Name: Lower Dens
Progress Report: Jana Hunter chats about Lower Dens’ sophomore album, Nootropics.
Jana Hunter is a woman of many talents. Over the past decade she has recorded music and toured with everyone from Devendra Banhart, CoCo Rosie, Deer Tick, Phosphorescent and Indian Jewelry. As a solo artist Hunter has released two excellent solo albums — 2005’s Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom and 2007’s There’s No Home. In 2010 Hunter joined forces with a crew of fellow Baltimore musicians to form Lower Dens and their debut album, Twin-Hand Movement, became one of that year’s loveliest surprises. Shaking off the freak-folk vibe of her solo recordings, Lower Dens is a study in atmospheres — hazy guitar sounds stretching out in a million different directions while Hunter’s voice floats through the songs like a ghost. Next month Hunter and Co. will release their sophomore album, the languid, future-obsessed Nootropics, which finds the band soundtracking the moment when humanity and technology (and lots of cool guitar pedals) collide.
STEREOGUM: Lower Dens toured so much for 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement. That must have been kind of grueling, no?
HUNTER: We did. We did a lot of touring. Kind of an exhausting amount of touring. We definitely exhausted ourselves, and maybe everybody else. Just in the US though, we didn’t get to go anywhere else. But we did play ourselves to death. One of our band members quit during that time — he’s set to come back now, but for a while he was just done. And a lot of other things happened. It was a very difficult, exhausting year but it was very rewarding in terms of building an ensemble. It actually feels like a totally different band than it did when we started. We perform totally differently. I don’t mean stage performance necessarily, but with each other. We work totally differently. I really, really love being in this band. I can’t overstate how much I love playing with these people.
STEREOGUM: Was that a fairly new experience for you? I know you’d toured and played with bands before but on your previous records it was really just you? Is it a totally different feeling or some kind of different psychology involved being in a band that isn’t necessarily present when it’s your own solo project?
HUNTER: Definitely. At the very least it’s that these are long-term relationships and in every other group that I’ve played with, either playing my own music or playing somebody else, it was a quickie relationship, even just a show or two. This is the first group that I’ve spent this much time with. In the past I’ve always been the sole or for the most part the sole songwriter. And I do write the songs for Lower Dens but this is more collaborative in terms of building the overall sound and with the members contributing their own parts and us deciding together what direction we’re going in, sonically and otherwise. Yes, that’s a totally new experience for me.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by the reaction to the last record?
HUNTER: I don’t know that I was surprised. I was very excited about it, but I didn’t have much in the way of expectations one way or the other.
STEREOGUM: There seemed to be a lot of love for that record.
HUNTER: Yeah. It was unexpected. You know, having put out a few records before, I never did very well — at least financially — and I learned to just stop worrying about that part of things. There’s just no point. If you can play shows and sustain yourself without having to wait tables then that seems like kind of a luxury, at least to me. I’ve always been very grateful when people have enjoyed my work and I make it a point to say so. I’ve always felt good about the feedback from my work — both from fans and from other artists — but with Lower Dens there was more of that than I’ve ever experienced, which has been exciting.
STEREOGUM: When you finally finished touring Twin-Hand Movement, did you have any time off before you started working on the new record?
HUNTER: We really never took time off. We’d have three weeks here and there, but we more or less toured continuously and then started working on stuff in between tours when it became clear that we weren’t gonna get an extended amount of time off to only work on new music. When it came time to get down to business on the next record and start recording, we were pretty much ready. We’ve had a little bit of time to relax since the record was finished, but there’s been so much more to do this time — in terms of getting ready to go back out on the road — than I ever would have expected.
STEREOGUM: Where was Nootropics recorded?
HUNTER: We recorded most of it at a studio in Michigan called Key Club. It’s a fantastic studio that’s kind of off the beaten path. We basically lived there for a month and recorded every day, from the time we woke up until the moment we went to sleep. It was pretty fantastic. They had a pretty amazing collection of gear and cool stuff for us to use.
