Baltimore’s Lower Dens have packed up their guitars, and this time around, their synthesizers, for their first headlining tour this summer, to support their excellent sophomore LP, Nootropics. Nootropics injects the atmospheric shoegaze of 2010’s superb Twin Hand Movement with a dose of late 70s post-punk and krautrock from the likes of Idiot-era Iggy Pop and Kraftwerk (namely, Radioactivity), resulting in one of the strongest releases of 2012. The LP is the second album in a conceptual four-album cycle, and the tour includes a stop across the bridge at Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night (tickets still available here.) My Social List caught up with front-woman Jana Hunter beforehand for quick chat regarding the thematic content of her albums, yoga and the challenges of playing multiple instruments in a live setting.
Peter Rittweger: I’ve read that you’ve become quite a yoga enthusiast, at times, pulling over at highway rest stops to do your routine when there isn’t a studio in the area. “Nootropics” are, by definition, drugs that enhance some cognitive function, similar to the impact yoga or other meditative rituals can have on the psyche. Do you feel that this interest influenced the content of the album or at least the album title?
Jana Hunter: I don’t think so. I think it was inspired by trans-humanism and things I was interested in during the writing of the record. Our bass player was the one who got me into it, [yoga] essentially. It also was just the most convenient way to liberate yourself from tour sluggishness. We spent tons of time in tour vans and picked up yoga as a way to combat the zombie-like lethargy you pick up when you do that too much. But Nootropics doesn’t have anything to do with yoga, is the short answer.
I also want to point out that trans-humanism is just one of the topics the record is about. It’s not a record about trans-humanism. I feel like maybe unfortunately that’s been the gist of what people have been told or think [about the album.] It’s really just one or two songs though. The overall concept is a more general approach to our modern life and times in the view of our still developing animal selves; trans-humanism being an extension of our general obsession with improving ourselves.
PR: It seems that it’s the narrative that’s been attached to it in some ways.
JH: It’s a fun word to say. It’s a fun, catchy word to say, and I think that it has as much to do with it being corroded as what’s talked about the record as anything else.
PR: You’ve expanded your sound to include synthesizers and some electronic touches on Nootropics. Did you envision taking Lower Dens in this direction after the last album or was this more of a product of the thematic content of the album?
JH: I think it was actually mostly a product of the availability of the instruments. We added a new drummer who brought with him some electronic equipment. His kit is kind of a hybrid of an acoustic kit and an electronic one, which I’ve seen on a lot of drummers actually. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but the guy who plays with James Blake; he has a kit that’s the same kind of SPD pad triggers that we use and then mostly an acoustic kit. I think there’s that element, and I think doing some electronic percussion mixed with acoustic is probably one of the most obvious ways to slightly transition your music from more traditional electric instruments to “electronic” instruments. It’s the thing that stands out to the ear more than anything else.
The synths; I mostly wanted to include them because I’ve been playing guitar for more than half of my life and I needed a different medium to write on. It also made writing in the tour van much easier; I did try to write with a guitar on headphones through a tiny amp plugged into the power socket, the cigarette lighter of the car, but that is an extraordinarily inefficient way to write music in a car. I talked the band into getting laptop; we got Garage Band and a MIDI digital interface keyboard, and that’s how most of the record was written. We also changed labels for this record. The label we were with previously was a smaller “laissez-faire” ordeal and the new one has a little bit more funding behind them, so they gave us a little bit more money to spend in the studio. When we went to the studio, we put a lot of that money towards keyboards and analog synthesizers. We used as many of them as we could, as much we could, because they are super-fun to play with and they sound incredible. And most of us didn’t have a lot of experience with synthesizers so we wanted to play them as much as possible. So we found ways for them to be on tracks. We had a need to play with things.
PR: How do you feel the addition of synthesizers impacts your live show?
JH: We added a fifth member, and he recently quit, so I’ve taken over a lot of his synthesizer duties. I was playing a lot less synth, but now I play on almost every song, and on a lot of songs I play both synth and guitar and I have a really nerdy peddle arsenal as well. So, I spend a lot of time during songs focusing on what I’m doing; vacillating between instruments. I think for me, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a challenge; I enjoy getting to create a wide variety of sounds. I think it might be a little bit more difficult for the audience member, because instead of whipping my body around with a guitar strap on, I can’t really move that much and it might be a little bit less visually stimulating for people, which is why we’ve tried to incorporate more of a visual aspect. We have a projection accompaniment on this tour; a full stage projection and it’s really facilitating to watch. Hopefully… otherwise it might look like we’re not doing anything really. We’re just concentrating very hard on playing the music right.
PR: I’m interested to see how it plays out. That being said, do you envision a more electronic approach on future Lower Dens releases?
JH: I don’t know yet, it takes me a while after a record’s release to figure out what the next one’s going to be. I only have an idea right now of what the record is going to be thematically because that’s something that this band worked out some time ago. But otherwise, I don’t know. I’m having a lot of fun with synthesizers personally, so I’d imagine that I’d keep doing that, but our guitarist has a lot to do with our sound, maybe more so than the rest of us. He’s firmly rooted in the traditions of rock and roll music, so I don’t think that we’ll be a band of that [electronic] completely. Unless he decides not to participate in writing or something like that.
PR: I was going to ask you, actually, about the concept of the band. How did you decide on a four album cycle?
JH: The idea of a four album story arch is that it’s important to do something besides play in a band. I wanted to do something bigger than just playing music. I would never fault anyone for that, some of my favorite musicians just want to play music; like music that doesn’t make you think too hard. It’s just something that was a point of personal necessity, a need to be doing something with myself that makes me feel like my life is worth living. Like… a more substantive approach. I could have gone to college and worked as a humanitarian but instead I’m playing in a rock band, so I want to make it count if it can. It’s horribly conceited to think that it will count, but if I’m going to do this I have to at least try, you know what I mean?
PR: You guys played nearly 200 shows on the last tour, is the Nootropics tour schedule as grueling?
JH: Not quite. We’re trying to scale back a bit. One of our main components, Will, left the band out of exhaustion. What we’re trying to avoid is anyone getting to that point again. But we will be touring quite a bit, we’ll be playing as many places as we can without inflicting any more psychological damage on ourselves.
PR: Alan Resnick and No Joy are joining you on this tour. Resnick is Baltimore based, like Lower Dens. How did you get involved with No Joy who are based out of Montreal and LA?
JH: I just saw them a couple of times. I think the first time we came across them we were both on an in-store at Origami Vinyl in LA, liked them a lot, saw them again at SXSW, maybe one other occasion. We ran into them in a parking lot one time in Los Angeles; that must have been the day after the in-store. Anyway, we listened to their music on the internet. I just really like what they do. They’re devotees of the kind of music that lot of us came up on. They’re just a really fucking good rock band, and they’re fun to hang out with. We don’t know them very well, but they’re proving to be really good tour buddies and they put on a good show.
Peter Rittweger of My Social List