Photo: Shawn Brackbill

Talkin’ Bout Evil With the Lower Dens

The Lower Dens' new album is called Escape From Evil, but the way Jana Hunter tells it, recording it was nothing but a joy.
Lower Dens
Escape From Evil
Ribbon Music

The chorus of “To Die in L.A.”, first single off Lower Dens’ latest opus Escape from Evil has only one line: “Time will turn the tide.”

This is surely true for the band itself. Den leader Jana Hunter’s initial solo releases dealt in anomalous folk, making the stylish instrumentation on the group’s 2010 debut Twin-Hand Movement a welcome surprise. On 2012’s Nootropics the material grew longer, more hypnotic, and more cerebral. Now with Escape from Evil, the tide has turned from transhumanism to human relationships.

The record’s confessional, intimate lyrics are matched sonically with post-punk crispness and synthpop color. It’s some of her most immediate work to date, an artistic leap in what is shaping up to be a career of artistic leaps. Jana Hunter talked about the new record, her understanding of evil, and artists that inspire.

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Do you agree that this is more of a personal record?

Yeah, it definitely is. I didn’t intend for it to be that way but then when we started writing I had a lot going on personally, the band had a lot going on, and it seemed not just appropriate but really necessary for it to be a personal record. It needed to serve that purpose. Our last record was pretty intellectual, pretty heady. I think also this record is a bit of a reaction to touring that record, being in that space for a long time, being in an emotionally distant, forced intellectual space. Getting back to writing songs about intimate things felt a lot better.

Are there other ways you see this record as different or new for you guys?

I think it’s a bit of a departure for us. Even at the very beginning we considered ourselves something of an effect-laden band. A lot of us had come from musical traditions where we didn’t use a lot of effects and it was really fun for us to get together and kind of create things that were as much about atmosphere as they were about song craft or anything else. And while that was really fun to work on for a few years, I just wanted to do something kind of clean. And I also felt like when you’re working with atmospherics you’re spending so much time on that that you tend to neglect some things about writing. I thought to back off on effects would make things clean and direct and our writing would probably improve. And I feel like that is the case.

I feel like you pushed some boundaries with your voice on this record. What kinds of things do you do as a vocalist to keep yourself evolving?

Really it’s just singing. You gotta sing all the time. With Nootropics, I hadn’t been singing and then we went into the studio and I was signing some but I was also smoking a lot and I hadn’t been smoking. Basically your voice is as much like a muscle as anything else and if you neglect it, it’ll atrophy. And if you pour a bunch of shit on top of it, if you’re smoking constantly and you’re drinking, especially if your voice isn’t used to that, then you won’t sound good.

Conversely, if you’re on the road and you’re touring every day and you are drinking and smoking and then you try to quit doing all of that, you’re voice also won’t sound good. Your voice, in order to develop like anything else, needs a consistent kind of routine. I toured right before I recorded the vocals for the record. So coming off of a six week tour and going right into the studio, I managed for the first time really to get my vocals on record the way that they usually sound live.

To turn to the title, Escape from Evil, do you see evil in a supernatural context or do you see it more as a social thing, something related to a system of ethics?

More the latter. I don’t think of it as an entity, I think of it as part of a natural state of humanity. It’s something that you have to kind of keep in balance. All it means to me is that we do things that work in our best interest and we do things that don’t work in our best interest and that’s kind of the most rational way that you can put it. The implications of that are that we kill each other and that we take advantage of one another and we pretend, even to ourselves, that we’re not doing anything. Because we think of it as in our best interest to pretend like we’re not hurting other people. And I think that that’s just incorrect. Aside for that being wrong and fucked up, it’s also just incorrect.

We do things to each other to get ahead, to take advantage, thinking that that is going to make our lives better. Or not even really thinking about it but just kind of going on this subconscious intuition that it’s going to make our lives better. If we’ve managed to overlook or be able to look past our guilt about those things and really think about them, we realize that they don’t actually do us any good in the long run. They do us more harm than good. I feel like that correlates to what people who have a spiritual component their lives think of as evil. I identify with what religious people think of as evil. I think it’s kind of the same thing. I think we just call it by a different name.

