There’s a difference between the kind of art you make because you need to make it in order to survive, and the kind of art you make to give life to a particular vision. At this point in Jana Hunter‘s songwriting career, she’s happy to have reached the latter category.
Hunter’s early solo songs, written under her given name, arranged minimally, released on Woodsist and Gnomonsong, were deeply introspective, often crushing in their emotional honesty. They were ghost songs; they needed to be exorcised. But those who choose music instead of something like painting or writing as their exorcism medium are stuck revisting those ghosts show after show, performing with them in front of audiences.
Lower Dens was a way to get away from that. It was a public-facing project, intended from the get-go to be more sustainable. With Lower Dens, Hunter’s songs stayed haunted and lo-fi but grew in scope—written with and for a band, the instrumentation expanded and became more conceptual, the songwriting less personal. If Twin Hand Movement was meant to be somewhat abstract, Nootropics was even more so. Clean, analytical, instrument-driven, written on a computer about intellectual concepts such as artificial intelligence and transhumanism, it was certainly still a dark album but felt, for the first time, kind of fun.
On Escape From Evil, Lower Dens has written an album with fun at the forefront. It’s not a Matt and Kim record or anything, but it’s effectively pop. The production is crisp, songs are frequently instrument-driven, written explicitly for the purpose of being enjoyable to tour on, enjoyable to perform live over and over again.
We caught up with Hunter on the phone to discuss some of the ideas that informed the songwriting, including utopia, friendship and family and chosen family, queer identity, capitalist entertainment, trying to be good to people and how hard it can be to do that sometimes. There are lots of heady threads to unpack, but above all, Escape From Evil is a celebratory album. The promise of transhumanism was an illusory one; turns out we’re still flawed humans with limited, self-defeating brains, and while that can be a drag, Hunter is making it a point to acknowledge that being human means being able to make and share and experience cool things like music and feelings and connection.
When you’re in the business of survival it can be hard to see past getting by, but being alive, especially when hard-won, is ultimately pretty amazing—with Escape From Evil, Lower Dens are ready to have a good time with it.
While Nootropics was more concerned with technology and human relationships with technology, Escape From Evil seems like it’s more concerned with how to be human and how to connect to more human things. Would you say this is an accurate narrative?
Yea I think so. Nootropics for me had to do with kind of an intellectualization of modern human relationships to ourselves and the kind of disconnect between how we fancy ourselves as technologically adept and developed as evolved creatures and how we kind of ignore our animal sides.
In some ways it’s kind of a logical development in that [Escape From Evil] is about the state of humanity, but in a very much more personal way. When we originally started working on records, we had a thematic arc we were working towards, and towards the end of the arc, or this part of it anyway, we wanted to think about, it sounds silly now, but, we were thinking about utopia…a realistic notion of utopia.
The more that we worked towards that, the more it seemed like an intellectual approach was almost trivializing the struggle of being human in the modern world.
Also I happened to be dealing with a lot of personal issues and needed to, in my own life, think about my relationships and how to put my relationships with my friends and my family above things like artistic ambition and financial success and those sorts of things. And so I made the record more than anything because I needed to and needed it to serve that purpose, to be an expression of things that are hard to talk about, hard to deal with, but are successful in music.
I’ve been seeing this new direction in theory and art where after a period of seeking utopia in technodriven self-overcoming and emotional erasure, people are coming back to the body and learning how to be human and exploring affect and emotion and all that. For example, “Quo Vadis”and “Ondine” sound as close to love songs as Lower Dens songs get. I was wondering if that was an accurate description and if it’s difficult to write songs like that after going in the opposite direction for so long?
I wouldn’t say it was hard. I was going through so much that I needed some sort of momentum. I fell into things like that before, when I just started writing music, and for me it was a way to deal with things that I didn’t know how to deal with otherwise. Really problematic relationships with my family and feeling generally like a reject. And so I knew on some kind of basic level how to reach that place in music.
But our approach in Lower Dens has been so much more methodical and it took me a while to satisfy both what I wanted to do emotionally/expressively and what I wanted to do artistically. It was definitely much more difficult to reach that place.
“Quo Vadis” and “Ondine” aren’t strictly love songs. Most of the songs on the record have to do with some aspect of love. Few of them have intrinsically to do with romantic relationships. When you’re writing about love it’s much easier to put it in the context of the romantic relationship. Even if you don’t, people are going to interpret it that way because thats what pop songs have been—they’ve been love songs and they deal with those kinds of romantic relationships. But for me, a lot of my friendships are just as strong and just as passionate and just as up and down and as important to me as my romantic relationships have been. So a song like “Quo Vadis” or a song like “Ondine” will come from an amalgamation of things: things from romantic relationships but also elements of my friendships with people.
“Ondine” is not about anybody specifically but more about a feeling. We wrote it together. We wrote a lot of the music together, and the lyrics for it came really quickly. I wasn’t thinking about anybody specifically, but the song just seemed to call out for this kind of wanting to protect someone and apologize to them at the same time.
“Quo Vadis” is a weird song for me too. It has to do with how a lot of my friends are artistic crazy beautiful reckless people, and those relationships are just explosive and unpredictable and also more important than anything else to me.
