Ghosts of Industry: The Low Anthem’s ‘Smart Flesh’
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Kai Ryssdal: The unemployment rate in Providence, R.I., is 13.3 percent. Joblessness in most of the rest of the state is that high or even higher. Has been for years now. Long-term unemployment like that tends to change the way a city looks, and sometimes the way people in it think and feel. So today for our series, The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, we’re going to do some music.
The band The Low Anthem is from Providence. They’ve built a following with their first two albums using a decidedly home-style approach. They perform on old, salvaged instruments, in churches, basements and bars. They put out their records in screen-printed and letter-pressed sleeves. Their new album “Smart Flesh” was released by a big label, Nonesuch Records. But their sound is still more indie than corporate.
Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky are here to talk about the band’s new album and how they do what they do. Guys, thanks for coming in.
Ben Knox Miller: Hey there.
Jeff Prystowsky: Hi.
Ryssdal: So the reason you caught our eye was the way you recorded this album that’s coming out — the new album “Smart Flesh” — in a factory in Providence, R.I. Jeff, gives us the specifics.
Prystowsky: OK, so we recorded “Smart Flesh” in this abandoned factory building in Central Falls, R.I. They have a complex of abandoned factory buildings, there were about nine of them. It was the smallest one that we chose as the location for this new record.
Ryssdal: It was, Ben, a pasta sauce factory. Do I have that right?
Knox Miller: Yeah, about 10 years ago it was. It’s just been sitting empty and we spent about five winter months in there.
Ryssdal: That’s not creature comforts, right?.
Knox Miller: No, it was very cold.
Prystowsky: It was obscenely cold.
Ryssdal: So here’s what we’ll do. We’ll play a cut that was recorded in the factory. “Boeing 737” is the name of the cut.
The Low Anthem’s “Boeing 737”
I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, ?I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven?
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
You know, it’s cool because you can hear the room, right? I mean, you can hear that it’s different from a studio-produced thing. Was there something about the economy of Providence — and the way things have been going there for years, right, in the industrial Northeast — that made you want to use that factory?
Prystowsky: Yeah. There’s something about, I think, being in a place that used to be so full of life and there were so many jobs to be had and there was so much happening with the industry. And now for it to have gone 360 degrees now, all of those buildings being empty, there’s something about the narrative there that I think inspired us.
Knox Miller: It’s a strange ghost town, and you walk through all the other buildings in the complex and it looks like people just moved out the day business shut down. There’s still spilled milk that’s congealed on the desk and people’s family photos. Eerie place to walk through.
Ryssdal: Well it’s, I mean, the music that you guys put on this record is kind of evocative of that. Here’s another one, it’s called “Apothecary Love.”
The Low Anthem’s “Apothecary Love”
I met her down
At the apothecary
With sad sad eyes
The burden she carried
Oh darlin’ try this one
If you need a friend
I’ve got the cure for
The shape that you’re in
So I’m going to share a little radio magic here. While that song was playing, Jeff leans over to me and says, “Maybe I ought to write a letter to our listeners like Warren Buffett does every year to his shareholders. What do you think about that?” Which would be good, man. You gotta get yourself out there. So two things came to my mind, actually, when I heard that song the first time. One is that “apothecary” is not a word you hear in everyday conversation. But it goes to the second thought, which is the sense of nostalgia that’s tangible — both in the sound of that song and sort of a little bit in the way you guys are talking about that factory. Ben?
Knox Miller: That song was written around this conceptual idea we had to collect all of our unused prescription drugs — there were, like, extra bottles of pills that were lying around — and make a giant shaker track with them, just sort of a field of shakers. We were going to do this sonic experiment. And then we started doing it and then unfortunately we wrote this song to it.
Ryssdal: So you messed up this perfectly good idea?
Knox Miller: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ryssdal: How do you reconcile the way you guys make music, right — handcrafted with care and attention — with the state of the music industry today, which is digital and online and getting stuff out there fast so the public can hear it? How do you keep up with that curve?
Knox Miller: I think that’s the perception of the music industry, but music will never stick unless the other thing is in place, which is just the connectedness and the craft.
Prystowsky: Also what’s amazing, I think, is that through the new kind of Internet, business model, we can really do what we want do and do it independently. So that when we say, “Well, we want to record in a factory. We want to produce the record ourselves. We have all these crazy ideas we want to try out.” The climate right now in the industry, I think, is ripe for that and ready for that.
Knox Miller: Yeah, the old formula has kind of been disproven. So things are really open.
Ryssdal: Jeff Prystowsky and Ben Knox Miller are from the band The Low Anthem. You can hear some more of their stuff. Listen to “Ghost Woman Blues” in the player below. Their new album is called “Smart Flesh.” Guys, thanks a lot.
Listen to “Ghost Woman Blues” by The Low Anthem
Knox Miller: Thanks Kai.
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