From recycling trash to barely getting booked at small bars, Rhode Island folk trio The Low Anthem is on a non-stop full-fledged world tour. Multi-instrumentalists Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams combine 27 instruments including a zither, pump organ, Tibetan singing bowl, oil drum, bass, guitar, keys and a cell phone Theremin, among others. Writing bluesy Americana songs about travels and loneliness have instantly launched them into festivals and local shows, stopping at Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo (QRO Festival GuideQRO review) while they continue onto South America. QRO caught a moment with the band to ask a few questions about life on the road:
QRO: Oh My God, Charles Darwin has become a near-to-overnight success. How has the constant touring shaped the band?
Ben Knox Miller: Every city we go to, we try to hit up every music shop, CD shop, and we check out what’s out there; it really changes your approach to music.
Jeff Prystowsky: Playing the songs is one thing, but playing the songs each night, slightly different, keeps us fresh. We perform with each other’s instruments on stage and on the road. Like, the way to stay attentive is to focus on the audience itself, because with every show, there is a feel to it.
QRO: On this extensive tour, do you find yourself getting tired of performing the same songs over again? .
Jocie Adams: The vibe at a show is different from place to place. Lollapalooza was annoying because we were put behind a stage with a loud rock band. We still had our fans but had to compete to with the Lollapalooza crowd.
JP: It’s weird, we’re doing it so often and we’re playing so much music all the time. I bounce off Ben and Jocie.
QRO: You guys have managed to play, though, and still continue to attract a growing following.
JP: You know, you can’t let that bring you down. You got to keep playing because something better will come along.
JA: I like the smaller venues because we’re heard more. People are there to see us.
QRO: Jocie, I hear you began working with NASA?
JA: Well, actually I was an assistant technician for a bit. I was trained performing classical music since I was a kid.
QRO: What are some of the main influences behind the sound?
BKM: We all read a lot of John Steinbeck, kind of obsessed. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, I mean everybody must say that, but the songwriting, like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Ray LaMontagne.
JP: Dylan, arranging Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Jack Kerouac, we listen to all these records, and then the overall sound we could draw from.
QRO: So reading a lot influenced the writing and arrangements.
JP: Absolutely. What you put into yourself is what you give out.
QRO: Three years ago you were barely able to book a bar gig in your hometown, and within one year, being on a non-top tour. How has this burst in attention shaped the band?
JA: Are we really that big?
BKM: I’m the most surprised of anybody, because me and Jeff, when we were a duo, we were booking our asses off trying to get a show. It was just a struggle but we pulled through it. I don’t know what happened, I mean, we recorded a new album and people really responded to it well.
QRO: What are some of the reviews you’re getting from the fans?
JP: To tell you one thing, we knew when were big when we got a call from Bruce Springsteen (QRO live review) telling us he really liked our performance.
QRO: Wow. When the Boss digs your sound, you know it’s good. What could fans expect next?
JP: Nothing of a radical change of extension. Were going to take all the feeling ideas from Oh My God, Charles Darwin, combined with our live sets and the sounds we’ve explored on the road as our next step forward. We’ve done a lot of experimenting, for example: there’s the pump organ on stage, which is a standard piece of our sound. On the next record we plan on exploring a collection of old organs, refurbishing them, working on the tone, interlocking the keys and blending the range of sounds.
QRO: So how did you get to where you are today?
JP: We started by just fooling around, playing all these different instruments. We were playing with a guy Dan Lefkowitz who influenced some of the more bluesy songs but left to further study environmental changes. We met Jocie at Brown University and the three of us found what worked. The different musical styles we’ve experienced just set in. It comes out naturally. I mean, Ben is experienced in strings, I have a background in keys and guitar, and Jocie can play a clarinet like nobody’s business. We shift our instruments from any number when we feel like it. We combined the variety of our interests into our sound. With this, we are always stretching.
QRO: With CD sales declining what have you done to continue the selling of Oh My God, Charles Darwin? What are your thoughts on downloading songs verses buying a CD or record directly?
JP: On the tour, we’ve sold a couple thousand records. Online sales are continuing to grow.
QRO: Low Anthem Bob Dylan cover. Tell us more about that?
JP: When you join our mailing list, you receive our unreleased cover of Bob Dylan’s "Dignity".
QRO: Why this song?
JP: We’ve always been a huge Dylan fan. He’s been a huge influence on the band. Dignity is what we’ve always thrived upon.
QRO: At the shows, the question everyone raves about is a unique instrument you created called a cell phone theremin, how did this come about?
BKM: It was so bizarre how this came up. So I was walking down the street to meet a friend. As were talking I see him coming down the street, we continued talking until we met up. It was kind of a joke. Let’s talk to each other on speaker, next to each other. We heard this crazy feedback, like bouncing off a satellite. I don’t know it was there, was something crazy about that sound. We tweaked around with the theremin and amplified the feedback.
I’ll tell you something else: [leans in] it does work in the U.K. The satellites are different there, ha-ha; other than that, they love us.