Beyond the pop
Low Anthem rises high but remains grounded
Friday, October 21, 2011 -
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Jed Gottlieb writes about music, film and pop culture for local, regional and national publications.
A fat chunk of modern pop music resembles fast food. It may be tasty to the ears, but it’s mass produced without creativity and leaves you hungry for something real.
The Low Anthem is something real.
The Providence band — which plays and films a live DVD tonight at the Somerville Theatre — performs its strange and sublime folk rock on antique pipe organs, rusty singing saws, battered guitars and other odd instruments. It has recorded albums in a house heated by wood stove in January on Block Island and at ex-Providence mayor Buddy Cianci’s long-shuttered pasta sauce factory.
But as the Low Anthem transitions from local favorites to a global touring sensation, the band is determined to never serve fans a Big Mac.
“We know we have to face the reality we’re in,” singer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Knox Miller said. “We know we can’t hand-make our CDs anymore. But we can still try to do things differently, to never repeat ourselves.”
In 2008, when a Low Anthem gig attracted 60 people at Cambridge’s Toad, the band spent a month hand-painting 7,000 CD covers — a personal touch impossible to keep up with now that the band is playing to 100,000 fans a year.
“We have more than 40 songs for two albums, but they will be more than albums,” Miller said. “They’ll be a story, a picture book and a set of sculptures. It’s going to be a full multimedia project.”
The planned 16 sculptures are based on a piece Miller saw at the Burning Man festival. His hope is that strobe lights and spinning pieces will make the installation look like a primitive stop-motion animation film.
So far Miller only has blueprints, but he hopes to eventually bring the piece on tour. Actually, he hopes the piece gives the Low Anthem a reason to tour again. After spending the better part of three years on the road playing from Golden Gate Park to Oslo, Norway to Mass MoCA, the band struggles to keep its live show fresh.
“When we began, we were petrified of our audience,” Miller said. “Just now have we started to open our eyes and look around. We’ve gotten comfortable interacting with our audience, and all the smoke and mirrors disappeared. We want to rebuild some smoke and mirrors, maybe literally with this installation.”
The band may not play a single show in 2012 after wrapping up a tour of Canada in February — another unique quirk, the Low Anthem jumped at the chance to play Edmonton, Saskatoon and Quebec City in the dead of winter. The group may never tour again, although Miller says that’s unlikely.
“The goal is to spend the year on all-new projects,” Miller said. “If these projects go smoothly, we might be out on the road next year.”
Then Miller laughed.
“If we run into the problems ... well, who knows what will happen?” he added. “I know I just need to get back to working with my hands, back to building something.”
The Low Anthem, at the Somerville Theatre, tonight. Tickets: $19; ticketmaster.com.