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Buzzing Frequencies

A conversation with The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller


Published January 28, 2009 at 6:03 a.m.

As inferred by the title of their remarkable 2008 release, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, juxtaposition is a central concern for The Low Anthem. Recorded during a bleak midwinter on the summertime paradise of Block Island, duality is the record’s strongest thematic current, both lyrically and musically. Folk-tale imagery and rootsy, down-home grit are tempered by sparklingly arranged horn compositions and ghostly, near-angelic chorales. Stirring rock numbers crumble and drift weightlessly into ethereal melancholia. It is a record equal parts calculated science and transcendent epiphany.

National media outlets have begun to pick up on the Providence-based trio in recent months, as evidenced by features on National Public Radio, in Paste magazine and an upcoming spread in Rolling Stone. Further increasing the considerable buzz surrounding the band, this week they will announce a string of dates with noted songwriter Ray LaMontagne.

Seven Days recently caught up with the band’s primary songwriter Ben Knox Miller by phone, in advance of their upcoming performance at the Higher Ground Ballroom with troubadour Martin Sexton.

SEVEN DAYS: Much of the material on the record has obvious folk roots. But there’s a distinct classical sensibility in the arrangements, which seem to be the product of Jocie Adams. Could you speak to her influence on the group?

BEN KNOX MILLER: When we started working with her, it was just very informally. She was playing clarinet. That’s what her real training is in. She is also a classical composer. She’s done a lot of sort of modern classical stuff and she has a great ear. So when we started working with her, it was just because we needed clarinet on a track on the previous record. And we’d ask her to come up onstage and play with us at shows. So it just sort of happened gradually.

But then, with the new record, we had all these songs, the whole map of the thing laid out, and we just let her ears do what they do and come up with these arrangements. I do most of the principal songwriting. Jeff [Prystowski] helps me with that and kind of with the general direction. And Jocie is just a really good arranger. All the horn parts you hear on the record, a lot of the vocal harmonies are hers.

She doesn’t come from the world of rock music or folk music or blues music. She comes from the world of “serious” music, of classical music. And she has this beautifully innocent connection to music. Sometimes it’s very naive to what we’re trying to do. And other times she has this clarity of “this is supposed to be beautiful,” and it’s exactly the right thing.

SD: That seems like an apt metaphor for the album in general. Duality is such a running theme, especially lyrically. But it seems to manifest itself in the music as well, particularly in Jocie’s influence.

BKM: I think that her influence makes the beautiful songs more beautiful and the louder songs . . . bigger, just because we have an extra set of hands. But I think [the record is] very polar, certainly.

Jeff and I listen to a lot of different stuff. A lot of the songs that are loud on the record, the harder-hitting songs, are the songs that started out as folk songs. We tried to play them that way and for some reason it didn’t stick or it didn’t seem . . . I don’t know . . . the magic was missing? So we’d try arranging them as many different ways as we could think of. We’d sit in a room with all of our instruments and play musical chairs until the exact right frequencies started buzzing and everybody got excited. Sometimes it just had to be loud.

And then other songs — some of the ones that are real quiet on the record — started out as rock ’n’ rollers. Like the quietest one on the record, “Ticket Taker.” It had this, like, Neil Young minimalist hard-hitting rock thing. And it was, like, after the 20th take in the studio that we were just, like, “Fuck this. There’s no way.” We were gonna throw it out. Or just give up. So the producer went upstairs to bed and we were just so tired that it came out that way. We had to go wake him up again, like, “No, we have it, we have it.”

SD: What spurred the decision to retreat to Block Island?

BKM: The first thing is just that it’s a summer island, maybe [physically] the size of, like, Manhattan. There’s, like, 800 people there in the winter. There’s just no one there. So we knew we’d have quiet. We knew we’d have space. And we knew going out there would do something to the intensity because there’s nowhere to escape to.

It was also just when we could pull it off. The producer is from the Clark Davis School in New York. He was a senior and this was during his winter break. It’s a small program and the kids are really talented; they’re all headed into music production in some capacity. So each one of them will have the first few pieces of a home recording studio that they’ve purchased for the classes. But they come from all over the country. So when they’d fly home, a lot of them would leave their rigs in New York. And he was able to just borrow all this stuff. Incredible equipment. So he scrounged together, like, $20,000 worth of microphones and we brought them out on the ferryboat and set up in a basement.

It really was perfect. There was a lot of tension at times because we were on top of each other constantly. We weren’t sleeping. But I think that’s the way it should be. There should be that intensity. Because if it’s not there, everything you do after tracking is a lie. If the real musical moment never happens, then all the mixing and postproduction you want to do, you can’t create a vibe.

SD: The environment of Block Island in the middle of winter is reflected in the recording. I’m thinking especially of the title track. It has this bucolic, almost sea-shanty-like atmosphere. How much do you feel actually being on the island affected how the record turned out?

BKM: I think the irony of that, which I absolutely think is true, is that song . . . um, we failed to record on Block Island.

SD: What?

BKM: (Chuckling) Yeah . . .

SD: You suckered me!

BKM: (Laughing) There’s that song and one other song that we probably did 25 to 30 takes of and just gave up. It was the last one that we had saved to do. And it was really the song that we all felt most strongly was going to be the centerpiece of the record. We already knew what the title of the record was and that it was pretty central to the ongoing themes of the record, and that it had to be just right.

But, believe it or not, that song, when we were out there, had a pretty up-tempo drumbeat with polyrhythms. Sort of like an indie-rock beat. We definitely didn’t think it was going to turn into an ambient, washy ballad. It’s the last thing we expected. But who knows? Maybe something about being out there, something about the way the record was evolving, we knew that what we were doing wasn’t right. So we came back thinking that we had lost one of the legs that the album was supposed to stand on. And we were pretty discouraged about that.

I think it was later that night, when we got back, that we came up with this completely new way to play it. It was just too late, of course, because the studio had been disassembled and the gear had been returned. So we rented out a space in New Haven and recorded it there, did another 40 takes. So that song, there were a total of 65 to 70 takes, which is absurd. We’re never doing that again (chuckles).

SD: Having missed you the last time you were in Vermont, I’m curious about how the live performance compares, or maybe doesn’t compare, to the material on the record.

BKM: Well, our approach to making the record, as I was telling you, is that sort of “musical chairs” attitude. We all play a ton of different instruments. We’re not virtuosos, except for Jocie on clarinet. And Jeff’s a great upright bass player. But we have a sort of working knowledge of most of these instruments. So that’s where we come up with arrangements for the record. But on the record, we would always record three of us live together. And then we’d have other things in mind for overdubs, how to get just the right texture.

Texture is a huge thing. There is songwriting and then there’s texture. And when we play live, we’re equally concerned that every song be just so. So that the frequencies are buzzing and we’re all excited about it. So it leads us to bring as many instruments as we can fit in the van and sort of rotate, almost between every song, what we’re playing.

So it’s kind of just based on what we can do. We’ve labored over how to get just the right sounds. I think that something that’s cool about that, though, that keeps it alive, is that we can’t do everything because there’s only three of us. Whereas in the studio you’ll definitely put a bass under a track, maybe we just don’t have enough hands to have a bassist on a song. There always seems to be some space in the music where it feels stripped down and spare. And in some ways I think that adds a lot of tension and a lot of intrigue to the sound.

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