Suffice to say, the Low Anthem has had a productive year.
The little-band-that-could went from picking up trash at Newport Folk Festival (QRO Festival Guide) to playing it in merely a year’s time. The band hardly had time to catch their breath between the overnight success of their debut, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, and a staggering tour schedule that took them through the United States and Europe. When QRO caught up with multi-instrumentalists Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky at Austin City Limits Music Festival, they lounged in front of an industrial fan despite one of Texas’ more temperate days.
QRO: How did the Low Anthem form?
Ben Knox Miller: The line up has always been changing. It started as a trio after Jeff and I graduated from school, living in Providence, RI. We were playing with a guy named Dan Lefkowitz from Virginia; he’s a bluesman. We were playing mostly bar gigs, just trying to play wherever we could. We were playing in bars doing whatever we got booked at. Long sets, a lot of covers, really shitty venues.
QRO: You had a phenomenal year; you just absolutely blew up. I’ve heard Paste was a part in that, what exactly did they do for you?
Jeff Prystowsky: We first met them at Newport Folk Festival last year. We were volunteers with an environmental organization that did recycling. We were carrying beer bottles around with demos in our pockets, and we would take out the trash then hand out a demo. Paste was one of the tents that received a record that day, and they actually went home and listened to it and loved it.
BKM: We gave it to him, we were dripping in trash juice, we smelled terrible, and we were like, "He’s never going to listen to it, great." But he went home and he listened to it and he e-mailed us a couple of weeks later, we couldn’t believe it. We’d never been covered by any regional publication before and Paste loved the record.
QRO: You commented during your set that sometimes festivals are a strange venue for you because your songs are quieter. When you played Newport earlier this year was that a better environment because of the genre?
BKM: Yeah, that was incredible.
JP: They don’t have people playing at the same time, and if they do they’re so far away you can’t hear them at all.
BKM: We were in this tent down by the water, and it was really private. Also, having tent walls or any kind of enclosed space sort heightens the intensity and everyone’s really in it together. You have a festival and it’s kind of disparate, wandering crowd that’s coming in and out and it’s a different kind of vibe. Newport Folk Festival was incredible for that. Certain festivals are worried about and certain festivals aren’t worried about that. It’s just sort of hard to compete when everyone around you is louder, which is fine, we signed up for it and we recognized what we were getting ourselves in to. We’ve had some real ups and real downs trying to play the big festivals; today was sort of in the middle.
JP: When we played Bonnaroo it wasn’t that other people were playing at the same time. Rather it was the natural elements, the rain came in this just torrential downpour.
BKM: The tent is like a stretch-kick drum 100 yards long and it was just pounded. But you sign up to play a show and you’re grateful for it and you do your best. This is also the last show; we’ve been on the road for five or six weeks now. We flew in from London for this show, so we’re pretty exhausted.
QRO: How did the European crowd receive you?
JP: I think we’re bigger there than we are here.
BKM: It was an immediate response there. In the U.K. regional tour all the shows were sold out. We’d never played a U.K. tour before so we had no idea what to expect.
JP: We played a festival, the Ends of the Road festival and 6,000 people came to the show and you could hear a pin drop, it was that quiet.
QRO: You have a lot going on during your sets. You’re switching instruments, all of you play multiple instruments – so it is just kind of a free for all? Do you just kind of run to the next instrument, or do you ever get confused about where you’re supposed to be?
BKM: We also never write set lists. So we’re on stage and a song finishes and we’re all kind of feeling it out and seeing if there’s any consensus. Sometimes Jeff will run to the pump organ and be like, "We’re playing this," and I’ll run to the drums and be like, "No man, can’t do that right now."
JP: Today I gave Ben the sign for "This Goddamn House" by doing finger motions for a horn because I was too far away to yell it. It’s like in bridge when you and your partners have secret facial expressions. When he walks over to the electric guitar I know it’s going to be one of five songs, and by the way he does his first strum I know what it is.
BKM: Yeah, it’s a bit of a free for all.
QRO: On Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, you jump between folk songs and bluesy songs, so where would you say you’re getting your inspiration from?
BKM: It’s a very bipolar record. It has a wide emotional spectrum and it sort of haphazardly bounces around. Our previous record wasn’t like that. If we did another record I don’t know if it would be like that. But for some reason the songs, when we got in the studio to arrange them, just sort of surprised them and became in some cases garage blues and in other cases hymnal, falsetto sounding stuff. None of that was premeditated; it was just how the song came out.
JP: I think there’s many ways to make a beautiful song. Sometimes you pick up an electric guitar and just scream, and other times you sing falsetto and a cappella.
BKM: The variation is good because if you hear a couple of slow songs and you turn it up and gets it loud there’s an extra energy there, and vice versa, if someone plays a bunch of loud, stomping songs and transitions into something that has a different kind of sweetness to it, a different type of mellow to it, you’ve been kind of prepped for it in a certain way that helps bring it out.
JP: I think it helps develop trust. If you know someone can get up there and really emote with the louder screaming stomping bluesy variety, then when he pulls it back you know he’s pulling it back by choice. If you know it’s a choice then you listen in a little more, like what has this guy got to say?
BKM: It’s not just a wet towel who doesn’t know how to play a rock song.
QRO: Would you say that variation helps expand your audience?
BKM: I think more often people know what they like and they want to hear that.
I think it hurts as far as getting people to listen to it, because you can’t just put it on and be in the mood you want to be in, it’s always jolting you, so you have to ‘skip’ if you don’t like the next song that’s coming on. But as far as a piece of music, it’s crucial that it has that kind of variation on it. I think if it was twelve of the same kind of song it wouldn’t have the same effect. I think the songs are related, I don’t think it’s like rock n roll and choir tunes. There’s a spectrum, and I think they illuminate the other in their variance.
QRO: What are you working on now?
BKM: We’re trying to just stay healthy. We’ve been traveling for so many months. We’re starting a west coast tour with Blind Pilot (QRO photos on tour with The Low AnthemQRO review), then another European tour. Then we’re coming home and we have two months off after a five-week tour. When that tour ends we’re going to get a bunch of guys together and make the new record we’ve been scheming up as we travel. We’re frustrated we haven’t been able to record it yet but we’ll record it and the songs are songs that have now been honed over a long period of time traveling and been played live. I think it’s going to be a strong record.
QRO: Are you going to check out any of the shows over the weekend?
BKM: We’ve been a music show every night for the last five or six months, so I couldn’t honestly say we’re excited about running into the fields there and listening to music. We also haven’t slept for two days because we’ve been flying back from London, so we might just go find a shady tree and have a drink and fall asleep.