In 2010, Baltimore’s Lower Dens quietly put out their debut record Twin-Hand Movement, one of the year’s criminally underrated releases. For the introspective, freak-folk-rooted frontwoman Jana Hunter, it was the latest in a long line of projects, this time teaming up with Will Adams and Geoff Graham to create their tense and atmospheric kraut-inspired rock. After adding multi-instrumentalist Carter Tanton and bassist Nate Nelson to the group last year, the group has returned with their entrancing sophomore effort, Nootropics.
What remains as interesting as Lower Dens’ music is their latest record’s overarching themes that reference the memory-enhancing class of drugs, and how they symbolize our society’s inclinations toward quick and easy self-improvement. Hunter spoke with us recently about Nootropics, the concept of transhumanism and what she hopes people take away from their album.
Walk me though how you came to the topic of Nootropics. I read a little bit that it’s about transhumanism, but how did you come to that?
Jana Hunter: Well the Baltimore community, they get really heavily into a lot of the material on Twin-Hand Movement, which you may or may not know… [that] there are a lot of people there who are really heavily interested in the fringes of society and things that aren’t revealed in history and culture and they, people there were the ones who first got me in to transhumanism and reading Ray Kurzweil.
So we bought that book and we talked about it in the car a lot, we all read it. We kind of developed this thing where we will buy three or four books and then trade them around the van and talk about them. It also came about because when you spend so much time with the same four people, encountering the same experiences, we found anyway that we ended up talking a lot about our views about society, specifically about American society versus the other places that we were touring to and what we kind of admired about the society, what we admired about people and what we thought could or should change to improve people’s lives. We talked about kind of the human nature, how we kind of design our lives to fill them with as much comfort as possible but we don’t always have a clue about what actually makes us happy and the resulting tensions from that, and how the way a lot of large problems in our society.
When everyone’s reading this and discussing this on tour, and seeing it across different countries as you’re touring, were there particular examples that stood out to you in terms of the topics you were reading about?
Hunter: I mean no, I don’t have a very good memory. My memory doesn’t work in that way, like I don’t, I remember few very specific instances really and I more remember like… ideas coming out over time, but I don’t remember the conversation in particular.
As you read Kurzweil and work through ideas of transhumanism, did notable examples stand out as you toured the United States and Europe? Particularly ones that may have directly influenced you while writing the album?
Hunter: Well, when I first heard about nootropics some time ago, I probably turned to like Wikipedia and started reading about it. My first encounter with the idea was kind of fascination and also this kind of problem because it’s one of those things that seems akin to any other ideas that we have about, like avenues for building our life like technological ones…the option to improve our lives. But I guess my reaction to it is we have these ideas about improving our lives through technology. For me it was kind of a microcosmic idea that it’s more of a metaphor of what the record is about.
The record’s not all about pills that we take to improve our capabilities, the record is about the drive in humans and to find an easy way to improve our lives versus coming to a greater understanding about ourselves and making decisions about our society and our lives based on the current understanding, decisions based on impulse much more often than sort of analysis and resulting understanding. When I encountered nootropics, it came to me with that kind of idea.
When I [saw] people’s first-hand account of their experiences with nootropics, [it] seems different to me than people who rush in to buy new technological products or to any of those myriad things in our society that offer us quick and easy fix to what really aren’t such simple problems and what result in our society being something that isn’t bandaged to cover up much deeper wounds. That is more what the record is about and you know, those kind of things, you know, they’re everywhere so I think we might have mentioned when we tour we end up talking about food quite a bit because we, you know we have to figure out how to feed ourselves without a way that’s not disgusting that still allows us to get to the festival on time.
We’ve had a lot of conversations, we had a particular conversation about that actually stands out quite a bit, about how our parents are mostly from the baby-boomer generation, the generation that started using processed food and microwaves. I remember you know my mother being very excited about the microwave and most of us remember our mothers being, you know talking about kind of the amazing miracle of processed food…It did change our parents in a fundamental enough way that they can recount the stories 20 years later and you can still see the excitement in their eyes. They also really fundamentally changed our society in ways that probably aren’t, [but] they seem to us to be detrimental. Like kind of hugely detrimental and you know, we’re just starting with the slow food movement, kind of reclaim global food as a much better alternative. But it is our nature, and there’s no judgment in that statement, but it is our nature to take what is easy over what is truly better for us.
So that’s really what almost everyone is going to do, myself included, in interviewing you, which is researching something on Wikipedia instead of reading a book on it.
Hunter: Right. Reading about it and really, you know and I think that we, I think the hardest thing for humans to do is to, to try to really understand ourselves and accept things about ourselves. Accept that we have these flaws and you know, embrace them and try to deal with them instead of just pretending that they don’t exist.
Tell me about the one-two punch of “Brains” and “Stem,” since they kind of go into each other?
Hunter: “Brains” is a song about the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence, this fascination that we have with them and also the kind of deep, primal fear that we have of machines taking over all of us. Musically, it was a definitely like a direct descendant of a lot of like Kraftwerk and [that] same period of time and you can hear that obviously in the rhythm and beyond that I wanted to write that something that had an incredibly simple structure—it left itself really open for these heavy lyrics and topics and make it as long as possible so that we could kind of like throughout the course of the song just fulfill a need to… just you know play and take our time, but the rest of us can develop a tonal state over it. And then “Stem” was just really different, like I wrote it at a different time not thinking about it at all and I don’t know why, I just decided to add it to the end of the song while I was writing it.
And the other song is “Candy.”
Hunter: “Candy,” let’s see, I wrote it on guitar, the basic structure on guitar and it was something that I wrote in the same kind of way that I wrote a lot of Twin-Hand, which is just to sit in the studio by myself and write with a guitar, pedal and a microphone and write something, like it developed several layers, including vocals that just became something undeniable to me. It was just a way of making my own little snippets of ear candy. It’s just something that I do all the time, I just go in a room and make something, you know keep working on it until it like completely enchanted me. So that’s what I did with “Candy,” and the band kind of tore it apart and structured it as a band pop song. The original is much, like, much more mellow and super creepy. And believe it or not, the band version is much less creepy. The lyrics in “Candy” are like [written] with this weird sort of hero complex about saving someone while possibly also detesting them at the same time, but deciding that you have to save them regardless. So it’s kind of like a “shouldn’t even be here,” like weird lover that you’re rescuing from a difficult situation, but at the same time not really having a whole lot of emotional ties to that individual, and it was something of like them, or the narrators’ relationship to people in general.
Going from here, with this idea, where do you see the next two parts of this larger cycle headed? Have you thought about that yet?
Hunter: We have thought about it, yeah. In the initial conversation that we had where we kind of fleshed out ideas about the third and fourth, and I kind of don’t want to speak about them too much, I want to give them as much room to grow as they need to. But I will say that they, the idea was to kind of imagine, over the course of the four records, a transition from our modern society to a better world, even if we weren’t actually documenting that shift in real life to, to start from a very real place and then to write a vision of different sort of world. It’s the hope that we will actually witness that transition and realize that in real life.
So whenever you’re at the end of this, what are your hopes that someone will take away from it?
Hunter: What do I hope people take away from it?
Yeah. If someone was unfamiliar with this album or the four albums together, what do you hope they take away from it?
Hunter: I don’t expect that many people will read too much into or about what the records are about and I’d be really happy if they did and had, it provoked some sort of reaction in them. But more than anything, I hope that people enjoy the music, I mean as much as the subject matter of the records helps me to write and helps drive our conversations and helps us expose those things that we feel are honest observations of the world around us, more than anything is what I hope people take away from it.