I don’t know what Pittsburgh’s Low Man are going to do next, but whatever it is, chances are the four-piece will sound markedly different than on their 2012 self-titled EP. That release (review here) captured a nascent but discernible love of a variety of heavy styles, from thickened up punk to classic proto-doom, and perhaps most impressively, Low Man made the sounds bend to their will rather than the other way around. There remained work to be done in their songwriting and production, but the potential was there and it was palpable.
They’ve had a little road time since, tightening their approach, and as Low Man‘s Low Man was recorded as the trio of guitarist/vocalist Luke Rifugiato, bassist/vocalist Jeremy Zerbe and drummer/vocalist Derek Krystek before guitarist Alex Byers joined, there are bound to be some changes in approach to account for new influences in the writing and construction of the songs. As such, as they continue to grow and develop over the course of gigs and jamming out in the rehearsal space, this seemed like a prime moment to discuss the beginnings of the band and how they’ve arrived at this stage in their development.
The Low Man EP — a follow-up to their debut single, Snake Farmer/Jackhammerhead — was recorded in Pittsburgh at +/- Studio by Jason Jouver and Justin Novak and features a host of guest players on vocals and guitar. Zerbe took time out to talk about getting the band together, putting the EP to tape and bringing in Byers on guitar with Rifugiato. Along the way, insight is given as to Low Man‘s songwriting process, influences and penchant for gang vocals. Hope you dig it.
Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions.
1. Give me the background on how Low Man got together. When did the band form and how does the songwriting process usually work? When were the songs for the self-titled EP written? Are there multiple songwriters, or was it a span of time as the material came together?
Low Man started when I moved back to Pittsburgh and began playing music with Luke Rifugiato, the band’s other vocalist and guitarist, in the fall of 2010. He introduced me to Alex Byers and Evan Flaherty, the lead guitarist and drummer he had been jamming with and we sort of just fell into playing together. Besides both being into punk music, Luke was really into Queens of the Stone Age and Fu Manchu and I was a huge fan of Black Mountain and The Black Angels, so the music sort of just started from there.
We both had had other bands before and brought some songs we’d been working on for those bands with us, which is why our EP sounds a little all-over-the-place. That EP and the single we released before it are just a collection of our earliest songs, before we really had a set idea of what we were trying to achieve. We knew we wanted it to be loud and fuzzy, but we didn’t really sit down and say, “We should be a stoner rock band.” We still really haven’t, though the music comes together a lot more organically these days. We write pretty much everything as a group now and our sound has really benefited from that, I think.
2. Tell me about recording the EP. How long were you in the studio and how did you wind up bringing in gang vocals and extra guitar, etc.?
We recorded the EP in February of 2012 and were at a transitional period in the band. Alex had gone on hiatus a few months before to finish his degree, and we’d also found a new drummer in Derek Krystek. We were in the process of finding a replacement for Alex, playing shows with our friends Justin Gross and Mike Myzak when we decided to just go into the studio and take care of the recording as a trio. We laid down the basic tracks in one day, then went back a second day to overdub solos and vocals. Mixing took a hell of a lot longer, and honestly we still didn’t spend enough time with it, but we were poor and the studio time was by the hour.
I laid down a couple of rhythm parts, and Luke took the reins on all of the solos except half of the dueling one in “American Literature from 1860.” When Alex was in the band, the two of them traded it off, but without him, we asked the producer, Jason Jouver, and his engineer, Justin Novak, to lay down a couple of quick licks between Luke’s. Gang vocals were something I’d wanted in a couple of songs since I first wrote them, so at the end of our second day, we had some of our friends come to the studio with a case of beer. The two main harmony voices you hear (especially on “Roll the River Down”) are members of Derek’s other band, Sleepy V.
