INTERVIEW: The Low Anthem (August 2011)
Those with their ears pressed firmly to the ground can’t have failed to notice the feverish buzz surrounding The Low Anthem over the last couple of years. Emerging last February to rapturous notices, Smart Flesh – the highly-anticipated follow-up to their 2009 breakthrough LP Oh My God, Charlie Darwin – was my favourite album of 2011, delivering eleven tracks of lingering grandeur augmented by spine-tingling three-part harmonies. It also contained two of the year’s most memorable tracks in Hey, All You Hippies! – an excoriating broadside at the Reagan administration’s gutting of US countercultural values – and Boeing 737, whose opening lyric (“I was in the air when the towers came down / In a bar on the 84th floor…”) speaks to a far more specific tragedy in recent American history.
I chatted to the band’s laid-back frontman, Ben Knox Miller – a disarming mix of Evan Dando-esque slacker charm and thoughtfulness who makes for a hugely endearing interviewee – on the steps outside Hare & Hounds when they played in Birmingham last August.
Everything I see, hear and read about Smart Flesh all seems to revolve around this amazing old factory that you recorded the album in – I was wondering if you could give me a bit of background on how you stumbled across it and how that whole process came about?
Well, we were trying to correct all the things we didn’t like about Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which was a lot of Pro Tools reverb – all the space in that was artificial because it was recorded in a rectangular basement, so we just muted the room as much as we could. It sounds like a spatial record, but to me that sound just started to drive me crazy, so we wanted to get away from that. And we weren’t looking for a place that big, but that was the place that our friend had available that he just let us use, so we ended up using a space nearly the size of a soccer pitch. It was massive – 22-foot ceilings, arched… it’s the top floor, and the sound was beautiful. Unfortunately it’s the easiest thing for people to talk about, so we’ve been talking about it for, like, the last six months! It’s interesting, and people like to have something to latch onto when they write about music, and I think it’s just the easiest thing. It’s kind of been unfortunate in a way - it’s distracted people from listening to the music.
In a way, the songs themselves seem to really lend themselves to that kind of ghostly, timeless sound though – I read one review where it said that the music itself was almost like the memory of the music as it was being played. Did you plan that before you went into that space, or did it just emerge naturally?
It’s just the kind of space that we have a lot of in our town. It’s a post-industrial town, with all these empty buildings… it wasn’t just this building too, it’s a whole city of these buildings – ours was the smallest one, it was in a complex of nine of these giant buildings. Inside them was all kinds of, y’know, crazy [stuff]… inside one of them there was a house, a two-storey house that was a film set… there was another that was the main supplier of Easter baskets on the East coast, so you’ve got floor to ceiling, millions of Easter baskets – the company went out of business, so they’re just sitting there… insane shit. One was a candy factory; you’d walk through one and it looked like people had just moved out the minute the company closed – family pictures still on the desk, spilled milk that nobody cleaned up, it’s just congealed and sitting there in the carpet… creepy.
So this is Rhode Island, I take it?
Central Falls, Rhode Island – outside of Providence.
Does it have that kind of ‘ghost town’ feel to it? Is the whole of the town like that?
Well… 25% unemployment, and the town just declared bankruptcy - they were just the subject of national news because they fired, across the board, every teacher in the public school system because of how bad the kids were scoring on the standardised tests. And it’s really… yeah, not a very sunny place, but has a real kind of stark and haunted beauty in the winter.
You seem to be one of those bands who, while production becomes increasingly technologised, appear to be going in the opposite direction…
I’m thinking particularly in terms of recording methods, the looseness and ‘imperfection’ of the performances and the instruments you employ. Do you think you’re an ‘old-fashioned’ band in that respect?
- Mmmm. I don’t know. I don’t think, uh… There’s definitely an ethic of ‘looseness is good’, you know - we’ll never put anything on a grid, I don’t think. But does that make us old-fashioned? I don’t think so. People’s… [long pause; smiles]
It must be quite hard to say, when you just kind of do it…
Yeah. It’s just - it’s loose, and we like a performance that could fall apart at any moment - you know, it gets so loose that you wonder if it might just collapse! And then we bring it back. Some performances are tight though… maybe you’ll see a tight one tonight!
I read that you and Jeff met doing a jazz radio show, is that right?
Does it maybe come from that jazz background, do you think?
That’s his background, it’s not really mine – I think I’m just limited by my facility, you know? Every night my throat feels like it’s a different shape, and it’s really hard to sing in tune, so I really have to try hard to do it – some nights it happens more readily than others, and I’m not a very dextrous guitar player either, so I just kind of do what I can. And it’s like a ‘hard trier’ ethic, you know!
Do you see yourself as an ‘accidental’ musician, almost?
