Lower Dens' Jana Hunter: "I Want Things To Be Done To Me"
Photo by Sean Donnola
Nootropics is defined as a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning. It's also the title of the new Lower Dens record that is, perhaps tying in to that definition, a very cerebral experience. Although some have said the record is sad or nightmarish Rocks Off chooses to view it as reflective. It's the sound of long nights spent thinking and overthinking in the dark.
It's an album that demands your attention. Heavy on atmosphere, with lots of textures and reverbed guitars, it is at times haunting. And in the middle of all of that is the voice of Jana Hunter, whose vocals provide for some of the most haunted moments.
Hunter is a Texas native who spent a fair amount of time in Houston, most famously in Matty & Mossy. No stranger to the Houston Press or Rocks Off, we caught up with her on the eve of the band's first headlining tour.
Rocks Off: You guys have already taken the new material out on the road. How have the crowds responded to the songs from Nootropics?
Jana Hunter: Enthusiastically. They seem to have some knowledge of them already. This is the first time at a lot of shows on the tour it's apparent at the beginning of particular songs that people instantly recognize them and are excited to hear them. It's more noticeable to us that people had heard it and spent time with it.
RO: The studio allows you to take songs wherever you want. Were there any difficulties translating tracks, "Lion In Winter" for example, from the studio to the stage?
JH: It's funny that you mention "Lion In Winter," because that's one of the songs that I was most worried with translating into a live experience but almost from the very first time we played it together on a stage it was surprisingly easy. It almost works better live.
There are others that still seem a little bit strange to me. We tried intentionally not to overthink what we would have to do to translate the songs from studio to live and a couple of the songs have been a little bit difficult. "Lamb" is still proving a little bit difficult.
I think it comes off well enough but it doesn't make as much of an impact as I'd like it to. These are things we're still grappling with but I just try to think of it all as an opportunity for learning, an opportunity for growth.
RO: Given the nature of the newer material, has it changed the atmosphere or energy of the shows?
JH: I think it depends. When a show works really well the way that we want it to, it is a little bit more aggressive, much louder than you might expect. What we're attempting to do is engage the audience in a kind of intensity that doesn't require a lot of theatricality or a lot of onstage drama but that just requires a lot of attention, a lot of isolating yourself from your surroundings, and allowing yourself to be stared down by the band rather than entertained by them.
I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean forging a real interlocked gaze between the band and audience. For me those are the kind of shows I love more than shows where people are rocking out balls-out. I love those shows too, but what I love most is a kind of very somber heaviness and intensity.
I like going to metal shows where there isn't a lot of theatricality onstage but they're loud as fuck and you hear every drip of gravity in what they're doing. That's what I want for Lower Dens shows.
When I come to a show I want things to be done to me. That's what I'm paying for, for something to happen. I'm not going to talk to my neighbor or get wasted before the show starts. More than anything, I want a band to put something forth, to give something. And that's what I hope we're able to do.
RO: This is the first headlining tour for the band. Does that add any extra pressure?
JH: It's liberating. When you're touring with someone else, there is always the knowledge that the audience is there to see them in some part or entirely. You just have to accept that you're not going to get people's attention entirely because they're waiting for something else.
Even if they are generous with their attention and time and aren't talking over your show, you don't have the freedom to express yourself fully because you don't want to step on any toes of the audience that's maybe there to see someone else or the people in the band who were kind enough to bring you out and give you a bit of exposure.
We've done headlining shows before but not with this kind of push. What's become apparent so far is that it just gives you more confidence because you know people are coming to see you. Knowing that people want something from you enables you to give them that much more.
RO: For people who have seen the band live before what's different about the shows this time around?
JH: I feel it's different in ways you'd expect. We've added instruments, added players, changed players. We've toured a lot and become a much better band in terms of performance. We've incorporated so many new elements I can't imagine that it would feel anything like it used to. That being said there's still a direct thread: it's the same band, it's just grown up a lot.
RO: The band is from Baltimore, you were born in Texas, and you spent a lot of time in Houston. Do Houston shows feel like a homecoming for you?
JH: I just moved back to Texas and am living in Fort Worth. I just came down to Houston for a weekend and spent some time with some really good friends that I have there and that's what I have to look forward to. There's definitely some feeling of homecoming there, even if it's just hanging out with really good friends.
With No Joy and Alan Resnick, 8 p.m. Monday at Fitzgerald's .
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