Q-and-A: The Low Anthem
The band’s founding members discuss their latest album and the community that came with it.
In the five years it took to produce their latest record, eyeland, Jeff Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller of the Low Anthem had a lot going on. They helped save the Columbus Theatre from a slow ruin. They hosted hundreds of acts on two stages in the historic theater, including big names like Iron and Wine and Brian Blade. They launched a recording studio for the area’s emerging artists. They adopted a studio cat. They lost three band members and gained two others: Florence Wallis, a multi-instrumentalist from the U.K., and Bryan Minto, a mainstay in the Providence music scene.
And in all that time, they never forgot their art. I caught up with Prystowsky and Miller to chat more about eyeland, a textured sonic experiment that’s rooted in the strange, sad reality of innocence lost.
Your new album, eyeland, was recorded at the Columbus. How did you use the space to your advantage?
Jeff Prystowsky: I must have brought my floor tom in every nook and crevice of that theater, from below the main stages to the balconies to the office spaces. There are so many acoustic spaces within the theater.
Ben Knox Miller: There’s a silent movie organ down in the orchestra pit, and we stumbled one day upon the room with all of the instruments — a room of wind-powered instruments up above the mural. Like hundreds and hundreds of wooden pipes and metal pipes and whistles and all of these sound effects for silent movies, like your horse clop or your doorbell ringing. And like the biggest music robot I’ve ever seen. So we started chucking mics up there and recording sounds.
Did you use those instruments on eyeland?
BKM: Yes, little punctuations here and there. We also found a ’50s-era movie PA system, which was this 600-pound base cabinet with a horn tweeter on top. That thing sounded spooky and rich and beautiful.
That’s exactly how I would describe the album. Musicians who record in your studio must be like kids in a candy store.
JP: We built the recording studio and attached 300 feet of cable so wherever a musician wants to set up, we could hook him or her up. Our current studio used to be the kitchen; now it’s a control room. The space is continuously changing and so many artists have felt inspired by it to make something — anything. Art, music. It’s really been amazing to see people become kids again. This place is from the ’20s. You feel like time stops. It’s a beautiful place to work.
I heard a couple of rumors about eyeland’s inspiration: One’s a moth dream, another is an air hockey table fire [song title: "In the Air Hockey Fire"]. Which one is it?
JP: It’s both. In this world, the moth is the being that is dreaming everything. One of the things the moth dreams is of these suburban children. One of them goes through a crisis and ends up burning down his house. The kids are thrust from this innocence to this harsher reality of paranoia and suspicion. Some of this actually happened to Ben.
Ben, did you start a fire on an air hockey table?
BKM: It wasn’t I.
JP: Still, to this day, he denies it! No, just kidding.
BKM: I was nine or ten, I think. My best friend was this savant child filmmaker, messing around with his dad’s VHS camera. In this particular case, he was trying to make the effect of seaweed waving, so he fed a bunch of string through the holes in the table. The string got caught in the motor, which was left on overnight. Eventually it overheated and burned the house down.
JP: Everyone escaped in the night.
Well that’s terrible.
BKM: Yeah. It would be a pretty specific song to make up, not based on reality.
The album is a Russian nesting doll, then: an air hockey fire inside of a moth’s dream. Got it.
JP: This is the kind of fantastical world we were living in so we would think, "Oh, what’s a sound that could happen in this world?" And as we were building the recording studio and collecting instruments over the years, we were able to find sounds that could exist in this moth dream. It was casting a wide net and it really allowed us to experiment.
BKM: After a certain amount of time, we didn’t have any precious feelings about the work. We’d also come to appreciate that there’s as much evocative quality in a lot of commonplace sounds. Music has the ability to be expressive and emotive but so does hearing a flock of birds or the squealing of a bus on the street.
JP: We were in this side room and we asked, “What would be good here? Why don’t we just turn the shower on?” We grabbed the mic, turned on the water and recorded it. Or, “Do you know what would be good here? The sound of a bird! Let’s take a field mic to the zoo!” All sounds were considered.
The eyeland cover art is so ethereal. How did it come together?
