There is something so powerful and revealing in The Competition, the new album from dance-rock outfit Lower Dens, that shows not only the immediacy, but also defiance of Jana Hunter’s (They/ Them, He/His) stance as a songwriter. Near the tail end of this album, on the last glossy, shimmering, dance song, ‘Simple Life,’ the song boils and churns until it reaches a peak as Hunter sings: ‘Its the end of taking time/ No such thing as a simple life.’ The music stops for a split second and then explodes into two mesmerizing, expertly blended choruses of musical expression.
Compare this to a moment off the song ‘Regardless,’ from Jana Hunter’s 2007 solo release from Gnomonsong There’s No Home — ‘You have an impenetrable mind/ I like to watch you take your time.’ As I think of both of these expressions and how they can be so provocative and vulnerable all at the same time, one thing that may be understated with the release of this album is the influence that the previous three Lower Dens’ album have had on music in the last nine or ten years or so.
2010’s Twin Hand Movement is a much sought after album, lauded, but perhaps overlooked at its release. However, in the American bohemian circles from which it sprang, the album is considered to Boston Hassle as a cornerstone, running alongside yet, in a tonal sense, contrary to its pop contemporaries of the late oughts and early 10’s. From the frozen tundras of Jana Hunter’s imagination and expressivity to the emotional post-punk ode of ‘Rosie,’ this album covers massive territory in a seemingly straightforward, yet not commonplace manner.
2012’s Nootropics, though varying, is much more instrumentally experimental and provocative in not only their presentation but also for the albums subject matter, which tackles topics from trans-humanism to new societies and beyond. The album even gave us a glimpse, via the song ‘Candy,’ into what would come next from this outfit who have always seemed to allude, or make it difficult for critics to provide a genre label, from album to album.
Then from 2012’s Nootropics to 2015’s Escape from Evil, there is a tonal shift from dark and brooding, what some may call kraut-rock, what some would call post-punk to dance pop that still manages to harken back to its shoe-gazey origins in instrumentation but also in subject matter. The songs are glossy and sheen, danceable, yet not without purpose. 2015 was a big year for Jana and Lower Dens not only because of this album and the ensuing tour, but also because Jana came out as non-binary via this Tumblr post in a heartfelt statement.
In the four and half years since Escape from Evil, there was relative silence from the outfit aside from a 2017 single ‘Real Thing.’ The song, while a standout on the album, seems, perhaps to me, out of place in a work with such a direct narrative forward. The next song on the album ‘Buster Keaton’ is at this moment my favorite. This song is cinematic in its way of putting the listener in the center of their own narrative by way of transference of a story of a relationship gone awry. The story is illusive, shrouded in mystery, and lends the listener just enough details to fill in their own experience. The music in this song is atmospheric and large, yet the drumming and synthesizers give the song a ghostly core.
I could go on and in further detail about how much I really dig this album, and am a huge fan of Jana’s catalogue as a whole, but there is no talking about The Competition without talking about the American Presidential Campaign in 2016, that was happening right around the time when this album was at its inception.
The song ‘Young Republicans,’ is this albums most flagrant example of Lower Dens’ take on the current political climate, works in compliment to ‘I Drive,’ as well as the other songs in the album, to provide a work both crucial to the artistic landscape of 2019, but is also not over-saturated with banter that can play into the absurdist feedback loop that is American political discourse today.
While politics is a sure-fire talking point of Jana’s surrounding this album, another influence of this album was Jana’s transition and testosterone therapy, that began during the making of this album. Though the songs do not talk explicitly about his experience transitioning, they are both hard to detach from this stage of his career, and in this view, can serve as kinds of LGBTQ+ power ballads in 2019 for people undergoing their own struggles and changes.
I caught up with Jana over the phone as he was in Baltimore in between tours and we talked about touring, dancing, and the challenges and benefits to being vulnerable. Check out our interview below and also catch Lower Dens on their North American and European tour dates through this year and early 2020.
Boston Hassle: What are you most looking forward to on your European tour that starts in January?
Jana Hunter: Thats a good question. I haven’t thought about it very much. I’m looking forward to going back to Europe because it has been a little while for us. There are some venues we’re looking forward to playing. The audiences are a little bit different, I wouldn’t rate one above the other, European audiences are different.
