Artist: The Low Anthem Video: 'Boeing 737' Highlight: "The guys from End of the…
- Posted on Feb 24th 2011 1:30PM by Melinda Newman
"What's better -- the ghost or the bat story?" Jeff Prystowsky asks his bandmates, sitting at a picnic table at Los Angeles' Autry Museum, basking in the last few hours of warm sunshine before heading back to the frigid Northeast. Like all four members of TLA, Prystowsky is a multi-instrumentalist/vocalist.
"What he said to the bat, it's going to be remembered forever," says the band's Jocie Adams, laughing. "We were all chasing the bat around, and Jeff lifts up a little stick and says, 'You gotta learn to play something on the record or get out!'"
Why should the bat's role be different than anyone else's in the band? On 'Smart Flesh,' out now via Nonesuch, the quartet and a few guests play no fewer than 30 instruments. New to their arsenal for this album are pedal steel, jaw harp, tenor banjo, crotales and, that old standby, a shaker constructed of a bottle of pills with a rubber band around it.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have this giant textural wash of all the unfinished prescriptions that we can collect because we have this medicine everywhere in your life and you never finish the prescriptions so they're lining your cabinet or whatever?'" explains lead singer Ben Knox Miller. "We made the shaker and then needed some kind of song to give it structure. The song ['Apothecary Love'] winded up beating the concept. It totally changed. I wish we had followed through with the idea. We just got distracted."
Such unconventional thought is the hallmark of the Low Anthem, whose members got together while they were students at Brown University. They never veer into pretension or precious art rock, and the members do find themselves deliberately running away from the tried and true. "We love all that traditional music," Miller says. "Sometimes you can tell when you've gone straight down someone else's path because it has such magnetism. An artist that you love, it's so easy to be excited when you hear something that sort of references that and let it consume the process and cloud [it]." When that happens, the band members shake off the cobwebs and realize "we need to get back to the source."
In the nearly three years since the release of 2008's 'Oh My God, Charlie Darwin,' the Low Anthem have emerged as one of the leading lights among a cadre of smart new roots acts who rely less on manufactured studio tricks than traditional acoustic instrumentation.
The band, which also includes Mat Davidson, toured incessantly in their Ford Econoline behind 'Darwin,' building a devoted phalanx of fans that includes Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris. Heralded British music magazine Mojo honored the band with its 2010 Breakthrough Award.
Other than a cover of 'Ghost Woman Blues,' first recorded in 1929 by George Carter, the remaining 10 songs on 'Smart Flesh' are band originals, ranging from the haunting, ethereal 'Love and Altar' to the organ-laden, loose-limbed 'Hey, All You Hippies!' The sauce factory setting allowed for wild creativity, such as placing microphones 100 feet apart, but also created a false sense of sound. "The first time we put the [songs] in the car and listened to them in that dead environment, we were just crushed," Miller says. "We thought we had this big booming sound, it was just an illusion." The band worked out its issues through different technical wizardry, but also cut additional songs in a garage-like space to give the album more sonic depth.
The intense experimentation in the recording process can make the material difficult to recreate on stage. "When we go out and tour these songs, everything changes," Miller says. "We have to find a new production approach. We tend to work towards an idea for a song over the course of a tour and try to hone it and then it gets to a point where you feel it lock in. Once that happens, you have this very brief euphoria and then instantly you never want to play it that way again."
The members of the Low Anthem bound around the stage during live shows rotating musical stations and instruments with alarming frequency, leading to some innocent casualties. "I'm the least graceful at popping over the pedals," admits Prystowsky. "The other night, right before the last song, I was so tired from playing the drums, I was walking over to play 'This Goddamn House' on the organ and in my stupor, I knocked Jocie's clarinet and she just gave me these eyes like, 'You did not just do that!'"
But Prystowsky isn't the only klutz. "Ben knocked over the dulcimer and the trumpet and the trumpet got lodged in the strings of the dulcimer," Adams adds.
"It's like an ant colony," Miller assesses, "where the members interchangeably do the parts kind of bouncing off each other."
The Low Anthem, who have dates on their docket through November, recently completed a stint with Iron and Wine and will tour again with Sam Bush and Co. in April. "Man, Sam's just easygoing," Miller says. "He's unflappable. He does what he does. He's not worried about the response. It's a very simple approach. It's nice to watch."
The Low Anthem have been on a ride with a steadily upward trajectory for the last few years. Ask Miller his highlight and he reframes by answering that he isn't programmed to think in those watershed moment terms. "I hate holidays and champagne, all those things. I even hate birthdays," he says, before getting distracted by a hummingbird.
Instead, the Low Anthem measures its milestones in a different way. "When we have some moments when we have some connection between us and the audience," Adams says, "even if it's just one song, those are the moments where I feel, 'Wow, we're so lucky.' It's amazing that we get to do this."