Baltimore dream-rock band Lower Dens’ sophomore album, Nootropics, eschews traditional pop themes (love, death, overcoming adversity, etc.) for more cerebrally challenging confines. The album, whose title refers to substances that enhance a human’s cognitive powers, focuses heavily (but not solely) on transhumanism, a scientific movement that calls for technology to improve mankind’s phsyical, emotional, and psychological capabilities. This may not result in easily absorbed romantic odes, but this context is perfectly suited for the band’s swirling, expansive blend of darkly tinged pop music.
However, the album (out now via Ribbon Music) was more than just a chance for the group to flex their collective grey matter. It afforded them a chance to build on the work they started with 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement and further strike a balance between the dark and menacing and the enchanting and beautiful. That sonic expansion impacted every aspect of the band, who are undergoing their own evolution in front of our very eyes and ears.
Recently, CoS News Editor Chris Coplan and front woman Jana Hunter met to discuss that growth and its impact on the band’s creative and recording processes, the state of their live show and touring efforts, and much more.
According to a press release, the album explores the concept of transhumanism. How did the whole initial concept become of interest? Would you possibly consider this a concept album, even of the most tangential variety?
Friends of ours in Baltimore have been interested in, and sometimes proponents of, transhumanism for a while. It was a hot topic on a local message board, as well. We’re in the habit of buying books for the van, passing them around, and using them for fodder during otherwise long and sometimes tedious drives, so we bought Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near after hearing it (and him) much discussed. It fit well into conversations we were having already about society as we traveled through lots of communities and waxed pseudo-intellectual about humankind’s relationship to itself. The record isn’t about transhumanism; that’s just one of the only things that people seem to have latched on to.
Our conversation became a broad and passionate discussion about the conflict between our still ever-present animal instincts and motivations versus the times, the near-future we seem to be always present in, the epic and sweeping movement towards technological embrace. It’s still, then, very much a record about our experience in our world, an observational one, and doesn’t propose concepts so much as examine them. Oftentimes those examinations are made through personal experience and never in judgment of others.
On a related note, how do you think the album’s overall concept, exploring the relationship between man and machine, played out through the course of the record? It seems from listening to the record, the concept is subtle, almost hidden, through a lot of the effort. How do you think the concept, an idea you wanted to explore, shifted or changed, if at all, your approach to creating the album?
The intention in using these ideas was to have them be more of a thematic guide than a conceptual basis. In other words, these ideas were the topic of much band discussion during the writing of the record, and I used them as inspiration for lyrics, but those lyrics either reflect my personal feelings on a subject or my observations of other people’s ideas about them. For instance, “Lamb”‘s narrator has a bit of my own fear of immortality, whereas “Brains” reflects more of the epidemic fear of technology versus the downhill snowball pace of its grip on all of us.
In a recent interview, once again discussing the album’s concept, you noted that “technology atomizes at such an astonishing rate that we can barely process it as it happens in front of us.” Do you feel like this record is a means to merely explore that concept, or are you trying to perhaps “do battle” and make people more aware of the ever-changing technological landscape?
With the record, I am, we are, only exploring – conceptually and sonically. That is what we do best as a group; we do it well, and it’s very deeply satisfying for us. I do welcome the opportunity to go further with it in venues such as this one, to perhaps confront things like the dangerous and detrimental alignment of technology and commerce. However, Lower Dens is a music project, and its purpose isn’t to judge or battle.
I like to ask this of every band/project set to release their sophomore LP: How was the songcrafting and recording process this time around? Easier, more streamlined perhaps? Any observations you made, or any strengths or weaknesses in the band/project that came up with this second go-around?
Initially, during the first few months of touring for Twin-Hand Movement, it was very frustrating. I’d always record at home in the middle of night and had grown very attached to having a lot of free time and my own space in which to totally isolate myself. On tour, there’s nothing like this; there’s no time, no personal space, no isolation. You can’t even jerk off, let alone spend hours alone in your own stink at only your own expense. Making the transition to cans (headphones), laptop, and Midi keyboard might have seemed like a compromise when we first considered it, but instantly it became not just a solution to a problem, but an opportunity to expand. It seems like a small thing when I describe to people moving from one instrument to another, but for me, the instrument in my hand can be my main source of motivation, because I am above all a player, and I love it more than anything.
So, welcoming in keys and synthesized sound changed everything for writing for me. The band adapted really, really well to this, taking in songs that were much more skeletal than ones I’d written on guitar and developing them from a textural and atmospheric aspect, developing whole new palettes of sounds. In that way, it highlighted our ability to change as drastically as we’d want or need to and our ability to do it together. It really also allowed for our two new members, Nate and Carter, to show us what they were capable of, and accordingly, they’ve provided some of my favorite moments on the record.
