Over two previous albums and a smattering of singles, the signature sound of Baltimore’s Lower Dens has drifted into soft focus: motorik clop, diffuse, fried art-rock, plus a modicum of folk, topped with lead songwriter/guitarist Jana Hunter’s rich, husky vocals. But where the tunes on 2010’s “Twin-Hand Movement” and 2012’s “Nootropics” teased and tantalized like lucid dreams, new LP “Escape from Evil” (Ribbon Music) out now, finds Hunter, bassist Geoff Graham, drummer Nate Nelson, and guitarist Walker Teret easing into synth-pop territory. From the torched-reverb of ‘Sucker’s Shangri-La’ to the neon pulsations of ‘Electric Current’ to the sub-Stereolab nightmare quicksand of ‘Company,’ this is a new Lower Dens—peppier, more skeletal, decidedly less light-refractive, funnier, even.
The textbook definition of a grower, “Escape From Evil” doesn’t ingratiate immediately, dancing between moods and textures in ways its predecessors didn’t. To hear it is to listen to this band being reinvented as its leader exorcises feelings of guilt, alienation, and regret. In person, Hunter is shy, diminutive, and deeply cerebral, with conversation threading easily and eagerly in multiple directions. The following interview was conducted at Hunter’s townhouse in Baltimore in late February, over steaming cups of coffee ground and brewed by the singer/guitarist.
City Paper: There seems to be a particular theme running through some songs on “Escape from Evil” of being taken advantage of, of surviving some great calamity.
Jana Hunter: Yeah, I think there’s that. I feel like for me in a way, a lot of the songs on the record were the beginning of a process of learning to be . . . more responsible for my own emotional well-being. There are definitely songs on it that are dealing with anger towards other people, or feeling betrayed by people. There’s a lot of processing pretty raw emotions—not even really processing them, expressing them. That’s not just a vulnerable place, but that’s a really open-ended place for human beings to be. It’s a time which you can come out of learning about yourself and growing, or you can end up inflicting harm on yourself and other people. That’s part of the reason I called the record “Escape from Evil.” It’s not just that you’re trying to deal with these things that can feel inherently evil; you can end up doing more harm than good, you can end up creating more evil.
CP: Do you feel like the making of this album helped you solve some of these problems, on a personal level?
JH: Yes, for sure. That’s something music has done for me since I was really young. I used to be more deliberate about using music that way for myself, when I wrote—it was a good way for me to express things that I couldn’t express otherwise. In Lower Dens, I felt that I wanted to get away from that because I felt it was such a private process that it kind of separated me from other people. It was just so intimate; it felt weird welcoming people in. So I wanted to start a project where it was less personal so I could be more “with” people. And I don’t think it was even until after our last record—or maybe during the process of writing “Escape from Evil”—that I realized that you can be conscious and aware of other people when you’re doing something really personal.
CP: Some bands start out talking about themselves and how they see the world, then it becomes about projecting, generalizing, or holding a mirror up to the audience. Green Day is my favorite example of this, and U2 is another.
JH: There might also be something to this idea that when people are initially writing songs, when they’re younger, they’re gravitating to it because it’s fun and it’s expressive in a way that other things aren’t. But then when you become a musician and you’re revered by people, and you let that go to your head and start thinking of yourself as a conceptual artist—some people can carry that, and some people can’t. U2 is a good example. They were a band I really liked as a kid, and now I don’t know what to do with them.
CP: I feel like sometimes people cluster around certain bands and artists because they want to have something to rally around.
JH: Yeah, it does feel increasingly like that—“if we can’t find something that we’re genuinely excited about, then we’ll find something that we could be excited about.”
CP: That we’re reasonably excited about.
JH: That has all the aura of excitement about it, then they pretend that that’s genuine. I’ve been of the opinion for a long time that it’s because that’s what we have now. We don’t have the same type of [mass pop phenomena]. Some of this is probably a product of marketing. I feel like there’s so much good stuff out there that isn’t as marketable that for whatever reason, years ago, marketers used to be able to market.
CP: It’s weird to think that once, someone like Frank Zappa could be popular and successful. In modern times, he’d have a cult, but it wouldn’t be the kind of cult he had in the 1970s and 1980s.
JH: Yeah, definitely—or he might be playing local rock shows and holding down a barista job.
CP: “Escape from Evil” feels poppier than the prior albums. There’s the darkness from before but it’s easier to identify these melodies. Was that something you guys were reaching for?
JH: I think so, in a way. I grew up listening to pop music when pop and college radio were living in the same place at the same time. Over time, in Lower Dens, there are a lot of things that I’ve allowed to influence me that I didn’t previously. This record is more emotional, and I think pop music handles emotion really simply and elegantly.
CP: To me, the album is definitely two halves. The first half is more—it made me think of Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, as far as the guitar work and production is concerned. Also, really early 10,000 Maniacs—“Hope Chest”-era 10,000 Maniacs, where they sound like no-one else.
