It has become customary for bands to list their influences on their web pages, but the New England folk trio The Low Anthem do things a little differently. Check out their MySpace and you find a regularly updated list of the instruments they take on their travels. Currently criss-crossing America to play low-key dates and festivals, the band's baggage manifest reads as follows: "1 WWI portable pump organ, 1 '73 Gibson J-50, 3/4 scrap metal drum kit, 2 clarinets, 1 German upright bass, 1 alto (E flat) horn, 1 Salvation Army electric guitar, crotales and enough harmonicas to summon a swarm of locusts".
This, though, is just a small sample of the 27 instruments employed and played on their new album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, a record that blends homespun campfire-folk songs with increasingly intrusive elements of blues, gospel and raucous bar-room stomping. It's a far cry from their last album, What the Crow Brings, which saw them mining a seam of pleasantly pastoral folk similar to any number of acoustic ensembles. What brought the dramatic transformation?
Firstly, what was essentially an acoustic duo has become a multi- instrumental trio with a penchant for old-time folk and vintage instruments (and clothes). Secondly, they seem to have created their new album according to what is beginning to look like a scientific formula for "interesting" folk albums. The principles of The Book Of Bon Iver go like this: find a remote wood cabin, preferably in a forest in a northern part of America. Then wait until the first snows of winter and set off with some primitive recording equipment and emerge months later with one fully formed album of folky, backwoods Americana.
So when you ask The Low Anthem, three classical-music graduates from Providence, Rhode Island, about the recording of their folky backwoods Americana-flavoured album, you can understand their apprehension. "It sounds a bit clichéd," sighs Ben Knox Miller, their singer and principal songwriter, "It seems like these stories are becoming more and more common."
In fact, far from hibernating for six months, Miller and his fellow Brown University graduates Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams completed the album in 10 days. As the first snows of winter began to fall, they decamped and took the ferry to Block Island, a scenic nature reserve off the Rhode Island coast where Miller had spent many a childhood summer, to set up a studio. "The island fills up in the summer but in the winter it has a population of 800 and the deer outnumber the humans in a place the size of Manhattan, so it's really quite sparse," reports Miller. "There's one small town called New Shoreham, with one main street, and the only things open are the grocery store and maybe one restaurant."
They also indulged some strange superstitions. Having already decided on the album title, and a loose Darwinian theme linking the songs, each band member read John Steinbeck's East of Eden "in preparation". Finally, they placed a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species on their mixing console, along with the Hebrew word timshel – the word that becomes a key motif in Steinbeck's novel – and set to work. Not that it went without a hitch. "It sounds idyllic," says Miller, "but we tore each other apart, got into tremendous scraps about everything, and it was very tense working with a producer for the first time. We all have fairly controlling personalities about the craftsmanship and very few things went seamlessly, especially with the way we recorded it – doing everything in live takes."
The 10-day turnaround was a far cry from the laborious birth of their last album, recorded as a duo by Prystowsky and Miller over the course of a year in the apartment they shared at university. Appropriately for an album inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution, their sound has evolved beyond recognition on Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. Not only do the songs change styles radically, but Miller's vocals switch from a sweet falsetto to a Dylanesque lower register and, finally, a hoarse rasp in the style of Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart.
While the lovely harmonies of Prystowsky and Adams colour most of the songs, it's as if there are several lead vocalists. "That's true," muses Miller, who punctuates answering questions with jotting down thoughts in a leather-bound journal. "Bruce Springsteen heard the title track [with Miller's falsetto] and apparently loved it very much and asked if he could meet us after one of his shows. When we went to meet him he scanned across the three of us trying to work out who was singing that song." He breaks into a self-satisfied grin. "I was very flattered."
While Adams is the daughter of a concert pianist, and had little or no exposure to popular music growing up, Miller and Prystowsky both attribute their musical inclinations to religious upbringings, the latter going through 12 years of Judaic teaching at school. By the time he met Miller, Prystowsky was a double-bass-playing jazz buff who had spent his school years studying the greats at the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village. Yet he feels he picked up his primary influence before that: "I think the intensity of the religious music has certainly had an impact on the music I play now," he reflects. "To me, music and prayer are not far off, in terms of mental state and the desire to heal."
Miller, meanwhile, had been raised on a steady diet of folk. His first influence was Raffi, a children's musician "who plays guitar and sings folk melodies," he recalls. "But when they [his parents] were more interested in their own listening experience, they would put on Bob Dylan and both Guthries [Woody and Arlo] and a lot of Pete Seeger. And every Sunday we would go to church for children's service, where the minister would play acoustic guitar and sing various classic Christian songs."
In concert, the trio adopt a spontaneous approach. One song turns into an avant-garde experiment with Miller's party trick: using two mobile phones to create an electronic storm of controlled feedback and uncontrolled bleeping. It's time for an update on that instrument list.
'Oh My God, Charlie Darwin' is out now on Bella UnionReuse content