The Lows and Highs of Touring with The Low Anthem
I’d been a fan of The Low Anthem for many years and was, on the one hand, very excited by the idea of supporting them for a 10-day tour of the northeast. But the practical, road-hardened part of me, on the other hand, was a little wary, even before I’d heard eyeland, The Low Anthem’s first album in five years. The money wasn’t good, and the shows were in tertiary markets, at venues I’d mostly never heard of. But River Whyless, the band for which I play drums, was about to release an album, and The Low Anthem was, all opinions aside, still a big name. If nothing else, supporting them would provide us with some good press. There was always the press to consider.
The first show was in Pawling, New York, at a venue called Daryl’s House. The room was less than half full, and by the time The Low Anthem finished their set, it was almost totally empty. I had, by then, already listened to eyeland, and without knowing what to make of it, hoped the live show would help clarify what it was The Low Anthem was trying to convey and/or accomplish. But it didn’t. In the span of less than an hour I was touched by a number of emotions, but most of them were clouded or overshadowed by doubt and discomfort.
Ben Knox Miller, the band’s lead singer, still utilized the dreamy falsetto that had, by way of 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, made The Low Anthem famous; but backing his voice, sometimes swallowing it, were droning, avant-garde instrumentals and apocalyptic outbursts of pure noise. There were moments of awkward silence, other times in which the band seemed to be playing two different songs at once. I understood the discomfort to be deliberate, that amidst the rambling ambience, the ear-splitting cacophony, and the awkwardness, there was an underlying self-awareness, a perceptible commitment to upsetting expectations, which I respected but only to a point. What I doubted was whether the album, and moreover the show, had any real power beyond its abstract and abrasive strangeness.
Standing beside me was Natale, a videographer who was traveling with The Low Anthem for the duration of the tour. We’d met earlier, while the band was in sound check, and I remember the conversation going something like this:
“I’m making a film in order to tell their story,” she’d said. “It’s a story that deserves to be documented. Do you know the story?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “I know eyeland took five years to make — that the band lost a couple members in the process, as well as their label.”
“The label lost The Low Anthem,” she said. “Or. How should I say? The band and the label parted ways. It was mutual. The label wanted them to make another Charlie Darwin. But Ben and Jeff — they’re the founding members — refused.”
“What about Smart Flesh?” I asked. Smart Flesh, released in 2011, was the follow-up to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. The album was reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, The Guardian — mostly glowingly, but not totally. And though it didn’t yield a single as propulsive as “Charlie Darwin,” it was a hauntingly good album.
“They got tired of being human jukeboxes,” Natale said. “Making another folk record isn’t true to where they are now, artistically. It isn’t real. So the label let them go and they let go of the label. It was mutual. eyeland took five years to make, and the band’s vision was difficult for some people to understand, but it was worth it. It’s beautiful. They played their big release show in Providence last night and it was amazing. I cried about five times.”
“How long have you been making films?”
“This is my first,” she said. “I’m not actually a filmmaker. But the band wanted someone to document the tour, and I’d just quit my job, so yeah, here I am.”
I nodded, feeling skeptical without knowing exactly why, other than that it seemed almost as if she didn’t know the “story” as well as she thought she did. Or that there were things she was withholding.
After the show, as we were packing up, I encountered Ben. He didn’t exactly introduce himself. Rather, he came near to where I was standing in order to pour some red wine from one glass into another, spilling most of it on the table in the process. He saw me watching and smiled, continued pouring, spilled more, smiled again, and walked away.
The following night, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I watched the set from the balcony of the Iron Horse. The room was nearly full and both the lighting and the sound were better, and in this context everything about the set that had been cause for doubt and discomfort the night before seemed now intensely appropriate. I sank into their atmosphere, landing finally in a pit of inner ecstasy that yielded, as I continued to listen, to an acute but beautiful sadness. The noise, the awkwardness, the apparent self-indulgence: it all struck me now as breathtakingly honest. Then, as if on cue, they played “Charlie Darwin.” Before beginning, Ben said, deadpan: “Now we’re going to play the song. Only I’m omitting all the consonants.”
They performed the song with a bitter conviction that revealed nothing new regarding the song itself, but a lot about Ben’s present attitude toward it, exposing somehow his complex and contradictory feelings about all the things their “hit” had created and destroyed. The following song, from eyeland, was “Dream Killer,” and by the time it was over I was nearly in tears.
Afterward, I approached Ben outside the venue and told him how much the show had affected me. He nodded, smoke from his hand-rolled cigarette jetting like white horns from his nose. He asked, “River Whyless has new album coming out soon, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “At the end of August.”
“Independently? Or with a label?”
“With a label. Our first. We just signed.”
“What’s the label?”
“Roll Call Records. A relatively small operation, out of L.A.”
“Small is okay if they’re scrappy. Are they scrappy?”
“I’d say so. They’ve been working pretty hard in regard to press and whatnot.”
“Yes,” he said. “Press is important.”
Ben was thin, clean-shaven, his hair just long enough to tuck behind his ears. He was wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before: tight black jeans and a long red cardigan that looked almost like a cape, and under that a thin, translucent T-shirt.
“Is it true about the label? That the parting was mutual?”
Ben glanced at Natale, who was nearby, conducting an interview with a fan that’d just seen the show.
“What you see,” he said, stomping out his cigarette, “is seldom what you get.”
When I contacted Ben for a comment on this story, his response, not surprisingly, was that he had no comment.