Do you hope that someone listening will think about these ideas? Are there other things you hope listeners will get out of this record?

I hope it means something to them personally. I hope that it has some application for their lives. We need to share with each other our true feelings and what we really want out of life and that we care about each other. So if I can make a song about my heartache or my guilt or something like that and it has a real world application for somebody else about their heartache and their guilt then that is essentially the basic, fundamental way that humans have of helping each other. And I think that’s what music has always done. I don’t think it’s a revelatory idea. I think that when music’s doing what it’s supposed to do, that’s what it does. I hope that’s what our record does for people. I, personally, am given to theorizing and intellectualizing things. I don’t that that’s a crucial part of it. That’s just way that I look at it. And if other people want to I’m happy for them to do that, but mostly I want it to be like the communication of emotion and the willingness to be vulnerable.

Turning to the lyrics on this album, you’ve got one, “time is a hook on a line” and another “you can’t escape crying over photographs.” Are you warning against looking too deeply or for too long at the past? Do you think that becomes unhealthy?

I guess you could definitely interpret it that way. For me, when I say “time is a hook on a line,” I am kind of generally thinking about how nostalgia is a trap and also about how stressing about the future is a trap. Everything except living in the present is a trap. It’s something you have to be aware of. Or you hopefully are aware of. Hopefully people are aware of when they’re kind of trapped in the past or trapped in the future. And the other line has a more specific meaning. For me some of the connotation of it is about drug addiction and my own experiences with that and my experiences with friends. That particular line is just meant to evoke the drug addict’s inability to look away from the addiction, to look away for the substance. It’s also a time stealer. So you could interpret it that way- as a serious life stealer, as a time stealer. But it’s just really about the inability to look away from addiction.

Do you find a common thread that runs through everything that you’ve done? Maybe some core questions or something that you wrestle with on each album?

I find myself drawn to thinking about this idea of what humans are. What they are intuitively versus what they think they are. I really started to think about that when the band got going. Twin-Hand Movement is really kind of introductory and then Nootropics got kind of more intense for that. With this record I’m still thinking about it. I’m just trying to make it less intellectual and more intuitive. It’s something that always preoccupied me since I was a kid and I’ll keep thinking about it. I don’t think that there’s anything crucial or important about those kinds of lines of thinking but it’s just what I’ve always thought about. It’s what I’ve thought about when I’m not completely self-obsessed. When I was younger, when I was a teenager and I was depressed, and especially when I was a teenaged depressed person, a lot of the music that I wrote at that time was about that. I needed it to be and I’m glad I wrote it or else I don’t know what I would have done. But I’m also glad I’m not there anymore.

Are there artists that typify someone who has continued evolve in an interesting way throughout the course of a career?

Sure. There are a lot of them. And I think the go to ones for me basically are David Bowie and Lou Reed. A lot of jazz musicians. I think about Nina Simone a lot lately, especially. Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. I feel like that list is endless. I feel like anybody who I have a profound respect for, and there are a lot of musicians that I have a lot of profound respect for, they’ve been doing it their whole lives because that’s just part of what made them want to be a musician in the first place.

There’s not a lot of other reward to it for a lot of people. A lot of people don’t become stars or even if they are and they make money it’s still not an easy life, it’s a difficult life. What they’re pursuing is something that you and I will never actually see the way that they see. There are a lot of them. There are a lot of authors, a lot of artists. A lot of performance artists. I feel like the people who influence me personally, they’re not always people who have a direct influence on the things that I make. Like the guy that we named this record after: a writer named Ernest Becker. The book that he wrote called Escape from Evil was published posthumously. Right at the end of his life he was writing what he felt like was his most important work. You know I want to be that. I want to do that. I want to always put that sort of thing first in my life. So I’m always looking for people who do that or did that with their lives too.

Splash image: press photo by Shawn Brackbill