Ivy League evo­lu­tion

Their old-school Amer­i­cana may be rooted in an­other time, but for The Low An­them’s Ben Knox Miller, mak­ing mu­sic is all about keep­ing things fresh, he tells Lauren Mur­phy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IT ALL be­gan in the early hours of the morn­ing. Ben Knox Miller, a vis­ual artist from New York, and Jeff Prys­towsky, a jazz afi­cionado from New Jer­sey, shared a love of base­ball, mu­sic and shoot­ing the breeze from 2am to 5.30am on week­days at Brown Uni­ver­sity in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Is­land. The pair took the grave­yard shift at the Ivy League col­lege’s on-cam­pus ra­dio sta­tion, and played in sev­eral bands of vary­ing de­scrip­tions dur­ing the day. Lit­tle did they know that those col­lege days would pro­vide the foun­da­tions for The Low An­them, a band who’d creep out of the wood­work in 2009 to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim.

Knox Miller is aware that his band caught a lucky break of sorts with Oh My God, Char­lie Dar­win. Al­though the al­bum was re­leased in 2007, it wasn’t un­til US la­bel None­such Records stum­bled upon it and de­cided an in­ter­na­tional re-release was in or­der, that the ac­co­lades be­gan to roll in. “The Low An­them hap­pened very grad­u­ally,” Knox Miller says. “By the time we grad­u­ated, we re­alised that we had a sound that we were ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing se­ri­ously.”

When Jo­cie Adams joined the band in 2007, the dy­namic changed and Knox Miller took over the role of gruff song­smith from de­part­ing mem­ber Dan Le­fkowitz, a blues­man who “sung like Tom Waits”.

“It was a very dif­fer­ent en­ergy,” he ex­plains. “We never got any record­ings with Dan, so there’s not much proof of this – but for a short time, the band was re­ally dy­namic. I was singing re­ally qui­etly, he was singing re­ally loud. When Jo­cie joined the band, I think I shifted more to fill the role that Dan had va­cated, with the yelling and the up­beat stuff. We were play­ing in a lot of bars, so you couldn’t just play quiet stuff all the time. But Jo­cie was way on the other side with the clas­si­cal mu­sic – she pushed me more to­wards that space that had been va­cated.”

Hav­ing re­cently added a fourth mem­ber, Matt David­son to the mix, The Low An­them line-up seems to have been fi­nalised af­ter years of mix­ing and match­ing. David­son, a multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist who plays ev­ery­thing from the mu­si­cal saw to the ac­cor­dion, joined up to lend a hand to the record­ing of the fol­low-up to Char­lie Dar­win, which is due out later this year. Hav­ing an­other jack-of-all­trades on board is cer­tainly an ad­van­tage for a band that plays more than 30 in­stru­ments be­tween them at any given show. Tour­ing must be a night­mare for their road­ies.

“Well, we don’t al­ways bring the same ones on tour with us,” he laughs when I ask how the Ti­betan Singing Bowl fits into live per­for­mances. “We’ll make dif­fer­ent ar­range­ments at each venue, so when we come back to a place, there’ll be a dif­fer­ent way of play­ing the song.

“It’s prob­a­bly frus­trat­ing for some peo­ple who hear the record and come out and want to hear the con­cert just that way, too, but whether they know it or not, it’s good for them that we keep the ar­range­ments new – it keeps it fresh for us. The record was recorded two years ago, so it’s good that we’ve changed it. If we were do­ing the same thing for two years, we’d all have a lot more self-hate and the shows would be darker, I think.”

This con­stant mu­si­cal evo­lu­tion is what drove the song­writ­ing process of Oh My God, Char­lie Dar­win, says Knox Miller. Al­though it was recorded in three weeks, each song went through many rewrites un­til the band found the per­fect ar­range­ment.

“All of a sud­den, a song that ev­ery­body thought was ro­man­tic and in­ti­mate turns into pe­riod when main­stream tastes have em­braced folk-edged bands such as Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. And though Knox Miller is a fan, he claims to be obliv­i­ous to the pub­lic’s mu­sic-buy­ing trends. “The fact that peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to that kind of mu­sic – well, it doesn’t sur­prise me, I’ve al­ways lis­tened to that kind of mu­sic.

“I guess there are cer­tain el­e­ments of Amer­i­cana and nos­tal­gia in our song­writ­ing, be­cause a lot of it is rooted in older styles. I don’t think it’s in­her­ently a nos­tal­gic thing that we’re mak­ing, though. I just think that there’s a lot of lan­guage and a lot of roots in mu­sic like that, this idea of pas­toral Amer­i­can land­scape.”

Yet there’s no fear in folks turn­ing up to the quar­tet's forth­com­ing de­but Dublin head­liner merely to see a hokey thigh-slap­ping trib­ute act. With per­for­mances along­side Mavis Sta­ples and Pete Seeger at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val rank­ing as one of last year's high­lights, The Low An­them will hit Ire­land with a fresh con­fi­dence. Their set will be pep­pered with new tracks and barthump­ing al­bum favourites that will dis­lodge the dust from the Whe­lan’s rafters.

“It can be danger­ous to do what we’re do­ing, in a way, be­cause there’s a lot of bands that be­come ‘re­vival­ist’ bands re­ally quickly. They get painted with that brush and, be­fore you know it, you’re go­ing to see them be­cause The Carter Fam­ily’s been dead for 50 years and they’re all that’s left,” Knox Miller laughs.

“You don’t wanna fall into that trap. The mu­sic that I love is mu­sic with songs that tell sto­ries. That’s re­ally all we try to do, too.”

The Low An­them: (from left) Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prys­towsky, Jo­cie Adams and Matt David­son

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