The Low Anthem: Rounding The Bases

By: Mike Bookey

The Low Anthem
Jeff Prystowsky is on his way to the airport to catch a flight to Dublin, but it’s not his band, The Low Anthem, or that band’s month-long tour of Europe that he’s talking about. The multi-instrumentalist is discussing baseball. And he knows a thing or two about the game.

Before founding The Low Anthem while a student at Brown University, Prystowsky played baseball along with the band’s other founder, Ben Knox Miller. Also, Prystowsky is a legitimate baseball scholar and taught baseball history at the high school level. He’s still very much a student of the game, watching as much as he can while on the road and monitoring his fantasy team. After discussing the fact that Miller is an unapologetic Baltimore Orioles fan, Prystowsky offers a correlation to the position of his band and the life of a professional baseball player.

“What we’re doing is similar to what minor league baseball players go through: trying to make the big leagues, travelling around, playing for scouts, trying to get their average up, hitting for power, working on their base running,” says Prystowsky before slowly trailing off. It’s plain to see that he’s thought about this analogy before, but it’s also clear that he’s continually realizing the connection.

If The Low Anthem was a ball player, it probably wouldn’t be a minor leaguer. It’s more a rookie pitcher who’s been called up toward the end of the season and catches the attention of everyone from opposing hitters, scouts and sportswriters right before the playoffs roll around. The music world has come to know The Low Anthem recently and there seems to be a great deal of curiosity about the band and its album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.

It’s been a year in which they’ve gone from a band with so much buzz surrounding it as to be dubbed the best unsigned band in America from Rolling Stone to taking the stage at high-profile music festivals. The trio has become a rock & roll powerhouse on the touring scene, despite the fact that they are not, and probably never will be, an actual rock band. The Low Anthem, rather, is a folk collective comprised of 25-year-old Ivy League grads that seem to care little about the aforementioned buzz but care a whole hell of a lot about making good music.

The Low Anthem
Since graduating from Providence, R.I.’s Brown University three years ago, The Low Anthem has lived on the road, putting together two records, 2007’s What the Crow Brings and Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which was actually recorded in January of 2008 but gained national and international acclaim this summer when it was re-released on Nonesuch Records.

The band was the product of Miller and Prystowsky’s friendship (and the two’s mutual love for baseball, of course) and initially included another friend, Dan Lefkowitz, a founding member who left the band to live in a yurt in rural Arkansas, where he’s been, according to Prystowsky, blacksmithing and making wooden spoons, among other things. The band recently announced that Lefkowitz was joining the band for its current European tour and may contribute to the band’s next record.

Rounding out the lineup is Jocie Adams, who can play a clarinet like nobody’s business but shifts to any number of other instruments when needed. She’s a science major who spent a stint as a NASA researcher before coming on board full time with The Low Anthem. Prystowsky seems grateful of her decision to join the band.

“She was a friend of ours from the music department and knew the band pretty well. She graduated and was thinking about what to do and we put out an offer and she took it and she’s been playing with us for a few years now,” he says.

The Low Anthem
On Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem rolls out a scattered array of choral tunes, raucous folk rockers, and solid Americana ballads that somehow fit well together. The throwback vibe of The Low Anthem rings loud, but Prystowsky insists that his band isn’t a folk revival act. “We’re not revivalists! We’re writing our own songs” he says, “we’re just using older instruments.” And he’s right about this. The band does, in fact, write masterful songs, many of which are quintessentially modern, it just so happens that the trio of multi-instrumentalists has a hankering for old gear and the old-timey sounds that come along with them.

“We play instruments that might even be relics or museum instruments now, but we’re bringing them back slowly. Who knows what we’ll do next. Maybe we’ll ride out onstage in a wagon with horses or make music with butter churners and things of that sort,” says Prystowsky, laughing his way through that last sentence.

