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.