Lower Dens interview: "On this record I give myself a lot more opportunity to let loose in ways that are authentic and cathartic"
Jana Hunter photo by Torso
Lower Dens have always been an outspoken band, both politically and emotionally, with the seemingly fearless Jana Hunter spearheading their songs in no uncertain manner. Although they have gradually shifted from dreamy guitar-based rock to a brighter synth-forward sound, the topics that are important to them remain front and centre. They might write pop songs now, but they still have a strong message that is intended to be heard.
Given the heaviness of their fourth record, the just released The Competition, I didn’t necessarily expect Jana Hunter to be willing to spend too much time sifting through those ideas further. However, I underestimated just how committed and passionate he is about their beliefs, and how much he would want to expand on their tightly-written lyrics. Eloquently and insightfully, Hunter took me through the heat and pain that fuelled the powerful and unflinching tracks that make up their new record.
The Competition is the first record you've made since moving to Los Angeles, has that affected your writing style or the sound?
For most of it I was still living in Baltimore, it was just kind of finished when I moved to LA.
You guys are emblematic of the Baltimore sound, and even though your sound has changed since the early days I still see you as part of that scene.
Yeah, definitely. The music community in Baltimore has changed, naturally. The younger people are defining what the Baltimore sound is, but I still feel like my writing for this band is a product of having lived there for a long time and having been around musicians who had an influence on me. There has been and still is such a concentration of great artists there, and it's such a small place we naturally rub off on each other.
Why did you decide to move to LA?
A lot of the people I was close to have moved away from Baltimore, so it started to feel a little bit less like home in that way. I all of a sudden found myself with more people I was close to in Los Angeles than I did in Baltimore - not the same people, but still. Also it had a bit to do with having been in a pretty bad relationship and break up and wanting to move to the other side of the country from that.
OK, let's dive into The Competition. In your words, what is ‘The Competition’?
I think of it as the day to day competitive mindset that living under Capitalism forces us into. When we were young we knew better the value of quiet moments with a loved one, and engineering our life toward that. I think that growing up living under Capitalism and becoming adults you are naturally fitted into fighting for your success, if not your survival, and away from the things that make life worth living. Over time, having come to that conclusion, I've got more and more angry about it; angry about how citizens, particularly in this country, are robbed of the things in life that make it worth living.
Yeah, I was going to say it's almost definitely your angriest album yet, although sonically it doesn't sound like it. Is that a conscious decision, to try and balance the lyrical acidity with a more melodic sound?
That's something that I've always tended toward, and I think it has been a way to convey the absurdity... it's quite hard to explain to someone else, I guess it might be more of a personal thing, but I grew up in a family and culture in suburban Texas where expressing your emotions genuinely is really frowned upon. I don't know if you know the stereotype of Southern Hospitality, but part of that is amalgamating your anger and your frustration and your annoyance and all those negative emotions into a politeness and confidence and joviality, and I think having come from a culture like that it's just something that I tend towards. It's something that I've tried to get away from, but on this record I don't know if I'm hiding the anger. I do feel like it can be an effective way to lure people in; I love writing a catchy melody and I love writing a good beat, but what I really want them to hear, what I hope they will hear, is the anger and the frustration, and I hope that that resonates.
I think it definitely comes out if people are paying attention, but you never know if they will.
You never know if people will, and it's not really for me to care whether or not they do. Once it's in their hands it's theirs to do what they want.
Can you tell me about the cover art, why you decided to put yourself on it and how it relates to the album?
Well, that was not my idea to myself on the cover, our label and manager wanted that. We haven't done that, we haven't had anybody from the band on the front cover of an album, and they thought it was about time. But I love the way that the cover turned out, I was really excited to work with the photographer, Torso. They did a really fantastically weird shoot and we took one of the more normal photos, I guess.
Then the designer and I got together and talked about some of the influences on the record, and one thing was the movie Brazil by Terry Gilliam, that movie has always been a favourite of mine since I was 15 or 16, and part of it is because the protagonist’s way of escaping the horror of his reality is to open his mind. I kind of feel like that's not such a bad metaphor for how we live under Capitalism, we can subconsciously resign ourselves to being a little bit numbed by the illusory comfort in our consumer culture. So that movie, Brazil, took a lot of aesthetic cues from Metropolis, and I think that's where the design came from, and I'm really happy with it. I didn't have a lot of direct control over it, and I think that was a good thing. I've tended to hover over people when they're making our artwork, and I didn't this time and it turned out really great.
Nice. Yeah now that you've mentioned Brazil I can definitely see that in it. It's such a prescient film.
Anyway let's go on to the tracks, and the album starts with 'Galapagos', which is the island where Darwin made the core of his ideas about evolution - was that the inspiration?
No, it was the Vonnegut book Galápagos. Without giving it away, it has to do with an end-of-society scenario and angry evolution and instability, taking place in the Galápagos. The song is partly influenced by that, but the other part is that a lot of the lyrics are about the way that we create ourselves continuously throughout our lives and that's what makes us full of significance and beauty; it comes from the individual. It made me think a few things that showed up as metaphors in the song; the Earth is creating itself, the underwater fissures and volcanos are constantly feeding molten rock and fire into the ocean and then into the sky and creating islands and archipelagos, and Galápagos was the first one that I thought of, because of its often-heavy symbolism.
