It’s telling that Jana Hunter was invested in the concept of transhumanism when she started the writing process for Lower Dens’ new album, Nootropics. The album’s title references those pills we take to make life better, make us live long, and potentially (depending on who you ask) make us evolve. There’s a similar thread in Hunter’s evolution as a songwriter and as a musician in general. As far as having an enhanced mood, Hunter seems much more comfortable in the role of band leader than she did as a solo artist—even when the material is just as personal and dour as when she began.
Signed to Devendra Banhart’s label in the early ’00s, Hunter was categorized as a tortured, freak folkie and made records that were intimately stunning, if hard to swallow, only because you could feel her discomfort. Eventually it was too much for even her to stomach, and if it wasn’t for the close friends she acquired in Baltimore, there may have never been another Jana Hunter song written thereafter. Those friends included guitarist Will Adams, bassist Geoff Graham and drummer Abram Sanders, and they surrounded Hunter and her work like a warm glow, transforming Hunter’s skeletal folk songs into spacious psych laments. The quartet became Lower Dens, and it wasn’t long before Twin Hand Movement, the band’s 2010 debut, arrived to rave reviews.
As for the new album, the idea of Nootropics takes hold as soon as you first hear it. The album is yet another massive transformation for Hunter (and her adjoining band), moving on from the earthier debut and into uncharted realms of electronic pop and motorik rhythms. Songs like the epic “Brains” and “Lamb” recall the bubbling synths of Stereolab and the guitar excursions of Can, yet Hunter’s voice remains the focus as she adopts those concepts and sonics as her own. It’s a far cry from mimicry. As I learned in my conversation with Hunter, a lot of thought, research and practice went into building this better machine. And just like the idea of transhumanism, Nootropics, whether she envisions it as such or not, is an album that should help us adapt to our unpredictable, oncoming future.
You started making records by yourself, so what was the impetus for starting Lower Dens?
Jana Hunter: Doing the solo work was something that I never intended to make a career out of. I was pushed to do that by friends, but I could never fully embrace it and came to hate the public performances. I realized I needed to stop because it wasn’t getting any easier. I guess I could never embrace making those intimate pieces part of something public. I thought I was going to stop playing music and decided to do a tour to go out and see a lot of people I wouldn’t see for awhile. The people I took on tour made me realize I actually enjoyed playing. So then it became my intention to write music that I could share with people, and we started Lower Dens with that idea in mind.
Did you find it easy to make the transition from the sparse folk you were doing by yourself into a full band with a lot of different heads in the same room?
JH: Working out the technicality with the arrangements was difficult for me and something that has always challenged me. Fortunately, the people I work with are very good at what they do. But as far as going from being a solo performer to being in Lower Dens, it was very easy because it was fun. I found out that this was what was missing for me musically. It was much easier to throw myself into it.
It’s been about five years since you’ve released a record as a solo artist. Do you find yourself concentrating all of your songwriting efforts on Lower Dens now or is there a reserve of solo recordings that you hope to release as Jana Hunter in the future?
JH: There are a lot of songs that come out of my writing for Lower Dens that are more indicative of my solo work and don’t fit as well. I haven’t made any plans, so I don’t know what I’ll ever do with those. I feel they’re pretty good, but my mind is not on them right now.
I found that Nootropics refers to “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers.” How does the title of the record relate to the music or the mood of the record?
JH: It’s not a direct reference to the songs. It came about when we were researching for the record. After recording Twin Hand Movement, we thought we would like to have a theme for what we were doing. We were most interested in people’s relationships with modern society and the tensions between our nature and our desire for our current existence. An example of that is transhumanism. I’m not exactly a proponent of transhumanism, I just find people that have an interest in that really fascinating. One aspect of transhumanism is nootropics. I find that nootropics were a really good metaphor about people’s desire for their culture, in that there’s a pill that we want to take to make us feel better. They want to take the easy way out of a difficult existence. We want to pursue the easiest route to a more efficient, better functioning, lifestyle and I find that nootropics is a good microcosmic idea of that.
Between the two albums, it sounds like you had a bit of a transformation sonically from Twin Hand Movement to Nootropics. There’s much more texture and atmosphere in the latter. It’s much more spacey and expansive, especially songs like “Lamb” and “Candy.” Was this a conscious shift for the band or something that just came from getting more comfortable together?
JH: I think it was a bit of getting more comfortable and pushing ourselves. I have this tendency where I challenge myself to write just beyond my abilities. Twin Hand Movement was about using pedals in a creative and complex way—that was one of the goals. As we toured the shit out of that record, we became really comfortable so we looked for the next things for us to learn about and discover. Now, we looked to shaping the tones of our instruments to the nth degree. Eventually recording with a digital interfaced keyboard, I became more concerned with synthesis. I had no idea what a low frequency oscillator was. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know more about it, so it became imperative to learn and have an understanding of it. I saw that there was this entirely accessible and different aesthetic of sound that we could be using.
“Brains,” in particular, seems inspired directly from Krautrock bands like Can and Kraftwerk. What albums were you guys listening to before and during the recording of Nootropics?
JH: While I was writing, I was listening quite a bit to Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity. I’ve loved it for a long time, and what I kind of latched onto is the idea that they wrote songs in a simple pop structure, but stretched them out to great lengths, which gave them a gravity and space that they might not have had otherwise. Listening to that record rekindled my interest in Krautrock, Kraftwerk and Neu! in particular.
We are so focused on our material that I try not to listen to too much music that is coming out, so we aren’t too heavily influenced by modern trends. I don’t like the idea of comparing yourself to your peers’ current achievements. Eventually you might doubt yourself, so there’s no use for that. Beach House is a band whose music and work ethic I admire, so it doesn’t surprise me that people make a comparison. Where their influence might be apparent is a subconscious tribute to them, the same way Bowie was subconsciously writing Velvet Underground songs. I don’t see any conflict with that because we’ll never be that band and we’ll never write those songs. Of modern bands, they are the only thing I would say that might influence me at all.
In the last few years, Baltimore has earned a reputation as a place for experimental bands to blossom. Is that energy still there? Does Lower Dens feed from that or does the band stand outside of that scene?
JH: It’s definitely still there. I’ve spent so little time there in the last couple of years, though, that I find it hard to even claim it as my base. I moved to Texas recently, but still spend a lot of time (when we’re not touring) in Baltimore.
I read in an interview that you called Twin-Hand Movement an homage to sport, so I must ask about your expectations for the Orioles this season?
JH: (Laughs) I’m really not the person to ask about that. I personally don’t know jack shit about sports.