Lower Dens Jana Hunter talks lyrical directness, coercing his godson, and new album “The Competition”

Photo: Torso

Returning from a three-year absence, Lower Dens have outdone themselves again with their new album The Competition, out Friday, September 6 on Ribbon. Its 11 infectious, sophisti-pop songs are a thing of wistful yet grounded interior grandeur. They’re sturdy enough to serve as endearing meditations on this essential/impossible human feat of juggling both our suffering with exuberance and our succinct expression with ecstatic abandon. There is a malaise that can occur in these sort of forlorn melodies when employed elsewhere, but this project continues to meet their pouty-hook comfort zone with a good measure of salient indelibility, thanks in large part to band leader Jana Hunter’s reliably steely, mellifluous voice.

Even if Hunter is imparting more direct sentiment on their new album, there’s still a curious sense of play to the otherwise established styles that should delight fans of their previous three releases. The shifting is most noticeable on the :3lON-featuring “I Drive,” whose lovelorn-ness takes on a more defiant feel than the anguished “Real Thing” (a high-water mark for the project, originally released as a single in 2016). “In Your House,” the synth-less, piano-led album closer, suggests perhaps yet another version of Lower Dens to come. But it also reinforces the earnestly emotive and fine-tuned craft that keeps one coming back.

At the start of a supporting fall tour, Hunter sounds focused and enthusiastic. The artist has a quiet confidence that disarms and demands one choose their words with care. As for how far those qualities go with a decidedly out-of-practice interviewer, look no further than the following. Amidst my fumbling and sputtering, Jana and I discussed some of the themes around his work, the project’s personnel changes, hot potatoes on the radio, and more.


[To my further embarrassment, I neglected to hit record for the first few minutes of this interview. As I recall it, I began by imparting that I’ve been a fan of Hunter’s work since the solo days, then asked about the shift from a four-piece to a duo after their 2015 release, Escape From Evil. It is was around this point that I internally gasped and hit the record button.]

…looking to shift gears for awhile and left to go to graduate school for social work. We hired somebody to play guitar so we could have a three-piece, because we weren’t sure about a two-piece. That didn’t work out. In the middle of a tour — I think we were opening for UMO [Unknown Mortal Orchestra] — we decided to just give it a shot as a two-piece, and we really both enjoyed it more than we thought we would. The band, the people that work on the recordings and stuff, I think is just gonna be me and Nate [Nelson, drums] from now on out. But we are hiring people to play with us, and for this tour, we’ve played a few shows with Peter Tran [Curved Light]. He’s based out of Austin, but used to be a Baltimore person, and we really like him as a person and a musician. He’s gonna be coming with and doing some synth stuff, but mostly playing guitar.

I recall you mentioning earlier that you were not into playing live solo. Is that feeling coming back a little bit, just kinda being up there? The music’s more beat driven and danceable so maybe you’re going with that more than bearing your soul or whatever.

Yeah, exactly. I realized [that] after a few years of solo touring, and I still find it to be the case. There’s still sometimes in between tours with Lower Dens where I will play solo shows while I’m kind of working out new material. And I’ve been doing it a lot longer and feeling a bit less exposed when I’m playing those shows. But I don’t enjoy them as much. I miss the camaraderie of having other musicians on stage. And I realized I don’t know if I’m equipped to be as vulnerable in front of people night after night as you have to be playing more quieter or more thoughtful, introspective music. I like playing danceable music with people a lot more. So, it was that kind of personal decision.

But you still feel a need to approach that old material or even write new material like that?

I have written material that is more like those songs. Not in a little while. I have some unreleased stuff. I don’t feel like it’s on the same caliber as the songwriting I was doing back then, but it’s much more like that kind of thing. I might put it out eventually. I do sometimes want to make more quiet or considerate music, and really wanna work on instrumental stuff, but probably not for release. I don’t wanna expose it to a commercial market anymore, that’s for sure.

That makes sense. But you explore some kinda hard, painful things through this more accessible — you can kinda have a reverie, or escape to this sort of music — sound.

Exactly. That’s one of the things that I hope to do with Lower Dens. Like you’re saying, there’s a lot of vulnerability or expression of pain in these songs, but it’s all kind of…

Trying to move through it, or whatever?

Well, it’s like sublimated within the accessibleness that you’re talking about. There’s the famous Baltimore club song “Dance the Pain Away.” Y’know, that’s it. That’s the whole thing.

