Jana Hunter talks about the long, circuitous road she took to Nootropics, her
band’s new album that’s already generating a huge critical buzz.
BY MAX BLAU
After years of trial and error as a songwriter, Jana Hunter
finally has gotten on the right track. It wasn’t easy, however, as the Lower
Dens founder and frontwoman had given up on her musical aspirations at one
point andwent through several other projects before starting her most recent
endeavor in 2009. The Baltimore-based group ground their way through over 200
shows in 12 months, an onset of lineup changes and a struggle to evolve on
their own terms. They eventually weathered the storm, adding
multi-instrumentalist Carter Tanton and bassist Nate Nelson into the fold to
create tighter dynamic.
Two years after releasing their slow-burning debut Twin-Hand Movement, Lower Dens returns
with Nootropics (Ribbon Music; read
the BLURT review here) a subtle yet enthralling collection of songs that evokes
a tense, captivating
atmosphere. It’s an ambitious record, considering the less-than-ideal path the
group traversed over the past two years. Frontwoman Jana Hunter spoke with us
about the road leading to Nootropics as well as how she’s gradually progressed as a musician and individual along
BLURT: Lower Dens has
changed a lot since your debut came out in 2010. From your perspective, what’s
changed the most for you over that time between the two records? What have you
learned as a musician?
JANA HUNTER: Well for the most part those 12 months were
kind of a static experience. I mean we were touring a lot but the band changed
and the experience changed very little. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t
write a record about touring, since that was our life. So anyway, that was the
majority of that experience and then after it was enough. With The Walkmen we
did a tour in Europe with Deerhunter that was kind of crazy and a lot of fun
too, but it culminated in this trip to Iceland where our band kind of started
to fall apart I think as the result of a lot of pressure. So Will [Adams] quit and our
personal lives kind of dissolved at the same time and that ultimately like it
was a difficult time. It ultimately worked out because we changed a lot of the
way that our band worked.
How did that all work
We found a new drummer. We – Geoff [Graham] and I – had a
lot of heart to hearts about you know…dealing with what we were going through.
Ultimately, what changed was we expanded into a five-piece with like a really
good band dynamic and we, over that time we kind of, we narrowed our ideas and
influences and we became better writers and we spent a lot of that tour, that
Deerhunter tour, like writing in the back of the van. I don’t know…we were kind
of like so buried in our own world, but kind of taking enough of the reins of
direction of it that we made a lot of progress in a very short amount of time.
How did Carter Tanton
join the band? Is that because he’s from Baltimore originally?
You know, he was actually a friend of a friend of mine and
he did go to high school with Geoff. But Geoff, he didn’t have anything to do
with him coming into the band, he and I have a mutual friend in New York and was what I
was looking for – specifically someone to play keyboard and guitar. This friend
recommended Carter and he came down for a visit to try out from where he was
living. We had one practice with him – we had sent him some songs, he learned a
couple things and within a matter of hours, we decided that we would like him
to play and he wanted to play and then we kind of went out from there. It was
What do you like
about working with Carter? I’m asking about Carter because I’m a fan of his
solo music too and I know he’s worked with a lot of other musicians in a
similar role, like Marissa Nadler and as a bandmate and Twin Shadow as a
Well, he has a fantastic ear. I, having worked with Carter
for a little bit now, I kind of imagine that he someday be going into
production, because he has that ear for tone and layering and instrumentation.
He does his solo stuff, like the recordings he does just on his computer are
amazing. I like working with him because he’s a personal musician and he plays
guitar and keyboards both very well and he sings as well and he approaches music
very, very different from how I do. Where I approach it from a compositional
standpoint, he tends to approach it, in my experience, from a sonic, textural
standpoint. In working with him, I get to have a completely different voice in
reacting with him and he teaches me a lot about how to play various
instruments. We tend to get real deep into pedals and synths and that sort of
thing. It’s very fun and he’s helped me.
Do you enjoy writing
more than touring or playing live?
It was at one point. I definitely, for a long time, liked
the process as a musician. I never really imagined touring and once I
approached it, really didn’t enjoy it at all. I more and more do like touring
with this group. In particular, the touring experience especially now that I’m
playing with people I can get into these really deep, dirty conversations with
in the band, I’ve found myself very much enjoying it.
Out of curiosity,
before Lower Dens what did you do?
Yeah I played, I had a solo career, released a couple of
records and toured for a few years.
I meant before that –
did you start in music or did you studying other things or work elsewhere?
I did go to college. When I was in elementary school, I
started to play the violin and then sometime in high school, I learned to play
the guitar and joined a band in Fort Worth, Texas. And then, kind of
abandoned the idea of being a musician for a while and I went to, well started
to, go to college but dropped out very quickly and then ended up in Houston,
Texas and started
another band, which fell apart.
I know sometimes when
musicians start off with their first couple of records, it’s often approaching
a sound that they have in their head. Do you feel that you’re at that point
where Nootropics is that sound you envisioned or are you
still working towards that?
I think that the sound that we’ve come up with on both
records is something that I wanted at the time, but I’m not very good at
settling on a sound and I’d much rather keep coming up with new ideas and
completely restructure the way that we sound for each record. I don’t think
that I could do a band that sounded the same for all of its records or even
anything like each other.
At this point for
this record, are you writing everything? How is the songwriting working?
I wrote mostly everything for both records so far. With
those records I would say there’s quite a bit more of people writing their own
parts and coming with their own tone and like more of a group experience, group
effort in deciding the final arrangements in the studio in particular.
Do you prefer that?
I do prefer it…We started talking about the next record and
what we’re talking about right now is how to make it even more collaborative.
I’m really inexperienced with writing records with other people, but I’m really
interested in trying to do that.
[Photo Credit: Shawn Brackbill]