BKM: The album’s not about [the Columbus Theatre], but it was formed and developed here in the context of living and working in the trappings of theater from another era. There it was, every day. That shot is set up on the main stage, and we were looking for an installation artist who could create a world that is sentient: Everything is vibrant, everything is equal, be it plant, human, rock, raccoon. We found Meredith Younger’s work, and we brought her in as the main designer. Michael Dates did the makeup. We also had our friend, Peter Glantz, as creative director. We’re working with him on a music video for the “Air Hockey Fire” song. Cat Laine did the photography.
Sounds like you had a Providence super-group working on this.
BKM: We built those props, that whole world, from scratch. There are a couple of little Photoshop tweaks, but for the most part, what you see is what we built. In the cover shot, there’s a fifth person onstage that you don’t see. It’s Meredith; she’s standing behind Jeff in his flowing gown and she’s feeding sand into a tube that’s running down his back and down his arm, so it looks like the hourglass is spilling out sand.
JP: Yeah, that wasn’t a Photoshop trick. I had to stand there for two hours and not move because my hair was nailed into the floor.
I’ve heard you’re in talks with Trinity Repertory Company to take eyeland to their stage, too.
BKM: We’re doing that classic thing of you get to the ending and you’re like, @#%&. We would be building a full-scale sound installation that is then performed inside a story…sometime in 2017.
In the meantime, you’re running the Columbus.
JP: We’ve done hundreds of shows.
BKM: There have been a lot of distractions. We’ve been building the recording studio, too. It’s an ongoing process.
Do you think running the theater distracted you from your art?
JP: If we had decided, yeah, let’s just record our record and get out of here, and the Columbus was still closed today, what wouldn’t have happened? For instance, when our friend, Dave Lamb from Brown Bird, passed away from cancer, we were able to have his celebration concert at the theater, which is a night I don’t think anyone will forget. These are things we do that are out of the realm of a strict theater venue that’s profit and loss and that’s it. We’re able to do things for our friends.
Did you set out to establish this community for music lovers?
JP: I think we saw the possibility. I still love the story of the beginning. I was just having pizza at that pizza place across the street five years ago, looking at this empty building with “Opening Soon” on the marquee, wondering what’s inside. I feel like, in a sense, we’ve seen a lot of things grow. Ben has a lot of plants.
BKM: I have over 200 plants growing in the theater.
JP: We’ve seen bands make music, record and release music, we’ve seen the community grow. It’s a center for life or something, I don’t know.
BKM: It takes us four years to do what we can do for others in four days in the studio.
But you have the shower and the bird and the roomful of silent movie instruments…
BKM: I think that means 364 out of 365 of our decisions are wrong. But having experimented on ourselves, we can bring that wisdom to others.
Does the record sound different than it did in the beginning?
JP: The songs are the same, but the arrangements are very different.
BKM: Jeff spent four or five days putting the tapes on upside down and listening to them backwards and trying them at different tempos. The record was already done and he still reinvented quite a few of the songs.
JP: With “Her Little Cosmos,” we ended up taking little bits of this song that I had put aside, but backwards it was pretty cool. So we threw it in backwards for like ten seconds. So when you say you know something backwards and forwards, that’s what this record is.
When’s the record release show?
BKM: The show’s on June 18th, the day after the release.
Who’s opening for you?
BKM: Hott Boyz, and a band called Food Court. They’re my newest favorite band in town. They’re really fun. And we have a silent movie organist between sets, Jacob Wolf.
You’re going on tour. What’s happening with the theater when you’re gone?
BKM: It sort of runs itself at this point. Tom [Weyman, of the Columbus Cooperative] will continue to book shows and we’ll enlist our friends to sub for us in various capacities. We’ve got two weeks in the states and a short trip to the U.K. on the books, but we’ve also got a two-month tour coming up in the U.K. and Europe.
JP: We’re not going to disappear. I mean we can’t, now that we have a studio cat.
What’s her name?
JP and BKM: Puddle.
JP: We thought we lost her. One of the bands opened the door to the theater and she got out. Can you imagine a cat in the theater? Like, where would we find her? But Ben found her. Up in the catwalk! Covered in dust. He saved her.
BKM: She loves music. I’m teaching her how to play the piano, I kid you not.
JP: She sits on the piano.
BKM: She is a great piano player because she has total freedom of expression. No preconceived notions about what she’s playing.
She sounds very talented.
BKM: She is going to be a star.
The Low Anthem’s eyeland is available for purchase on June 17 via thelowanthem.com. The record release show is set for the following night, June 18, at the Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, Providence. Buy tickets here.