Providence, R.I.’s historic Columbus Theatre sits in what appears to be something of a broken-in, if not slightly rough-and-tumble, part of town, though telltale signs of gentrification are there if you look closely. Built in the 1920s, its white brick facade showing traces of the art deco vibe that was just starting to catch on during that era, the Theatre has housed generations of vaudeville and silent films, movies, plays and concerts before arriving at its current state as a newly revived music venue.
It’s here that The Low Anthem has taken up residence, moving in just over a year ago to an upstairs area that once held offices and dressing rooms, converting them into a studio and practice space.
In a side door and up a long cement stairway, their space is a mesh of old and new, a gypsy caravan interior full of New Age and pop culture references with cedar, incense and mildew-tinged air hanging lighter than you would expect for such an old building. At the top of the stairs, singer/guitarist Ben Knox Miller is seated alone in a rug-adorned, candle-lit room, singing gently into a small array of microphones, which transmit to an amp halfway down the stairs, where the sound is captured by a mic for recording.
Several doors further down the hall is the control room, itself lit by a bare contractor’s light and the glow of assorted pieces of equipment, in which bandmate Jeff Prystowsky and friend Noah Chevalier are watching a monitor and occasionally turning knobs on the board.
The track in progress is soft, calling to mind a modernized Nick Drake. It appears to build upon the sound of their last album, 2011’s Smart Flesh, perhaps a bit more upbeat. After a couple more takes, Knox Miller comes into the room to listen, and Paste caught the three of them for a brief Q&A.
Paste: Let’s cut right to it. When is the new album coming out?
Ben Knox Miller: We’ve almost finished recording it and probably have two weeks of mixing to do. We’re also not sure if it’s going to come out as an album or as a series of EPs—we’ve recorded a few hours’ worth of stuff, so we have to decide if a lot of it is fluff and can be trimmed away, or if a lot of it is stuff to keep and we need to find a longer format to release it on, thus the EPs.
Paste: Is there a theme to the new album?
Knox Miller: Yeah, there is. It’s like a kidnapping mystery, a mystery album. Psychedelic noir of sorts. Which has a lot of children’s story qualities in parts… I don’t want to bore you with the whole concept or give too much away, but it’s about a girl who gets hooked up to a machine that controls her mind, and the music gets to warp and change with her brain states.
Paste: Do you have an artist illustrating it as well?
Knox Miller: We do. Her name’s Melissa Meyer. The style of her drawings is nostalgic and lush and far away, but also there’s this weird ominous sense that everything in the drawing has eyes and it just seemed like a perfect fit for this sort of twisted children’s story.
Paste: From looking around this space, you can tell you have something of a unique recording set-up, with mics set up in different rooms playing through amps in other ones. Why is that?
Knox Miller: The reason this all came to be [gestures around] is because we had this stuff for our last record, which was recorded in a wide-open building. When our lease ran out there, we were looking for a place to bring it. Jeff found this place, so we just threw all that stuff in here in whatever way it was laid out. So much of the recording is room-sound specific . Right now the truck sound that you hear in the recording is from a mic down the hallway that’s picking up a re-amped vocal using that hallway space and cement stairwell as a reverb. There’s other reverb options in the basement, there’s others in the theater itself, wherever you set up, you’re sending snakes out into the building and you get all these site-specific reverbs.
Paste: So you have the building mapped for sound?
Jeff Prystowsky: Yeah, we’ve been working in here like crazy, on producing and recording other people’s records too; we’re trying to figure out every inch of it.
Paste: So I’ve seen pics online of you out in the field, recording random sounds. What’s that about? Is it for the new album?
Prystowsky: Actually, yeah. I was recording birds at the zoo at the aviary, and then also recorded my buddy’s skate ramp. We recorded fireworks on the Fourth of July; there’s a helicopter also.
Noah Chevalier: There’s a John Cage saying, “all noise is music,” so it’s providing texture but also goes with the story.
Paste: How is the process different for this album?
Knox Miller: There’s some tracks on here that are entirely epic, like 26 instruments all frenetically piled on top of each other, and there’s others that are sparse. We knew we wanted to do something that was going to take a long time, and something very particular to the engineering. We were looking at this building and how to use it, figuring out the different sound options that it had. It’s a different kind of album, it’s a different approach, overdubbing, shaping, developing, a different kind of relating to the work over weeks and coming back to it. There’s songs that have eaten themselves.. Like the first three instruments that were laid down are now used panned hard left with a tiny little bandwidth of frequency coming through, and then there’s other songs that have been recorded onto it almost like strata of times we’ve come to it. [laughs] We’re not sure how much of it we’re going to release and how much of it is experiments that have gone wrong. Here at the Columbus It feels more like having our own working studio, whereas the last couple [albums] have been like, “you have this amount of time in this place.”
Paste: Do you think you may have gone a little overboard with some of it?
Knox Miller: Yeah, definitely! It’s the problem with having too much time, but it’s not really a problem because we enjoy being here so much. We’re enjoying taking time off the road and having all these projects going on.
Paste: When do you think you’ll tour again?
Knox Miller: When we figure out how and when the record comes out. We’ve decided to stop touring until then. We wanted to go out with a new concept, so we’ve been avoiding taking little things here and there; we’re trying to reset. The tour that we’re thinking about doing, we’re thinking about doing more of an installation-style tour, playing in a circle probably in open spaces. We have our false idol of the Moth Machine as well; it’s gonna be a little Stonehenge-y.
Catch the Low Anthem this summer at the Newport Folk Festival, where they are curating a special all-local homegrown musician set.