Earlier this summer, Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter stopped by AD hq in Los Angeles as the guest selector on our SIRIUS/XM show. Several months out from the release of the group’s fourth LP (The Competition, September 6th), the conversation reflected on Hunter’s solo beginnings, the formation of Lower Dens and the project’s subsequent sonic evolution over the past ten years. Also discussed were the intervening years between 2015’s Escape From Evil, Hunter’s experience with gender dysphoria, and coming out the other side. An abridged version of our conversation, below …
Aquarium Drunkard: My introduction to your music was in 2004 via the compilation Devendra Banhart curated, Golden Apples of the Sun. Prior to this new record the most recent music I’d heard from you was from another compilation he curated — 2019’s Fragments du Monde Flottant. I noticed that you are the only artist to be featured on both …
Jana Hunter: That is interesting. I hadn’t thought about that.
AD: It works as a cool throughline. As the Fragments collection was wholly comprised of demo recordings, I’m curious — how far back does the recording of your contribution (“Raising The Dead”) date?
Jana Hunter: That was probably written and recorded after we finished putting together Nootropics, so it’s a few years old. Like five years old at least.
AD: Listening to it, I was trying to pinpoint the vibe, aesthetically, and figure out when it would’ve been laid down, as it’s credited as Jana Hunter, not Lower Dens. In terms of demo recordings, do you work up most of this stuff on your own, solo, and then bring it to the group?
Jana Hunter: The process changes all the time. With that song, I kind of wrote it the same way I wrote a lot of the stuff for Nootropics, which was very much with headphones on at a computer by myself. Now, with the record we’re working on – or the record that we just finished, Nate and I did all that together. I would write things and bring them to the studio, and we would work them out together. He would record his drum parts by himself and we’d record the other parts together. In that studio process, the songs what they were.
AD: Lower Dens debut lp, Twin-Hand Movement, is coming up on ten years old next year. At that time, was Lower Dens more of a songwriting vehicle for your music or a proper band?
Jana Hunter: Yeah, it came about while doing solo touring and it wasn’t until about 2008 that I put together a band to tour. Two of the people from that band ended up being in Lower Dens, and then we made a record together.
AD: I was listening to some of your early records (pre-Lower Dens), and noted the progression from their acoustic, analog sound on through the implementation of electric guitars. These last several records have texturally been very focused on keys/synths/electronics. What was that progression like? Was it exploration for exploration’s sake, or did you find that you were no longer able to express yourself through the medium of just your voice and guitar?
Jana Hunter: I don’t think about this very often but looking back I think that there were things that I wanted to express that I felt like I couldn’t with an acoustic guitar — like a kind of level of aggression that I wanted in the music. I needed to express my more intense feelings. Doing acoustic music, I was able to get my (more) depressive kinds of feelings out. Then I needed to do stuff that was more aggressive, so I started using an electric guitar, and that’s kind of how that happened. Also, I have like a fascination with equipment. I don’t write on an acoustic guitar. I don’t sit down and like write a song. I will get equipment that I’m interested in and mess around with that and songs come out of that messing around. Starting around Nootropics, we got all of these software synthesizers, and then we started to buy real synthesizers and whatever we could afford at the time. That stuff has been really interesting to me ever since, and it kind of led me into being more interested in production. A lot of that drive was just that I love playing with the instruments. I love playing with the equipment. I love making sounds.
AD: In terms of composition, do you have a go-to instrument, whether it be making beats or guitar? Is there a workhorse instrument that you use while writing?
Jana Hunter: Yeah, like I use a MIDI keyboard and software — right now, anyways. I’m kind of getting to the point where I feel like I’ve exhausted that and will do something else soon. But yeah, a MIDI keyboard.
AD: Could you see yourself ever going back to that analog, acoustic sound?
Jana Hunter: Yeah. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who’s an artist. He’s been doing it for a really long time, and in the last few years he’s been making stuff with plastics where he buys all kinds of crappy plastic stuff in bulk from the dollar store and then melts it all down. He can’t do it right now because he’s sick. He’s like really sick. He can’t be breathing in plastics. He can’t be doing this really physical labor, and he’s been sick for a while and it’s driving him crazy. So, another friend and I were like “hey man, why don’t you draw? You’re an artist. Why don’t you draw?” and he’s like “Well, I just haven’t done that for a long time. It’s about the process, blah blah blah,” and I kind of feel like I would have the same initial reaction. How am I gonna go back to an acoustic guitar? I don’t even know how to do that anymore, but I think that that’s also a good place to start from. To try and make yourself find something new in an instrument you feel like you’ve exhausted everything with.
AD: I think it can be interesting, creatively, when you limit yourself. When you place yourself in a self-imposed box. Whether that would be just your voice and guitar, it would be interesting to see how you would manipulate that …
Jana Hunter: Yeah, that’s something I end up talking to other musicians about all the time, and just other people who make any kind of art. Like restriction is a way in to making work, for sure.
AD: Switching gears, you are fairly recent to Los Angeles, having relocated here within the last six months. You’d been in Baltimore for about a decade, yeah? How’s the move?
Jana Hunter: Good! You know, it’s a big adjustment. They are both really, really charismatically strange places with complex histories, so they kind of feel complimentary in a way. LA kind of emphasizes façade and Baltimore emphasizes realness, but they really do have some kind of weird complement. I like being here a lot. I also have been able to go back to Baltimore a lot since I got here.
AD: Had you spent a lot of time in LA over the years?
Jana Hunter: Not a whole lot.
AD: Are you finding it in anyway inspirational in terms of your own work?
Jana Hunter: I don’t know about creatively, but because I’m around more people here in different areas of the industry, it makes me think differently about how I want to make music. It makes me think a lot more about different kinds of collaborations that are possible being here because of the concentration of artists and the diversity of music that’s being made, or my impression of that.
AD: The Competition’s is coming out in September, and the last LP was 2015. What’s been going on over the past four years?
Jana Hunter: I had a lot of mental health struggles to deal with, and I also started to deal with gender dysphoria and had surgery, have been on hormones for a little while now. Part of it was like a real apprehension about what am I gonna do with myself. Am I going to go on living in the same kind of body that I’ve been in because it serves the band for me to do that or am I going to make drastic changes?
AD: … and live your true self.
Jana Hunter: Yeah, which is kind of what I ended up with. I didn’t want to go into a tour cycle and be that uncomfortable for the next, however long that lasts, like two years. So, I took time. I am apprehensive about being a really visibly different person than I was the last time we toured, but I think I’ll be happier.
AD: In terms of the songwriting, is it coming out in that way as well?
Jana Hunter: I think that the songwriting is representative of how hard I was struggling to kind of figure myself out; how to be a more stable, happier person. I think that the production is super dense. The songs are kind of poppy. I don’t know what makes me say that. There’s just kind of like a density and a complexity to them where I can see that I was trying to work all this stuff out, and all of that is in the music. But then, the songs themselves are just catchy. I mean they’re more than just catchy, but I don’t know if that will translate to other people.
AD: You never really know what is gonna.
Jana Hunter: You know, my theory is you just can’t care. All you can do is make the thing that you really want to make, and then give it to people and they’re gonna do whatever they want to do with it.
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Related / Recommended: Lower Dens: The Aquarium Drunkard Session