And the food is really good. That seems like an easy answer.
BH: That’s real. While we’re taking about touring, you recently finished your first north American tour of the album. What were some highlights from that experience?
JH: We got to play to Radio City Music Hall and The Hollywood Palladium among other historic venues, those were two big ones for me. I got to see Bikini Kill’s first reunion show which was at The Palladium. I remember walking in there and seeing the stage. It feels like a movie set, it’s a huge round place, something about the way its set up makes it feel particularly grand. Getting to go back there and play that stage was really exciting. Playing Radio City Music Hall, it kind of felt unreal, still my experience of it was like a movie or something.
Then we got really lucky and we were on the bus with some of the lighting crew and the crew was really cool. The crew and the band, Of Monsters Of Men, that we toured with, everyone was super nice, super sweet to us and it made everything a breeze. It was a really nice, cushioned soft start for us going in to tour and to be able to tour like that. It will make going back into touring after a significant break a lot easier.
BH: I could imagine, I’ve never toured as a musician, you’ve been doing it close to 20 years?
JH: Yeah pretty close, my first summer was in 2001, 2002, I did some touring in the late 90’s with some bands I was in. It’s a really different experience touring in your late 30’s and 40’s then it is when you’re 20, very different.
BH: I was researching for this piece and I forget which one, but one critic called this album, The Competition, a continuation of Escape from Evil. Do you agree? Do you think there is any continuity and self-referencing in Lower Dens catalogue?
JH: There loosely is. We started the band and made our first record and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep the band going indefinitely. I don’t know why, I remember talking to another bandmate at the time and we decided that bands are better when they only release a few albums and then they break up. So we were like ‘okay lets make four records and then we’ll break up.’ We made that decision about ten years ago and I didn’t know if that was something we would standby, but I did know that we were going to make four records and kind of have like a theme that continued through them. There is supposed to be this loose narrative of the end of one societal way of being and the beginning of another.
And I was still kind of carrying with that through Escape from Evil but what I was finding at that point was that this was really about my own personal development, developing as someone who born really insular and isolated into someone who was more aware of their place in community and society and less self involved and more active in a greater purpose than serving ones self. I do feel like that is continued on our last record The Competition in that it’s still an expression of learning about having compassion for oneself and pursuing things that are genuinely restorative and understanding that that is a kind of basis to be a better member of society, to be able to offer people more.
That is one prominent theme on the record. Then, right when we stopped touring Escape from Evil and started to work in earnest on this record was when the campaign was happening for the last election and as we started writing, I realized that it was important, necessary to have a political aspect to this record as well, both for personal reasons, and as responsible members of members of society to be able to be speaking to that too.
BH: I was wondering also, with your political stance perhaps against the current administration or political statement, or perhaps as a critique against capitalism in general, I find, especially on this record, you pair vulnerability and political stance in your lyrics. Do you pair these two themes in the writing process often?
JH: Not with that kind of clarity. But I do feel really strongly that one of the biggest differences between more progressive, radical political stances and the more conservative, right wing political stances are the individuals ability to allow themselves to be vulnerable. People who align themselves with the left are people who are more willing to embrace that vulnerability more, and through that find more empathy than others who, may not share that same struggle, but who also struggle, as we all do as humans, than the other side of the aisle, the other end of the political spectrum, we have people who have no concept, do everything they can to wall themselves off and take only selfish actions. I believe those things very strongly.
My own pursuit to vulnerability is for my own good because it does a person good to embrace that, but it makes me a better person, more capable of helping others and not being so selfish. I feel that that kind of selfishness enables somebody to be the kind of person to run the world into the ground, you know? Rather than helping other people. I do everything I can to avoid being that kind of person.
BH: In the EPK, it says something to the extent of ‘competition corrodes the sense of self.’ So what, if anything, particularly for queer and trans people, can rebuild their sense of self?
JH: I think basic self care rituals are fundamental, but I think that’s something normal people understand. It’s a complicated answer in my opinion, because part of the answer is finding community, but the trick with it is finding the kind of community that is going to really embrace you, as you are. That’s the bottom line right? To embrace oneself as you are and to try to find other people who encourage that belief and don’t judge you for things about yourself. I don’t know how to say anything beyond that, but it’s important that we learn to accept ourselves exactly as we are and to find people and communities who also embrace that and avoid anyone that tells you you have to sacrifice something about yourself to be legitimate.
