Interview with The Low Anthem

24 09 2009

As published on, September ‘09

It’s rare that a support band kick the shit out of the headline act – musically speaking, of course – The Low Anthem are far too genteel to go engaging in fisticuffs. Thursday night saw the band kick off their European tour opening for Ray Lamontagne in the beautiful Gaiety Theatre and, though their set only ran a modest 30 minutes, the lasting impression that they left on the audience is sure to garner them more than a handful of shiny new fans.

Their latest release, ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, sees the band diversify from their previous album by exploring the harder side of their musical abilities with stomping, bluesy numbers that contrast starkly with their softer, folky side, resulting in an album of two halves that are equally mesmerising. Respecting the Gaiety’s noble structure and appeasing Ray’s refined crowd, the band kept it mainly quiet for the evening, with the exception being when utilising their magnificent double bass for an unbelievable rendition of ‘Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around’. After they had stunned the audience with their haunting harmonies and plethora of musical oddities, Connected crashed The Low Anthem’s dressing room and shared a whiskey with frontman Ben Knox Miller.

The Low Anthem

The Low Anthem

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is your third album. What do you think it is about this one that’s making people’s ears prick up?
Well I call it our second album. There is an earlier album and there are plenty of demos but the one before Oh My God, Charlie Darwin was a good solid album that I can go back to and listen to. To answer your question though, I think that the band have gotten better, I think that our songwriting is better, I think our performances are tighter.

We didn’t promote the last record at all. We were playing locally in Providence, Boston and New York, so we had this little strip of the Northeast that we would travel and play but we didn’t get the record in anybody’s hands, no A’n’R guys. We sold a couple of thousand copies by playing gigs live and that’s what we expected with this new record too but a couple of people from national media in the States picked up on it.

Paste magazine liked it, the Boston Globe wrote an amazing review and before we knew it we were mailing it out from our house. We sold about 10,000 copies before we signed to our new record label. We didn’t expect that at all; when we made the first run of albums we purchased 2000 copies. We were taken by surprise but it’s great.

Where did The Low Anthem’s journey begin?
Jeff and I started playing in bars when we were a duo and we had residencies in New York, New Haven, Boston so we were playing three regular gigs a week. They were shitty gigs playing to a drunk crowd. Maybe some of them came to hear music, and those people were great, but a lot of them were just there to get drunk.

There were a lot of Red Sox games on TVs in the background and you’d be in the middle of a song, trying to emote and sing your heart out, and then the crowd all of a sudden goes wild and you’d be thinking “Did I do something right?”, but then you’d look over at the flat screen and the Red Sox had just hit a home run. That sucked. We did that for a long time and by doing that we were able to make enough money to pay our rent and focus on the music.

You went from a duo to a trio with the inclusion of Dan Lefkowitz, who stayed with the band a mere six months before upping sticks to live in a yurt in Arkansas. Yet you remain close to Dan and he’s here with you this evening; why did he decide to leave?
It was just a matter of chemistry, he was a bit younger than Jeff and I. He’d dropped out of college to come join the band and he’d only done one year [of college] and we sort of knew what we wanted to be doing whereas it was a more experimental period in his life.
We bought him a plane ticket to come with us on this tour, so he’s gonna travel with us for a month. Tonight was for him to listen to the songs and see what we’re doing now and tomorrow he’ll sit in on a couple of songs. Maybe by the end we’ll be a quartet; not permanently though.

After Dan left, multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams made The Low Anthem a trio once again. She was a NASA technician before joining the band; how’s she finding the career change?
I think the same fundamentals apply but I don’t know, I can’t speak for her. She’s incredibly smart but in these very eccentric ways. She doesn’t know how to talk about NASA but she worked there and she discovered crazy shit. She was analysing the particle makeup of other solar systems; crazy research projects that she can hardy explain to anyone. But she’s also a classical composer and I think that she just loved that more than, um, outer space.

You have been bundled into the New Folk Wave bracket by the media. Who do you see as your contemporaries?
Everybody compares us to Fleet Foxes, at least in Europe and the UK. It all started with Steve Lamacq. He wrote in his blog, “I’ve just found these guys, I love them, they could be this year’s Fleet Foxes.” So that was sort of the first thing that went out to the music industry and it just set off a chain reaction of comparisons. The truth is that I don’t really know what Fleet Foxes sound like; I’ve heard one or two songs on the radio but I haven’t really had time to digest their music.  I love Bon Iver’s record.

