Most artists would err on the side of caution when combining esoteric musical theatrics and understated conceptual artistry on record. Although acute flamboyance is often duly expected when teetering in the realms of falsetto-augmented folk, an impression of pretentiousness can sometimes overshadow an exhibition of self-affirmed kookiness. With many suitors to such a fold, Rhode Island four-piece THE LOW ANTHEM have steered clear of this deathly pitfall.
They’re the quintessential indie band (whatever the term ‘indie’ connotes these days): innovative recording techniques, autonomous creativity on record, a vast birth of instruments at their disposal and a yearning heart full of downcast reflections. After initially struggling to obtain notoriety, they floated just under the radar until 2009, which was heralded as their breakthrough year. Then came a long awaited commercial ascendancy, a major record label deal, two critically acclaimed albums, The Late Show with David Letterman (wow) and a relentless schedule of tours and festivals. Now three years have miraculously flown by since their last creative output Smart Flesh and singer-songwriter Ben Knox Miller feels it’s time to take a step back from the fray in order to find some artistic enlightenment and somehow make sense of it all.
“The important thing for us is we don’t want to go back to the same place with the same ideas. You know, for a while touring was like this gift from heaven; we’d been playing locally trying to book whatever shows we could. Then when Oh My God, Charlie Darwin got signed, we started to have opportunities to tour; we got all these offers and it just seemed like you couldn’t really say no to anything, everything was new and it felt like… How could you say no? Why would you be so foolish? Then you go back round a second time, then a third time, and it’s just still with the same material. We just don’t want to get to the point where we feel like we we’re repeating ourselves.”
Ben adamantly expresses that it’s not their live shows that are in need of a rebuff, it’s just their musical vision that’s hankering for a new direction. Untouched material patiently lurks below the surface, longing to break free; meanwhile, tour commitments preoccupy his mind:
“We never had a problem keeping things fresh; our live shows are pretty emotional and our band is pretty good at accessing that and keeping things alive. I’m not saying our shows didn’t feel fresh to us, it’s more just from an artistic perspective, wanting to have a new idea or conceptual orientation to focus on. If I’m going to be totally honest with you, we really just want to be at home! We’ve got a new recording studio set up and we’ve recorded eight tracks for a new record that we’re working on. We’ve got this huge project in front of us so everyone’s mind is in the studio; it was a bit of cold water to be ripped out of that and thrown back into a tour van.”
The Low Anthem have built up an ostentatiously morose soundscape of heavy-hearted narratives, at times even touching on gospel. Not surprisingly, Ben has ambitions to embrace new ideas and concepts for their next record, in a departure from their familiar comfort zone: “I think the record that we’re working on is relatively theatrical; the last couple of records that we put out have been pretty natural, a bit reserved, and have really just been more of a direct effort to put the songs across. I think we kind of came to the end of that road as a creative way forward; we tried to use all these different instruments, different textures, but within an organic scheme. You get to a certain point where you just have too many choices and it’s not productive anymore. With this record, I think we’re using a lot more creative experiments, more visuals; it’s a lot more theatrical and a lot more indulgent and silly. The idea is built around a surrealist landscape at the end of a dream, waking out of a dream even; it’s got a pretty elaborate storyline. We’re not sure if it’s going to be a concept record or if that’s just a jumping-off point, but the songs will end up taking their own direction.”
Similar to their unorthodox concepts, they have also adopted a unique and avant-garde approach to music production. Having recorded their last album in an old abandoned pasta sauce factory in Providence, they’ve decided to continue with this freewheeling mandate by constructing another make-shift chamber of creativity in which to record their next album.
“For this record we’re recording in a porn theatre, yeah… It was an opera house, originally, in the 20s and then it changed to a XXX movie house for the last 30 years. It went out of business for some reason, maybe because of the internet, you know. They’re doing renovations and trying to get to back open but in the meanwhile we’ve been able to set up our portable rigs inside there; it’s got the most gorgeous sound of any building I’ve ever been inside. It’s caked in a certain something… a kind of grime that actually turns out to be a nice environment to work in.”
The unyielding shackles of an uncompromising touring programme have seldom afforded The Low Anthem the precious downtime required to attend to their creative and artistic inclinations. You can essentially detect the languid unfulfillment in Ben’s tone: he just wants to make music and he wants to make it now. Maybe a lengthy and well-deserved respite from the tour bus is just what’s required. With an indefinite hiatus already announced to follow their imminent rounds of the UK, the impetus is firmly planted on writing new material. This month’s Liverpool show, therefore, is certainly one not to be missed.