Yeah, I get that. So I was just listening to “Buster Keaton” and thinking it reminded me of Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring. Is that something you were listening to making this album?

Um, no. I was listening to Talk Talk a bit before Escape From Evil, but I don’t think I’ve listened in a couple of years.

I think there’s a child’s voice that comes in, or childlike singing that comes in?

There just happened to be a child around when I was doing those parts. And I was like, “Hey, come here.”

Nice! Same with the second track [“Hand of God”]?

That’s the same kid. That’s my godson.

Oh, that’s fun.

Yeah, it was really fun. I couldn’t get him to sing the word “bitch.” He was like “No, I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna get in trouble.” And we were just like “how about you just say the word ‘bench’?” Because it’ll sound exactly the same. So, I got him to record that, and Morgan Lebus at our record label [Ribbon] was like “You know what, I think ya gotta redo it. He’s gotta sing ‘hey bitch,’ because it’s just not hitting right.” And so I dragged him back into the studio and was like, “Look, you’re not gonna get in trouble.” And we did record it, and it was pretty fun.

[laughing] That’s great!

Yeah, coerce an 8-year-old into saying cuss words is a good influence. [laughs]

Yeah, I like how a thing like that characterizes an album and fleshes it out. In approaching making music that can speak to the way some music spoke to you as a young person, did you find any sort of disconnect? Like, do you think things are universal, or did you think about how maybe you feel different from kids growing up now versus how you were when you were growing up? Or was it just sort of intuitive?

I mean, I think about that all the time. I imagine a lot of slightly older queer people think about this a lot. I used to think about how I had it easier than the generation [before] me. And I’m glad that kids now, for the most part, are able to be themselves without as much risk of being punished for it. Of anybody, the people I wanna reach are the kids who are still in… I dunno, I say wanna reach them, but the kind of music we make, I don’t know if it reaches kids. But those are the kind of people I’m thinking about; kids living outside of cities and in conservative homes and not able to be themselves and, hopefully, via the internet, connecting with other kids in [similar situations].

A lot of your tour targets college areas, so maybe some of those kids are freshmens [Jana rightfully snickers], leaving conservative households for the first time.

Yeah, those are good points.

I just remember that feeling, though I didn’t come from one of those households and I’m a cis-gendered male. But I did come from a small town and you look for— getting off track, sorry. But I think that you’ll do it. It’s maybe hard to target these things, but we kind of float around and all find what we find.

Thinking about it, I feel like our own interests tend to skew a little bit older. And I don’t think that our audiences are majority queer people necessarily; I think a lot of straight, cis people listen to our music. But I think it helps for them to see someone that they’re familiar with transition, and hopefully that humanizes trans people for those who still see them as an oddity or a novelty or something.

Yeah, I think that’s true. So I notice you favor, and you get categorized this way, sort of dream pop and more ethereal sounds. Was there a resonance to that sort of feel that led how you approached Lower Dens?

I had a Cocteau Twins phase, but not a heavy one. It was just one of a lot of bands I was listening to at that time. I think that I have other influences that came together to make me write that way, but it wasn’t necessarily… I didn’t listen to a lot of contemporary music growing up, but I had older siblings who played a handful of bands for me. But I didn’t listen to Cocteau Twins until well after high school. I knew The Smiths, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, U2, and Prince, and that’s about it when I was a younger person. I played classical music growing up, which I think gave me a real appreciation for really dramatic chord progressions. In high school, I was playing in an orchestra, and we’d play [Samuel Barber’s] , and I was a very sad, morose teenager, and things like that really spoke to me. Baroque music was a good expression of intensity and frustration that I felt as a younger teenager. After that, I got really into what was first called indie rock — Pavement, Sebadoh — then I got really into 80s dance music when I got older that kind of reminded me of my youth. And all of those things came together into me writing the stuff that I write. I never really listened to what 10 years ago they were calling yacht rock or whatever. I’m not saying I don’t like them, but I never got into Fleetwood Mac. There are so many bands that I didn’t have any time with when I was younger. So I feel like what I ended up writing was more a bit of this, bit of that.

So the Twin Hand Movement material was just a mish-mash of indie rock influence, plus what your bandmates were listening to as well)?

Well, like post-punk. A lot of Wire and Joy Division, in particular. That’s what I was listening to. That was much more like a rock record.

Great record! Still sounds good.

Thanks.

Sure. So you’ve — since the first two Lower Dens — walked away a bit from the ambiguity of the earlier material for more direct songs about love or unrequited love on The Competition. Was this a conscious decision?

