I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
Synths, nostalgia, and anti-artist capitalist ideology.
New York Live Arts presents
On her band Lower Dens’s new album, Escape from Evil, singer and songwriter Jana Hunter has carefully considered the history of the use—across a broad spectrum of popular culture—of synthesizers to elicit a dramatic emotional response in the listener. Escape from Evil is an album about the “big” themes: Human connection, suicide, romance, death, love, addiction, you name it. “I Am The Earth” features some of the same sounds as Vangelis’s famous Blade Runner soundtrack, and “Electric Current” buzzes with some of the same jilted defensiveness of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”
Though the band’s work has always evoked a 1980s aesthetic, this new album is a distinct left-turn from previous, more shoe-gaze based efforts, Twin-Hand Movement and Nootropics. In the first single “To Die in LA” (name-checking the William Friedkin film of the same name) Hunter proclaims, “I wish I could count on you to be mine.” It’s a song about falling for the exploding-yellow-roman-candle type. When the anxious deep freeze of the verse’s synth line melts into the highway race of the chorus, the tragedy has already passed the song’s muse by, much like William Petersen’s character in the Friedkin film. I spoke with Jana Hunter about this new direction, her updated opinions on Spotify, and the future.
Gary Canino I’ve seen Lower Dens a number of times, but, by far, the most memorable set I’ve seen was a free solo show of yours on the roof of the Playwright Celtic Club, on 8th Ave in Midtown, NYC. When you began to perform, it was totally unclear where you were exactly, and, once everyone realized you were playing on the roof, only the very top of your head was visible for the entire performance.
Jana Hunter I had no idea, until after I finished playing, that that was all that you could see. But, it was really fun. That was a crazy show. It was an artist’s organization in Times Square, and it was their idea to be on the roof. As I was setting up during the day, the roof had half-melted from the sun, and the tar was just sticking to everything. I still have some tar permanently stuck to my guitar.
GC Twin-Hand Movement was mostly guitars and the sound of a live band playing; Nootropics was built on a foundation of Krautrock; but, Escape from Evil is something totally different. The band seems to dramatically reinvent itself every record.
JH We’re the kind of people who get bored easily, and have to change things, even fundamentally. Fortunately, there are things about the way I write that I can’t change, so we do have some creative continuity, and it doesn’t sound like a different band, but a different presentation of the same band. We’re fortunate that we’re able to craft this thing that we wanted to, at the time, and be able to move on and embrace a new style, and foundation, for a new record.
Escape From Evil was a bit of a reaction to the things we did, or didn’t, like about the last record we made, but it was also about embracing new interests and moving on. We’ve been at this for a while now, which is probably why we were the most successful at doing both of those things with this record, rather than what we ended up with for Nootropics. We like Nootropics, but Escape from Evil was maybe the first time ever where I had an idea of this thing I wanted to create, and it ended being very close to that, if not exactly what I had envisioned, which is something that is still full of substance, dense, and also really fun to play. I just think of my favorite music from when I was growing up: It’s powerful and meaningful, but also allows for an escape from those things that make your life difficult, or burdensome, and I wanted to do both of those. I feel like we accomplished that.
GC The synthesizers definitely recall the ’80s to me. I know you’ve mentioned Madonna’s “Lucky Star” in interviews before, and the Bangles “Walk like an Egyptian” was the first seven inch you ever owned. “Electric Current” also reminds me of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”
JH (laughter) Cool. I like “You Got Lucky” a lot. “Walk Like an Egyptian” I actually had on a mini-cassette. When I was a kid they had these cheap, tiny tape recorders for mini-cassettes, but they were marketed as “cool tiny cassettes for kids.” I also had a Tiffany mini-cassette.
It’s one of those things that are so tangibly nostalgic. I wish I could get my hands on that tiny, shitty cassette. It was so cool. (laughter) One of the last cassettes I ever bought was the Radiohead “Creep” single, another thing I wish I still had. People are making cassettes again. It makes a strong impression to have this physical object that you relate the music with. CDs are probably dying out, and that might be for the best because I don’t like them. I don’t have them anymore, and there’s something about cassettes and vinyl. The tangible object has a strong connection to the music. When you remember listening to your favorite record for the first twenty times, you’ll remember looking at liner notes and artwork.
GC Articles keep popping up now, about how everything from the digital age will be lost.
JH I go back and forth about that. Back in January, there was a huge fire in a Moscow library that held tons of ancient texts, and it’s awful and tragic, because it was destroyed by people trying to rewrite the country’s history. It’s completely inexcusable, but on the far other side of that, our landscape will always change, the earth will keep turning with or without us.
GC You seem to be singing about the same thing in “I Am The Earth.” I imagine you as the lounge singer in the bar in Total Recall.
