“We drive sound engineers absolutely crazy,” laughs Jeff Prystowsky. Prystowsky is one of the three multi-instrumentalists who comprise Providence, R.I., neo-folk group the Low Anthem, and the emphasis in that description falls on “multi.”
“It’s just the three of us,” says Prystowsky. “But we each play three to four different instruments during a live show. We have these five different stations set up [on stage], so we switch around on them during the set. Drums, organ, electric and upright bass, acoustic and electric guitar, clarinet … we just move around and play them all. [Sound engineers] think we’re a trio, then we show up with all these instruments, we’ve gotta hook up all these channels, and we insist on playing all the acoustic instruments without pickups right into a mic. It’s just kind of a nightmare for them, but, probably more than most bands, we kind of obsess about the tone and blend of our instruments live.”
Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller founded the Low Anthem as a duo. The two met while attending Brown University and self-released their first album, What the Crow Brings, in 2006 and 2007. The addition of Jocie Adams in 2007 coincided with extended touring throughout the Northeast and the recording of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin in 2008; that album was also self-released, but by that point, several successful New York shows had garnered the attention of Nonesuch Records, and the label remastered and reissued OMGCD earlier this year.
“We weren’t really interested in signing a record deal,” says Prystowsky. “We were making a living at that point playing live shows and selling our record at the shows, so we didn’t really see the point. But when Nonesuch came along, it was a whole different story. We’ve always had such respect for the label, for the artist roster and for what the label stands for; they offered us a credible record deal – it wasn’t a 360 deal or any of the crazy things that bands are signing these days – so it was really a stroke of luck.”
The national release of OMGCD has increased the band’s profile considerably, leading to well-received festival performances at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and the Newport Folk Festival. But the organic pastoralism of a Low Anthem live performance is something altogether different than the atmospheric and enveloping sounds the band creates on their albums. Ultimately, these two facets of the band’s personality – heartfelt, contemporary indie-folk and expansive and ethereal dreampop – may appeal to drastically different audiences, but the warm experimentalism of the Low Anthem’s take on what folk music means is charting an interesting course.
“We have different arrangements of our songs designed for what we can play onstage with just three people, and what instruments will fit in the tour van,” laughs Prystowsky. “We really think of [the live show and the recordings] as two different art forms; we just have different ideas about what works best in each environment.
“Our hero in the studio is Tom Waits; he achieves this kind of blend where you hear organic sounds but it’s modern production. It’s not like an old Woody Guthrie record or something like that.”