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

Ray Lamontagne / The Low Anthem

2 09 2009

In honour of the fantastic gig taking place in the beautiful surroundings of The Gaiety Theatre  on Thursday and Friday night (with Ray continuing through to Saturday while The Low Anthem bus it down to Stradbally), I had to post the two clips below.

Lucky, lucky me will have the privilege of interviewing The Low Anthem before the gig followed by a few hours of musical bliss… I think this will go a long way towards kicking the ‘not going to the Picnic’ blues. Check back for interview and gig review over the coming days; in the meantime, enjoy: