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Recorded, as its liner notes solemnly state, “in the solace of a Block Island winter,” The Low Anthem’s 2008 album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, was a muted, self-consciously old-fashioned folk-rock record whose crystal-clear beauty made it a favorite of critics and Americana bloggers. The record’s star was Ben Knox Miller, who railed against the collateral damage created by technological progress in a voice that ranged from a piercing falsetto to a Tom Waits-like gutter bark over dusty, old-timey instrumentation. The buzz around Charlie Darwin grew so loud that Nonesuch Records was moved to give a remastered and re-sequenced version of the record a wider release in 2009, allowing The Low Anthem to finally tour beyond the clubs it had played around its home base in Providence, R.I. The band has been on the road pretty much ever since, though it did pause recently to work on its next album. In advance of supporting The Avett Brothers March 5 at First Avenue, Miller spoke with The A.V. Club about life on the road, the new record, and making sweet music from cell phones.
The A.V. Club: The Low Anthem has been on the road more or less constantly for the past year and a half. Do you like touring?
Ben Knox Miller: Yeah, I love touring. This is our first time that we ever got to tour. We always wanted to, but we were booking our own gigs and playing locally. When this record started to get some attention and we got a couple of offers to go out, we had played so many shitty gigs that it was time to say yes to all of them.
AVC: Has traveling so much influenced your music at all?
BKM: I think there’s a lot of shame. It’s a recurring theme that I see all over the place with bands that travel. Because it’s such a selfish lifestyle, in a sense. People on the road are leaving behind whatever relationship or home they came from. You hear a lot of these songs that have to do with that.
AVC: Do you feel any shame?
BKM: I don’t know. But I think it’s kind of sad and beautiful. I can relate to a lot of those songs, where they were kind of distant to me before.
AVC: Are you able to see much of the city you’re visiting that day?
BKM: We usually look for a record store and a vintage music store and a diner car. That’s our typical cross-section that we’ll get of whatever town we’re in. We’re in Athens, Ohio right now; it’s beautiful and snowing. We just went to the Blue Eagle Music Shop and found this beautiful kick drum from 1920, a beautiful walnut kick drum. It’s a 28-inch drum, and has this really big sound. We always try to look for at least a bit of the music culture in a town.
AVC: What’s the status of your next record?
BKM: We just packed up our studio. We set up in the beginning of December in this empty factory building in Central Falls, Rhode Island, for two months. It was a 100,000-square-foot abandoned building, and they had no insurance, so they let us use it and looked the other way. But we had to sign these death waivers, where if anything happened there was no liability. The top floor is like an aircraft hanger. There’s huge reverb and you can set up mics on all different sides of the room and capture sound as it transforms through the space. It was wonderful. It was the first time we’d ever been able to set up our own studio and record on our terms. It was a sad day when we had to pack it up. They wouldn’t let us extend the lease because of the liability. But all the tracking is done now. We might mix it ourselves, but we can’t mix it in that space because everything you play sounds enormous. So, if you do it there and then listen to it some place else, it sounds so small and you wonder where the sound went. We recorded about 30 songs, and just recorded everything that we’ve been suppressing the last two years as we’ve been on tour. Now we have to weed through it.
AVC: That’s a lot of songs. Are you doing a double record?
BKM: We had talked about doing a double record, because there are enough songs. But I think we’ll probably go for one that we really feel good about.
AVC: You made your first album at home, and now this album in an abandoned factory. What’s the attraction of unconventional recording spaces?
BKM: We did some studio recordings back in the day when we were making demos, and if you have the right studio and the right vibe, it’s very nice and you get a good sound. But now that studios are so portable and relatively affordable, I don’t see any reason why not to make the studio choice part of the narrative of the record, and let that inspire different sounds and ideas. This record has been seriously affected by the space it was recorded in—the size of the space and the scale of the sound, and the manipulation of the natural reverb. The last record was done in this tiny little box of a room, probably 12 by 12, so everything was close-miked and all of the space and ambiance was put on after with ProTools. They have nice reverb plug-ins in ProTools, but there’s nothing like being up to set up a mic 75 to 150 feet away from the performance and capture actual, proper reverb as it travels through a space. People who listen for that kind of thing, it will be pretty clear on the record that there’s some great naturalness that we couldn’t have done without it. Also, walking into this beautiful, depressing milk complex that was shutdown, and you look out and see this ghost town of abandoned factories, it’s just stirring. That seeps in somehow.
