was recorded two years ago, so it’s good that we’ve changed it. If we were doing the same thing for two years, we’d all have a lot more self-hate and the shows would be darker, I think.”
This constant musical evolution is what drove the songwriting process of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin , says Knox Miller. Although it was recorded in three weeks, each song went through many rewrites until the band found the perfect arrangement.
“All of a sudden, a song that everybody thought was romantic and intimate turns into a rock’n’roll song. Maybe we’re just not very good at predicting what way each song should go, but our process on the last record was to try everything every way, and really just do it until we were excited about it.”
Another theme that often crops up is the band’s propensity for old-time Americana; many of their songs sound like bawdy tunes that could have been hummed by 19th-century Louisiana railroad workers. The album’s second-time-lucky success also came during a period when mainstream tastes have embraced folk-edged bands such as Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. And though Knox Miller is a fan, he claims to be oblivious to the public’s music-buying trends. “The fact that people are listening to that kind of music – well, it doesn’t surprise me, I’ve always listened to that kind of music.
“I guess there are certain elements of Americana and nostalgia in our songwriting, because a lot of it is rooted in older styles. I don’t think it’s inherently a nostalgic thing that we’re making, though. I just think that there’s a lot of language and a lot of roots in music like that, this idea of pastoral American landscape.”
Yet there’s no fear in folks turning up to the quartets forthcoming debut Dublin headliner merely to see a hokey thigh-slapping tribute act. With performances alongside Mavis Staples and Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival ranking as one of last years highlights, The Low Anthem will hit Ireland with a fresh confidence. Their set will be peppered with new tracks and bar-thumping album favourites that will dislodge the dust from the Whelan’s rafters.
“It can be dangerous to do what we’re doing, in a way, because there’s a lot of bands that become ‘revivalist’ bands really quickly. They get painted with that brush and, before you know it, you’re going to see them because The Carter Family’s been dead for 50 years and they’re all that’s left,” Knox Miller laughs.
“You don’t wanna fall into that trap. The music that I love is music with songs that tell stories. That’s really all we try to do, too.”