JH (laughter) That’s cool. I would love to do that. “I Am The Earth” uses the same synthesizer that Vangelis used on the Blade Runner soundtrack, the Yamaha CS80. We didn’t really use a real one because they’re expensive, but I have a fake software version of it. It’s tied to, or instantly recalls, that brand of dystopian future in films. If I made a video for it, it would involve the tranquility and terror of being that isolated. Sometimes that’s really what you want, to separate yourself from every single thing and person that you know, and it’s terrifying. That’s what that song feels like to me.
GC You’ve vocally spoken out against Spotify’s unfair policy about paying artists. Can you talk about that?
JH In that original post, where I said music shouldn’t be free, or even cheap, I wish I had clarified that I also don’t believe in capitalism, or putting a monetary value on our existing products. But, we exist in a capitalist society, so I have to find a way to work in it, and, within that context, the way that we value things is ridiculous. It’s nothing to pay 100 dollars a month for a cell phone to have access for Twitter, but it’s ridiculous to pay ten dollars a month for a subscriber fee so musicians can even get paid? But, that is how our society is. These things really bother me—when we don’t see new or young artists get paid—because, people have access to a ton of music, and are also bombarded by hype all the time.
We have a very number-based relationship with music, and putting music on a grocery shelf, next to tabloid magazines, is cheap and weird. If music is an expression of who a person is, then that was a thing that used to be shared individually in communities, and there was no money exchanged. It was just a necessary expression of a person who existed in a community. That sort of thing is really important, and absent from most things that happen in the music industry today, except at shows. In live performances, you can make a one-on-one connection with a listener. It’s a very complicated issue, because, in that way, it seems important to make a connection with anyone you can, to remind yourself that there are other real humans out there. No matter how opaque and bleak things seem, we still do have ways to connect with each other.
GC As the medium and transmission of music has so drastically changed, the powers that be have become more desperate to get music on and off the shelf.
JH We’re all just trying to figure out how to eat, pay rent, and enjoy ourselves in the meantime. And, also, how to not step over other people in the process. Now, it’s very difficult to do that.
GC I used to work for a Search Engine Optimization company that specialized exclusively in the “rankings” of search results in Google. That there’s such an amount of money in something like that was mind-boggling to me.
JH But, it’s not that fundamentally different than anything that’s come before. What we have been able to do is intensify commodification. Now it’s more insane and manipulative, and the substance is even more diluted than before but it’s the same beast fundamentally. And though I’m not an anthropologist, what we’ve been able to do is something terrifying and unstoppable (laughter)—just to put a terrifying bummer point on it there.
GC The album’s single, “To Die in LA,” is named after the William Friedkin film, To Live and Die in LA. My favorite review of the film is from Mike Sutton of The Digital Fix: “A sun bleached study in corruption and soul-destroying brutality, this film by the notoriously erratic but sometimes brilliant Friedkin is nasty, cynical and incredibly good.”
JH (laughter) Spot on! I love Friedkin. He’s some kind of savant. I think he knows exactly what he’s doing, and operates on a largely intuitive level. Everything he ever did was so pristine, and beautiful. He never shirked from his insanity. That movie is amazing and really underrated. Did you know that the phrase, “I’m too old for this shit,” comes from that movie?
GC Oh? I always associated it with Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. (laughter) Lower Dens took almost four years to make this record, and you’ve mentioned the recording process was kind of problematic, this time around. Is it usually this way?
JH No, because we’ve never taken this approach before. I’ve, by and large, only taken two approaches. One is to try to make a record sound exactly like how you want it to sound, and the other is to try to make the record, and try to discover the sound you want along the way, which is what this band has always done. With the first record, by the time we had gone to the studio, we had already toured it a lot, so we just recorded it all live, everyone playing in the same room at the same time, with vocals dubbed on top of it. It’s harder to do it that way these days, maybe because people are afraid. (laughter) You can book yourself four to five days in the studio instead of weeks, or months, and try it. But, you don’t leave yourself that many options, recording live.
With Nootropics, we spent a long time in the studio, finding sounds, trying and discarding things, before we ended up with what was on the record. The reason Escape from Evil was hard was because I had a much more defined idea of exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to produce it myself, and we didn’t have very much money. We had less money than we had to make our last record, and we had band members living in different places, and countries. We also had a longtime member quit, and the schedule made it difficult to afford working with people who require salaries commensurate with their experience and reputation. So, several months into it, it just revealed itself as a fucking hellish scheduling nightmare, but it’s just something you just have to cling to and keep working on. So, whenever I could find time, we would capitalize on it, and negotiate to find the lowest rates, or, maybe, find money elsewhere. If you really want to make something, you can make it happen. You just might have to sacrifice everything but your vision for your project or record. It could get a lot worse, though, and I can’t complain. It was hard, but it could have been a lot harder. We’ve made it hard in our world to get a true version of a real expression of who you are, rather than to make a carbon copy of what everybody else already does. Anyone can rise up the ranks of success to a certain extent, anyone with privilege can, that is.
Escape from Evil is out March 30 on Ribbon Music. For more on Jana Hunter and Lower Dens, visit their website.
Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.