[Q&A] Jana Hunter of Lower Dens on our relationship with technology, transhumanism, and Baltimore

Photos by Nina Mashurova

A few days after playing Great Scott, Baltimore's LOWER DENS drop their second LP, Nootropics, today –- a formidable combination of ideas, sounds, and people ...which sounds a lot like how 2012 feels.

Frontwoman Jana Hunter started performing music in when she was 15, collaborated with artists such as Devendra Banhart, Phosphorescent, and CocoRosie, and created two albums of haunting lo-fi folk songs made of darkness and catharsis which permeated to the darkest places of your consciousness. In 2007, Hunter released There's No Home and Carrion EP, and then disappeared for a while.

Meanwhile, the same year, Carter Tanton's Boston-based band Tulsa released their I Was Submerged EP, which rose to local notoriety. Tulsa disbanded soon after when Tanton went back to Baltimore, but their brief career is remembered in legendary terms, not least because fellow bandmember Erik Wormwood went on to form local favorites Mean Creek.

Hunter ended up in Charm City as well, drawn by the amazing creative energy that grew in the former manufacturing capital's anarcho-apocalyptic loft scene. She formed Lower Dens, releasing Twin-Hand Movement -- a beautifully minimal record loaded up with songs like "Tea Lights" and "I Get Nervous" which lulled listeners into a headspace that was somehow both collective and introspective.

Now on Nootropics, Tanton's joined up with Hunter and the rest of the Lower Dens ensemble (guitarist Will Adams, bassist Geoff Graham, and drummer Nate Nelson) and the band passed through Boston this past Sunday, playing a packed show at Great Scott. Some sound troubles aside, the show was sick -- Nootropics hits hard live, whether it's attacking with Kraftwerk-inspired synths and pedals and darkwave beats on "Brains" or sucking you into the abyss of "Propagation."

Before the show, I got a chance to talk to Hunter about the new album, people's relationship with technology, transhumanism, our animal selves, and Baltimore.

Boston Phoenix: What inspired the shift from the lo-fi to sound on Twin-Hand Movement to the more electronic, synth-heavy sound of Nootropics?
Jana Hunter: We were able to spend more time with the recording. It's a new-ish ensemble -- two of the members are new [drummer Nelson and keyboardist Tanton] and this is just the sound we arrived at after working on these songs. It probably also had something to do with the fact that they started out in a digital form. They started out being written on a computer as opposed to with pedals and a guitar. Their nature is a little cleaner.

What changed for you, personally, as a songwriter?
I'm in a different part of my life, I'm thinking about different things. I'm in less of a survival mode and in more of an analysis mode.

Did Baltimore have an influence on the record? "Brains" and "Lion in Winter Part 2" seem to have something of the Ed Schrader / Future Islands / Dan Deacon noisy dance-punk Baltimore sound in them.
I think it did, but more on Twin-Hand Movement. The newer record was written almost entirely outside of Baltimore so I would say it has a lot less to do with Baltimore in particular. The band is still based in Baltimore but I live in Texas, Will [Adams, guitarist] lives in New York. I just moved back to Texas. I wanted to spend some time with my family, I've been away from them for a long time. So far it's been working out okay.

In that case, how did Baltimore influence Twin-Hand Movement?
The first record has a lot to do with being part of an active inspiring community, that community being Baltimore. I started working on it a lot after the Baltimore Round Robin and after being there for a little while and kind of seeing how so many different people there are pursuing their own interest but still being supportive of one another. It's really different from any other place that I've lived.

Nootropics has a lot of spacier, dreamier elements to it too. Do you draw any of your inspiration from dreams?
I don't have a terribly vivid dream life. I'm not someone that remembers their dreams or puts too much weight on their meaning. I think that's just my reaction to waking life -- waking life is surreal. I think when you stop and take almost any of life's daily moments out of context, it seems really bizarre. It makes much less sense than they do in the construct of the weird human society that we've made for ourselves.

How did the track "Brains" come about?
Separately, I worked on some ideas for songs beginning in melodic structures and "Brains" started as more of a percussive rhythmic exercise. From that, I had a list of things I wanted to write about on the record, some things that have been floating around in conversation, things that have been heavy on my mind, and one of them has been our relationship to technology, specifically, to artificial intelligence. It feels like we're on the verge of having artificial intelligence be something of a reality and that's a really fascinating idea given that for the most part humans have been really terrified of technology or at the very least have this very dichotomous relationship with it. We're happy to have our lives enriched by technology but we're also afraid of it stripping or lives of meaning. that's something I've been thinking about a lot, so when i started working on this tense, noise-influenced rhythmic exercise, it seemed to hold all the tension necessary for a song like that. And once that lightbulb went off, that song went really quickly.

It's really claustrophobic.
It's like we're bouncing against the inside of a box.

How does the kind of music you're making with Lower Dens differ from the folkier solo stuff you were recording before?"
The whole reason I started this band was to write different kind of music because the music that I wrote around the time that I worked with Devendra, and prior to that, pretty much my whole life, was intended to help me express difficult personal feelings. And the more that I did that and the more that I performed it live, the less I enjoyed it, and I realized that it was because I was trying to force them to be public which for me was increasingly uncomfortable. So I quit. The band came about as a way to play music that was meant to share with people. And that's why it has a completely different nature -- because it's meant to be something different, something meant to be willingly shared and enjoyed with others.

The album is titled Nootropics, after brain-enhancing drugs such as piracetam. Was anyone in the band taking nootropics while making the album?
No I don't think anyone in the band was actually on nootropics. It was something that I read about in doing research for the record had interest in transhumanism for a while or peoples relationships with transhumanism. I love watching YouTube videos of people who are telling their experiences taking nootropics and for me it became a metaphor for what the record was about -- people wanting to understandably improve their lives by taking a pill. But that's the kind of solution -- quick, easy, small cheap -- and it doesn't always help their problems sometimes it makes them worse.

So in some ways it's about robots becoming people and people becoming robots.
Yes. The world is strange.

What about some of the more relaxed, spacier tracks, like "In the End is the Beginning" or "Propagation"?
"In the End is the Beginning" started as a guitar riff. That's the one song whose basic structure ended up being more or less how it was when I was writing it -- the lyrics are from that time, the bass part is the same. And even that guitar buildup at the end... I was in a very weird place. I had been out at this house on the eastern shore writing songs for a couple of weeks by myself, I hadn't seen anybody, and that song came towards the end. I found myself in a dark place -- I think I was feeling like I hadn't really come up with any of good material, which was casting a shadow over everything, I was playing guitar for a few hours and it just kind of happened.

For "Propagation," I had written the basic structure but the band added a lot to the feeling. We had this little amp plugged into the cigarette lighter in our van and we were playing guitar riffs on a loop pedal through this amp in the back seat of our van while we were on tour. When I listen to it I close my eyes and I can see the mountain ranges that we were driving through.

And as a purely aesthetic non-sequitur, when did you cut off all your hair?
It was over a period of time -- I got a lot of haircuts slowly, it got shorter and shorter. It went from begin super long to a really long mullet to a shorter mullet to a bob cut and eventually into a super short military looking haircut.

Anytime a haircut involves shaving a part of my head, like shaving the side or the back or both, people have a really intense reaction to it. I get a lot more comments. It doesn't seem that unusual to me. I've never shaved my whole head but it seems to have a pretty big impact on people -- it could mean something significant. I wonder what the subconscious metaphor is, like what that means to our animal selves. It must mean something because people have a crazy reaction to it.



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