The Low Anthem
Opening for City and Colour Feb. 6 Pabst Theater
Lots of bands go into making new albums wanting to capture the sound of their live performances. The Low Anthem wanted to capture how the band sounds playing live in a certain kind of room.
Bassist/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Prystowsky says that between the band’s two most recent albums, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and Smart Flesh, “we had played something like 100 shows. And through the process of playing all of these shows, we realized that certain larger rooms, larger theaters and churches, had a really unique and beautiful sound, a particular kind of reverb.”
Inspired by that sound, the band began a search for a room like that in Providence—their Rhode Island home base— that it could use as a studio, “a room that
could really color the recording.” The band found just the kind of space it was looking for in a former pasta-sauce factory that had been abandoned for years. They fell in love with it immediately.
“It’s about 20,000 square feet, 13-foot windows all around, beautiful sunlight coming in,” Prystowsky says. “And it’s wood floors, high ceilings—and the sound: It just has a beautiful three-second decaying reverb. It’s a really huge sound, cavernous sounding, where if you’re in one side of the room and you sing or play an instrument, it’s going to take a few seconds for that sound to get back to you.”
But the baroque folk-rock band also found that the factory came with unique challenges.
One such issue was temperature, since recording for Smart Flesh took place in December 2009/January 2010. It was nearly as cold in the factory as it was outside, making it difficult to keep instruments in tune.
“One of our friends called it a ‘chops buster’ because he couldn’t play his chops, he couldn’t play his licks on his instrument,” Prystowsky says. “He really had to kind of slow down and just play more simply. … Also it became a challenge to keep the instruments from breaking, older instruments from cracking in the cold.”
It’s no surprise, then, that The Low Anthem gravitated toward slower, spacious songs at the factory.
And, of course, the band also wanted to use the factory’s unique sonic qualities to shape and enrich the actual sound of the songs. They used a variety of miking techniques and experimented with various volume levels to accomplish these goals.
Ironically, when the band and their label, Nonesuch, heard the finished record, they realized that the pasta factory turned out to be too much of a good thing.
“We listened to it on the road, and we all agreed that after about song six, the sound of the factory, it was no longer unique,” Prystowsky says. “You get used to it. And through your ear getting accustomed to that sound, you kind of stop hearing it, and instead it just kind of sounds slow.”
The band decided to do a second recording session in a very different scene, setting up in a garage in Providence. The smaller space did just what the band wanted, and three songs from that session made it into the final track sequence of the 11-song album.
Smart Flesh indeed has a sense of place and space.
The sound of the factory space comes across on songs like “Golden Cattle” and “Ghost Woman Blues,” on which the piano carries an eerie echo and the vocal harmonies (another long-running Low Anthem trademark) have a lovely ringing texture. The title track gets an especially intimate feel, as the instruments sit well behind the vocal in the mix.
Given the sonic qualities that the pastasauce factory brought to Smart Flesh, it’s no surprise that Prystowsky says the songs take on a different life in concert. “It’s really our job to bring these songs to life every night, depending on the venue,” he says. “So we’re not trying to re-create the sound of the pastasauce factory. We’re just trying to react night to night to the sound of the room that we’re playing in, and to make that room sing.”
The Low Anthem plays the Pabst Theater on Monday, Feb. 6, opening for City and Colour. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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