Are there any old, dusty instruments in your attic? A little battered perhaps, left behind by a crazy uncle as he passed through town, unused now for decades?
Do you know of an old building, abandoned church, warehouse, a cave in the mountains? An old tool from the barn, a saw perhaps? If so, contact The Low Anthem right away, they’ll be coming through your town soon and they are the clearinghouse for such things. This is, after all, the band that scoured dumpster for cereal boxes to fashion the jackets for their first CD.
Described by the New York Times as “a quirky foursome with a penchant for old-timey songs and instruments”, The Low Anthem; Jeff Prystowsky, Ben Knox Miller, Jocie Adams, and latest member Mat Davidson, clearly relish and enjoy exploring their finds. Whether it’s the reverb found in a DC synagogue and an old movie theatre in Cambridge MA, or the timbre of the various hand pumped organs they drag around on tour, they look to find their music in the sounds these things give them.
And that sound comes from a motley assortment of old and odd instruments including dulcimer, jaws-harp, various pump organs, handsaw, crotales, acoustic and electric bass, violin, trumpet, even cell phone, now more than thirty and counting. Recent additions are an old church organ donated by a friend and an acoustic bass once used by the USO during World War II,
But perhaps the most unusual instrument the band has found in their brief recording career became the central factor influencing the sound of their latest album, The Smart Flesh.
Looking for a place to record last winter, and wanting to avoid the traditional recording studio environment, they were offered the use of a large abandoned warehouse, thousands of square feet of echoing brick walls, creaky wood floors, and leaky windows. The place drew them in and they soon filled it with recording equipment and over 35 instruments. They began experimenting with the acoustics, placing microphones in various places 20, 40, 50 feet away and listening for the sound created by the distances, a natural reverb unaided by studio special effects.
In an interview with Jeff Prystowsky, he explained to Glide that the factory was actually “the main instrument” and their choice of studio “was part of the narrative” of the making of the album.
The band considered the factory to be an additional instrument, and used it that way. Literally, in fact. Jeff said the natural sounds of the old building, rattling windows, creaky floors, can be heard as part of the sonic landscape of the album. They point out the effect the vast cold space had shaping the sound of the album and their willingness to use what others might have seen as a limitation as an opportunity to explore the possibilities offered by the vast space with its hard, reverberating surfaces and high ceilings.
They talk about submitting their songs to the space, which accepted some songs and rejected many others. Songs the band were sure would be central to the new recording were left out entirely. Over 30 songs were laid down for the album, only eight were found to work in the room’s acoustics, mostly the quieter, less complex songs. Louder, more intricate arrangements tended to get lost in a muddy mix. Three others, “Burn”, “Hey All You Hippies”, and “A Matter of Time” were recorded later in a much smaller Providence garage.
The instruments may be from a past time, but the band uses them to forge their own way
They have been widely compared to everyone from Dylan and Waits to traditional country singers from the last century. They can harmonize with Emmy Lou Harris on “Ohio” or channel Jack Kerouac by way of Tom Waits with “Home I’ll Never Be”.
A similarity with the early Velvet Underground can be heard in many of their songs; a kinship, for instance, in the use of odd instrumentation. Compare John Cale’s eccentric viola tunings with the atmospheric drone from the Anthem’s pump organ.
There is a similar feel in Jeff’s Prystowsky’s, simple, yet very precise and effective drumming and Maureen Tucker’s work on “Run, Run, Run”, or “I’m Waiting for the Man”.
Would it be a stretch to think of Ben Knox Miller singing Nico’s part on “I’ll Be Your Mirror”?
At a recent sold-out show at the Old South Church in Boston, against a backdrop of burnished dark wood and stained glass, the quartet delivered over 90 minutes of energetic, complex, beautiful music. Some songs were sung grouped tightly around a single mic in soulful harmony, on others members bounced around the stage with electric bass and guitar and drums.
Performing without a setlist, at times it seemed they drew straws to see who would play what; Jeff changing from jazzy, intricate runs on acoustic bass to drum then organ; Matt on bowed saw, violin, electric bass, and organ; Jocie on a variety of wind instruments, crotales, electric bass and organ, and Ben on electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, organ, harmonica, and crotales.
The evening ended with the band being brought out for two encores, ending the night as it began, the band gathered around one mic, this time singing the haunting “Ohio”.