Very cool. Then I'm curious about 'Hand of God' next, who is the person singing in that song?
The person singing in that song is like a really overly cocky explorer, that was the idea I had in my head at the time. It's someone who's out to further their intellectual authority over God, and in their bravado and overconfidence are naturally faced with things that they can't comprehend. That’s all summed up in the handshake with God, where they lose their mind.
The funny thing about that song though is that it's hard to keep track of the narrative, because the way that I wrote it was totally different. We sent that to one of the producers to see if he wanted to add anything and he just cut up the song and put it back completely different, he was like "you know I felt like I heard a pop song in this and I wanted to bring it out." So I don't know if that narrative really translates anymore, but that's what's supposed to be going on: someone has decided to conquer God and is himself conquered.
Both on 'Hand of God' and on 'Young Republicans' you sing from the perspective of these kind of reprehensible people, do you like getting under their skin?
I think so, I think it's interesting to tell a narrative from an antagonist's perspective, maybe because it's not often done. But also because I like to think about and expose the limitations in their ways of being and how they, quite the opposite of giving people what they want and desire, just cause destruction and chaos with those kinds of overly confident feelings of authority and superiority over people.
When I was a lot younger I wrote a song that I never released, it was the first time I had ever written a song, it was about someone that I grew up with and their never-ending assertion that they were right, that being right was more important to them than living a good life, living a happy life. I found that there was a real power in that, exposing the weakness and their vulnerability in people who are looking for being correct versus being happy.
Nice. Well, not nice… In 'Young Republicans', do you have a little bit of sympathy for these people?
I do have a little bit of sympathy. I do have relatives that I care about a lot who are Republicans - as far as I know they call themselves Republicans, and they're definitely conservative in their views and social concerns. But I grew up with them, and I have a maybe condescending endless hope that they will come around. I do feel condescending in those views sometimes, but also I want them to be happy and I think the state of mind that they have to exist in to hold those views is not only so unhappy but also robs them of some of their humanity. So I always hold out a hope that they will turn it around and feel more comfortable in their species and their communities and themselves. It's a little hope, but it's something.
In that song "our silken gloves and bonnets on," is that a reference to how outdated they are?
Yeah how precious they are about those ideas, and yeah how outdated they are as well… insular, inbred political ideas behind closed doors. You can lose your mind on those.
We have to mention the video for that song - it looks like a lot of fun!
It was so fun to make that video! The director was really great; a really good director and then also just a good human and fun to be with, and the people working with him also were a really good crew - that's including the actors and everybody. Everybody took their role seriously, but made it a good time. The people sitting around the table and pretending to be elitist were all really sweet, so that was funny.
On this record would you say it's fair that there's some political songs and some love songs, it's two separate camps, or is there more cross-over than that?
I feel like there aren't very many songs from me these days that don't have a political element, but there are some songs on this record that are pretty strictly personal. 'Two Faced Love' is the first one that I can think of that is definitely like that. I'm sure there are others.
Yeah 'Two Faced Love' reminds me of older Lower Dens...
It does seem more like older Lower Dens songs, that rings true to me. When I'm writing I tend to write the music before I write the lyrics, and then try to find a subject that fits the song. 'Young Republicans' I started writing the lyrics while I was writing the song, it felt like a natural fit. But 'Two Faced Love' was a song that invited very heavy personal lyrics; it felt like a ballad to begin with.
'Real Thing' is on this record, which officially came out as a standalone single a couple of years ago, but was it always going to be part of this record?
Again that was a record label recommendation and we were really happy to do it because we felt like that song could, in the context of a full release, get a little more attention; we're really proud of it and wanted to share it with more people. And I do feel like it signalled a shift in writing for me, it definitely didn't feel like Escape From Evil, it does feel like a little bit of a precursor to this record, but close enough to include it.
Nice. I'm really glad you included it because I had somehow missed it when it came out originally, and I really love it!
See, perfect! That's great.
And I think it makes a nice central pairing on the album with 'Buster Keaton', they're kind of similar thematically would you say? They're both about someone who's struggling to understand what true love is.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
I don't really know Buster Keaton at all, so why did you name a song for him?
The song is a little bit tragic, a little bit of a tragicomedy to begin with, and he was a prominent movie star, super prolific, very physical; a lot of the stunts he did were pretty ground-breaking and horribly dangerous (there's a lot of really good YouTube compilations). In his films he just beats himself up, the physical comedy is pretty gruesome, and he's a sad figure in a lot of these films - a comically sad figure - and that's how I felt at the end of the relationship I was writing about... so that's how that happened.
It is a gruesome song. Blood comes up quite frequently in your songs, doesn't it?
Yeah, yeah it does... I think I'm just kind of an intense person, and I like to be intense deliberately.
‘I Drive’ seems like a particularly autobiographical song.
