The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller talks about touring with the Avett Brothers and growing up in Providence

Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, the Low Anthem have an undeniable pride for local music culture and their small-city roots. There is a humbleness surrounding not only their music, but their attitudes towards folk music in general. The Low Anthem's history may be brief, but it's certainly not lacking in experience. 

Their most recent album release, Smart Flesh, was recorded over a five-month stint, squatting in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, freezing and drunk; it's not too surprising that from the wreckage came the most organically evocative album they have ever recorded. 

Gimme Noise spoke with Ben Knox Miller of the Low Anthem prior to their performance at the Varsity this Tuesday night.

What did you learn from touring with the Avett Brothers?

That was a Midwestern tour, and that was some of the biggest shows we've played. Big, exciting times. The thing that struck me about those guys, is that they're really positive. They've been touring for like a decade straight, and you never catch them in an off-moment, or a moment of cynicism. They're so sweet and positive about every show. They're shows are so emotional.

What was the recording process like for Smart Flesh, specifically working in the Pasta Sauce Factory?

We were looking for a big place that we could record with a lot of room sounds, and a buddy of ours was squatting in this giant building as like an unofficial security guard. It was like a factory building that had been vacant for 20 years, an old pasta sauce factory. His job was to look after the building, and make sure that no one broke in and was living there. The worst part of his job was he had to trap and kill cats, because all of these cats would come in to the building and set off the fire alarms. So he had to catch all of these cats. But anyway, we had gone there to some parties, so we knew about this building, and the landlord knew about our band, and he wanted to help us out. So he basically just gave us the key for about five months. So we lived in there, and it was really fun, it was really cold. We ate very badly, and we drank a lot - to stay warm.

Did you have indoor plumbing?

Yeah, but you had to walk all the way to the other side of the building to use the bathroom. Most of the men were peeing off the fire escape, it was on the second floor. It was gross, because there was snow on the ground, so the area below the fire escape was pretty unsightly. Anyway, it was really fun, and it was really hard, but we were very focused. It was also just like these five months that we got to live in this crazy place together, and everyone just got in sync. I don't know if we'd do it again, because it wasn't very comfortable.

Do you think making your music in this type of compound affected your record in any way?

I think it definitely did. I believe that everything is connected, just like the way we were, the environment we were in, the mess that we were in. It was literally like freezing cold, so our fingers were freezing cold, so we could barely play strings - which affected the record, because we couldn't play anything particularly dexterous. Also, because of the natural demands of the building, we couldn't record the really loud, noisy stuff easily. Those were some drawbacks. There were heaters that we had to turn off when we were recording, because they were blowers. So we always said we were going to record during the daytime when there was some natural sunlight heating the building. But that never worked out. We didn't get up till like 4:30 p.m., and that would always repeat itself. So we ended up just recording in like the dead of night, with all the heaters off. We had to break the thermostats so the heaters wouldn't automatically kick-in, so it was usually in the low 40s at night.

How was it working with Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley)?

Mike Mogis, that was the first time that we ever worked with a real engineer in a real studio environment. It was amazing to watch him work. Ya know, a lot of engineers don't have a lot of faith in the music, and they want to use these tricks and to beef it up. This approach which I called the 'Mogis Touch,' with like extremely subtle movements of the different dials. A superhuman sensitivity, in a way that adjusting relative levels can change the psychology of the way you hear the placement of things. Or can change the way the vocals set in front, or the way you hear something. And he would move a fader, and you'd barely see it move. You'd wonder if he actually moved it, or he was just fucking with you. So you'd listen again and again and you'd talk you into believing that it was different. He used a scalpel where some people would use something else. He's an amazing guy, and we definitely had a lot of fun.

By the time we got into it, there were a bunch of producers who were interested in getting in and mixing it. But we knew we wanted someone else to mix it, because you couldn't really do much in that giant building. But those were the records [Saddle Creek] we identified with sonically; we thought this must be the guy that knows how to do it.

How do you think that Providence, Rhode Island affects your music?

There are certain people in Providence that do all kinds of things for the arts, as well as music. It's not a very commercial city, ya know? It's a city of like crack dens, and poverty. But they really have a lot of local arts, a really cool music scene where a lot of things are coming out of there. I think because there isn't much else to do, and the arts are so well appreciated.

Tell me a little about the record.

It's kind of like a kidnapping mystery; it's kind of like silence of the lambs, and very Dr. Suess-y... It's pretty fun and very colorful.

How do you feel about R.E.M. calling it quits?

That happened on the night we were playing in Aspen, and everyone was freaking out about that. It also was happening the night that Troy Davis was executed. So there was just this, everyone was seriously depressed. Ya know, R.E.M. calling it quits, I wasn't even totally aware they were still a touring band. So, I don't know how to feel about when a band that's been around that long, calls it quits. It's like they're setting up for a reunion tour or something.

THE LOW ANTHEM play with Sleepy Sun tonight, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, at the VARSITY THEATER. 18+. $12. 7 p.m.

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