Baltimore’s latest indie-rock hopefuls made the most of their big break and it almost broke them
Published: April 25, 2012
In the attic above the bedroom in her Waverly apartment, Jana Hunter begins setting up the stage lights she’s taking on tour with her band Lower Dens in a few days. There’s just enough room among the packed-up guitars, drums, synthesizers, effects pedals, and suitcases on the floor to set up the units, six in all.
On one wall hangs a piece of cardboard with the chords to “Brains,” the first single off the band’s second album, Nootropics, written in black marker.
“It took us a while to figure it out,” she explains while pulling another lighting unit from its box.
Taped up to another wall are the plans for how the lights will be laid out onstage: Two larger units go behind and to the respective sides of drummer Nate Nelson and keyboard player Carter Tanton. Two medium-sized racks will be placed at the feet of bassist Geoff Graham and guitarist Will Adams. Two pieces with swiveling heads will be positioned near the base of Hunter’s mic stand.
Hunter spent the better part of three days immersed in the instructions, learning the presets and figuring out how to control the different effects.
Now comes the task of taking all of this information and coordinating it with a setlist.
“I’d like it to be subtle,” Hunter says. “I’d like it to have an impact and a presence without distracting from the music, basically. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.”
She calls up the moment on the album right before the crescendo of the slow-building song “Lamb” and the lights react in time to the pulsing beat. As the recorded vocal hits its ecstatic peak, the swiveling heads direct the aim of their blue lights from the floor to the ceiling. Shortly after, the back units project a spiraling swirl of white dots in the opposite direction.
It lasts all of about 45 seconds.
The band can’t afford its own lighting person, but Hunter says, “It just seemed like a very rewarding experience to have intentional lighting accompaniment.” So she goes about what she’s done for the past several days and continues to diligently work—to get wrapped up in work.
Without any sense of irony, singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Hunter discusses how, from the time Lower Dens formed in 2009, she wanted to become something of a human robot, streamlined and efficient, to learn about the process of making music and to get the band where she wanted it to go.
In the three years of the band’s existence, Hunter says she has poured almost all of her energy into it, so much so that by the time the band wrapped up extensive touring near the end of 2011, the whole experience had become dehumanizing.
“I entirely forgot how to relax and how to enjoy the company of my friends and family,” she says. “And I realized at some point last year I had very little connection to what it meant to be a human being. And I was just exhausted from that.”
She says she recently came back around to a sense of normalcy after spending two months with her family in Texas. She took up a daily routine of running and going to the gym. By the end of the year, she wants to run a marathon. She does yoga. Most important, she says, was once again finding time to read books, something she had put aside while out on the road.
“I feel like my brain started to wither, like started to atrophy kind of, from not having any new, in-depth input,” she says. “I feel like reading is crucial, critical.”
But more than anything, it was a reconnection on some of the most basic human levels with members of her family that proved the most cathartic.
“Being around people like that is very restorative,” she says. “They just want to have a good time with you. They’re really interested in what you have to say. They want you to experience their lives. They wanna joke around, eat food together.
“And as much as I’ve always wanted to be a robot,” she continues with a chuckle, “I’ve always cherished those simple concepts of family. . . . If you can get it, I don’t think there’s any better kind of living.”
The new album’s title comes from a scientific term for drugs or supplements taken to enhance human functions, specifically those tied to the brain, such as memory and intelligence. Thematically, the album pulls back a bit to observe how technology enhances human capabilities for selfish, capitalistic reasons instead of developing community. We become more productive, but not necessarily more happy.
When asked if this is an extension of her own struggles, Hunter, at first, demurs.
“I think, besides being related thematically, I never tied them together in my own mind,” she says.
But she later gives it more consideration, saying: “I think I latched onto some of those ideas because I was obsessed in my own life with becoming a streamlined, robotic mechanism more than a human being. And it is maybe what got me thinking about things like that. . . . I became so obsessed with it that I did—I just burned myself out. So it wasn’t so much a reaction, it was just something that happened by necessity. You can’t be a human robot, not at the rate that I was going at, anyway. Or I can’t.”