Ah, no! [Laughs] I don’t know – the craft I work more on is on writing. That’s the only thing I practise - I don’t practise singing, I don’t practise guitar… to me that would be like practising conversation or something; I’m not interested in doing that. But writing, I have a routine – I work on it every day.
Do you draw more from literature in your lyrics? A lot of the language is fairly archaic in places, and it seems very steeped in tradition throughout.
Well… maybe on Smart Flesh, but not in general – not in the writing I’m doing now. In fact, I think the writing that I’m doing now probably draws more on a lot of science reading, and brain chemistry…? I’m obsessed with brain chemistry and science, and philosophy of the mind. A lot of the writing I’m doing now is more in that vein – the lexicon for folk songs is pretty small, you know? [Laughs] I think some of our writing has that quality – Ghost Woman Blues, the first song on Smart Flesh, that’s a cover song – but that’s like the ultimate example of the simplest words… there’s, like, no word in that song that… they’re all like a hundred years old. But yet they’re not ‘out of date’ words – they’re just simple words. Maybe that’s it – maybe they’re just simple, if it’s old fashioned.
It’s strange – you’ve got this kind of rustic feel to the band, but maybe for the next album you should just go completely futuristic. You could do a ‘rocket science’ album…
As a band, you seem to exist completely outside of the contemporary structure of what we know as the music industry.
I cherish the compliment! Thank you, man!
Over here it was certainly the case that there were never any videos, and very rarely do you hear the band played on the radio – it was very much a word-of-mouth thing, especially with the last album where it completely spread through print media. You haven’t made many videos or put many singles out – you’re definitely more of an ‘albums’ band. Was this a conscious decision you made at the start?
Um… I have no idea how come anyone in the UK got into our music. Jeff and I when we started, we were a bar band – we were playing three-hour bar gigs in Boston, New York and Rhode Island; that was our circuit. We would book a show in each city at least once a month, and then try to expand to some other areas – Newhaven, Worcester is nearby, Western Mass… We were just trying to book enough gigs so we could pay very cheap rent and, like, make a living. And it was a duo, so it was a lot easier to do – but we worked for two years, just non-stop up and down that same route in a mini-van, playing shitty gigs, doing anything we could to get a crowd to listen. And that started to get traction, and doing that made us a lot more proficient players. That’s how I understood, like, ‘growing a band’ – it meant showing up in a place again and again, and just the work of it: like, bar-band work. And we were playing original songs mostly, but that made sense, because you’re putting in the work and you see a gradual but consistent trajectory. Coming over to the UK, I thought it was a crazy idea, but our manager was new to us at the time – she was the first person who came on who started to get our music to other people in the industry. But when she said we should come over to the UK, and she wanted to book two gigs at the Slaughtered Lamb in London, you know that place? It’s a basement pub, 120-cap, and she wanted to book two shows – we were like, “Are you kidding me? We can’t draw 120 people half an hour from where we live! Why are we going to go to London and do this?” And then it just… I don’t know how word travels, but it seems like UK-ers they talk a lot, and they want to find the next thing… and, like, we’d never been part of a music scene like that – we were a bar band. And then when we came over, all that happened.
It’s strange you should say that, because at the point where you started breaking through, a lot of the bands that were being written about in the UK press were acts like Midlake and Fleet Foxes, and it seemed like there was a kind of alternative American folk scene springing up – but you just happened to land in it.
[Laughs] Maybe so, yeah! Maybe so. We got compared to Fleet Foxes in just about everything that I read about us coming out of the UK.
And you’d never heard them, presumably!
And we had never heard them… and for a while it became pretty tedious, you know. We just saw them for the first time live three days ago. And they were great, yeah! [Laughs] They’re good!
A lot of your output seems to either reflect or embody a lot of the underlying tensions in American life – on this album you reinvent Ghost Woman Blues with a mournful Dixie jazz feel to the horns and clarinet, which seems to deliberately evoke a post-Katrina landscape. There’s also obviously Boeing 737 and Hey, All You Hippies! which make specific reference to recent events in American history. So my question is this: do you think you’re a band of contemporary America, or a past America?
Um… well, we make music now, you know, so I would go with contemporary! Our next – well, we’re working on two new records, but one of them’s going to be an extremely topical political record. And, um... yeah, the forms are ancient, but the forms are very vague structures that have been exploited a thousand times by every generation. You know, we made a lo-fi record, and Jeff wears a silly burlap hat, but it’s 2011. [Laughs]
The group you’ve always reminded me most of in that respect is The Band, both in sound and style…
That ‘looseness’ that you’re talking about – that’s the thing about The Band: it’s like a weird chemistry that holds that all together. Yeah, I love The Band very much; what were you gonna say though?
In relation particularly to the song Golden Cattle, I was wondering if you see yourselves in that tradition of travelling folk storytellers.