JH: I can’t believe you just brought up “Hope Chest”! Nobody else knows that record. That was the very first thing that I ever bought on CD.
JH: Uh-huh. One of my older siblings was really into 10,000 Maniacs. I love that record. I wasn’t thinking about that record while making “Escape from Evil,” but I probably listened to it a bazillion times, so I’m sure it rubbed off in a pretty big way. The artists I was conscious of being influences—not that I was using them intentionally, because I don’t like to do that—Echo and the Bunnymen, early U2, the Smiths. Early Madonna. I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to listen to the record and say “oh, I hear the Madonna,” but I can see the connection. Which is a funny thing because there’s a big difference between “sounds like” and “influences.” The record doesn’t sound like any of those bands, and I would never claim to sound like any of the bands that I really admire, but sometimes the influence is kind of abstract. One specific example would be ‘Société Anonyme’—there’s a lot of Smiths on that. I was definitely trying to do some Johnny Marr thing on my guitar, because it’s fun, and why not try it for a second? That riff was basically a tribute to Johnny Marr.
CP: One of the first notes I made about “Escape from Evil” when I was listening to it was that it feels like a transitional album.
JH: It’s transitional in a sense. Writing a record is just the first part of the process: You express these things that are really raw that you’ve got to give voice to. If you pursue a path where you’re touring, you’re singing the songs every night, you talk with the band about the music, and you speak with writers, you’re getting the chance to find out more about yourself and what you think about these things. At the very end of a touring cycle, you maybe don’t agree with anything that you put into the songs in the first place. I respect the person who wrote them, but I hope that I grew into a better person.
CP: At the end of the record I feel like the band returns to the krautrock sound.
JH: think it’s there on ‘Company.’
CP: That’s a dark song, but it’s not right away—it’s like you dipped your toe in the ocean and the feeling is welcome, but it turns out that the undertow is really strong, and sucking you in.
JH: To me, that song is just a metaphor. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but the song makes me think of “Rosemary’s Baby.” A young couple move into a building, and they become enamored with the older generation in the building who are older New Yorkers, then it turns out that there’s something much more sinister going on. I feel like that’s what elements of television, the internet, and a lot of other things in life that are supposed to be this kind of palliative or community-based thing . . . they’re supposed to be tools to betterment, but they’re really kind of destroying things about us and corroding relationships. There’s just a lot going on there that we’re not thinking about.
CP: How big a role does social media play in your life, and what are your feelings about that?
JH: I think that it’s hard to qualify it as good or bad; it’s good and bad. And yeah, it plays a pretty big role. Most of my family lives elsewhere. If I want to keep tabs on them I call my mom and ask for the family digest, you know . . . but I also look on Facebook for my extended family for sure, and I’ve gotten reacquainted with cousins who I otherwise wouldn’t have, so that’s great. But I feel like – maybe this isn’t universal – these devices (picks up smartphone) are addictive, and I feel like you end up with in habitual cycles where you’re whipping your phone out and cycling through social media, and you’re not even conscious of what you’re looking at—
CP: It’s just data.
JH: Yeah! It’s like we are uncomfortable with silence and stillness—and these make it even harder to be comfortable with silence and stillness. I hate them for what they do to people’s attention spans, but I love them for how they’ve reconnected me with family and kept me in touch with faraway friends.
CP: It’s a complicated thing.
JH: Yeah. I mean, I also like Tumblr—I like looking at people’s personally curated image banks, you know? I like being able to get to know some weirdo living across the country because they have a really good, self-developed sense of taste. Twitter is probably the thing I have the biggest affinity for and problem with. I use it a lot, and I feel like it’s exposed me to a lot of information that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I think it’s great for giving people a platform for developing communities that would have been a lot harder to develop a few years ago. It also gives people a platform to witch-hunt, in a crazy way.
CP: Is music what you do for a living at this point?
JH: Right now it’s what I do for a living. For a little while at the end of last year I went back to work at a restaurant—I’ve always worked in restaurants and bars. I’m pretty fortunate right now being able to not have to. It helps living in Baltimore, because it’s cheap.
CP: Is it weird not having to go to work a typical job, to wake up in the morning and think “today I’m going to write a song”?
JH: It doesn’t feel strange to do that, but I do miss the camaraderie of restaurants and how restaurants are this really simple, easy form of theater, in a way. Like you’re going to work every day and pretending to be somebody else for the purpose of serving people. Like, “I’m going to adopt the best server/hostess personality that I can and try to enjoy that, and make other people’s dining experience satisfying.” Which seems like a really absurd idea to me, but it’s fun to do it.
CP: You’ve lived in Baltimore for a while now. Does it feel like home?
JH: I moved here about eight years ago, something like that, but I also moved to Texas for a year and also really recently I was living in Rockville for a while. Baltimore feels like home; Rockville didn’t feel like home. I have friends here that feel like old friends, and I feel like I know just enough about the city to feel really comfortable here. Since I was a teenager I haven’t lived in the place where I grew up, so other places have substituted as homes. Houston feels like that, too.