Jana Hunter of Lower Dens on how the term "freak folk" is an inept description for her band
There's something both unnatural and superhuman about the new Lower Dens album, Nootropics. True to the Baltimore quintet's Facebook bio, which reads only "dark nerds," the band delved deep into social, moral and technological issues on its latest through a series of academic tomes that traveled with them on tour for Twin-Hand Movement and stuck with them during the creation of its sequel.
Named after a series of enhancement drugs that meld the mind, Nootropics bends singer -- and longtime Devendra Banhart protege -- Jana Hunter's ghostly vocals across cryptic, contorted synth, krautrock ambition and dystopian lyrical themes. While it might verge on freaky, don't call it freak-folk. Seriously, don't do it. Trust us: We spoke with Hunter recently and she hates the term (which hasn't fit her in years). She also talked a bit about her reading list, which sounds like a psychology syllabus, and her dreams, which are predictably conflicted.
Westword: Nootropics touches heavily on the relationship between man and machine. What prompted that reflection?
Jana Hunter: Like many of the themes, including technology, on the record, it came about through reading and having shared books in the van that provoked conversations that helped us to maneuver this huge series of concepts, all these ideas we collectively happen to share. We were coming at it from very similar places to begin with, but it was this huge group thing.
This one book, The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, came up frequently in conversations, so I bought it for us to read, and we shared that. I bought a book called The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris that is meant to propose that science be used to make the world more sensible over any kind of theological or spiritual guide. It says that science can tell us best what we should or shouldn't do for the betterment of our species.
We also had a book called Logic, maybe a course textbook -- this very thick, academically written book without pictures that I couldn't bring myself to read on tour. So far, I've not been able to, but I intend to as soon as I'm not on tour and have more than two weeks of free time.
At what point did you realize the theme had become a personal one?
We're living in an era where technology is literally a part of everything that we do, and in a band you become really prone to wandering through that. We just kept returning to it over and over again. I can't pinpoint a particular event because it was just this droning everyday thing. As the band has continued and lingered on, we find ourselves using more and more technology.
Even our transformation is more technological: Our first vehicle was this mechanical beast of a Mercedes station wagon, and now we drive this luxury van and can't feel the machine beneath our feet anymore. I always found that really comforting about that station wagon. At the very least, you had some visceral relationship to it.
What about your equipment: Did the use of technology there play a role in the album's theme?
Definitely. I have moved through my life from classical music, when I played violin, to then my first guitar, which was acoustic, to electric guitar, which is not too far removed. But now I work primarily with computers, with electronic equipment, and it's almost entirely simulated. I'm still working with some of the same instruments I was working with before, but now the hub is a laptop.
That relationship is borne out of convenience and the desire for greater resources, but it's one I've been giving way too with reluctance because I want to have this strong visceral relationship with the tools that I use. I want it to feel like they have a personality of their own. But every MacBook Pro looks the same, no matter how many stickers you put on it.
I read that you listened to nothing but Kraftwerk during the early stages of this album. What does that do to a person?
[laughs] During the second stage, when I was taking fragments of melodies and small parts of song and lyrical ideas, anything that I had collected since the last album, and putting them together, that's when I listened to Kraftwerk. When I was on the way down to the Eastern shore, I grabbed a few CDs and had an intention for each of them.
The Kraftwerk album Radioactivity has been a favorite of mine for a really long time. It was one of the first albums I bought on vinyl, but I hadn't listened to it in a while, and I became really interested on that drive in the amount of patience they give to their instrumentation. They're so sparse and patient: Very little is happening, but so much is going on. They use their time and resources so carefully and fantastically.
It's actually somewhat normal to me to take a record like that and play it pretty much exclusively for a few weeks. Some of the other records we listened to as a band were Brian Eno. Then we got into the Iggy Pop record with the first single, "Nightclubbing." Aside from me, the band is really well-versed in sonic obscurities.
They have an encyclopedic knowledge of psych music and all these rarely heard experimental bands, particularly from the '70s and '80s, that I know nothing about. There was a lot of intention to every aspect of [Nootropics] but never a thought given to make it different in a reactionary way to whatever we did or didn't accomplish with the last record.
Do you read the press about your releases? Do you ever compare albums just from a creative stance?
When we released it, I still wasn't thinking about it like that. I was thinking about the tiny mistakes we made or the things I thought should be changed. The first time I listened to it, I felt a lot of anxiety because it wasn't exactly what I wanted to be. But that's happened to me every single album I've ever made.
What surprised you?
I was really surprised by how dry the drums are, and for every song there were many, many takes of each instrument and sometimes even additional instrumentation. The producer made some decisions I didn't agree with, but they made the songs what they are. It's mostly just a lack of control -- control issues. Maybe I was most surprised by how bad my control issues are.
But you can't control how the songs come across. To what extent are you concerned with how your listeners interpret them?
I keep a very open policy about that. With my own experiences as a music listener, I've only ever wanted to interpret things the way I felt them at the time. There were occasions where I would have liked to know exactly what was going on here, but there were many other times where I needed songs to be a metaphor for that situation, to be more an accompaniment to my life than this thing with a separate purpose. You can't really do anything with personal interpretation without one of us transcribing all of our thoughts about the song. I guess the end conclusion is that it's a luxury of free will.
Fortunately, by record number two, I don't fucking care anymore. I think I was less certain about that [first] record because it was the first big step, so far away from what I was doing before, that I was very sensitive to how people would react or what context they'd put the new music in. I didn't want it to be overshadowed by my past, and in some cases it was. Some people couldn't seem to write about Lower Dens without including the word "freak-folk" and making some reference to Devendra Banhart.
I love Devendra, but I've always hated the word freak-folk. It's such an inept description for this band. We're a rock band. How could we be anything but a rock band? We're so far beyond that point I just do not understand. Whenever I see that now, I just try to turn a blind eye. I hope it disappears off the face of the earth. I'm much more confident this album, and the band is much stronger as an ensemble. I have enough thoughts of my own without worrying about other people's.
What made you more confident when it came to Nootropics?
During those travels [on the tour], we were having conversations that resulted in a framework for this album. I just found myself in a much stronger place. I knew what this record was going to be about and aesthetically what direction we were doing in. I just had a much better grasp on our direction, whereas with our first record I had not a vague plan, but maybe just fuzzier notions.
So it was another issue of control?
Over myself? Yes.
I know this will sound creepy, but listening to Nootropics, I found myself becoming very curious about what its creators dream about at night.
I don't remember most of them, but when I do, they tend to be kind of abstract and edgy. There's one dream I remember from this tour. I don't remember what we ate -- some kind of raw seafood with bananas and onions, something crazy -- but we all had the strangest dreams.
I dreamt I was at the home of my childhood neighbor, in a familiar but slightly different situation visiting someone, and in the door walks my neighbor's infant son and then this enormous pink skunk. We both shouted and got confused, and then he got sprayed by the skunk.
I really do have the hardest time remembering my dreams because they're so weird and senseless. But I do have a lot of tour dreams in which we've loaded all our stuff into the club and then we turn around and it's somehow all back in the car. How does that happen?
I'd imagine that's the touring equivalent of the dream where you wake up naked at school.
Exactly. Only it's less from a place of anxiety and more from of a place of loathing this repetition. Man, do I hate it.
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