To create the follow-up to its 2009 breakthrough, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin," roots-folk quartet the Low Anthem decided to rough it and camped out in a 40,000 square foot abandoned pasta sauce factory in Central Falls, R.I. The resulting "Smart Flesh," self-produced by the band and released Feb. 22 on Nonesuch, is a woozy collection of ragged rock tunes and folk lullabies, all awash in the echoes of vast, open space. "The songs bleed into each other," frontman Ben Knox Miller says. "These ideas are borrowed and transferred."
How did you first find the pasta sauce factory? What feeling did it give you before recording?
We'd been aware [of the space] because friends of ours were squatting there as rogue security guards for the owners. This building was sitting among 10 other enormous former factories; around every corner, we found the weirdest stuff. One had four floors of Easter basket storage. In another, there were greeting cards for every holiday. When they showed us into building, it was everything we'd envisioned, but much bigger than we could've imagined. We walked in and started stomping and clapping and singing; we were instantly taken with it.
It seems like you shut out the outside world in making "Smart Flesh" and created a world of your own. What was the community that formed around the factory like?
The landlord had everyone sign death waivers, and we made a guest book of them. People would show up and bang on the door. We had different spots underneath heat blowers that were warm enough to sit and relax, so we basically set up three sprawling rooms without walls: a nice kitchen, some indoor plants, and couches and benches we'd gathered from other buildings. We even brought a library with a secular text and religious text section.
How did open space factor into the album?
It was a sound experiment -- we wanted to see what would happen in this open space. We learned a lot about our music from playing it where the sound was all about the decay. You could hear the decay of every percussive strike. You'd say something and the sound would vanish. It was like singing in the desert, where no sound comes back. The space was so selective about what songs we could do there.
Each of the band members is a multi-instrumentalist -- the album includes instruments like the clarinet, musical saw, jaw harp and antique organs. How does knowing that all of you can fill so many different roles change your approach to creating music?
Sometimes I wish we were a simple rock band -- it seems so much fun to live just with one instrument. Once you start switching, there's this endless, addictive escalation. It suits us because so much of what we do is in tone and timbre -- we might not be very good at all the instruments, but you don't need to be a master harmonium player to get that breathy sound.
The band uses all organic recording techniques -- no Pro Tools. Why?
We prefer pump organs, for example, which breathe like a human and have unpredictable qualities based on temperature and humidity. It's always got some new surprise. [Old instruments] are beautiful, but it's more about their human qualities. The listener can tell. There's something real that everybody knows; you can feel the difference on some level.
How do you translate that multi-instrumental sound into a live setting?
Trying to play a lot of instruments and just keep it from falling apart, well, if we can do that, that's a good starting point. [The show] is pretty ramshackle. Some nights feel uphill most of the way. We haven't figured out how to stick to a set list. Every time we make one, we look at the next song in a shared sense of terror -- then one of us will call out something different to play.