An exhaustive schedule of shows is not uncommon for bands that get to a level of notoriety we’ll call “indie famous.” Gatekeeper media outlets such as Pitchfork can tout your work and a buzz begins to build—more interviews, more press, more critical praise. Demand builds, but in an era when you’re lucky if someone will bother to stream your album on Spotify or search the web to illegally download a torrent, let alone fork over money for a CD or LP, one of the few ways to make enough money to sustain a band is on the road.
So bands endure thousands of miles cooped up in a van, driving on stretches of road that all look the same. And when you play nearly 200 shows a year, you enter what Will Adams describes as a “K-hole, where you don’t remember where you are or where you’ve been. That can be both exhilarating and disorienting.”
And the drive to “make it” in this new paradigm of the music industry can have very real costs.
Lower Dens’ debut album, 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement, drew considerable praise from blogs and tastemaking web sites (and this publication). The band was going to tour in support of the album anyway, but offers to keep going kept coming in. So they toured and toured and toured. Lower Dens opened for Deerhunter. They hit the road with Cass McCombs. They shared bills with fellow Baltimore bands Wye Oak and Future Islands. They went to Europe. They crisscrossed America. Essentially, they didn’t say no.
Geoff Graham, in an interview over lunch at the Dizz earlier this month, concedes as much: “I think back then we didn’t have a method to it. As long as there were offers to keep touring, we kept taking them.”
Things got to a point a year ago where, Hunter says, “It felt like the ceiling was caving in.”
In January 2011, the band parted ways with drummer Abe Sanders, one of the group’s founding members. Sanders later told City Paper he was told he was let go because of “tempo issues.” Adams, in a recent interview in New York, confirms as much.
“As much as I love Abe, it was a little disheartening to play a song for the 300th time and have it not sound as good as when it was recorded,” he says. “The fact that we had to struggle through a song we’d been playing for two years was frustrating.”
Rather than take the time to find a proper replacement on drums, the band slapped together a lineup in order to keep touring, shifting Adams behind the kit and bringing in Hunter’s brother, John, to play guitar. That only lasted for a few months before Adams decided he wanted to step away. “The effort that we were putting in, just keeping it going with this crude lineup, I just felt like it was effort and energy going in the wrong direction,” he says. At the time, the band said via Facebook and Twitter that Adams quit due to exhaustion. For his part, Adams says things became directionless—“book another show, play the same fucking songs”—and the performances suffered.
“The words ‘burnout’ and ‘exhaustion’ get thrown around, and I don’t really think they’re appropriate,” he adds. “I think we lost sight of the bigger reason why we were doing this.”
Hunter, however, is still visibly shaken when discussing the ordeal, and said she suffered “an actual panic, with a lot of emotion and a lot of adrenaline” soon after Adams announced his intentions. Her primary concern, she recalls, was the well-being of not just a bandmate, but also a friend. “After worrying about myself pretty intensely for a little bit, I started to be really worried about him, because I didn’t realize things were that bad for him,” she says.
Not long after, they enlisted a permanent replacement drummer in Nate Nelson, an addition Graham says injected life back into the band: “That was kind of like a big morale booster to counteract imagining being in Lower Dens and not having Will in it.”
But before the lineup turmoil had settled, a new shakeup came in the form of an Exxon commercial for which the band licensed a reworked recording of the guitar line to the Twin-Hand Movement song “I Get Nervous.” Old indie-rock hangups about selling out are increasingly a thing of the past, with plenty of bands looking for alternative revenue streams, but partnering with the world’s largest oil company—in a commercial for the controversial natural-gas retrieval practice of “fracking,” no less—was bound to piss off many, and the local reaction was swift. People in the Baltimore scene took to the Google group Elfwire to denounce the decision. But Hunter says nobody confronted her to her face.
“I would see [people] the day that they had been on there writing something about it and they would say hi and ask me how I was doing,” she recalls. “It really surprised me. Honestly, I thought it was a little cowardly, that they would feel free to espouse those views on the web and then not say anything in real life when they had the opportunity.”
Some of the Exxon licensing fee was donated to the Baltimore Community Foundation. The rest kept the band going.
