The Low Anthem: Shimmering Americana On its sophomore album, The Low Anthem offers an inventive and surprising survey of American folk and roots music, featuring everything from Appalachian ballads to full-throated bluesy stomps.

The Low Anthem: Shimmering Americana

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GUY RAZ, host:

Another giant of 19th-century thought, Charles Darwin, is the inspiration for a new record by the Rhode Island band, The Low Anthem.

(Soundbite of song, "Charlie Darwin")

Mr. BEN KNOX MILLER (Member, The Low Anthem): (Singing) Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin?

RAZ: The Low Anthem is a trio of recent college graduates. Their songwriting and their sound is very far away from the indie rock that dominates campus radio stations. This is music steeped in the tradition of American folk and roots.

Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams are The Low Anthem. Their latest album is called "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin," and they're with me in the studio. Welcome to you all.

Mr. BEN KNOX MILLER (Member, The Low Anthem): Hi guys.

Mr. JEFF PRYSTOWSKY (Member, The Low Anthem): Hello.

Ms. JOCIE ADAMS (Member, The Low Anthem): Hello.

RAZ: This album opens with the lines: Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin, fighting for a system built to fail? Ben Knox Miller, tell me about this song. Why Charles Darwin?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I became very interested in the theory of natural selection, was fascinated by using it as a framework to think about other things, like religious institutions and political institutions, academic institutions and the way that thoughts are in competition the same way genes are in competition, and this idea that what survives is what's fit, and we're taught that what survives ought to survive for a moral reason or some sort of absolute reason, but this seemed to throw all of that into chaos.

(Soundbite of song, "Charlie Darwin")

Ms. ADAMS: (Singing) Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin? The lords of war just profit from decay and trade the children's promise for the jingle, the way we trade our hard-earned time for pay.

RAZ: I should make it clear from the get-go that you guys don't just produce gentle, melodic sound. There are some raucous pieces on this album, and I'm thinking particularly of this track, "The Horizon Is a Beltway."

(Soundbite of song, "The Horizon Is a Beltway")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) The horizon is a beltway that we may never cross. The tops of buildings tremble like children lorn and lost. The stain runs deep it's deeper than the blood upon the cross. The horizon is a beltway that we may never cross.

RAZ: Ben Knox Miller, there's no getting around the comparison with Tom Waits, and a lot of reviewers have made it. Is that a sound you're consciously channeling?

Mr. MILLER: Well, we love Tom Waits' music. That's pretty clear, I think. We put a song that he's done as the next track on the record, you know, and as far as the vocal style, I'm not sure that's any kind of conscious imitation. I love his singing, it's very expressive. But really, it was just looking for a way to cut through that raucous mix and create a more dynamic sound in a live set.

You know, a lot of listen to the record and assume that there must be multiple singers on the record. You know, a lot of people...

RAZ: And you sing on all the - you're the lead vocals on all the songs.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, a lot of people, and most embarrassingly, Bruce Springsteen, thought that maybe Jocie was singing the lead on the first track.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: So I get that a lot.

RAZ: That falsetto voice.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Yeah. We're always experimenting with different sounds. While we arrange, oftentimes we'll bring a song in, and we have an arranging room in our apartment, and...

RAZ: You guys live together, Jeff?

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Yes. And that's the way I look at how Ben has been experimenting with his voice, singing falsetto, singing in what would be called a regular voice and singing in more of a hoarse voice while we do the same thing with instruments.

RAZ: And 27 instruments on this record, right, something like that?

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: That number might be inflated, but that's what we told the press.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: There's a couple that make just very minor appearances.

RAZ: Including, I notice, a Tibetan singing bowl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: That's right. That was recorded by our tour manager and dear friend Graham Smith(ph). And he had been awake for 72 hours working on a project that he was doing for his architecture program that he was in. And he shows up after 72 on his feet giving a presentation, and we asked him to record the Tibetan singing bowl. And he fell asleep during the first take. He's just singing there. You just - it's a bowl, and you run a stick around it, and it makes this resonance. And he fell asleep during the first take, so didn't remember that he was on the record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Ben, do you remember when we bought that thing?

Mr. MILLER: That's right.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: We bought the Tibetan singing bowl.

RAZ: Oh, you guys bought it.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: We bought it on, like 85th Street in New York City. We had played one at a friend's apartment. It was a Tibetan gift shop. And we brought a tuner in. And we really felt like these Western musicians entering this Eastern culture because, you know, the Tibetan singing bowl is a prayer instrument, and we went in there with a tuner and tried to find one that would hit the pitch C exactly.

Mr. MILLER: We tried 100 singing bowls.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: We tried 100 of them.

RAZ: And you finally found the right one.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: We did, we did, but we didn't make any friends that way.

RAZ: I want to hear a little bit of this song, "To Ohio." It's such a beautiful song. Let's play some of that for a moment.

(Soundbite of song, "To Ohio")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Lost my love before her time, lost my love before her time, on the way to Ohio, on the way to Ohio.

RAZ: Jocie Adams, your voice sounds lovely on this track, coming in with Ben. I've read that you worked at NASA. Is that right?

Ms. ADAMS: Yeah, I did briefly work at NASA.

RAZ: Here in Washington?

Ms. ADAMS: Yeah, at Goddard, actually.

RAZ: How did you go from NASA to The Low Anthem?

Mr. MILLER: Same thing, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ADAMS: I studied that during college, and I studied music, as well. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and tried a bunch of research jobs at different places, and it just wasn't the right thing for me. I couldn't deny my love for music any longer.

RAZ: The three of you met as undergraduates at Brown University. Did any of you guys get any grief from professors or family or friends when you said, you know, I'm going to start a band. I'm going to join a band. Ben?

Mr. MILLER: You know, Brown is a great school. Personally, I think I was a bit disengaged during that time, though, and have some regrets looking back at that because there's lots of things now that I look back and say, that's so fascinating. Why - where was my head then? But I don't think that I ever really fooled any of my professors or my parents into thinking that I was really serious about academics.

RAZ: Jeff?

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Well, I had a lot of pressure from my family to become a doctor because they're all doctors, my parents and my uncles and aunts. And so I tried. I was pre-med, didn't work out. But they weren't so disappointed because I have an older brother and a younger sister who are both doctors, so...

Mr. MILLER: Two out of three ain't bad.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Two out of three ain't bad, yeah. They were always very supportive.

RAZ: Jocie?

Ms. ADAMS: Yeah, my parents also are very supportive. But I think that, you know, they wouldn't have minded if I ended up working at NASA, probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

They're a little curious about that still, but they're very supportive, and they love the music.

RAZ: You're here with your guitars and a clarinet, is that right? And you're going to leave us with one song from the record. What are you going to play, Ben?

Mr. MILLER: We'll play "Ticket Taker."

RAZ: Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams are The Low Anthem. Their latest record is called "Oh, My God, Charlie Darwin." Guys, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks a lot, Guy.

Mr. PRYSTOWSKY: Thank you.

Ms. ADAMS: Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of song, "Ticket Taker")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Now, tonight's the night when the waters rise. You're groping in the dark, and ticket takers count the men who can afford the arc. The ticket takers will not board. The ticket takers are tied for five and change an hour to count the passersby.

RAZ: If you'd like to hear more from The Low Anthem, including their performance from this year's Newport Folk Festival, go to And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.

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