BH: You talk openly about the need to defend yourself, particularly in the song ‘Empire Sundown’ and in interviews for this record. Why do you think this is so important to state and integrate into your artistic message.
JH: Well, the kind of thing I’m talking about on ‘Empire Sundown’ is a physical, direct defense. But for me personally, a lot of that comes from, coming from a conservative family. For me, that process of trying to embrace myself has lasted my whole life and is still something I’m fighting for and the concept is essentially defending myself from the rigid ways of thinking that dominated my youth and upbringing and made it very hard for me to embrace myself and be a part in communities that I now find real acceptance and love in.
But I do think in 2019 that we have to be thinking in some ways of more direct lines of defense, like what’s happening today in the Supreme Court. We literally have to be defending ourselves in one of the highest courts in the world to be able to have our right to make a living protected.
BH: I’m going to pivot to two music scenes that you’re a part of. Are there any artists from the Baltimore or LA area you’ve had your eye on, want to give a shout out to?
JH: Yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff in Baltimore right now. I’m definitely reaching that age where I know much less about what’s happening in the town I live in than I used to. But the music scene here is thriving, there is a lot of young people here making music and from what I hear of it, it’s all pretty incredible.
We recorded some with, and I just really love this musician named :3lon from here. I think he’s incredibly talented. He’s released his own music, you can find out it online. He’s got an incredible voice, he’s an incredible improvisor. He writes music that’s quite a bit more electronic. The thing about him I really love is his ability to come up with incredible things with vocals, vocals layered on top of one another, he does that over really complicated electronica and dance music.
And also our friend Ami Dang, she’s been around for, I mean :3lon has been around for a minute too, but I’ve known Ami from Baltimore music for at least ten years, maybe longer. She plays the sitar and is trained in classical Indian music as a vocalist and a sitar player. She has quite a few records out, some of them are more instrumental and ambient. But my favorite stuff of hers is also a bit more electronic. I hope we are going to tour with one or both of those musicians.
We recently did some shows here, some album release shows. And we also had a couple of DJ’s on those shows. One is named Hoteps and the other is Trillnatured, they’re both pretty incredible. That’s the other thing about the Baltimore music scene is that there is a lot of really good DJ’s, so shows will usually be kind of a mix between live performance and DJ’s.
And there’s a lot of dancing. Baltimore likes to dance.
BH: I find, atleast your last two albums to be very dancey, is that a reflection of the Baltimore scene over time, or was that more of a personal choice of yours to make that type of music?
JH: Both. I’m sure that being in Baltimore had an influence on that part. Where I was coming from before I moved to Baltimore was Texas in the late 90’s. I think about this from time to time. Going to shows at that time in Texas was so funny because, and maybe this happens elsewhere too, but people would stand completely still (laughing) and watch the show and not move the entire time. Everyone seemed kind of scared to move, scared to express themselves physically, let alone straight up dance. I remember really well coming to Baltimore being amazed because there was a culture of dancing. Whenever there is music going, especially at live shows, there is a lot of physical expression. That felt really joyous to me and it hadn’t part of the music I made before. I hadn’t made music you could dance to up to that point. Atleast not intentionally and on the whole.
It’s funny to think about now, but even with Twin Hand Movement I was kind of hoping that I was writing songs that people would want to dance to more. And I don’t think I did a great with that record, not that I don’t like those songs but I don’t really think they achieved that and definitively not so much on, maybe one or two songs on, Nootropics but it is been a thing that I’ve worked on more and more. It’s been an important thing for me to work on with each record. I do feel like I really only recently started to be more successful with that. Like some with Escape from Evil, but more with The Competition. It’s all because I wanted that to be a part of the shows we play, more than anything. I want people to dance and enjoy themselves. I want the shows I play to be a real release from the world we live in, I want the shows to be a transformative experience.
Lower Dens tour Europe, the US, and Canada in early 2020.
Interview Edited for length and clarity
Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma & music editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at [email protected] or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.