A few years back, we had the chance to do an interview with the talented Jana Hunter of Lower Dens. Now, with the band’s third full length record fully absorbed into our systems and an upcoming show next Tuesday at Asylum (along with locals Snaex and harmony-loving indie poppers TEEN), we talked to Jana once again for an update on the band’s development and to get some insight into the new album, Escape From Evil.
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HT: We’re loving the new record. It feels familiar, but at the same time it’s clear that there’s been a shift in your songwriting and production that gives the songs a different sort of voice to your music, that seems to be at once more personal and more pop-oriented. What may have contributed to the change/were they conscious choices or did the evolution just happen naturally as you worked on the album?
JH: When the band was touring Nootropics, we started talking about moving toward simplicity. We’ve always been drawn to restriction as a means of drawing new ideas of ourselves, and I guess the first notion about a post-Nootropics project was that we’d reduce elements of songwriting to their most basic versions. Also, in a reaction to the headiness and the intellectual reaching of the last record, I wanted to come from the furthest opposite end of the spectrum in terms of lyrical content, meaning I wanted to bypass all things sentimental and write about things that are true, being honest with myself past the point of worrying how I’d be seen. To me there was a parallel movement in writing very simple song elements and in writing very basic, true things in our lyrics. Finally, when it came time to record and produce, I wanted to draw from the first music that was very important to me, which were the songs my older siblings loved. This led me to remembering and in a few cases revisiting The Smiths, U2, Prince, 10,000 Maniacs, and a few others. In particular, I think the guitar work on The Smiths and the production on the Eno/Lanois U2 records had a significant influence while we were in the production phases of making the album. In my opinion, we’ve always been a pop band, but I say this as somebody coming originally from classical music; to me there never was much outside of classical and jazz that wasn’t pop. I know what you mean though, and I use that definition of “pop” as well, but what I think it means is “accessible.” We didn’t try to write songs that would be accessible, but I think our other goals led us in that direction. Pop is, or has been, the music that the western world has used for a little while now to communicate very basic universal notions that could be understood by wide swaths of people. I hope we’ve done something like that.
The synth elements that appeared on Nootropics have moved even more into the sonic foreground on Escape From Evil, along with tighter, dancier drums that definitely contribute to the 80’s feel that everybody who hears it seems to notice. Where does that come from/is there a specific influence that inspired it (either a band or motivation from within Lower Dens)?
In addition to making the songwriting simpler, making the lyrics more raw, we wanted to strip back the reverb and other effects. Essentially we wanted everything very present. Rather than burying guitars and synths in distortion and reverb, we spend a lot of time carefully finding the right tones and then applying very small amounts of effects. I’d say that beyond the Eno/Lanois production, our other guides in this were much more often from the early 90’s. I think people have latched onto the ‘80s as a touchstone in part because we led with a song that has an ‘80s feel but also because people have a more and more difficult time sifting through the past and reconciling it with the chaotic nature of our culture and world, and don’t realize that instead of situating a thing culturally for the purposes of criticism and understanding, they’re regurgitating labels made for and by the marketplace that have nothing to do with real meaning but are instead a desperate attempt to cling to the meaning that used to exist and doesn’t any longer.
All of the songs are so poetic and strong, but “I Am The Earth” seems particularly potent. Maybe it’s the change in tempo, leaving the upbeat tenor of the other songs for more of a dirge at first, but it certainly stands out from the rest of the tracks. What I’m wondering is where that one came along in the process, and how it came to be – almost a return to form that would be at home on Twin-Hand Movement with its sparse guitars and drums.
It was one of the few that was written, musically, almost all at once during our initial band writing sessions. We even had a name and a concept for lyrics. Later, fleshing the songs out and adding lyrics, I couldn’t figure it out. It had a very triumphant second half initially. After I rewrote it as the kind of relentless, tragic epic it is now, the lyrics came very quickly. It was intended as an apology that begins sincerely, and as the narrator comes to believe more and more in the righteousness of whatever transgression their apologizing for, they recant, kind of, by being a sarcastic prick. That idea is still there in that “I Am the Earth” means the narrator is refusing to confront their part in someone getting hurt, opting instead to shut the world out, become a world unto themselves.
