Formed in 2006, Providence, RI trio The Low Anthem have provided the summer of 2009 with music that, while purposefully anachronistic, offers glimpses into the past, present and future like a great American novel. Behind the air blowing through their ancient harmonium is a band who actually sees the music of the future as far more intimate. However, their music should not be viewed reductively as simply a new branch of folk music — it is, instead, more natural. As such, it is quite fitting that they would use the name of histories most famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, in the title of their Nonesuch Records debut.
From a the back of a van barreling down the autobahn in Germany, singer/guitarist/writer Ben Knox-Miller offered glimpses of the natural history of The Low Anthem and on the making of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
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Aquarium Drunkard: Ben, you are a visual artist. Was that your first love? How much of your artistic processing do you use in songwriting?
Ben Knox Miller: Painting was my second love. Baseball was my first. Music and painting have certain things in common. My favorite comparison is from Woody Guthrie: “A picture – you buy it once, and it bothers you for forty years; but with a song, you sing it out, and it soaks in people’s ears and they all jump up and down and sing it with you, and then when you quit singing it, it’s gone, and you get a job singing it again.”
AD: So much has been written about this album comparing it to “Dust Bowl” and all of these antediluvian references. How do you see your music in terms of time?
BKM: It’s new, but it’s not plugged into current trends. We don’t really follow a lot of contemporary music.
AD: You and Jeff (Prystowsky, bassist/multi-instrumentalist) seem to communicate intrinsically. Are the two of you on the same wavelength? Does he always play what you think the song needs?
BKM: Jeff always surprises me with new interpretations and possibilities. He has a wide-open mind about music, and rare and precious quality.
AD: “Charlie Darwin” laments being on a voyage and how even the brightest promise can be dimmed by directionlessness. Is this a metaphor for making a record in the age of rapid technology, or maybe even how we as Americans constantly ignore our past?
BKM: Listening to the record is akin to taking shelter during a lightning storm among nostalgic remnants in a water-damaged church, who’s new tenants – rats, owls, stray dogs and snakes – comprise a burgeoning, cacophonous, dog-eat-dog ecosystem.
AD: How did you and Jeff join forces originally? What were those early shows like? How did you learn to use the space and sparseness so effectively? Where did you grab the rest of the band from?
BKM: We became friends in college (at Brown). We co-deejayed a free-form, graveyard shift jazz show. 2 – 5:30am. Spun records. We also played on a woodbat mens league team during the summers. We played some silly
shows in college. All very forgettable. Things did really pick up until we graduated and formed a trio with bluesman Dan Lefkowitz. He was dropping out of Bennington College and looking to join a band. The trio lasted 9 months and then reached it’s boiling point. Dan split. We played as a trio for another 6 months, then entered Jocie.
AD: Over the three songs, listeners hear the wide range of your dexterous voice. By the time we learn that “The Horizon Is A Beltway“, you have glided through your falsetto and vulnerable middle range only to reveal a boisterous growling low. Do you write in these voices or did the songs just draw this variety out of you?
BKM: Well said, the songs draw the variety out.
AD: So many of your songs are built on small repetitions? Did you draw inspiration from stanzas of ancient poetry? Your songs seem based in oral tradition, how much do you write down and how much just poured out you while playing?
BKM: I am getting more meticulous by the day. There is a fine line between spontaneity and laziness.
AD: Another tradition that is present is call-and-response. Were you thinking about traditions when you were writing and recording? What was the primary inspiration?
BKM: Well, we all read “East of Eden” before the recording session. We had the books great word “timshel” taped above the control booth. It from ancient Hebrew meaning “though mayest.” We also had a copy of “The Origin of Species” close at hand always.
AD: I read that you included a bad review of your album in your press kit. That’s a little audacious. Did you hope that the reader of your kit would counter those criticisms?
BKM: It was at once a scathing review and a rave. The guy couldn’t make up his mind. He called us the pinnacle of new folk and compared certain songs to Bush’s “shock and awe” military campaign; he said we dishonored Kerouac’s memory. I think it was fully emotional, irresponsible journalism. Fallout caused an epic 25 person thread our local Craigslist. It’s inclusion broke up the monotony of the hand-picked complementary quotes we’d listed. For anybody to care or be so emotional about our record was touching.
AD: How do react to an audience’s initial reaction to you?
BKM: Every night a battle is fought. New audiences are often the best, because they are suspicious, not preconditioned to enjoy. The risk of failure is essential to the immediacy and desperation that makes for a great live show.
AD: What led you to Nonesuch Records? How adept were you at using all of the online services and finding the avenues for your music?
BKM: We were good at putting our music out there. We sold over 10,000 records before signing. We didn’t need Nonesuch, but we had such respect for their roster and David Bither (A&R). I don’t think there is a better label in the world.
AD: Was there one song in particular that you were most proud of on the new record? Now that you are touring nationally and garnering critical huzzahs, are you planning the next record? Are their new songs that you are playing and can’t wait to record?
BKM: My favorite song is “Ticket Taker.” We have lots of new material and are eager to record, if we ever get a break from the road. Even now, I’m writing from the back of the tour van on a German highway.
AD: Musically, there’s so much going on in your band. How do you manage all of the pieces? Do they actually fit together in different patterns (I’m thinking of how you reprise “to Ohio” and how I like to think “The Ticket Taker” is another facet of “Charlie Darwin’s”observation that ‘The way we trade our hard earned time for pay’) Do you play a song the same way every night?
BKM: Our arrangements are ever-changing as are the instruments we take with us on the road. We try hard to keep it that way. Always trying to be in the state of discovery, rather than self-imitation.
AD: What are you listening to and reading these days? Since your album is an exploration of America, are you exploring the country in your time off in all of these places. How do you see Americana music today, especially since you come from a huge scene for it in Providence?
BKM: There is some great music coming out of Providence. It’s a creative town. This “Americana music” tag is a slippery fish. I’m not sure what it means. All I know is that I love song craft. And I’m discouraged with the movement away from content in current songwriting trends. People are singing in ways now that bury the lyrics. There are some great artists doing this, but I’m nostalgic for the poetic and narrative writing of Dylan, Cohen, Waits, etc. words/ mik davis
MP3: The Low Anthem :: Charles Darwin
Amazon: The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charles Darwin