One of the first acts confirmed for this year's End of the Road Festival were the American folk and rock trio from Providence, The Low Anthem. eFestivals got the chance interrupt Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams, whilst they were completing a New York Times crossword, and find out more about them, and their music.
How would you describe your music?
We would describe it as out of the folk tradition but driven by eccentric instrumentation, with a lot of switching up of different instruments, and using mostly acoustic instruments, but very specific ones that we've found. Like old broken crotales, which are bowed cymbals that have a pitch and scale on them, and you bow them with a violin bow. And different kinds of horns that we've found, and very much the arrangement that tempers everything is very calculated.
It's also very narrative, I think that our recorded music especially has an abstract narrative feel. This last record that we've put out fells very much like a complete idea where all the songs are inter-related.
Does that idea come out of the folk tradition because that's often narrative driven?
Yes, certainly, although it's more abstract I think than the traditional folk and at times a lot more abstract.
What's the main subject matter for the narrative?
It will be different with everything we put out. The focus of this last record was this idea, I don't know how you'd say it, I guess that 'Charlie Darwin' was the featured song and a lot of the songs were grammatically related to that idea of the moral formlessness of things and yet humans longing for community and sense of purpose. Kind of like a hopeful but failed sense of community that you find in gospel music or even pub drinking songs.
What made you decide to use Charles Darwin in the first place, was it the anniversary?
Just arguments, at bars mostly, that we would get into about the idea of, not just the survival of the fittest as it applies to species and all things, but also the evolution of ideas and the evolution of the values that our culture is grounded in. Getting in some debate that sort of jumps started this focus on Darwin.
We're talking about an agnostic gospel record that longs for community and that purpose. We're all too aware of the fact that ideas, whether they're religious ideas or academic historical ideas that create our identity are subject to that same process of survival of the fittest, and the idea that is able to propagate itself is the idea that lives on. Winners write the history books for example.
Then there's also this notion that ideas that somehow, whether it's through the church or through, I don't know, academia, they have a reproductive organ. That they have this missionary institution built into them. This ability to disseminate and reproduce themselves. Those are the ideas that end up defining the culture, that is whatever survives does. We think of our values as what everything else is based on but maybe they're arbitrary to some extent in themselves. That's the fascination with Darwin.
How are you finding it, narrating that to audiences?
We've never done anything that's been so well received before. I wouldn't say that our performances are very controversial for any of those reasons. Or the fact that the title of the record is a joke that could offend certain religious people. Every now and again we get an angry letter. But, I think that people have been very open to it, it's abstract but I think people can enter into different parts of the ideas, or just into the music without being turned away by preachiness or us pretending that we know something that nobody else does.
You're due to play in the UK have you played over here before?
No, we've never played in the UK, we're very excited to. The people at End Of The Road, the festival, and the record label also, are the ones who first reached out to us to try and get us over there.
Ross Morrison, a booking agent found us and started spreading our music around, and we've been doing tonnes of record sales from our website to the UK, which is amazing because we've never been there. Steve Lamacq was playing some of the tracks on different radio shows.
The Rough Trade stores have been ordering a lot of our CDs and selling them. It's definitely through independent channels but we're going to sign with, hopefully an indie, record label in the UK sometime in the near future and we have plans to come over. Definitely in September for a couple festivals, maybe even a trip earlier than that if we end up releasing a record there.
Presumably if the record is released here, the album covers won't be made from cereal packets?
Only the first 500 were made out of cereal boxes. We found that that was no sustainable.
Right, you would have to eat a lot of cereal...
Yeah, we don't eat enough cereal. We had our friends eating cereal on our behalf for a long time. They would bring boxes to the gig.
But they couldn't keep up with us, and we had to go dumpster diving, just a couple of weeks before our release party, and take cereal boxes out of recycling bins all around the city, which Jeff then one at a time cut out with an exact image. It was the most insane thing we ever tried to do.
I think it's probably going to become a legendary part of the band's history.
Yeah. let's hope so. We still hand paint all of our records. They're silk screened, there's a base coat and then two layers of silk screen on top of it. That's a bit of a tradition in Providence. It's something that a five by five inch surface gives a chance to make something beautiful and not just put it in a plastic case.
Is that something that's like to continue with future albums as well?
Yes, it is. We've just printed another 5,000 because we sold out of the first batch that we made, and they are all made by hand, and serial numbered. When we release the record with a company, be it in the UK or anywhere in the US that's something that's always an important part of the discussion, would they be willing to do that. But, people have been pretty agreeable to it because I guess the way a businessman sees it is that it's added value, and it's part of the identity. For us, we're just glad to do anything that's something beautiful.
