HIGH INTENTS Low Anthem

With music as their mantra, they refuse to get
sidetracked by success.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

While calling an
artist an overnight sensation may be the most tiresome cliché ever, in the case
of Low Anthem – Ben Knox Miller, Jocie Adams, Jeff Prystowsky, Mat Davidson – that
tag actually seems to ring true. After all, they reaped the pundits’ applause
with their sophomore set, the brilliant conceptual effort Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and were immediately elevated tagged as the up-and-coming act to watch.
Originally self-released in 2008, OMGCD was  subsequently picked up by Nonesuch
for a full national rollout in 2009.

 

After that initial infatuation, the challenge might
have been to derail any notions they were one hit wonders. Consequently, the
desire to keep the kudos coming could have weighed heavily on the recording of
their third effort, Smart Flesh, also
on Nonesuch. BLURT had an opportunity to chat with co-founder Miller to get his
perspective on Low Anthem’s challenges and triumphs.

 

***

 

BLURT: After the success of Charlie Darwin was it daunting or
intimidating when it came to thinking about a follow up? Were you anxious to
ensure the critical momentum continued? Or were you oblivious to those
concerns?
BEN KNOX MILLER: Good question. I wouldn’t say anxious but I
also wouldn’t say oblivious. We’re savvy to game of things, but the music comes
first. Our recording project had its own parameters and sonic goals, as did the
writing on the Smart Flesh. The rules
are the rules. Once we had parameters like the building and different
experiments we’d schemed and the body of songs we were able to work totally
unconsciously of anything but the tasks at hand – execution. The process of
tracking and mixing Smart Flesh wasn’t so different than listening to our favorite records. We were chasing
that same feeling of excitement. Mixing’s in the bones and the heart if you can
keep your head right. If our recordings are less than %100 aesthetically driven
it’s only out of weakness – evil creeping in despite our watchful eye, as
surely it creeps. The goal is to make music first, and then play the game of
putting it into the world, hopefully in a creative way – or at least a way that
isn’t demeaning or manipulative.

 

Were you surprised by the
success of Charlie Darwin? Did it
convince you that you had arrived as a band?
Yes, we were very surprised. We painted each record jacket
by hand for the release. We expected to sell 2,000, so that’s how many we
painted. 

 

In reading the press
release, it seems pretty clear that your recording locales play a major role in
how your albums are shaped? Do you choose your locale once you know the
direction you’re going to take or is it the other way around – does the studio
dictate the direction?
First, the songs dictated the “studio” choice. We
had a sense of the vibe or sentiment of the record and were looking for the
place that would provide a sonic compliment… a space big enough to go wild
all kinds of vast-scale milking techniques and re-amps but also a space that
would be interesting to live in during the process which lasted three months.
However, once this building seduced us it became an omnipresent force that
devoured and rejected many of the songs we had brought into it. Most of the
faster percussive lyrics and arrangements were swallowed in its caverns,
obscured. We fought hard for a few songs, but it was futile. Some of these
deceased songs were core songs for the record, or so we had thought. Their
disappearance opened unexpected holes in the record, like the toppling of an
ancient tree creating an opening in the canopy. Light shone in and some of the
underdog survivors were able to extend themselves in this vacuum. They began
casting surprising shadows on one another, shadows that had once been
neutralized by the density. So what remained took a shape that none of us had
envisioned… the songs influencing the building choice, and the building
returning the favor. 

 

In that regard, how do you
strategize each new project – does the direction come from the songs – or is
there a deliberate attempt to create a concept first and then the songs follow?
The songs for this album can only exist amidst one another.
There are ideas and imagery that are borrowed across songs. Words appear in
different contexts and chase each other about a vaguely defined web. The
process and the result both are non-linear. Everything is felt out slowly and
unconsciously… painfully slowly… at times suspiciously lazily unconsciously.

 

Is there an overall concept
that underpins Smart Flesh? And if so, were the songs written to
hold to that concept?
There is a rant enclosed in the album booklet and appearing
on our website that attempts to get at this “underpinning.” It goes
like this:

 

“A credible,
edible* collection of 11 songs. Softer than your velvet Elvis and fiercer than
Lady Hate herself. Chapped, naked love songs, lazier than the drifting sun.
Songs of fear, cruelty and redemption. Songs on songs. Essence and nonsense.
Frequencies for sympathetic architects. A church – a black hole – silence –
exit music for thunder. Oooeeee! Herein: that bulbous, intelligent brain flesh
of empty whales. That vacuous and monotonous flesh of the tumor. That taut
flesh of the archer and his drawn bow. That trembling gut of the tightrope,
that humming steel of airplanes. Woe that endless hunt. Woe ye embalmers of
beauty. Woah! That tender and redeemed flesh…

*FOR YOUR EARS ONLY, WITH LOVE.”

 

Where did the title of the
album come from?
We’re talking here about the flesh that wants, as opposed to
the flesh of stones. The flesh that is imbued with knowledge of self, with the
divine. 

 

For that matter – and in the
interest of full disclosure — where did the name Low Anthem come from?
Low Anthem was our given name and like any given name has
plagued us since birth, stretching and bending, resisting our maturation. The
departed band member who came up with it claims it refers to Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

 

For the most part, the album
has a very haunting, sparse, hushed ambiance and arrangement? How do you see
that translating to live performance? Do you think you can capture those
nuances on the stage?
We will do our best to deliver the songs. The album
arrangements will work better in certain rooms and worse in others. For example
at a pounding loud festival next to the dance tent, we may avoid seven minute
dirge waltzes like the title song “Smart Flesh.” But on the record, almost
all the parts are played live, so they are translatable. 

 

In a world where people are
shouting to be heard and pop music is all about flash and frenzy, how does a
band like Low Anthem – a band where nuance and intellect seem so such a swaying
factor — get yourselves heard over the din?
Yeah, what a funny question. I pinch myself every day. Maybe
we’re heard under the din, if we’re heard at all.

 

Would you mind giving us an
idea of your earliest influences?
Here’s a couple for each of us:


Miller – Dylan, Cohen
Davidson – Waits, Young
Adams – Mahler, Gillian
Prystowsky – Mingus, Prine

 

Any chance your first album,
which wasn’t widely distributed, will get a re-release?
We’ve reissued our first record from our website, but it’s
hard to go backwards in time

 

What’s next for the band?
We’re getting ready to go out on the road and do the record
in the flesh. Pardon me.

A version of this interview
also appears in the 10th issue of BLURT, headed to newsstands at
this very moment. Meanwhile,Low Anthem’s North American tour kicked off last
week and continues through March 12, then heads off to Europe.
Tour dates at their official website.

 

[Photo
Credit: Ryan Mastro]

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