There’s something so human and un-self-aware about it; it’s just beautiful. I think that he’s a beautiful performer. However I don’t think that his music has that much to do with our music. We both sing in falsetto and there are harmonies but I think our music is different to his. The biggest reason is because there’s a lot more lyrical content in the songwriting of our music; a lot more hinges on narrative whereas with Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes’ music I think it’s more about the way that it’s sung and the vibe that’s created.  There’s a kind of movement in contemporary folk at the moment away from the content and lyrics and towards vibe and style.

Are poetic lyrics perhaps more important to you as a band, than the instrumentation?
The songs have to be there before you do anything else. If you don’t have the song then there’s nothing worth arranging. For us it all starts with the songs.

There are a total of 27 different instruments on OMG, CD. It must be tough deciding who plays what and what gets played when!
We all live together in Providence and we have a small rehearsal room that’s full of all of our instruments so we play musical chairs and try different combinations of things until the song starts to jump out. Sometimes you feel like you’ve found the right combination and then you go to record it and it just doesn’t work. You’re sitting there in the studio, the mics are all set up and then you just go “fuck it, this is bullshit”. So then we’ll try something else; everybody will move one seat to the right and pick up a different instrument. The way we play a song live can be very different to the way it sounds on the record.  We spend a lot of time trying different variations and trying to make things more dynamic.

OMG, CD was recorded on a bleak Block Island in the depths of winter. What do you think it was about that vast desolation that met the needs of your record so well?

The only person that we saw for ten days was the clerk at the grocery store and even then it was just to buy provisions and booze. We were set up in a home studio and we basically isolated ourselves over a really intense ten days. We just did take after take, nobody slept. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to make a record but there’s definitely something about it. There’s a vibe that comes out of that kind of situation. We chose where to record it and then that vibe happened; we went into it not really knowing what was going to happen. For the next record we’re thinking about going to Amsterdam and spending a couple of weeks there. We’ve fallen in love with the place.

You’re receiving rave reviews this side of the Atlantic and some of your tour dates have already sold out. Where are you looking forward to playing most?
The countries that have been most supportive are Holland, Belgium and the UK. We’re about to do a regional UK tour; we have a surprise show in November because our London show is already sold out. I’ve wanted to come to Ireland forever. We did a three week tour with Lisa Hannigan in the states and her band are great, great guys and they told us that we had to come to Dublin. Lisa has an amazing voice, I hope she’ll sing with us some time.

Who would be your ideal person to share a stage with?

I would love to sing with Lisa and I think that Emmylou Harris has one of the most beautiful voices. I have another crazy idea but I can’t tell you – you work in the media!

Words: Sheena Madden


Summersound ’09

1 09 2009

First published on

Summersound Festival 09

Sunday 23rd August, Eastpoint Business Park

The Mighty Atomics

The Mighty Atomics

Nestled amongst the main-runners, Oxegen and Electric Picnic, each summer brings with it a new glut of ‘boutique-style, independent festivals’ designed to catch those punters who fall between the Oxe-Picnic cracks. Some of these smaller festivals have proved to be a huge success (think Castlepalooza) whereas others have crashed and burned in a spectacular fashion (what’re the chances of another Solas festival?). The one admiral thing that most have in common however, is probably the same thing that bludgeons most of them to death: ambition. More often than not located in an expansive field (only an hour’s drive south of Borris-in-Ossory), the majority of well-intentioned first time festival organisers plan with a blinkered ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. Miles and miles of tumbling green moors in the midlands is all well and good if you’ve got a 60ft main stage with a succession of fuck-off megastars flying in to blow punters away with their latest ‘comeback gig’, but if Mundy’s tired rendition of ‘July’ is the highlight of your line-up then you’ve got a neck asking people to pay €120 to risk their neck driving through dark, winding backroads before reaching the carpark (for ‘carpark’ read: waterlogged GAA pitch where the locals overturn every Chinquechento in sight). It was with open arms, so, that Dubliners welcomed the first Summersound Festival, located conveniently beside Clontarf Road Dart Station.