After touring so much behind Twin-Hand Movement, do you foresee as much support behind Nootropics? Having played the tracks from Nootropics at least some shows by now, how do you think they’ve held up live? Do you think they reveal anything new onstage, be it a different meaning or new pacing or whatever, that they didn’t in the studio?
I was always fretting in the studio about what we were or weren’t going to be able to translate live, and Carter, in particular, encouraged me/us to abandon that and work towards making exactly what we wanted to hear. Because of Drew Brown’s aesthetic choices as much as our own, we ended up with something that is, even by our standards, very restrained. I love it, and I love that it’s left us so much room for live shows. These songs are in most cases something else entirely live. On record, they’re very thoughtful; live, they are very present and, for me, quite intense.
I’ve been surprised. I guess I anticipated more reservation from people who’ve come to see us given that we’re moving somewhat away from being guitar-based and hence less rocker, if we ever were, towards something that might require more attention and less action, but there’s been none. No reservations. Audiences have been very generous; shows have been amazing and fun. I think we’ll tour as much as we can and as many places as we can, but we might need to be more cautious than we’ve been. That carelessness in booking endless shows nearly cost us Will. No tour is worth that.
Staying with the whole live show bit, I’ve read in a few reviews that, at least with the material from Nootropics, the songs are more cohesive, with less room for individual tracks to stand out on their own. Is that something you’ve noticed/a conscious decision made to present a whole, united musical experience?
In writing, the songs we decided to use for the record were grouped for their seeming ability to make a whole, although this process was a least somewhat arbitrary. Any somewhat confessional songs were scrapped, and any that left a lot of room for thought and exploration were pushed to the fore for consideration. I think I can speak on behalf of everyone else in the band and say that there is a general preference for albums that have a cohesive aesthetic or theme. We wanted to make a record, something that is a body of work, not just a group of songs.
One of the more dominant notions/concepts I noticed between album #1 and album #2 is that this second effort has less variety to it, that the emotional setting tends to hover around cold or distant. There are tinges of warmth and happiness, but the centerpiece seems to be more focused on depressing elements. Do you feel as if you focused the emotional content more, or do you see the sentiments on this record just as varied? Does the whole transhumanism concept almost box one in to a more removed/barren emotional framework?
There seems to be a tendency in people’s reactions to associate distance with sadness. For me, this is not a sad record, just a contemplative one. The objects or subjects of contemplation aren’t inherently depressing, though they are heavy. While music obviously has, of all the arts, the best means to express pure emotion, it also has the characteristic of pushing all non-relevant thoughts aside, clearing the mind and making space to consider things apart from emotion, or with emotions that are more tied to global concerns than personal ones. I think the human inability to reconcile our natures with our desires might be tragic, but it’s also funny and beautiful.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that the new record was recorded at Michigan’s Key Club, far away from the usual home setting of past work. What was the process like working “off the beaten path” as opposed to in a more familiar setting? Is it an experience you’d want to explore more? Or do you think that “professional” recording situations might take away something from the homespun material?
There’s not a whole lot to the town we recorded in, and that’s no slag. It’s just very simple, and there are farm stands and a beautiful, great lake nearby. Fewer distractions meant more focus. The studio itself is very thoughtfully put together, a well-constructed playground run by two very smart, funny, kind people, and very comfortable. We slept nights in bunk beds above the studio. It was, in many ways, perfect.
In talking to others who have heard the record, there seems to be a consensus about the loads of metaphors strewn throughout. Would you tend to agree with that, or do you think maybe there’s more direct grains of truth or observation being laid out? Again, has the whole concept or focal point of the LP forced the album into a box of slightly involved lyrical constructs? Is there one basic, unwavering emotional statement that the album’s trying to get across?
I guess I’d want to know more about this consensus, but I feel that the distance between the lyrics and plainspoken observation isn’t based in metaphor but rather my tendency to obscure details. I do this because I’d rather not force literal meaning down any throats; I’d like things to remain open to interpretation, and if people want, I’d like them to be able to associate certain words or phrases with their own lives and experiences. As much as I am interested in the heady ideas behind some of the lyrics, I know the feeling of wanting the music you like to be a vehicle for unrestricted emotional release of whatever sort you need. For me, the album is about optimism. Believe it or not.
While the album’s just coming out and you’re undoubtedly focused heavily on it, what’s next musically for Lower Dens? Where do you think you can go with the sound after exploring such lofty notions and creating such succinct tunes? Is that even part of the process, to continually work at such a rapid-fire pace? Or, going back to the whole atomization model, do you want to take your time with albums/releases?
I think we followed exactly the path that we needed to, took the time we needed. It’s become important to me that I follow a sort of internal guided path. Sometimes it takes a while; sometimes it is immediate. Since we’ve only just gotten the record out, I can’t say at all where we’ll end up on the next one, but I’m very much looking forward to going down that road.