Yeah. I get really frustrated with the lengths that I go to obscure everything in writing music, so I’m trying to make it more direct and less obscure. But I’m wrestling with a kinda subconscious impulse to be never direct with anything. But on this record, I really am trying to be direct.

I think that’s effectively done and still works with the established feel of your work. It’s a nice evolution. Really natural-feeling.

Cool.

“Real Thing” is a really good song. I liked it when you put it out in 2016 and was really worried you might change it for the album. Did you at all? I couldn’t notice anything.

No. I wanted to, but we decided not to in the end, because we didn’t wanna have two competing versions of it out there.

I was looking up the lyrics. Of course, I don’t think you have much control over this, but Google says the line is “I want to death without the banging” and I’m pretty sure it’s “dance with an abandon,” right?

Yeah, it is. It does crack me up; I don’t know how that happens. “I wanna to death without the banging”? [laughs]

[laugh] Yes! “Death without the banging.” I don’t know what that means!

That’s an amazing.. I don’t know what you call that, when you mishear a lyric, but that’s a good one.

So, it’s “dance with an abandon.” That song speaks super direct. There’s nothing to parse. You’re just sort of feeling something with someone who’s very sad. Do you think it’s weird that we need that? That we commune with pieces of culture that don’t necessarily make us feel better? So people will call it wallowing, but I like “commune” better, because it seems like this feeling is not going anywhere, so the melody in what you do makes it more bearable.

Our lives are full of those emotions, and we need time with them. We need time to ruminate and think about where they came from and process them. There’s no healthy way out of one of those emotions without spending time with them. For me, writing songs is often a way to put those somewhere where I can get a little bit of distance and have some perspective on them. There are times where I sing the song live, and I can and can’t handle the emotion, and it becomes too much for me in the moment. But for most part, I think that bonds it to people who don’t always get a chance express those things or they don’t have the words for them. People still just need to know there’s other people out there feeling that way.

So “Young Republican” is kind of a different thing. It could be misunderstood as “giving the devil their due” or something.

I was surprised that someone I know was like “Hey, are you actually a Republican now?” But I feel like there’s no mistaking the meaning. It’s a little less confrontational than I’d like it to be. But I don’t imagine they’re thinking that I’m endorsing their views.

You might as well have made it more aggressive, as the radio thinks it’s too much of a hot potato or something.

Yeah, I mean, I think that they’re saying that any potato is a hot potato. Like y’know… Body-temperature hot potato is too hot.

[laugh] I dunno. It’s mystifying to me.

Oh, it’s just money. I don’t think there’s any mystery to it. I think it’s just… There are conservatives that hold purse strings in radio, and that’s the end of that story [laugh]. I think we could’ve gone more aggressive, both with the song and the way we introduced it. I used “Young Republicans,” because that’s such a well-known — it’s not the most active Republican youth organization, whose members go on to hold political power; that’s a group called College Republicans. But it’s not as recognizable and doesn’t make as good of a lyric. So the name there is symbolic.

I’ll just do a couple more quick questions. Is The Competition’s cover inspired by Fritz Lang/Metropolis?

Kind of, in a round about way. Miles Witner [sp?] and I met; we talked about that movie Brazil for a long time. And that film took a lot cues from Metropolis, so we talked about that too. But it’s mostly from Brazil.

Do you like doing videos?

I do. I can really embrace the ham-it-up part of my job.

I was wondering about the toothbrush thing in the video for “I Drive,” as it seems to be an increasingly common motif in film and television. You’ll see people having a conversation or kinda multi-tasking while doing it. I wonder if it isn’t an attempt by the powers that be to replace the cigarette as a visual. Characters smoking a cigarette has always been very cool-looking, so I wonder if the toothbrush is the new cigarette.

The new oral fixation in film?

Yeah.

I don’t know. I wonder if that’s a case of, like, “Are there more toothbrushing scenes in film and video, or have you started noticing.”

Maybe more things are just staring at people now, but cigarettes were just ever-present a thing to sort of help establish someone as cool, and I feel like it’s such a steady thing that I see with the toothbrush, Rolling Stone going “Jana Hunter with a toothbrush,” and it just seems like a healthier way of looking cool or having a prop.

The cool thing about that was that the director [Jason Nocito] was, like, “Hey, what would you think about brushing your teeth at the beginning of this video?” And what he didn’t know was that my partner has an Instagram that’s all about teeth brushing, so I was very excited to brush my teeth for that video.

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