Baltimore-based Lower Dens’ latest album Nootropics swirls, making it hard to find your musical footing. Yet somewhere in this whirlwind of lush guitars and muffled vocals, a balance is found, and the chaos lends itself to a sweet, blissful pop venture. Tonight, the band brings that anarchic sound to New York and headlines the Bowery Ballroom. A few weeks ago on the eve of America’s birthday, lead singer Jana Hunter stopped on the side of the road between San Francisco to Portland to chat with Sound of the City about how their latest record isn’t a concept album, gender dynamics in music, and what you can learn from conservative radio.
The response to your record has been overwhelmingly positive. How have you responded to it?
I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to pay too much attention to press, regardless if it’s positive or negative, because its influence can just be too powerful and once it starts impacting your own opinion of your work, it changes your work—and not for the better, I don’t think. Regardless if they like you. The only thing that really matters to me at all is the direct communication with people who are involved in some way without professional attachment, the fans. That has been really good. People seem to be into the record, and they say that it’s a grower, which is something I appreciate in music, so generally I feel pretty satisfied. Generally, people are coming to shows and they’re excited. There’s nothing else I could ask for.
How do you feel the record is different than Twin-Hand Movement?
I think it’s more different than it is continuous, in my opinion. We’re working with the same group of people, with some of the same equipment, the same place and our backgrounds, so it has a certain amount of crossover, but we very much intentionally tried to move in a more considerate direction all the time. Trying to spend more time considering what we’re doing, and learning how to articulate exactly what we want to express. I feel like we did that. We were very determined to do that, and I feel like with this record, the concepts are more clearly articulated, the aesthetic—although might be broader to some people—seems, to me, more defined. It’s the work of people who have been playing together for four years, as opposed to two years. It’s much more as a unit, versus a group of people.
What did your experience together allow to happen in the studio?
I’d compare it to any relationship that is a productive one. We’ve spent so much time with each other that we tend to move towards things collective without needing to go through any arduous to go in that direction together. There’s no quibbling over the picture, for the most part. We know what we’re doing, and it seems to be we do that well and efficiently. We did find ourselves arguing about details, sometimes.
What’s the arguing like?
[Laughs.] The arguing is so stupid. It’s like, “I think this part should be heavily modulated.” And then the other person is like, “Well, I don’t.” And they’re like, “Well, I do.” That sort of thing.
Lower Dens, “Brains”
The record seems to meditate on the idea of technology.
Technology is a thematic element that I think appears on a couple of the songs, and maybe has some broader implications or is a shadow element on other songs. But the broader idea of the record is that it is an examination of the modern human and the modern society, and how we function, especially in relation to and juxtaposed with the idea of the human as not much more than the animals that we’ve always been.
What drew you to that?
A lot of those ideas are things I’ve thought about for a long time, and just wasn’t comfortable articulating those in music. I was always more comfortable expressing personal reactions to emotional situations and relationships and events in my life. It’s only been recently that I’ve felt comfortable trying to give voice to ideas that are more reflective of—I don’t know, I hesitate to call it an adult perspective. But for the first time in my life, I’m able to take myself out of my immediate emotional self and put some higher thinking into the lyrical content of songs. Also, this is a band where those topics are not shied away from. We spend a lot of time in the van and we’re not sick of talking to one another. What we find ourselves talking about is a lot of those things. Passing through miles and miles of farmland, we find ourselves talking about the modern human relationship to food and how bizarre it is, and how strange it is that our parents decided to embrace processed food and how much that changed our society and the ramifications of that. We’re people who talk about those things and obscure music and not much else.
I’m not sure who writes the lyrics, but they seem to then reflect the group’s mindset, which isn’t really the case with other bands most of the time.
That’s a goal of mine personally, in starting the band, and as much as I can continue to figure out to do this is to make it a collaborative process because I did solo music for long enough to realize that my voice on its own isn’t as interesting as my voice coupled with other’s. It’s a constant process for me to learn and build ideas with people. I feel like [the ideas] are stronger because of that. I feel like the music is stronger because of that. Even though I do write the lyrics, I feel like the concepts behind them are much stronger for having other people’s influence and ideas be part of them.
Your solo work was in the folk world. Lower Dens is not. What does this type of music let you express that perhaps folk music didn’t?