You mentioned your show has a lot of different instruments, could you play them before?
No we couldn't them before, we're all trained on at least one instrument. But we started doing it because the first record we made was all done with over dubs and we would just learn an instrument to play the part on the record. We became very particular about the way it would sound, and we learnt parts, we learnt how to play a line on trumpet, a line on French horn, and just slowly and naturally we had to bring more and more of these instruments on the road, despite ourselves still travelling in a mini van. Four trips to and from the van at every show. The big thing is the pump organ, that's an 80lb box and we take an upright bass and we take several guitars, an electric bass, the set of crotales which I was talking about before, which looks like a big xylophone, trumpet, E-flat horn, clarinet, drum set, and I'm sure we can think of more.
All the sounds that are on the record, and there's some weird ones on there, you play all of those live?
No we definitely don't, there's certain things where we try to emulate the record just enough, and make nods to the record where we can. But we don't have enough hands, and there's also something beautiful in having this idea of a full arrangement that you execute on the record, and then when you go to play live there's only three of you. So you have six hands and six feet, and you have to make the best sound that you can and limiting ourselves that way in some sense it leaves a beautiful space in the sound, and different arrangements that are evolving all the time.
You said you all swap instruments, can you all play all the instruments?
In some cases, we all play drums, and we all play pump organ. There are particular songs we play on because Jeff is a great upright bass player, but, Jocie and I (Ben) can't play upright bass to save ourselves. So, Jeff does most of the drumming, but on a song where Jeff needs to play upright bass and there has to be drums and there's no other way, either me or Jocie has to be able to play drums for that song. Likewise, Jocie's the only one who can play clarinet, so if there's some clarinet on that song, then somebody else has to play the pump organ.
It sounds quite fantastic, do you have to leave long gaps between songs to be able to change instruments?
We have to plan the set list very carefully so that we don't end up with two songs back to back where all three of us have to change instruments and change settings on something. We've worked hard to create different versions of the set list and orders of our songs, because we know how to move between them with minimal distraction. But for a long time that was very confusing, it was even more confusing until about a year and a half ago when Jocie joined us, before that we were a duo, and there was a lot of down time on stage. There was all these instruments, and we'd get confused.
Is there still a fair bit of down time?
No, we're good, we're good now. We plan ahead and we've played so many shows now.
It's definitely part of our live identity that people expect a longer break. If you see a pop band you only get a few seconds between songs and then they're ready to go. Certainly, with us, there's pauses between things, we're more like a baseball game than a basketball game.
Did the way you've constructed your live set all grow organically, or did something influence you?
I think we developed it ourselves, in some way I think that there's certain artists that we respect, who've done interesting arrangements. The king of that is probably Tom Waitts, there's amazing eclectic arrangements on all his records, and we loved his song arranging just as much, and think he's one of the great producers of music. On the record that he produced for John Hammond, he has such a brilliant ear for arrangements. I think we've learnt a lot by listening to his production, that has informed our record making, and then I think that's what sent us down the path of trying all these different instruments for the recordings. It was just a matter of time until we couldn't help ourselves.
We picked up the new instruments one piece at a time, and we would see instruments, that thing here and that one there. We would buy instruments on the road. We always try to go to see a local music store and see if there's any great treasures to be discovered.
If you had to pick one track that people should listen to, to get the essence of Low Anthem what would you suggest?
That's hard. I think that obviously there's a lot of different types of songs that we do. I really like track five 'Ticket Taker' and I think 'Charlie Darwin' is something that we're proud of also.
But really, different people have found different singles on the record, there was no one single on this record. Some people like track two 'To Ohio' , others like track six 'To The Ghosts That Write History Books'. The radio seems to like track nine 'Champion Angel', but they play a lot of different tracks.
Well that's a sign of a good album...
I guess that's not the typical way that you promote an album through radio, where we don't have a specific singles. But we didn't really push for that to happen.
Thank you for your time, good luck, and I hope to see you in the UK when you come over.
Nice to talk to you.
The Low Anthem are playing End of the Road Festival which takes place at Larmer Tree Gardens, Tollard Royal, Salisbury, Wiltshire from Friday 11th to Sunday 13th September.
Tickets are now priced at £115 for adults (aged 13+); children (aged 6 to 12) tickets are priced at £30; children aged 5 and under have free entry but must have a free ticket. Campervan tickets are priced at £35. To buy tickets, click here.
interview by: Scott Williams
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