Funny thing, though, give a listen to Charlie Darwin and there are a couple occasions during which you just might think about horses or wagons or both, but you’ll probably, or at least you should, forget about this when you remember that these musicians were born in the mid-1980s. Not to hang up on their age, but the musical sensibilities of Prystowsky, Miller, and Adams are beyond what we’ve come to expect out of most young bands. The song “Charlie Darwin,” which kicks off the album, is a delightfully haunting number that relishes in its own simplicity, reminding us that there are still good songs being made. There are several videos of the three singing this cut that will make your scalp tingle. The track is also reprised at the end of the album, and that, too, might produce the same effect.

Continue reading for more on The Low Anthem…

What we’re doing is similar to what minor league baseball players go through: trying to make the big leagues, travelling around, playing for scouts, trying to get their average up, hitting for power, working on their base running.

Jeff Prystowsky

The Low Anthem isn’t really a rock band, but they can and do rock. “The Horizon is a Beltway” is a surging, almost-punk romp that brings to mind the sound of Low Anthem friend Langhorne Slim or perhaps The Avett Brothers. When they choose to rock, they do it masterfully with the power of Miller’s voice shifting from sailboat to steamroller. The band is versatile yet thematic on their albums and engaging onstage. Yes, the band loves folk but their show is hardly a sit-down affair.

The Low Anthem
Prystowsky rattles off a few of the band’s influences, and also a list of the music they’ve been listening to on tour and, not surprisingly, the list doesn’t include many buzz indie rock bands. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen top the list, joined soon after by Joe Pug, the Chicago folkie that opened shows for The Low Anthem this spring.

“[Dylan and Cohen] are the guys we’ve been listening to a bunch right now. I thought I was really on top of things a few months ago and we come back and our manager is talking about all these new bands and I’d never heard of them,” says Prystowsky.

This unawareness of the “next big thing” doesn’t seem to result from arrogance, it’s just that Prystowsky and company are students of their craft and are continually studying, without getting distracted by buzz bands. Maybe that’s the sort of intellectual curiosity a musician gleans from an Ivy League education, who knows. But it’s also worth noting that these guys and gal have been busy this year. They went from a much-talked-about unsigned act that hit some big festival stages and opened for the likes of Ray LaMontagne to one with a wide-released album that will almost certainly end up on some “Best of 2009” lists come year’s end.

“We were trying to tour and make a living, and to make a living you have to be able to play however many shows and draw enough people and sell enough merchandise that you can go home and pay your rent. We weren’t really interested in a label because at the time we were making enough money,” says Prystowsky of the band’s time as a happily unsigned act.

The Low Anthem
Nonesuch Records has allowed for Charlie Darwin to reach the masses, but doesn’t seem to have hampered the band’s autonomy. The Low Anthem is preparing to record its next album this winter and think they just might do it in Amsterdam, a city they’ve visited with their tours and have fallen increasingly in love with. The out-of-the-way location is nothing new for the band – they recorded Charlie Darwin in a cabin on Block Island, RI. They might produce the new effort themselves, Prystowsky says, or they might bring on some help. They might include some friends they’ve met on the road to play on the album, and they might just try to tie the new record to the themes in Charlie Darwin.

“We’re not planning to make an electronica record completely out of left field. It will be relevant,” says Prystowsky, laughing again.

The world seems to be The Low Anthem’s oyster, if you’ll pardon the cliché. But such is the life of a rookie ace. (Side note: The Low Anthem wouldn’t be a flamethrower, but rather a Jamie Moyer-style finesse pitcher, or maybe a knuckleballer — effective, fundamentally sound, but not flashy.) The league is chatting about you and all you can do is do things the way you know how, and in the case of The Low Anthem, it’s make folk music.

Prystowsky doesn’t go too crazy on the baseball analogy, but defends he and Miller’s love for the game – a love that bandmate Adams, and likely some reading this, might not fully understand.

“No, it makes total sense,” Prystowsky says. “We’re a couple of American boys and we grew up with it and we played it all through our lives.”

The Low Anthem is on tour now; dates available here.

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