Recently, I saw a comedian do an entire show – an incredibly hilarious one, in fact – about their own dealings with severe depression, and at one point they said that what helped to survive it was doing just that – taking control over it on a stage and sharing it, and that the theatre was like a church in a way, because anybody in the room who felt similarly might get some comfort or strength from the show. On Escape From Evil, you’re often singing about similarly tough subject matter – broken hearts, death, loss, depression. When you wrote these songs, and as you’re performing them each night on tour, taking on the characters’ voices, is your experience anything like that at times? Or do you have any other comment on that idea?
When I wrote them, yes. Which is all I care to say about it at the moment in terms of my own experience. However, I’ll say that I think that music transforms, that it is one of the few ritual practices that we engage in en masse that has the power to liberate us from our anger, confusion, sadness, vindictiveness, etc., and it’s that I want to, we want to, share with an audience. Even if that’s not stated, even if we aren’t all aware that’s happening, I think anybody who leaves a show feeling renewed has literally been changed. It’s so much more effective than so many of the lame pacifications that we’re offered by society.
The last time we spoke with you, Lower Dens was still a very new project and we were very focused on that newness in light of your previous work. Now, 5 years in, there’s so much history and music here for Lower Dens to stand on its own. What has changed for you and the band since then? Would you still point to the same bands as references (Wire, Joy Division, Velvet Underground, and Television), and are you still psyched to have people dancing to your music?
People dance to/with us more often now. It’s always great. It’s the very best thing. I still love all those bands. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning about making music and crafting sound and I spend more time with music equipment than with other people’s music these days. When I am listening to music, it’s usually jazz or dance. I have a lot to learn from jazz and dance.
I love and understand my bandmates and our band much better than I did before, and whereas I always felt like Atlas back in those days, even though we’re not making much better money or whatever other false measures of success, I think having dedicated ourselves and having learned to support each other is what makes me feel like we’ve made it. That and the fact that I feel lucky to playing with such incredible people/performers every night. Seriously sometimes I don’t know how I fooled them into letting me play with them.
This Fall you’ll be touring in Europe after your Summer US tour. Do you ever feel like audiences in a particular place “get” the band more than in others, or respond differently to your music somehow?
I think, yes, inevitably people from different cultures respond differently. Sometimes they yell or don’t yell. They dance more, or less, or better, or longer, or harder. They do different drugs. They don’t do drugs. They were more or less clothing. They say, “You’re the shit!” vs. “I have very much enjoyed what you have played this evening. I do not usually say this.” I mean, I guess they do respond differently, but I try to be in the moment, so I don’t know if they’re responding differently makes that much of an impact or matters all that much to me.
Do you already have a plan for the next Lower Dens album? Is it likely to be another wait of a couple years, or is there already more in the works?
I don’t know!
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, and have a great tour! We look forward to catching the show!
Thanks so much! Very much looking forward to playing!
Lower Dens tour dates
Jun 16 Ferndale, MI – The Loving Touch
Jun 17 Toronto, ON – Legendary Horseshoe Tavern (NXNE)
Jun 19 Montreal, QC – Bar Le Ritz PDB
Jun 20 Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
Jun 21 Providence, RI – Columbus Theatre
Jun 22 Portsmouth, NH – 3S Artspace
Jun 23 Portland ME – Asylum
Jul 17 Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
Jul 21 Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street Entry
Jul 24 Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios
Jul 25 Vancouver, BC – Electric Owl
Jul 28 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
Jul 29 Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge
Aug 04 Atlanta, CA – The Earl
Aug 05 Chapel Hill, NC – King’s Barcade