STEREOGUM: Was that the first time you’ve been able to work that way? To take off for an entire month and dedicate yourself solely to recording?
HUNTER: Yes. Everything else I’ve always recorded at home. There’s No Home was totally recorded in my house and the last Lower Dens record was recorded near where we lived, so we’d all just go home every night. This is the first time that we’ve all packed up and went somewhere far away from where we live. It was a very cool experience. I could definitely get used to it.
STEREOGUM: Who produced the record?
HUNTER: His name is Drew Brown. He’s done engineering work for Beck and Nigel Godrich. It was a new thing for us — none of us had ever worked with a producer before, so it took some getting used to, the navigating of what is a very complex relationship. He did great work for us. There were a few moments of extreme tension in the studio — as there should be, I think — but in the end we made something fantastic together. And it’s something that we probably could not have done by ourselves.
STEREOGUM: Did you have all of the material ready when you went into the studio?
HUNTER: We had arrangements for all the songs worked out beforehand and we came to the studio with exactly the number of songs we wanted on the record, so we knew what we wanted to do. But we asked for a producer, so we were certainly open to taking his suggestions as much as possible. He had a lot of suggestions for things we could add and lots of suggestions for how it could be sculpted in the mixing process. So much of it was deciding what sounds we should keep and what things should be stripped away.
STEREOGUM: The record has a very distinct sound — big and reverb-y with an almost alien quality to some of the guitar sounds. Did you have that particular aesthetic in mind when you started recording?
HUNTER: I knew that kind of universe of sounds that I wanted the record to exist in … and that had been shaped a lot by playing the songs a lot in rehearsals. We had been working with some older analog synths, plus we had a new drummer with a very specific style that we wanted to showcase. Also, we have a guy who builds pedals for us and both Will and I are avowed pedal geeks, so over the course of the rehearsals we really tried out making sounds with these new pedals we had. Some of the records that really influenced us during the making of this record would obviously be krautrock records. I listened to Radioactivity by Kraftwerk pretty much constantly while writing this record, and while we were recording we listened to a lot of Eno and Fripp and the Iggy Pop record that David Bowie produced. Stuff like that.
STEREOGUM: According to the brief little bio that Ribbon Music sent me along with a stream to the record, the title of the record, Nootropics, is a reference to the band’s interest in transhumanism — the use of technology to extend human capabilities. I won’t pretend to know exactly what that means, but where did that interest come from?
HUNTER: Well, that’s certainly a narrowing down of what informs this record. It’s one of many things that became really relevant for us. Hmm. Ideas about singularity and transhumanism were things that, over the course of many months of touring and spending hours and hours and hours in a tour van, just continued to come up in our conversations. Not necessarily the human condition but more about the human status. “Brains” is about a fascination with artificial intelligence. Another song is a reference to an old Dadaist poem called “Suicide”, which is just a recitation of the alphabet. It has to do with a fascination with human society and how things are built around language. It’s about denying our animal selves while adopting these social tools that encourage progress. Does any of that make sense? It’s basically a lot of ideas that came about when a small group of people — us — have way too much time on their hands while they are waiting to get to Milwaukee.
STEREOGUM: Well, any kind of art that tries to explore the link between the human condition and technology is always gonna be relevant and interesting … especially now, when technology atomizes at such an astonishing rate that we can barely process it as it happens in front of us.
HUNTER: It’s an analog to humankind’s relationship to itself. We are fascinated by ourselves as a species and yet still seem to barely understand our own condition, yet we press on with this exploration at a breakneck pace with barely the ability to comprehend what we do or don’t know. To me, it’s an idea that is hilarious and tragic and fascinating, all at the same time.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about getting back out on the road this year?
HUNTER: Yeah, I am. I’m sure I’ll quickly come to loathe it all over again, but for now I’m really excited about playing shows. I love getting out on the road and getting to see people that I don’t normally get to see. I’ve done it for so many years now; touring is comfortable for me. It feels like my normal routine.
Nootropics is out 5/1 on Ribbon Music.