The Low Anthem, a band from Providence, R.I., makes albums that sound like you're listening to them while sitting in an old theater, one with high ceilings and miles of vibe. Their music is practically hard-wired for such venues, and arguably it's a challenge to imagine hearing them in any other kind of space.
It's not that surprising, then, to hear that the band's story has dovetailed with that of an historic hometown venue: the Columbus Theatre, which re-opened its doors in 2012 after three years of restoration. The band built a recording studio above the theater, where it records new music and produces albums by other bands. They've also hosted benefit shows, including one last November, to raise money for ongoing renovation efforts.
The band became interested in the theater, singer/guitarist Ben Knox Miller said, out of curiosity. "The marquee said 'opening soon' for about four years," Miller said. "We decided to find out who the owner was and what was inside." Once inside, they fell in love. "We were really just interested in the sound… The building is a maze of forgotten rooms and sound potential."
The Low Anthem has gained international exposure through appearances on "The Jools Holland Show" and the regular late-night circuit, which makes their dedication to Providence all the more noteworthy. Their last album, 2011's "Smart Flesh," recorded in a former pasta factory in Central Falls, R.I., is full of atmospheric songs that already sound familiar, like snapshots of people you once knew or snippets of stories told in your presence, intoned over woodwind interludes, banjo fills, harmonicas, accordions and musical saws. Anthemic, lo-fi folk-rock songs like "Hey, All You Hippies!" and "Burn" nod to the Band and Leonard Cohen, through the lens of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Their encounter with the Columbus Theatre, Miller said, occured during a transitional stretch, punctuated by the departure of multi-instrumentalist and singer Jocie Adams, who left to pursue her own music with Arc Iris. After touring for five years, Miller and co-founder Jeff Prystowsky were ready to hole up in the theater and to record; It was a chance to get better acquainted with equipment and spaces, to experiment with recording techniques and song structures without external pressures hurrying them along. They also added three new members: singer/violinist Florence Wallis, guitarist Bryan Minto and pianet player Andy Davis.
"Any time the membership changes, there's a reset in the chemistry," Miller said. "During this period we were falling in love with the theater and more in love with the new music we were making, and it was a good chance for [Adams] to break off on her own… It just took time for a new chemistry to find itself… We have stuff to keep us busy. It was easy to just let things happen that way."
The Low Anthem will perform at the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown — another recently restored building — on Friday, April 11, with Mark Barden and Alternative Universe opening. They've also finished an album that Miller said will be ready for mastering at the end of the spring.
Their new music, Miller said, reflects certain attributes of the Columbus Theatre. "The building itself is a monument to this vaudeville era of recording," Miller said, "There's a spooky energy in the building and a spooky sound… The music has a more theatrical sensibility, a certain drama that's in the architecture of the building and the recordings." The biggest impact, he said, is the amount of time they've been able to devote to the project, unlike previous attempts to record in what Miller called "pop-up studios."
During the recording process, Miller said he's tuned in to shows occuring at the Columbus Theatre. "The other thing that's great about working here: we've got such a great booking agent. There are some incredible new bands playing here. We really get to see this business from this whole other perspective… It's not the way anybody thought things would work out, but it's just a new way."
They've also had time to revisit tracks stretching back several years, adding layers and creating what he called "stratified recordings," where pockets of the old Low Anthem sound is enhanced by new overdubs. At times, Miller said, it's like mixing another band's work.
"This is the first time we've had in the studio to learn the space intimately," Miller continued, "to learn ways to capture the sound that's really occurring in space, to see what the band does and see what the building has to offer."
THE LOW ANTHEM performs on Friday, April 11 at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown with Mark Barden and Alternative Universe. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. Information: edmondtownhall.org