I definitely agree with that—there’s such the archetype of the pop song as a love song and the love song as a romantic song. I always think about Foucault’s essay “Friendship as a Way of Life,” and how there are relationships that are really intense that don’t fit the heteronormative archetype of the romantic couple but still contain really intense feelings.
Yea totally! Especially in this day and age when I feel like so many of us have families that we build ourselves, that we choose ourselves. We have our biological family—sometimes those relationships work and sometimes they don’t—but especially when you move across the country, or you’re queer and your family is not, you build those relationships and they become lifelong and just as powerful and strange and segmented as your relationship with your parents or your siblings.
That’s what pop songs have been—they’ve been love songs and they deal with those kinds of romantic relationships. But for me, a lot of my friendships are just as strong and just as passionate and just as up and down and as important to me as my romantic relationships.
The record is called Escape from Evil, which is an Ernest Becker book. He’s written a lot about denial of death, and I was wondering if that was a book you were reading while making this record, or what your relationship with his work was.
That was a book that I found after the record was done. I was looking for a title for the record and [a friend and I] were talking about various books, and he said, oh you might want to think about this one, and I liked the title right off the bat. But the more we talked about the book, the more I realized how what he’s really talking about are people’s desires, and their desires getting in the way of what they really need, and that really spoke to me about what the record was about for me.
He’s a cultural anthropologist. It’s a heady book. He didn’t want it to be published but it was published posthumously. In writing it at the end of his life, he was saying, “I said all of these things about people’s motivations and why they do things and how they get in the way of themselves, but what I could never admit to myself was that all the struggle and strife that humans face is as much their own fault as any force of nature or anything, that we have it in ourselves to make things better but also to ruin each other and we often do that without thinking about it and without thinking about what it really means.”
It was so hard for him to admit that too. It really spoke to me and reminded me of the individual struggle—my struggle and everyone’s struggle—to admit to ourselves that we’re doing these things to get ahead, to make things better for the people that we love, and we know in the process that we hurt people, and it’s really hard to admit it, and not just to admit it but to do something about it. It’s a thing that I get preoccupied with in my own life that I find myself dwelling on a lot. I wish it would be easier for us to admit when we were hurting others.
That’s definitely a very pressing theme in the record. And also in life in general. Are you now any closer to escaping from evil and reaching the utopic horizon?
I definitely think it’s past…I definitely think that the truth to be found there is one that you just have to keep looking for your whole life. But when I was working on the record, I was looking for the way to write songs that were about these things but then to fucking enjoy them, to have songs that were danceable, to write things that the band enjoyed playing, that we could share with people, that we could lose ourselves in. Because the joy of being alive is that we have motivation, we have the beauty of family and friendship, and to me it creates this undeniable ecstasy, this kind of range of experiences and these opportunities that we have. Even that we can feel great pain is a gift and we can acknowledge the pain that we feel and the pain that we cause and celebrate our own opportunities and the opportunity to know other people.
That’s a really good way of putting it. I’ve been trying to take a similar approach—it’s been a pretty heavy winter, as winters are, and I’ve been trying to get away from that and focus on the idea that, what if life is easy? Or at least just trying to acknowledge being really grateful for artistic community and the opportunity to create art, or really to do anything at all.
Yea! Or even the opportunity to give to people who have less than you. The world is a miserable oppressive place for a lot of people, and what that means is that you have the opportunity to try and make things better, and that’s an insane and beautiful thing.
I was looking for the way to write songs that were about these things but then to fucking enjoy them, to have songs that were danceable, to write things that the band enjoyed playing, that we could share with people, that we could lose ourselves in. Because the joy of being alive is that we have motivation, we have the beauty of family and friendship, and to me it creates this undeniable ecstasy, this kind of range of experiences and these opportunities that we have.
Kind of on that note, I wanted to ask you about a Tumblr post you wrote a little while ago called “On Pride.” It was about identifying as genderfluid and as a part of the trans community and wanting to connect with that. I thought that was really powerful, especially since it came at a time when conversations about trans visibility were on the rise. I just wanted to ask about what motivated that post and any effect you think it might have had.
I never felt that there was any purpose in me sharing my personal life because I didn’t think anyone had anything to gain from it. I’m a fairly private person and I like it that way. I feel like being private enables the art that I put out in the world to be considered in its own context. Also if I’m not private then to an extent I’m putting the lives of the people I know on display and I’m not comfortable with that.
But in this particular case, there was the atmosphere you were talking about, that there were more and more visible trans people, and it felt important to just say, I am also. It was partly that I had friends who would say, “hey did you hear that so-and-so came out as trans, isn’t that crazy, isn’t that weird, I never would have thought about them that way.”
And I wanted to say, “you’re not talking about something that’s all that distant from you.”
I’ve found that this helps people have a more nuanced perspective on what they’re talking about and maybe treat people differently.
I think it was also around queer pride week. We were driving into San Francisco during Pride and I thought that was an appropriate time to do it. It was something that I’d been thinking about for a little while and processing myself and I was ready to talk about it.
