The Lower Dens’ third album – Escape from Evil – is like that glass of organic ginger-beet juice you had last week – it contains a surprisingly delicious burst of flavor while its ingredients help to nourish your body.
Jana Hunter – the group’s lyricist – hits all the standard subjects favored in pop music: love, loss and the perils of consumer culture due to our tragic addiction to entertainment. Obviously, Hunter isn’t afraid of taking on heady subjects.
Escape from Evil is the follow-up the Lower Dens’ 2012 sophomore effort Nootropics – an album about the future of society and transhumanism. But where Nootropics is moody, dark and atmospheric, Escape from Evil features danceable ’80s-style pop songs.
“To Die in LA” – the first single from Escape from Evil and Lower Dens’ most accessible pop song yet –sucks you in with its catchy synth hook while dealing with subjects ranging from the betrayal of a reckless lover to the predatory nature of the entertainment industry. It also, oddly enough, takes some inspiration from the 1985 action movie To Live and Die in LA, starring Willem Dafoe as an evil counterfeiting mastermind.
With Escape from Evil – which appeared on many “Best Albums of 2015” lists (including our own) – the Lower Dens retain their status as critics’ darlings. The record – which came out in the spring of 2015 – was recorded in various studios in cities across the country. Currently, Hunter and company are amassing an array of studio equipment so the band can record its next album in a more leisurely fashion. When I gave Hunter a call, she had spent the day putting together some of that equipment, and like the songs from Escape from Evil, the conversation began lightly and gradually got deeper and deeper.
Mike Andrelczyk: Last night I was watching To Live and Die in L.A. but I fell asleep before it ended, so I gotta know – did the Secret Service agent ever catch Rick Masters?
Jana Hunter: I really don’t want to tell you.
MA: I have a feeling the agent does some sort of BASE jumping maneuver, arrests Masters and then there’s a passionate make-out scene between the two of them.
JH: (laughs) That would be a great alternate ending.
MA: OK, so I’m off base a little bit there.
JH: A little bit.
MA: What was it about that movie or the city of L.A. that inspired the song
“To Die in L.A.”?
JH: The song is about a kind of reckless individual in my life. I have relationships
with a few different people in my life, and I love them a lot and I love them because they’re crazy and reckless, but it also makes it so hard to care for them. There are people that screw you and take money from you and whatever else. And it reminds me of that movie and that city. The way that city was built, even, was with a certain kind of very American bravado and recklessness and it continues to be that way. I know a lot of people who say that they hate [L.A.] but they never leave it. The industries there give rise to the kind of predatory relationship that the public has with celebrities and that the entertainment industry has with the public. It’s all kind of fascinating. And gross. And amazing (laughs).
MA: On Escape from Evil there are songs about various attempts to escape from evil through drugs, entertainment, love, being around other people, illusion and death. Can you actually escape evil?
JH: I think it’s about the process rather than the end goal. It’s like with human rights or civil rights, we may never, as a society, get to the point where we treat people how they should be treated, but you can’t let that stop you from trying. It’s more about the way that you live and not letting yourself be dissuaded by the “forces of evil.”
MA: You’re able to get some pretty big ideas into pop songs.
JH: It’s the only way I really know to express myself fully. I like writing and I’ve written a few articles. I think I even have a talent for it, but there’s a third dimension that’s not present there. I think it’s, like, simply the emotion that music can convey. I think it takes real genius to have text convey that like music can. I think a lot of writers wish they could play music. [Music] is almost like a cheat.
MA: What’s your writing process like?
JH: A record for me starts very abruptly. There’s a date on a calendar and then I start writing. And maybe the band works together for part of that time. Then we’re developing the record until the time when it can be recorded. And then it continues to live on in the show, so I feel like I’m still working on this record. I talk about it continuously, and then what eventually will happen, and I think this is starting to happen now, is it will lead me to a different body of thoughts and those will eventually become a new record. We may be able to write a little bit differently now because we’ve been assembling studio equipment so that we can record ourselves. We want to be a little bit more leisurely in the way that we work on the recordings.
MA: Some of the lyrics to the song “Société Anonyme” were inspired by David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest – a book about various forms of escape and addiction, specifically the addiction to entertainment.
JH: Yes. I was reading that book for the first time throughout writing this record. I think it had a much bigger influence than I really have acknowledged. There’s also a couple lines in that song that refer to Plato’s “Cave Story” and to me those two things are really intrinsically linked – the world that David Foster Wallace created is the kind of steroidal evolution of the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave. And it’s not even really that that’s evil, but it’s the willingness of other people to perpetuate those kind of things for their own benefits by how it robs the rest of us of a real life, or sometimes of our actual lives. Technology has made it possible for people to suffer less, but completely part and parcel with that [come] the things that rob us of our real lives and real relationships. These phones. Goddamn these phones.
MA: I saw you tweeted at D’Angelo saying that you’d love to collaborate with him. Is he your dream artist to collaborate with?
JH: I would love to collaborate with him. I feel like there might be more interesting people for him to collaborate with than us. I haven’t really thought about it lately. There are people here [in Baltimore] that are making really amazing new styles of dance and hip-hop that I’d love to be a part of. People like [the producer] JPEGMAFIA, my friend Abdu Ali, this guy named 3LON that’s this amazing singer. They probably would be my first choice.
MA: Now that things are transitioning into a new period of writing, what’s capturing your imagination now?
JH: Well, throughout the process of writing Escape from Evil, I felt this kind of urgency about making some sort of contribution to helping people and making a difference. But I’m thinking a lot about how I don’t have any hope for our society as a whole, but that idea isn’t depressing to me. I feel hope for individuals, but I feel doubtful that our society will, like, succeed or turn itself around, you know? What’s important to me now is every individual interaction that I can have, or that we can have, with each other. I don’t know, like I said it’s pretty early in this process. What will generally happen is I’ll be thinking about things like that and I’ll be talking to you or a friend or somebody about these things and somebody will recommend a book and then I’ll start reading books. Usually like a body of books, and they interact with this line of thinking that for me goes back to 2005 or 2006. Every time there’s a big group of other people’s ideas that interact with that line of thinking in me it produces a record.
MA: What happened to you in 2006?
JH: I moved to Baltimore.
MA: Obviously, Baltimore is a very important place to you. What is it about that city?
JH: Baltimore has community in a way that other places just don’t. The idea of community is really in action here.
MA: I feel like, maybe, people across the country, especially after the events of the spring of 2015, don’t get that impression from Baltimore.
JH: Yeah, you know, I don’t think that they do. I think it’s really hard to understand this city if you’re not here. I grew up relatively poor compared to most people that I know – not like desperately poor, but like food-stamp poor – and I was horribly ashamed of it when I was a kid, but now I take great pride in it. I think, for me – I’m not saying that it does this for everyone – but for me, it made me be able to appreciate people in a way that, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And so this is something that I value about people who come from poverty and Baltimore is a very impoverished town. And not that I would wish that on anybody, but I think that it has made it so, in this city, people interact with each other in a more honest and direct way than they would elsewhere. It’s a very rough, raw, wild, beautiful place where conversations about, like, what happened to Freddie Gray can happen in a way that I don’t think they could in some other places.
Lower Dens perform a free show at the Millworks (340 Verbeke St.) in Harrisburg on January 20 at 9 p.m. Visit millworksharrisburg.com for more info.