Jeff Prystowsky of The Low Anthem Talks About Their Latest Album
Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams I Photo Credit: Johanna Neufeld
Most people spend New Years Day wallowing in self pity under the weight of a beastly hangover or trying desperately to piece together the foggy series of events from the previous evening. The three members of The Low Anthem: Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams, and Ben Knox Miller set off to a tiny cabin on Block Island, RI on the first day of 2008 to record an album. The result was Oh My God, Charlie Darwin a folk album released in June of this year, which is chocked full of intelligent lyrics inspired by America's past and present laid gently on top of harmonies that make your heart ache. We caught up with bassist, Jeff Prystowsky, in Seattle as he was waiting for his pancakes this morning to talk about his latest album. Here is some of what was said.The Low Anthem - Charlie Darwin
What made you pick up an instrument? How old were you?
I started playing seriously when I was twelve years old.
How did you know it was serious?
I started needing it in a way. I began to lean on it to get through my days. You can see that happen with musicians. The ones that are truly addicted and can't get away from it. First thing in the morning, right after a cup of coffee you just can't help but start to play. You need it to get through the day.
Did you always play the bass?
Yeah, I started on the electric bass when I was twelve and I played a lot of funk and rock and pop, but then when I was 17 I started playing the upright bass.
What lead to the switch?
I was applying to a lot of conservatories and most music schools wouldn't accept my application with an electric bass. That instrument is pretty new by conservatory standards and they didn't have any teachers that specialized in it. So I thought, "Jeez, maybe upright is the way to go." So I started to play that. In college I wanted to play in the jazz big bands and the conductor of that group was looking for an upright bass player. So I really had to switch gears. I've been playing it for awhile. Especially now that I play folk music, which needs an upright bass. The electric bass for me is a specialty for me.
Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowski I Photo courtesy of the Low Anthem
I read that you used to have a third member Dan Lefkowitz who left the band before Josie joined. Did you try out other band members before Josie?
Dan and I had been playing in bands for eight years in various combination of people. When he left there was a hole because he's a really great songwriter. We still play his song "This God Damn House." Ben and I played as a duo for awhile and then we saw Josie's classical music concert. She was one of the top composing students in our class and we were really impressed by her writing. We didn't even know if she could perform or not, but we wanted her in the band. We knew she was talented and slowly she 's be come a competent performer as well. Her primary instrument is clarinet but now she plays the classical percussion instrument and the electric bass and organ and sings. We're really happy to have her. We're also thinking of adding members as well.
Do you have people in mind?
Yeah, we do. There's this one guy who's another multi-instrumentalist like Josie he plays among other things the saw, the mandolin, and the accordion. And there's a drummer we're hoping to play with. You know there's some drummers who can keep a really good groove, but there are others that can play melodies on the drums, and affect the way you heart the song, not just keep time? He's like that. I think we're going to have a quintet for our next tour. Which will be great because then we can have clarinet trios or three pump organs going at once. Our live songs are going to be just that more raucous.
Where did you record this album?
In this tiny cabin on Block Island, RI over ten days in January of 2008. We went out on New Years Day and we recorded it and then released it in September of 08. We're going back to the studio this winter, which is really exciting because we have a lot of new songs.
And your sick of singing the same songs for two years.
(laughs) Yes, there is that too.
What is your writing process like?
Ben writes all the time. Not all in the same genre either. He writes about everything. I seem to write a lot of country songs for some reason. (laughs) Ben is the primary song writer. He'll come to us with a skeleton of a song, just the lyrics and a melody. And we'll have a room full of instruments and mess around with the arrangement. It's all in the arranging. If you play all of our songs with just an acoustic guitar, we would sound like anyone else. The chemistry comes from us playing together and listen to music together and living together. It's us.
Do you have a song on the album that you're most proud of?
"Ticket taker" continues on the to be a favorite, although we really like playing all of them.
"Ticket Taker" sounds like it was written from experience. Was that a result of a low paying job?
No, no, it's pure fiction. Ben just made it up one day.
Why did you choose "Home I'll Never Be" cover to be on the album?
It's from Tom Waits' second album. The lyrics are lifted directly from Jack Keroac's On The Road which Ben and I both love. I think it's the beginning of Chapter 10. It just seemed like a great American song. It's really an American feeling to want to travel trying to find that something. Which is kind of what we do. We're trying to find those magical moments where we could play a show that's special. It happens one out of ten shows, but it's our mission to make those nights happen.
What was the worst show you ever did?
We once played a show where everyone was talking so loud we couldn't hear ourselves. It got so bad that we stopped playing after two songs. It was really weird, though. We sold a lot of CDs that night. I think they didn't realize there was a band until we stopped playing. Oh hey, our pancakes are ready. I've got to go.
Well, thanks for talking with us.