I don’t know that it’s had any kind of large benefits. It’s not like I’m a super famous person. But I have had a few people reach out and say that it helped, either because they hadn’t thought about it as something they themselves had a personal connection to, or it was something that they felt alone in. That’s why you do it—because the way that you make change in the world is individual to individual—that’s the only way things like that happen.
I do think it’s resonated with people, I’ve definitely spoken with people who felt a connection to that post. As someone who also identifies as genderqueer and works in arts communities, I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about the role of visibility in art and media and of claiming those identities more publicly. I think engaging in those conversations does have an effect in that it helps people feel more comfortable in communities they might previously have felt alienated from.
Change, especially social change, happens glacially, if at all. The only power that we have is that singular connection in our own lives.
In the “To Die in L.A.” video, you appear in a suit. Do you feel more empowered to play with gender in your work after being explicit about gender fluidity, or was that more of a coincidence?
I think they have something to do with each other. Certainly by making that public that knowledge has preceded me so I don’t really need to explain to people that I’m very much comfortable having a masculine look, or that I’m comfortable blending ideas about gender or whatever. In some cases it eliminates the need for conversation. To some extent, that conversation has already happened.
Cody Critcheloe though is fortunately not somebody who any of those ideas are new to, so he was stoked to be incorporating that into the video.
Speaking of videos, you were saying you were shooting a video for the song “Company.” “Company” sounds like such an innocuous word, but if you listen to the song it sounds almost like a corporate recruitment campaign, especially the line “We have your best interests at heart.” Plus, on the album it appears back to back with “Société Anonyme”, the French term for “corporation.” I thought it was an interesting decision to end the album with those two songs—I was wondering if you could speak to that at all.
You’re the first person to have noticed that “Company” is back to back with the French term for corporation, so that’s cool.
It wasn’t intended to have anything to do with each other. You know when you’re writing a thing you end up having recurring ideas that pop up in ways you’re not even totally aware of.
Do you know the playwright Eugene Ionesco? He’ll take very common phrases, like, he’ll have a family around a dinner table [who are] saying kind of rote things to each other, and it’s really depressing because they’re saying things that don’t really make any sense. They’re saying things that we say every day to each other, and you realize that this is what conversations are like a lot of the time to people—they’re just regurgitating phrases that are not even powerful enough to be cliches, they’re just like, “Oh how are you? I am fine, thank you for asking.” You find yourself saying something in a way that doesn’t even mean anything, and a lot of the phrases in that song are phrases that I feel that way about. Like, “we have your best interests in mind” doesn’t actually mean anything when somebody says that to you, in fact, whether or not you’re aware of it, you have the subconscious reaction that obviously they don’t have your best interests in mind if they’re going to say that.
I had in my head the idea of a dinner party where you go and you’re dressed in your casual Sunday-ish best or something, and people are offering you something that’s supposed to be a comfort, like pigs in blankets, and the very idea of it is repulsive if you think about it, like, those are disgusting—they’re not good food and they don’t mean that somebody likes you—in fact, it probably means they just want something out of you, and that’s gross.
So, a lot of that song is just that: you get invited over for dinner parties not because people want to spend time with each other but because people want something out of each other and they can’t just say that. I mean, the fact that it’s called “Company” is obviously a play on the idea of having company over and then about how that sort of thing can function in a very brutish economic way where you’re just networking.
“Société Anonyme” is more of like a direct statement about entertainment and capitalism and the idea that we’re force-fed TV and other forms of entertainment. The song talks about sublimation, which is the idea of correcting yourself to be right with society. And it’s not meant to have negative connotations but to me it has inherently negative connotations, and that’s what TV is meant to do—it normalizes, and I don’t care for it.
“Société Anonyme” is also a play on Man Ray’s title for his art society. He thought it meant “anonymous society” which is what it means literally, and that’s what I think about when I think about people who make entertainment to sell to the masses. They’re some shadowy motherfuckers. They’re putting out tendrils, they’re insidious, and I’d rather they not.
I mean…you gotta know what you’re getting into. I use Netflix, I have a Netflix subscription and I’ll watch some TV shows with it and I’ll try to keep myself aware of what I’m doing when I do that. I don’t put my faith in those to be representatives of what reality is and I try not to let myself get suckered into any sort of real emotional connection to Hollywood made films or television. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their purpose, but…they’re just selling you something. It can still be worthwhile, just not for the reasons that they say that it is.
I have nothing in the way of judgement for people who watch television that way or that use entertainment that way because our lives are hard and we’re looking for something like that. I don’t fault anybody who wants to watch TV, it’s the people that are selling it to us. They could be giving us more but they are giving us as little as they have to.
Is there anything else that’s really pressing that has been swirling around in your head?
I’m just really very excited about our live show. We just finished our first week of rehearsal, we played our first show together in two years the other day, and it was really good. I think that these songs lend themselves to live performance more than some of our other ones and I think that our group is very good and we’re all really excited about it. Everything sounds great so far, I just can’t wait to play it for people.
I had a lot of fun playing those shows with a laptop, but the entire time i was thinking I couldn’t wait to get those to the band, and thus far it seems to be everything I felt that it would be.