When Jeff Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller of the Low Anthem met as DJs at Brown University, they didn't have much in common, particularly their taste in music.
"Jeff didn't like folk music at all," Miller says. "He was really into jazz. I always loved folk music. That's what I was raised on."
Despite their differences, they bonded right away and started a band called Hi This Is Otis, with electronica drum beats, an upright jazz-fusion bass sound and ambient guitar. (They formed the Low Anthem in 2006.) And they agreed on one important thing: thinking outside the musical box.
"We didn't want to be drums, bass, guitar," Miller says from Providence, R.I., the band's home base. "We wanted to work on finding new textures and sounds, using horns and organs and odd instruments."
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Prystowsky and Miller might have known that they wanted to be different, but they didn't know exactly how. After college, they experimented with jaw harps, musical saws and stylophones. "We were looking for textures and were waiting to hear how the frequencies activated," Miller says.
But it wasn't until fellow Brown graduate and classical clarinetist Jocie Adams came onboard that the band fully realized its sound. "Jocie gave (the band) this new direction," Miller says.
The trio soon became a quartet with Mat Davidson, who plays a number of instruments, including accordion and guitar. To produce its newest release, Smart Flesh, the band recorded in an abandoned 40,000-square-foot building.
"The building was the instrument, and the songs that worked were the ones that respected its speed and its mood and the way that the sound would return," Miller says. "The whole idea was that we were using the space and the resonance and the mike placements to capture the sounds in different stages in an attempt to avoid Pro Tools and fake reverbs and artificial presence. We wanted to make a record that happened in real physical space as opposed to artificial means of producing space."
They worked in various areas of the building to create diverse moods and sounds, recording 35 tracks, only 11 of which ended up on the album.
"Even ones that worked, there are things that didn't work, and the building ate up a lot of the songs, especially the ones that were staccato. The sounds would get lost," Miller says.
The result is an Americana album that sounds as lonely as the abandoned warehouse. The washed-out piano sound on the first track, Ghost Woman Blues, sets the tone, at times reminiscent of the Hollies or the Band yet far more melancholy and haunting.
"With Smart Flesh, we've come to the end of the process we were working on in terms of the way we were constructing our music," Miller says. "I think that we pretty well executed the idea that we've been working on a long time. Probably the next record we'll do, we'll have some different ideas."
Meanwhile, the band has found considerable success. In 2009, it signed to Nonesuch Records, has appeared twice on Late Show With David Letterman, and will embark next month on its seventh international tour. (The closest the band comes to Central Kentucky is Charleston, W.Va., where it plays Mountain Stage at 7 p.m. Sunday.)
But Miller is unfazed. "We're a lot more interested in playing shows than watching record sales. ... We're just playing the music that we personally love."