AVC: From what you’re describing, this seems like it’s going to be a big-sounding album.
BKM: It’s not big in the sense that it jumps out; it’s almost more introverted. You hear the big space it was recorded in, but the energy is flowing in toward the space rather than a big pop record that jumps out. It’s more like an introverted huge.
AVC: When you made Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem was an unknown band. Now that you have an audience that's anxiously awaiting your new album, what impact does that have on what the band does next?
BKM: That’s a good question, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. But to the extent that it’s possible, I think we’ve tried to make a record like we always do, and make something we really thought was beautiful and blocking out any other considerations. You’re not going to hear any radio singles. You’ll hear just the songs that we want to play. It’s always heady, but I don’t think it was too self-aware.
AVC: You clearly put a lot of thought and time into sequencing Charlie Darwin and making it work as an album. What narratives do you see coming out of the new songs?
BKM: There’s a couple different theories on how to do it. One was a record with two points of climax, and then a suspended kind of slow movement between them. Another theory is that the songs would be organized according to age; there are some songs with a youthful obliviousness to them, and other songs about troubles and life, and other songs about being dreams being smashed. But we all disagree about what songs are going on the record, which makes it confusing.
AVC: Thematically, it seems like the songs are less “Big Issue” oriented this time around.
BKM: There won’t be any more songs about Charles Darwin you’ll be pleased to hear. [Laughs.] It deals more with personal issues than large-scale, apocalyptic issues. The Darwin record was this record about environmental decay and social de-evolution and the death of morality and all these very grand things. The next record has more of a colloquial feel, and deals more with personal relationships. It deals a bit with politics, and a bit with dreams and idealism and innocence being smashed.
AVC: How autobiographical are your songs?
BKM: There’s moments that feel very autobiographical, but those are dangerous moments. It’s definitely not confessional songwriting. There’s also roleplay going on. There are moments that sneak through that are vulnerable; sometimes when they sneak through before you catch them, they work. It’s hard to be too self-conscious that you’re writing about yourself and have that and be real and natural.
AVC: So, you’re not a confessional songwriter?
BKM: [Laughs.] You won’t hear that in our stuff, not only because it’s somewhat distasteful to me, but because it’s a band. You can’t do that in a band. A lot of stuff is sung by the group as a whole, and the voice of the record, it’s not so clear that I’m the focal point. It’s more abstract.
AVC: Given how much emphasis you put on making albums, do you cringe when people download a single song and ignore the rest?
BKM: We’ll be very deliberate about all the choices that we make, and it will fit together and be coherent, and I’m sure certain people who are looking for that will find it and have the same reverence for that old fashioned approach. Maybe something will get put in a commercial, and 200 billion people will hear that song and not hear the rest of the songs. Who knows what will happen? We’ll make the record with the intent that it’s too be listened to as a whole; after that, it’s not really up to us. If anybody hears any part of it, that’s great.
AVC: You guys utilize a lot of old-timey instrumentation, but the most unusual might be when you “play” two cell phones on the song “This God Damn House.” How did that come about?
BKM: It’s a song about having a hard time living with somebody. They call each other, and they’re both on speakerphone—I’m giving away my trade secrets here—and they get this feedback loop that creates a beautiful chirping sound, like crickets. You can whistle into it, and select the pitch that ends up in the feedback loop. It’s a little melody with this natural delay on it. What’s been working really beautiful lately is if we play in a church or a theater with a big acoustic sound, we’ve asked the audience to call their neighbor and put it on speaker phone at that point in the song. It sounds like you’re in the middle of the forest, and there are all of these little electronic crickets chirping away at random.
AVC: Are you the world’s foremost cell phone player?
BKM: [Laughs.] I don’t know how to use a cell phone. I don’t know how to use any of this new technology. We’ll see if it becomes a trend.