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Wednesday, 17 August 2011 16:33

LouFest preview interview: Jeff Prystowsky of the Low Anthem

LouFest preview interview: Jeff Prystowsky of the Low Anthem Nate Burrell
Written by Scott Allen
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I caught Jeff Prystowsky, multi-instrumentalist for the Low Anthem, during morning rehearsals for a short U.K. tour continuing to support the band's latest record, "Smart Flesh" (Nonesuch, 2011). The Low Anthem returns to the U.S. for fall dates beginning with a summer festival show in St. Louis.

With the rest of the band waiting for him inside the rehearsal space, Prystowsky talked about the band's songwriting process, the new fourth member of the group and how their label and the Internet play a role in the Low Anthem's career.

Scott Allen: What music influenced you growing up? How has that colored your music as a recording artist?

Jeff Prystowsky: When I started to get serious about music I was living just outside New York City, and I became interested in jazz music. I would go by train into New York, and most nights of the week I would go to a different jazz club and see what was playing. Just that kind of spirit of music that was underground, sparsely attended, but played with such ferocity and intensity inspired me to learn more about music and listen in a different way -- from the perspective and ears of a musician. Jocie [Adams] is coming from a classical background. Ben [Knox Miller] comes from songs and bands.

How does most of the material get written? Is it a collective effort or does one person come up with a song and teach it to the others?

Most of the songs are written by Ben and he will bring them to rehearsal. Like today -- he wrote one this morning. He just played a demo recording to me just before I called you. That's usually how it goes, although everyone in the band also writes whether it's instrumental music or lyrical music. We all bring a different specialty, if you will. I play bass and drums and Jocie plays a whole array of instruments. She's a classical composer so she plays piano and clarinet. She can also play other harp or string instruments. When we start playing a song there's this sort of terrain that we live in. We start playing the song and all start wandering about in our own musical worlds to find our connection to it and the harmony. It just sort of rolls along like that. We take it pretty slow and work it out.

So basically it becomes Ben bringing the genesis of the song but everybody bringing their own parts to it so it becomes a collective. In both ways it becomes colored by the writer and the musicians. It's a cool band because it's very much a group effort. Everyone pitches in with each song whether it is a new section or an instrumental melody or a different rhythm or groove. It's an honor that the guys in the band are really great musicians, and it's amazing to play with them.

Your latest album, "Smart Flesh" has been out for six months now. Have any of the songs dramatically changed in the live setting since they were recorded for the album?

Yeah, mostly we've started to play more electric guitar, and we had a friend of ours build an amplifier [the Hypno-Leslie Resonator] for us. That has a really interesting sound, and we've been experimenting with playing with that instrument over some of the old arrangements. That's been fruitful and rewarding.

So, it adds new life to songs you've been playing for a while that maybe become tedious or boring?

For this gig we have a different fourth member of the band who's going to be playing -- his name is Mike Irwin. He is also a multi-instrumentalist. He plays trumpet, bass and keys. He will be joining us for this upcoming [LouFest] show and for the next tour coming up.

This leads nicely into my next question. What are the circumstances in losing Mat Davidson last month? Did he have other priorities or projects or was it something deeper?

I think that he wanted to pursue some other projects that he had. He wanted to go out there and play some of his solo material. We have great respect for him. He's a very natural musician. He's always strumming the guitar wherever he is and playing with whatever instrument he can find -- harp, guitar or keys. I'm sure he's wandering around the country now doing just what he was doing when we ran into him. (Laughs) He came with us, played in the band for a while and continued his wandering.

So will Mike pick up on Mat's role or create a role of his own?

In terms of roles the three roles that are more well defined are with Ben, me and Jocie since we've been playing together for a long time. We've found these different ways that we balance each other. With that fourth person there is a lot more chance for randomness. I wouldn't say he fills Mat's role, because Mat was a very different musician from him and had a different style of playing. He brings a whole different set of talent to the band and a really good spirit. We've re-written the set, and that's what we're going to do today. We're practicing the new set with him in it. We've been practicing for a month, but mostly new material for our next record. Now, we're reigning that in because we starting to go wild with that. We think, "Wait a minute we're still performing." This is usually the case -- it's hard. There are so many places to go out and play.

When we come to St. Louis, I believe it might be the first real full-length show that we can play songs from "Smart Flesh." But we've been doing that since January so we're already playing new things, so it's interesting. Luckily it's going to be fresh because Mike is now in it and we're reworking the songs with him. It may be a little more removed from the record. You have the record release that we played with Mat, then that whole tour and then you have Mike joining and a whole different set of rehearsals. I'm sure that it will be not what you expect from what you hear on the record.

In this day and age of the Internet how has your record label allowed the band to grow? Are there things that the label's connections allowed you to do that wouldn't otherwise have been possible on an independent label?

We're actually on an indie label in the U.K. and we're on Nonesuch, which is a subsidiary of a major label in the U.S. so we kind of have a foot in both worlds. It is very interesting how they differ. The majors are a little more secure, but the indie labels are a little more risk taking. Just as you might expect, they are smaller with a smaller staff. Most are newer and therefore not as beholden to other voices. But, Nonesuch has been so good to us. We're very happy to be with them and Bella Union.

In terms of the Internet, so far there haven't been specifically any Internet-driven [thoughts] like, "We're not going to do records anymore, we're just going to release on the Internet" or anything dramatic like that. It's pretty much just half of what everybody does today is Internet work. It's just that much of a priority. That's the reality of being a musician now and it is what it is. It's really cool.

In fact, a lot of the demos that we‘re making right now we'll even use GarageBand. It's right there on your computer. Don't feel like walking over to the studio? Just play a little demo and send it to the band. It's so easy.

Or paying the money for the studio.

Yeah, it's very useful and that's great! There's a lot of people that are feeling free like they can make their own music and that's a beautiful thing. I think it is really great how the Internet has challenged these major monolithic structures of what the music industry used to be. The kind of places it's going now is pretty interesting. So, it's cool to be a part of that. Every meeting that we have now with our management can be really creative. The boundaries have been widened.

The band was just in St. Louis a couple of months ago opening for Mumford and Sons. You played an in-store at one of our local record stores, Vintage Vinyl. On your trips through St. Louis have you been able to see anything or been anywhere that you like?

Yeah, we walked all around that Delmar Loop and it was wonderful. We now have friends that we've met from playing a few shows in town. It's a great baseball town, and we're baseball fans. It's a great music town too, so we always love coming to St. Louis. Vintage Vinyl was excellent. They had the whole Captain Beefheart catalog on vinyl that we then purchased for half price. The Pageant was a beautiful theatre so we're excited to come back.

You rock a particularly good mustache. Any thoughts of growing it out into a handlebar a la Rollie Fingers or Greg Norton from Hüsker Dü, or will you switch it up and trim?

I think it's just how I want it. (Laughs) I'm going to let that lie.

The Low Anthem appears at LouFest on Sunday, August 28.

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