A Conversation with The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller 

click to enlarge Ninth from Beethoven: The Low Anthem
  • Ninth from Beethoven: The Low Anthem

The Low Anthem just issued its acclaimed debut on the Nonesuch and Bella Union labels -- titled Oh My God, Charlie Darwin -- resulting in newfound media attention and such perks as European tours and festivals. But the Rhode Island band had self-released the haunting home recording a year earlier, and its primary songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Ben Knox Miller, is getting antsy. It seems he wants nothing more than to get back into the band's studio -- back to the collection of oddball instruments so gorgeously layered on Charlie Darwin, including zither, oil drum, and Tibetan singing bowls. City Paper spoke with Miller via phone about folkies new and old, and new member (and former NASA employee) Jocie Adams.


So, Jocie Adams joined you and bassist Jeff Prystowski between 2007's What the Crow Brings and Charlie Darwin -- how did you meet her?
We'd studied music together -- we'd taken classical composition courses. [Composer and Brown professor Gerald Shapiro] would have us both come in and be another set of ears to help critique each other's work. It ended up being this very intimate study format for mostly classical composition, but I was also bringing songs in. 

[Shapiro's] line is that he's eight degrees of separation from Beethoven, because his teacher's teacher's teacher ... was taught by Beethoven. So he would always joke that we could go out into the world and claim that we were nine generations removed. It helped us get gigs everywhere.

Oh yeah. [Laughs.]

What draws a musician to older styles of music -- why explore old-timey sounds instead of futuristic sounds?
For me personally, the seed was planted by my parents a long time ago. Dylan and Seeger and Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie and all the old folkies -- that had been kind of a soundtrack of my very early years. And as soon as I was old enough to let music be part of my social life with friends, I found the local rock station on the dial. ... And then it's just been this very gradual process of realizing what bullshit contemporary pop music is, and moving backwards and looking for things that I was increasingly able to find resonance in. 

What do you like now, then?
I'm aware that there's a "new folk" movement going on, because I keep getting asked questions about it, and the truth is I'm largely unaware of almost all of these bands ... I think Bon Iver is great, I think that Elvis Perkins in Dearland is great. Deertick, from Providence, which I like very much. That's about it for contemporary music. The last two live concerts I've seen were Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I don't think I've moved on.

A lot of the original folk-revival musicians seemed to self-consciously emulate anachronistic music -- is that a similar path for The Low Anthem?
No ... We're not interested in this old-fashioned sound as an aesthetic adaptation. We're interested in the best examples of that music where it's transcendent and alive and beautiful -- not like a museum piece, but really something that has some power to it.

On Charlie Darwin, you can hear some of that soulfulness, but it seems you've broadened the palette of sounds and instruments far beyond Americana or folk.
I hope so. Also, we're doing this kind of home-recording style. You just have a new ability to sculpt and overdub yourself the textures you're looking for. We fussed very intensely over each sound on the record and overlaid instruments -- it was much more complicated than anything you could call traditional or revivalist.

How do you decide which of your voices to use on a song -- your high falsetto voice, or the almost Tom Waitsy bellow?
There's songs on the record where we knew instantly what the arrangement would be. And then there's other songs we had to play in many different styles, many different genres of music, and in a self-conscious way, acting them out with a different sort of ethic and spirit, and just waiting until all the frequencies seemed to be buzzing and the songs seemed to be coming alive.

We're not a band that executes an idea that we've planned -- we're a band that sits around and fusses and fights with itself until it has arrived at something that it feels good about.


The Low Anthem with Joe Pug and Two Hollows. 7 p.m. Tue., Aug. 4 (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $8. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com


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