Now that Alex is back in the band, the live version of Low Man is infinitely more interesting than the recording. He’s by far the most talented guitarist of us, and he plays these harmony lines throughout songs like “Migraine” that make them a million times better. I have promised him that if we get a chance to remix the album, I’d like him to lay down his parts and throw them in where they rightfully belong. I also think it’s always hard to really translate a loud, intense band on tape. As good as the EP turned out, I wish it were more raw and energetic. But that’s just sort of how it goes I guess. Unless you’re working with Steve Albini (call me!) that is.
4. In what direction(s) do you see Low Man growing from here? The EP and the Snake Farmer/Jackhammerhead single sound completely different from each other. Have you started writing for a follow-up yet, and if so, is there something different you’re specifically trying to bring out sound-wise? There’s a pretty wide berth of influences already.
The songs from the single and the EP were all written at about the same time, early in the life of the band. We’ve been around for just over two years now and have gone through a fair number of changes, so whenever we get the time and money to hit a studio, we’re always trying to play catch up and record the oldest stuff first to get it out of the way for new things. It’s not the best system in the world, I’ll be the first to admit. Right now we’re trying to get back into the studio again for a follow-up, but we’ve got enough songs to record two in a row, so it is this race to get it all to tape.
As we’re moving forward though, what you’ll hear is a more focused, more aggressive sound, like that of “Machine,” “American Literature From 1860” or even “Snake Farmer” I think. The newer songs we’ve been writing do a lot of playing around with time signature — one of them alternates between 5/8 and 6/8 in the verse and then moves into 13 for the chorus before this weird layered, math-intensive bridge happens. And I mean that about the math: I actually had to sit down and work it out to make sure we’d all end on the same note.
But even with that kind of stuff, we’re finally able to say, “This is a Low Man song, this isn’t,” unlike early in our existence. You’ll never hear another song quite as poppy as “Pay the Bills” is, and we’ve scuttled some of our older songs for that exact reason. On stage we’re a relatively aggro, somewhat serious band, and we don’t have room for our ‘60s Wayne Cochran-esque pop ballad anymore. Inspiration still isn’t coming from just one place, so we’ll never exactly be a traditional “stoner rock” band, but we’re too much of suckers for poppy hooks for that anyway.
5. Are you conscious in writing of playing to one side of the band’s personality or another, or is it just whatever comes out of jamming or somebody’s song idea?
There is definitely still a bit of personality that finds its way into Luke’s songs or mine, though the lines have been blurred as we’ve played together more. I used to show up with nearly complete songs written and try to teach everyone everything, whereas Luke preferred to just come up with riffs and piece them together as a band. My need for exactness and completion is partially due to suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also was just born out of necessity in my old bands: I was the only songwriter, the band manager, the driver and the tuning fork. Usually, I was the only guy sober enough to play the songs too.
Over the past two years though, I’ve changed a lot and become a lot more like Luke in writing. I realized what an absolute treasure Alex is, because I’d be struggling at home trying to figure out chords to a melody when he could just listen to me hum and it say, “Oh, that’s Am C G7 and then F# with an A as the root,” or whatever. Now I’ll bring my melody lines and lyrics and let the band jam out transitions and riffs in between. We just wrote two brand-new songs this past weekend exactly like that. It’s way better to work that way, getting everyone involved. It really makes them Low Man songs instead of Luke songs or Jeremy songs.
6. Any shows, other plans or closing words you want to mention?
We went on a weekend tour in early December and we hope to be doing that again soon, but after we got home from the couple days out, Derek texted me to call it quits for some personal reasons. It sucked because, not only was he like a brother to us, but we’d been writing a lot of our newer music (like the wacky time signature one I mentioned earlier) around his style of proggy, jazzy drumming. Now we’re in the process of auditioning drummers and getting the engine started again. As soon as we’ve got someone up to speed, we’ll be back out on the road, and then heading into the studio for our second EP — hopefully by spring. If all goes according to plan, I’d love to have the first EP remixed and then press both records to vinyl by winter. It’s a long way away and we hope to get ahead of schedule, but the one thing we’ve learned over the last two years is that the only thing you can count on is not being able to count on anything at all.