“There’s no way that we would still exist as a band if we hadn’t done that,” Hunter says. “It sucks that it was that company. It sucks that something that we did is associated with something like [fracking]. For better or worse, I felt like it was something that was necessary for us to keep doing what we were doing.
“We never made any money,” she goes on. “We would barely take enough money to pay our rent off of, and we were all on food stamps. But when we brought somebody on new, we couldn’t expect them to live like that. It’s pretty hard to ask someone who’s a relative stranger, ‘I know you’re, like, 37 years old, but do you wanna come here and be completely broke with us and maybe never make any money? I know how to get you on food stamps.’ We’ve gotta be able to pay people at least a couple hundred dollars a week, if nothing else. There’s no fucking way in hell we could have done that without some kind of money coming in.”
She stops, and backs up a little bit: “That can’t be the only reason that we would have done something like that, because there are other ways of making money. But I don’t know. At the time, it just seemed like the ceiling was caving in, with Will quitting and Abe leaving, and my personal life spiraling out of control.”
She pauses, then adds wearily, “I just needed something to work out, ya know?”
Independent of the money that came in from the commercial, Lower Dens’ fortunes began to change. They signed to a new label, Ribbon Music, in 2011. Late last summer, before a gig opening for McCombs at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, Adams called Hunter about joining the band onstage.
“Really, it was just sort of like for the hell of it,” he says. “‘Hey, you’re playing my town anyway, I know all these songs.’”
Adams joined them for several more shows in the area before Hunter asked him to rejoin the band full time.
“I just kind of screwed up the courage and was like, ‘Hey, how do you feel about making this record with us?’” she recalls. “‘Because it would just seem weird to have gone through all of this with, all the work of making this band happen, and living through tour on food stamps and stuff to like have you get to this point where we’re making a cool record in a studio and we get to work with a producer and you don’t get to be there. It just seems wrong.’”
Unsure of Adams’ final decision but certain that they wanted to expand their sound, the band searched for a new member to play guitar and keyboards and add vocals in the event Adams decided not to return, which led to the addition of Carter Tanton.
Adams did decide to rejoin Lower Dens, and the newly formed lineup headed into the studio with a fully formed song or two and dozens of stems Hunter had composed on a MIDI keyboard to write and record what would become Nootropics. Instead of having everything figured out down to the note, every pedal to the proper adjustment, as the band had done with Twin-Hand Movement, they allowed for a looser, more collaborative writing session—fostering a much stronger musical kinship.
“Relinquishing a little more control and letting stuff grow organically has made things a lot more interesting and a lot better, to me,” Adams says.
There’s a distinct krautrock feel to Nootropics, thanks to long, drawn-out tones from Tanton’s synthesizers and precise drumming from Nelson. While writing parts for the album, Hunter says she spent a lot of time listening to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity and took inspiration from the German group’s ability to examine the elements of a pop song by stretching it out over six to eight minutes without losing the listener’s interest.
“But I think to really dig into an idea, and to really reap the rewards of a really simple life, you have to allow the simple thing to unfold all of its elements, to reveal itself entirely to you,” she says. “And that takes a long time. And that’s what I really wanted to get at, was, like, to take very simple elements and let them say everything that they needed to say.”
While these musical touchstones are apparent, Adams says the band is not beholden to them, noting that influence from certain bands is present in healthy doses without overtaking what he calls the band’s “sonic vocabulary.”
“That, I feel, is what we’re about,” he says. “I feel like that’s the story of this band, to me. I feel like the cause of this band is seeing where we can go with the same sonic experience.”
But as Lower Dens head out on the road again, are they setting themselves up for the same pitfalls?
“I feel like a year and a half ago we weren’t looking past the next month or the next tour,” Adams says. “Now we as a band, and we as people, are looking beyond that.”
During a break from Hunter’s work on the light show, she’s asked if confining herself to this room for long periods of what little free time she has is bringing back the robot, if the dehumanization is starting to take hold again.
“I do it right now because it’s necessary,” she says. “But I’ve noticed that my relationships with people are drastically improved, and I think that that is the most important thing. And I’ve also made myself give myself some time to read.
“I haven’t the past week,” she immediately confesses, “but I will. I will devote more of my time to things that are restorative and nutritive.”
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