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Lower Dens' Jana Hunter Writes Cyborg Music for Techno Fear: Interview

Electronic rock has never felt so much like cyborg rock as on Lower Dens' new record, _Nootropics_. It's an aesthetic as much as a concept, a delicate and subtle mingling of synthesized or processed or programmed sounds with a rock scheme nodding...
September 16, 2012, 6:00pm

Electronic rock has never felt so much like cyborg rock as on Lower Dens’ new record, Nootropics. It’s an aesthetic as much as a concept, a delicate and subtle mingling of synthesized or processed or programmed sounds with a rock scheme nodding heavily to krautrock, the original cyborg rock music. And, like Michael Rother’s “Fuerland,” the result is a strange, seductive dream, delivering more and more on every listen. Nootropics also happens to be about our post-human future, where humans live within the terror of a perpetual identity crisis: “open fire or evolve, mutate” goes “Nova Anthem”. I recently talked to Jana Hunter, front-human of Lower Dens, about the growing fear of a future that’s already crept up on us.

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Can you talking about “brains without names”? I think as a lyric that’s about the most reduced snapshot of the ideas behind Nootropics.

It started as something as a lyrical placeholder. I knew I wanted the song [“Brains”] to be about anxiety over technology, like the very modern kind of anxiety over artificial intelligence. I’d be listening to some NPR stories and reading elsewhere about Cleverbot and other AIs that were starting to defeat the Turing test, or approaching that line.

To me, it’s kind of a goofy lyric and it was much more goofy when it was the only lyric in the song. It is the simplest reduction of that idea, that around the corner there are entities that are nameless and unknown and that’s what makes them terrifying. They’re not us; they’re something else. Maybe something better and more capable than us, and maybe less human. Obviously less human, not having the characteristics we associate with humanity. Just more unknown. Those uncertaintities are what are frightening about them. I did know that I wanted to start with that idea, but the lyrics needed to go a bit farther than that kind of silly catchphrase.

“Brains”

How different do you think these new beings will actually be?

I think that that very much remains to be seen. I think that human beings have a tendency to create things to suit their environment as much as possible. I imagine that if we maintain control of artificial intelligence, it will be as much in our likeness as possible.

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There’s some talk about escape and sort of re-primitivization in the record’s lyrics. There’s a lot of dread of what’s coming. Is this how you feel?

It wasn’t so much my dread as an observation of dread in others. I tend to be more on the enthusiast side of technology. I hate that my phone and my computer sometimes seem to control my life, seem to have more of a leash on me than I do on them. But I believe in my ability to find ways to manage that. I think humans are generally capable of finding ways to incorporate new technologies into our lives that are only beneficial. Obviously, a lot of people don’t feel that way and that is kind of what I am more fascinated by – that tension, a kind of very primal tension between the fear of the unknown and the future.

It’s ultimately about not wanting to let go of animal nature. Wanting to strike a balance between that and endless possibilities.

What in particular interests you about technology and music?

I’d like to know about it from the ground up rather than like buying into a market-driven process. I don’t want to buy a keyboard because it’s the name on everyone’s list. I’d like to know what it does and have as much say in how it’s going to function as possible. And I think that’s a way I feel about technology in general; [it’s] what I find fascinating about it.

That is kind of what I am more fascinated by, that tension, a kind of very primal tension between the fear of the unknown and the future.

This record seems a bit of a turning point in your music, sound-wise. Can you talk about that?

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As much as this record is sort of sonically independent of the last one, it shares some things. It shares guitar characteristics in particular. In my little world, it is sonically independent and the next record, hopefully, will be something of the same. I don’t really know yet. I have a lot of ideas about things I’d like to be in there. I would like to write an acoustic record someday with this group, that involves more traditional orchestration. But I’m also interested in this band becoming more and more of a collaborative effort. So I’d like that decision to be all of the band members. And I can’t really speak for them personally. We’re still pretty fascinated by synths, most of us.

The synthesis between rock and electronic elements on Nootropics is very different feeling, quietly disorienting, a good and maybe necessary kind of disorientation. Can you talk some about that?

What happened was that a lot of the composition was done in a digital environment, and moving into arrangements with the band and with [drummer] Nate [Nelson] in particular, we found that some of the beats translated really well to acoustic drums. [Disclosure: Nelson and the interviewer are roommates.] [But] others were actually composed with like four-on-the-floor sub-bass and other things that aren’t compatible with a drum kit.

Nate comes from a background of experimenting with electronic drums [in noise duo Mouthus and solo as Afternoon Penis], so he already had that. We just decided to make a go for it. Fortunately, he’s capable and experienced enough to make that happen. I’d always wondered how it would be to mix the two, if it would be like you say, disorienting. It just worked out that way.

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What was it like writing all of this in a computer and suddenly having the real-life synthesizers there to record the record?

The biggest thing for me personally was that I’d never had any real time with in person with synthesizers. I bought a Korg PolySix a little while ago, but it was broken when I bought it. So I didn’t really have a whole lot of time to experiment with anything. I definitely had not used any of the more classic synths. We got to play a SQ 80 at one point, and we used a Prophet and a lot of [others].

I just had no real concept of like the definition sonically of those instruments. So as much fun as it was tinkering with the software, it just didn’t prepare me for how fucking amazing they sound when you’re in a room with them. The main difference was me being a little … overwhelmed. I was just very, very excited to be able to work with these things for a little while. Intimidated too, because the software synths work perfectly — the Prophet and the SQ 80 were decades old and maybe a little temperamental to begin with, especially the Minimoog. You can push a button in the software and all of a sudden it’s a polyphonic synth.

Obviously it doesn’t really work like that with the Minimoog. The sound is so much more rich than what a software synth has been able to approximate yet.

This post originally appeared May 25, 2012. The band begins a US tour with Grizzly Bear Sept. 30 in Chicago.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

Image: Shawn Brackbill