I never would describe us as a ‘folk’ band, because to me that word means ‘music that doesn’t have private ownership’. And our music, we own or license the publishing to our music – these are, like, specifically authored songs. Whereas I think folk music… in the sense where I think that word can still have meaning is, like, music that just emerges from a culture, in an authorless kind of way – public domain. So I don’t consider us that. I think the troubadours you’re thinking of – Woody Guthrie – they’re kind of picking up songs as they go, it’s like a snowball of music, and they learn of a verse here, a verse there, and all of a sudden the song is growing and it really doesn’t have specific authorship, in a sense. And you know, he’s a great writer who wrote millions of good songs, but I think that the nature of the writing was different because he was in the communities he was writing about, and the bits came from other people. I don’t think that really exists anymore with us.
With your writing process as a lyricist, then, do you take a very disciplined and concentrated approach?
Yeah – like, this month I had a goal to write fifteen songs for this new record, and I ended up with thirty-two, so it was a good month! It was the first month we had off, so the whole time we were travelling I’m writing down things I want to come back to… and when we finally got a chance to do it, it was great. I love just doing it as an exercise, and if you get something, you get something, but try not to be judgmental about what it is. I like to write every morning first thing before I start speaking, because I find that once I start speaking, I’m using words practically and exploitatively to achieve something – like, there becomes an agenda to the way you use words during the day that, when you just wake up out of dreaming, you don’t… something switches the first time you open your mouth. You know how you’re, like, jarred out of whatever headspace you’ve been in - if you live with a roommate, the first time your roommate says something to you, and you have to, like, answer a question, it’s like a slap in the face, you know?! I like to wake up before Jeff, who’s my roommate…!
Aw, that’s nice. What do you argue about, if you do argue?
Ah… we don’t argue!
So I take it that you bring the bulk of the material to the table and the rest of the band orchestrates it?
Yeah, Jeff’s a really good writer too, so… [Checks himself] Jeff’s a really good writer! [Laughs] But he doesn’t write stuff that makes a lot of sense with our band – he writes sort of satirical country songs… we have another band called Snakewagon that’s kind of like a mystery band, and every now and then they open for us in face paint and groovy outfits… and it’s like a Weird Al kind of project – the songs are original though. And also it’s, like, the drunkest band…
Not great for an opening act, really, is it…?!
[Sheepishly] Not really, no… [Laughs]
My favourite song on the album is Hey, All You Hippies!, in which you give Ronald Reagan a thoroughly deserved pasting. I was wondering if you see that particular period as the turning point in recent American history and the moment when the contemporary model of US society and all its tensions was really formulated?
Yeah, I think that was the turning point. That kind of charisma just changed everybody’s mindset. And I think that probably… I’m not a historian, but I think the sense that I get is that the hippy movement had completely devolved from any trace of idealism into just kind of a bullshit counterculture façade. Just kind of a political apathy and laziness – y’know, Reagan comes in and sweeps out the bums. And he had this, like, ‘working American’ thing.
And he ruined Springsteen, of course! So these next two albums you’re working on, including the political one you mentioned - are you planning to release them as separate LPs or a double?
They’ll be separate. The other is also very specifically written – we’re working on two, but they don’t really go together. We haven’t started recording though, so once that begins, you know, maybe there’s only one record.
A while ago, I interviewed Micah P. Hinson -
Ooh, great writer.
- And I didn’t realise that he got quite a lot of flack over here a while back because he did an interview where he was sort of ‘outed’ as a Republican, and so he didn’t like discussing his political beliefs. As political writers, are you left-wing, right-wing, Republican, Democrat…
Well, any of the band, I guess.
Well, the band doesn’t all have the same opinions, so probably best not to…
…tar the whole band?
But when you say you’re writing more political songs, is it more satirical or more issue-centred?
No, I hope that it’s half vitriol and half, like, psychoanalysis…
…of the government, or of the population?
…I don’t know. [Laughs]
I’m really looking forward to hearing this now…
Well, I’ve never tried it. It’s something I just think I – I just see a huge void of any kind of political writing, you know?
- Which is strange, because in the last decade there was this massive upsurge, but it seems like since Obama came in, that was almost neutralised – Bush was no longer in office, so people no longer had that specific target to write about. When I spoke to Micah P. Hinson though, he suggested that a lot of those tensions still exist, but perhaps in a more subterranean form.
Right now, Obama’s had the sheen thoroughly rubbed off of him, but I think he’s gonna… well, I don’t have any political predictions. I’m just curious if, uh… you know, it’s so ‘not cool’ to write a political song. It seems that way. I think that’s why nobody does it – it’s not because you’re going to alienate people, everyone in the music world is pretty lefty, you know, you’re not gonna turn off your crowd… unless it’s country music, then maybe. But I just wonder if it can be done without becoming topical in a way that makes it forgettable. It’ll be an experiment – maybe I can’t really do it, I don’t know. We’ll see!
Smart Flesh is available now on Bella Union.