I was writing things from a very intimate perspective and was encouraged by friends… to go out and play music. I moved to New York and played shows and started working with people, but I never felt comfortable sharing the kind of music I was writing with large groups of people and was very miserable on tour. It took me a really, really long time—like three years of touring—to realize that the reason I was miserable was because I was not the kind of person who felt comfortable sharing that intimacy on stage. I think if you can’t do that, you’re robbing the audience of something. That’s what I felt like every night, a frustration or a guilt that I wasn’t making the kind of connection that I should’ve been making, making the music that I was. So I thought about quitting music, or at least quitting music in public or touring music specifically, but did one last tour and recruited a couple people to be a backing band, and one of them was Jess, who ended up forming Lower Dens with me, and it was because of him, primarily. I really enjoyed playing music with him, and I realized that if I made it my intention to write the kind of music that I wanted to share with people that I could in fact enjoy myself doing it. So I think the music just became more of a reflection on more of the other music that I enjoyed. Because, you know, I grew up in the ’90s; I listened to a shitload of rock music. So I just began to draw on those influences.
The sonic emphasis seems to be on creating an atmosphere or aesthetic with the music. What does that let you accomplish that more storytelling driven music doesn’t?
It’s difficult for me to try and decipher my approach to lyrics. I feel like the lyrics, on this record, are a lot stronger but maybe it’s because I tend to gravitate towards the language that is more dense in my personal preference when it comes to reading. The fact that the vocals are somewhat buried on this record is more of a production decision than anything. We worked with a producer and, I mean, I’m always a little surprised that people have trouble. They don’t sound too quiet to me. They sound right up front. But also, I am so excited about the music that we’re playing and the contributions from everyone in the band on that front. It’s not as important to me with this music that people embrace lyrical content. The lyrics are printed in the liner notes and they’re there for people and I’m happy to hear people’s reactions to those things and have conversations about those things, because those are things I’m really interested in my life. But I also don’t mind if people want to ignore them and just vibe it out, whatever it is that people do.
Lower Dens, “Tea Lights”
The album has been referred to as a concept album, but you’ve rejected that notion in past interviews, calling it a more “thematic guide.” What themes are explored on the record, and what does a “thematic guide” mean? Isn’t that just a concept album?
It has to do with the fact that when we were working on Twin Hands, we talked about instead of writing and playing music just for music’s stake, we should have something else more substantive be involved in our inspiration. I found that it was really crucial for me to not just be writing and playing in a rock band, but to be doing something more. As conceded as it might be to say that I feel like my rock band attempts to accomplish more than just being a rock band, it just is something important for me to have as a goal.
We decided, as a result of that, to have a four album thematic arc that would not so much determine the actual content of the records, but be more of an inspiration. Be more of a declaration of intent, kind of. As a result, I think it’s a little bit broader than an average concept record. When I think of a concept record, I think of, like, a rock opera. I have nothing against those things, but I’m not a theatrical and dramatic person and I can’t give something like that life like, say, David Bowie could time and time again. But what I do do is spend most of my time thinking about and analyzing the world around me, which gives right to much more general ideas that can’t be applied so much to a storyline, but are worth discussing and ruminating on regardless. It is more of a real world application than a concept record could be, which I think makes it a little bit more difficult—possibly makes it a little bit more difficult for people to approach and why people aren’t as interested, because you don’t have the storyline to cling to if you don’t want to go any further than that. I’m not offering that to people with this record. It’s just because that’s not who I am at all.
What are your thoughts on gender dynamics in music right now?
I haven’t really given any thought to it at length. I think it’s a man’s man’s world, and it is in the music industry. And probably will continue to be for years, if not always. I’m sure I have a much easier time of it than I would have if I was trying to do this even 10 or 20 years ago. The fact that I don’t think about it that much, that I only encounter it with the occasional misogynist-rockist-whatever definitely says something about the state of the industry. I also feel like, as a queer person, I see more and more people who identify as any number of different kind of genders and sexuality doing music and not having to be so outspoken or self-aware of that, being able to be themselves and find an audience that embraces that without question. I’m sure we still have, as a society, a very, very long ways to go in making that application universal, but I’m pretty sure we’re lucky where we are right now.
What’s your song of summer?
We’ve been listening to a lot of Christian talk radio [in the van], actually. [Laughs.]
Well, and also ultra-conservative talk radio. Because it’s good to know where people are coming from. I also find it really fascinating, the strategic rhetoric. Especially AM conservative radio hosts. When I was a younger person, I was incredibly infuriated by it. I think that’s why I listen to it, because it riled me up so much and I liked that feeling. But I think now I’m just fascinated by how brilliantly vague they are. It’s completely evil, but it’s totally brilliant.
It’s so confrontational. Another thing I’ve noticed is that they will adopt the language that progressives or Democrats used about them, and turn it over in the most amazing ways, to apply to progressives and liberals. The other day, a woman kept using the phrase “regurgitated talking points,” which is something that people have said for such a long time about conservative rhetoric. I just thought it was brilliant. Just, “We’ll take exactly what you’re saying and throw it back in your face.”
Lower Dens play at Bowery Ballroom with No Joy and Alan Resnick tonight.