At the student-friendly price of €26, the line-up was suitably campus-tinged to match. Headlined by the relentlessly reliable Mighty Stef and accompanied by a litter of indie-pups, Summersound was unabashedly aimed at 20-something indie scenesters with skinny jeans to work and neon wayfarers to don and they arrived, suitably attired, in droves as the evening wore on. The afore-mentioned indie-pups consisted of a host of young, hotly-tipped bands such as Disconnect 4, Identity Parade, The Funeral Suits, The Spikes, Heritage Centre…. you get the idea. Now, the thing about a music event devoted entirely to same-same sounding bands is that when one or two do actually break through the stoic indie sludge, you really sit up and take notice.

The festival was opened by newcomers, The Wayward, whose unassuming classic rock stylings have received just the right amount of modernisation. Playing an effortlessly tight set with all the aloof panache of seasoned rockers isn’t an easy task when confronted with about a dozen bleary-eyed Dubliners who have probably only arrived this early because a) they’re on a roll-over or b) they helped to set the stage up, but this lot managed to impress, helped along nicely by lead singer Stephen Kelch’s brawny, gravel-raked vocals that, thankfully, contrasted with the majority of androgynous-voiced identikit lead singers that followed as the day wore on.

A number of hours and an even greater number of pint bottles later saw the general mood of the day lift considerably. Maybe it was sunstroke (afterall, the temperature did soar into the early teens) or maybe the music really was getting better but by the time Dublin band Moebius took to the stage the steadily increasing crowd warmed to them the way crackwhores, racists and bigamists warm to Louis Theroux; you like them yet you’re not entirely sure why. A strange mish-mash of influences ranging from The Who and Zeppelin to The Stone Roses and The Specials have Moebius sounding like some weird sort of Kasabian-Bon Jovi hybrid. And it works… I think.

The Mighty Stef

Headliner The Mighty Stef impressed his legion of adoring fans as always with the highlight of his set definitely being the beautifully-penned duet with Cait O’Riordan, ‘Safe at Home’, from his second album, ‘100 Midnights’. Unfortunately Cait wasn’t present on the night but Stef did have two of the Humanzi boys on stage to lend a hand. He ripped through an impressively raucous set comprising mainly newer numbers but disappointingly didn’t placate the crowd with his breakthrough tune Poisonous Love before he was ushered off the stage at 11ish by a crowd of pissed-off looking bouncers who’d had enough of this shite and were eager to get home to their egg ‘n’ chips and can of Tuborg.

On a whole, the set-up was professionally run and despite heralding responses of “you’re going to a festival in a fucking industrial estate?” from just about everyone I mentioned Summersound to in the preceeding days, the bar in Eastpoint Business Park is quite the cushy little location for a one-day music extravaganza. Cozy enough to avoid feeling like the only kid who’s turned up for the school geeks birthday party, the organisers hit the nail on the head when they chose this spot. With a covered, comfortable smoking area and a modestly sized green space with picnic benches, Summersound had a lovely ‘gaff party’ feel to it. Granted, the entertainment in the bar could have been stepped up a notch or two, but the so-so (but oh-so trendy) DJ spun enough Stevie Wonder and DJ Kormac-style swing to placate the punters. In saying this, the biggest surprise of the evening also emerged from the tiny stage set up in the corner of the bar in the form of the slightly girl-bandish monikered Mighty Atomics. If there is one thing that made this indie-fest worthwhile to any non-indie followers, it was these guys. Heavily channeling the musical stylings of The Sonics, this three piece bang out the kind of simplistic blusey rock numbers that work so, so well thanks to their ‘just fucking plough into it’ attitude. The band’s singer has a wonderfully deadpan voice not unlike a young Ian Curtis that belies his tender youth. If you are going to check any band out based on this festival, or indeed this review, make it these guys.

And so ends another well-intentioned ‘independent boutique-style festival’. Will it return for a sophomore effort in 2010? Heres hoping. Despite the questionable-in-parts line-up, Summerfest has the potential to become a regular summer round up for Dublin music fans. A touch more diversification where musical genres are concerned and some sort of late bar extension could see this one go the distance.

Sheena Madden