Interview: Lower Dens
Lower Dens burst out of Baltimore’s thriving alternative scene in 2010, delivering a highly-acclaimed debut album named Twin-Hand Movement. After two years touring the record – including opening for the likes of Beach House and Deerhunter – the band are now back with sophomore effort Nootropics.
Band-leader Jana Hunter and bassist Geoff Graham made time to talk to us about career highlights, memory-enhancing drugs and the creative processes involved in writing on the road. See what they had to say for themselves below.
Hi guys, where are you right now?
Jana Hunter: We’re in Allston, Boston, at the Great Scott, in the middle of a short run of release shows. I’m working on some tracks, and most of the rest of our crew is across the street at a music store.
You started out as a solo artist: what was behind the decision to form Lower Dens? And would you ever consider writing a solo record again?
JH: I was very unhappy as a touring solo performer and decided to quit. To see friends around the country one more time before going back to a relatively settled existence, I put together a band for a US tour. During that tour, I realised that it wasn’t the touring life that I hated, but more so that the kind of music I wrote as a solo artist wasn’t something I felt entirely comfortable sharing in a performance setting. Lower Dens then was eventual result of the decision to make music with the specific intention of sharing and enjoying it with others. I’m very happy doing this and the only other music I spend any time on is, for the most part, a technical experiment and ambient. I don’t know that any of it will ever see release. Some of it makes its way, in some form, into Lower Dens songs.
Your debut album, Twin-Hand Movement, was somewhat of a sleeper hit. Why do you think that was?
Geoff Graham: It was a sleeper because when we released it, no one knew who Lower Dens were beyond Jana. We toured a whole lot to get the album out there, and I think that can go a long way towards making something unknown catch on. We tried very hard to make music that we believed imprinted on people’s minds.
JH: We gave the band a name other than my own, and made a lot of other decisions, to distance this project from other things I’ve been involved in, because the attention we could’ve garnered through those means wouldn’t necessarily have been the kind we wanted. As it is, some people can’t seem to help themselves but refer to us a freak-folk/folk outfit, no matter how uninformed that might make them look.
You've got some new members, haven’t you? Can you talk us through the line-up now please?
GG: Will Adams, Geoff Graham and Jana Hunter are the three original members of the band. Nate Nelson has replaced our original drummer Abe Sanders, and we’ve added a fifth member, Carter Tanton. He plays synths/guitar and sings.
How does songwriting in the band work now? Is it a democratic process?
GG: So far the song sketches have all been written by Jana. When she has developed them to the point that she wants to involve the band with writing, we sit down with the song and finish as a group. Every song is different but we do try to make decisions democratically, and try every idea and then decide by majority what choices we make.
So congratulations on Nootropics! For the benefit of those yet to hear it, please can you explain what they can expect sonically from the record please?
GG: Well for the benefit of those who have yet to hear it, I’m hesitant to colour the experience with musical metaphors. I do recommend really listening to it loud, though, preferably with headphones… We put a lot of sounds on every song and listening to the little details is hopefully a rewarding experience.
How do you feel you’ve progressed artistically since Twin-Hand Movement?
GG: Nootropics is an epic. We’ve expanded in most ways: it’s like a Howard Hughes movie now.
We heard you’d never played keyboard before this album: was composing songs on it done out of necessity or a desire to challenge yourself, or something else entirely?
JH: We toured Twin-Hand Movement incessantly, and it became necessary at some point to devise a way to write in transit. We tried plugging a little amp into the cigarette lighter in our van, but it wasn’t a sufficient substitute for home-recording. There is also always the desire to impose certain conditions and restraints on the creative process because this is one method – the one I prefer – to provoke results that are interesting, or inspiring, or whatever. Once, a reverb pedal did that all by its lonesome, but it’s a long time since then. So we bought a laptop computer and a midi-keyboard (neither of which were instruments I’d used to compose before) and I wrote in the backseat with headphones. It allowed for a more isolated headspace and, accordingly, the songs had a different nature than those I’d previously written on guitar.
And what were your musical inspirations when writing and recording the album?
JH: I do, intentionally and with this band only, pick some touchstones. But for this record, [it was] only Radioactivity by Kraftwerk, really. Not the sound particularly, though the keyboard-based writing process did get me interested in synthesis. What I was more fascinated by was their song construction. My favourite songs on that record are more or less “pop” songs, but they’re very patient in their development. I was excited about the possiblities afforded by this kind of patience, and have always been interested in the kind of revelation that comes with repetition in music. I worked with these ideas on Nootropics.
I hear a lot of other music that I like in it, but their presence is happenstance. I didn’t set out to write a song that sounded like Beach House with ‘Propagation’, but I hear them in it. I like their music very, very much. Bands writing pop songs in tribute to their contemporaries is a tradition I’ve always liked, and one I wish wasn’t so frowned upon or dismissed as its cheap cousin, the rip-off. That isn’t what I set out to do, but I guess it’s what happened, in my opinion. There’s an ending to one song that I’m sure was influenced by a lifetime of listening to Ween, but I won’t say which song.
Please can you explain the thematic preoccupations on the album?
GG: Nootropics are substances or drugs that humans could take that would change the way their minds function. If you find yourself living in a time when humans are developing technology that can alter our DNA, our memory, our cognitive ability, and our consciousness, the question “What does it mean to be human?” is no longer just a spiritual query but an engineering question. Check out the hedonistic imperative. We could chemically reprogram ourselves to no longer experience any pain. Should we? Is that the point?
We read that Nootropics is part of a four-album cycle: can you explain in a bit more detail please? And do you know what shape parts three and four will take yet?
GG: Yes, you heard correctly there will four “movements” or “chapters” in the arc of our albums. We do know what three and four will be, but don't want to give it away. If Twin-Hand Movement was about coming together and beginning a ritual and realising potential, Nootropics is about growing outwards and facing difficult place-defining questions.
You’ve supported some really fantastic acts. Who was the greatest to tour with and why? And did you learn anything from playing with them?
GG: I think musicians are always learning from each other, and that is one of the great things about touring. I’ve learned more about music from touring than maybe anything else. You’re really asking me to pick a favorite? Think of all the feelings I could hurt! Touring with Beach House is really special on a personal level because, beyond the fact that they are amazing, hard-working and inspiring, Alex is a close friend of mine from years back. So touring with them is like a reunion of sorts for me.
Baltimore boasts a pretty thriving music scene. Is there a sense of competition between the bands?
GG: The whole thing about the Baltimore music scene is that it is almost completely non-competitive. You move to town and people are like, “Oh, you play music? Let's do something together!” It’s very natural and supportive. It’s not the case elsewhere. I can’t say enough about how great this has been and how I hope it stays that way and that I hope there are lots of other cities where it’s the same.
If you could recommend one album to us, aside from your own, what would it be and why?
JH: Mango Surprise by Food Pyramid. They're a newish, young band from the middle of the US that get exponentially better every time I run across them. This record is instrumental, synth-based and fantastic.
Finally, what’s been the highlight of being in Lower Dens so far, and what would you still like to achieve?
GG: Playing in front of, like, 4,000 people in London. Playing in front of an audience of about 15 people – 14 of which were other people involved with the show – in a warehouse above a book store in Birmingham, Alabama (it really was a perfect show). Driving all night through the Rockies in the moonlight, talking about what the second album was going to be like. I personally really want to work with classical musicians on something, maybe a score.