Yeah it is. That song, again I wrote the music before the lyrics, and I just wanted it to be really celebratory in a way. Acknowledge the difficulties but be celebratory. It is personal, but it's kind of more broadly personal. Part of my own life experience is bound up in that, finding a home in chosen family and wanting to celebrate that idea, because it has really helped me survive, having friends who become family, who understand - especially if you're queer - parts of you that your family can't quite understand even if they do love you.
Very nice. The part in this song "Why can't we be with the ones we were made to love?!" is probably the most cathartic point in a Lower Dens song I can think of - it's so good.
Aw thanks. That line is product of a collaboration. I wrote all the songs and all the lyrics, and I went back through all the lyrics with a friend of mine who's a writer, and that line in particular was a product of that collaboration. I'm super proud of that one.
You also sing with Elon Battle (:3lON) on this one, how do you know him?
I saw him perform at a little venue in Baltimore in the centre of town that has been hosting the best shows I've ever seen in the last few years. A lot of the younger musicians are really stepping up and I can feel the scene coming up, they're hosting a lot of shows and parties, and I saw Elon at one of those shows, and I can still remember a lot of that performance - and I have a terrible memory so that really is saying something. First of all, he made a really strong physical impression because he's really tall, he has a septum piercing, and he has just this incredible voice. I saw him perform, I was really mesmerised, he was definitely stuck in my mind.
Then not too long after that, JPEGMAFIA was living here and I liked his work, and he came out with a song with Elon on it, and I wrote him and I was like "this is so good, I'm so excited about this!" And he told me that Elon had a lot to do with why the song turned out the way that it did, and he said that he was one of the best musicians he's ever met - and I think it's true. I couldn't believe the work that he did for us on this record, particularly that song; I just asked him to sing some back-up vocals and he contributed so much more than that. He wrote a bunch of his own lyrics for that song and created harmony parts for that song, and then just straight up wrote that singing part in the bridge - he made a huge difference. He's on like three other songs on the record, but that's the one that he really shines the most.
'Simple Life', as you say you write the music before you write with the words, and I can see why this instrumental would provoke such physical lyrics.
Yeah, definitely. For me a lot of the writing on this album, especially the lyrics, is a lot more direct - and I used to be afraid to. There was a time in my life when I definitely would not have written "fuck me" in a song, especially sincerely. But the song called for it, and I felt like that was what I had to write; I had to write something that was very direct and very physical, because even without lyrics it's a pretty emotionally pummelling song.
Yeah. And does it feel good to sing that now?
[Laughs] It feels so good! It feels really good. On this record I give myself a lot more opportunity to let loose in ways that are authentic and cathartic to me. I've been excited since I wrote that song about playing it live - and a lot of these, but that one in particular.
Excellent. 'Empire Sundown' is probably the most hopeless point on this record would you say?
[Laughs] I can see that. It is meant to be really severe, but not hopeless... it's meant to paint a very bleak picture, an authentic picture of where we are, and suggest that only radical means are going to get us out, not just of the horrible political climate that we currently find ourselves in, but the societal infrastructures that we have constructed in the first place.
It was obviously written before the President's recent tweets about certain Congresswomen going back where they came from, but it feels like it's about that in a way.
Nobody wants to be right about something like that. He is so much more frightening than we thought he was going to be, not just those of us who voted against him, but the people who did vote for him because they thought that he was going to put the judges that they wanted in place so that they could overturn the heathen laws or whatever. I don't think that they imagined that he was going to a place with concentration camps, but he definitely felt like he had that potential to me. I'm really glad we wrote the song the way that we did, because it's even more appropriate now.
And then 'In Your House' ends the record with a very sombre message, but a very important message you're sending.
Yeah. That was the first political song I wrote for this record, and it's the one that's most blatantly about Trump. He is "the snake swimming in snow on television," that's a direct reference to his cocaine habit. He's a charismatic, maniacal, drug addict that is coming into our homes and sinking his teeth into us before we even realise what's going on. Those lyrics were written just after the election, or maybe just before.
Well, coming up to the next election in 2020 it's just as important as ever to know who you're voting for and what you're voting against.
What do you hope that people feel when they finish the record?
I hope that they feel connection and I hope they feel invigorated, because we need it to get through the next few years.
You already mentioned Vonnegut and Brazil, but I'd like to ask if there's any more non-musical influences on this record?
The book that I was talking about around the last record, Within The Context of No Context. I read it again recently, and some of the ideas are a bit outdated and it's written from a pretty privileged point of view, but it talks about how television is a vehicle for the commodification of domesticity; it used to be the home of the family, purely the family and friends, but the television came in and ever since we've given our homes over to a more commercial reality, and that idea is still really important to me, so I've been thinking about it again. A lot of the other reading I've been doing lately has been more to give myself a break from thinking about things.
What distracts you?
More science fiction; although good science fiction is political allegory - but it helps that it's allegory. Octavia Butler particularly, I've read a few of her books recently. And I am just starting The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Novels for the most part, or books about queer community - things that help focus on what's good in the world and what there is to fight for.
Lower Dens' new album The Competition is out now on Ribbon Music.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 10th September 2019