An Interview with Jana Hunter of Lower Dens

Jana Hunter greeted me at the top of her staircase on a chilly night in Waverly. I was an hour late and slightly grumpy as I had waited at the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon for the Purple Line Shuttle for 40 minutes and then walked a quarter mile from Johns Hopkins to make it to her somewhat unassumingly normal home. She had been huddled alone in her tiny office space on the third floor of her row house as the rest of Lower Dens were warming up for band practice in the basement.

Jana and I are lifelong artists and she’s a long time resident of Baltimore. I grew up here and became an active member of the local scene a few years prior to us meeting, so there was very little need to clarify the small nuances about the local music scene in our conversation.

Jana has an affinity for Baltimore and the local music scene that has evolved into a quiet and comfortable acknowledgment. She can step back and express formed opinions from years of involvement and observation, and can also compare her interactions in Baltimore as a musician to other cities from all over the world since 2010.

SCOUT with Lower Dens: Tracks Before the Train from on Vimeo.

Lower Dens‘ 2015 album, Escape from Evil has been written about as one of the best albums of 2015 from several music journalists and media outlets, but to Jana, the creation of the album was a very real and complex process.

She talked about all these things and more as her elderly but handsome grey cat, Mordack sat curled up in her lap in her large and minimal bedroom.

You’re beginning your tour by playing two nights in Baltimore at Ottobar. Is it your ritual to start your tours off in your hometown? 

No. I mean, there’s always a local show on our tours. Honestly, I prefer to play the local shows at the end of the tour when the band’s really well tuned up and tight. I think (the audience) is sensitive to the difference between a band who hasn’t played together in a while (compared to) a band that’s been touring. There are so many people in the audiences at shows here (in Baltimore) who are musicians. Those are the people whose opinion I get worried about. I don’t know what it’s like to be somebody who is not listening and analyzing really carefully, but it seems like people are having a good time and I hope they are. People are generally more engaged here.

It sounds like you’re saying Baltimore audiences tend to be more engaged critically and intellectually, but I hear that audiences in Europe seem to have a more enthused primal relationship with live music. Is that true? 

I don’t know; my experience in Baltimore has been that people are not so concerned with presentation and how they’re represented. They’re involved in such a way where they let themselves kind of lose themselves at shows. In Europe, it depends on where you are. There are places in Europe where people seem to have trouble being able to relax and get into the music unless they’ve had a lot to drink, like a lot of other places in the United States. Baltimore has always been more in touch with its animal self than most of the places I’ve played in the US.

Yeah, there’s a grit and an honesty, and a free wielding energy within the music scene here as long as you let go and embrace it. Have you played Ottobar before and do you enjoy it? 

Yeah, I like playing there. I’ve seen a lot of shows there and I’ve seen a lot of (my) idols play there. It’s got a decent set up and there are really good people who work there.

Was your current album, Escape from Evil written locally? 

For the most part, it was written here. Here meaning Maryland. I wrote some of (the album) in Baltimore and some of it in Rockville and Potomac, and elements of it was written in a studio. We recorded here, but we also did a lot of overdubs in New York and we recorded all the vocals in L.A.

So, this album was kind of pieced together. Was this process intentional or are you always on the lookout for a specific equipment set up that you have to travel to find? 

I have very specific and ambitious ideas when I head into making a record. It’s very hard to find the resources to fulfill those ideas at times, so it was only out of necessity that we had to go over it piece by piece. I would have rather camped in a studio for a couple of months with one engineer, but we couldn’t do that. Every time we were in the studio, we were using every available moment, not sleeping and just trying to accomplish as many things as possible simultaneously. You just run out of time.

Well, it worked out for the best because Escape from Evil is on a number of “Best Of 2015” lists. Do you consider this album artistically successful after all your hard work? 

It is the closest thing to success that I’ve felt in terms of achieving what I wanted it to achieve [with the sound]. It’s funny that you mention that because the artist who did the album art also went through a long arduous process. She knew what she wanted to make and when she finished it she said, “It’s the first thing I’ve made where I was able to fulfill the initial vision.” I think that’s a part of maturing into your craft. I feel like I’m still working towards it but for me this [album] was pretty close.

What are you looking forward to on this tour? 

I always look forward to the weirdest things, like I’m looking forward to playing the places in Canada that we have not played before. We’re playing in Calgary—I’ve played in Calgary but the band has not played there. I’ve driven across Western Canada but the band has never done that. It’s an amazing, beautiful place. It’s probably the closest to the Alps that I’ve seen. You don’t realize growing up in the United States that the Rockies extend that far.

Western Canada! 

Yeah, and I’m mostly just looking forward to playing. I really enjoy playing music with these guys and I’ve grown to love performing a lot more than I used to.

Some bands say they kind of have a telepathic musical relationship, like when you’re on stage and you’re going to make an unexpected change or if you miss a note the band flows with it all at once. Do you and the current line up of Lower Dens have that kind of chemistry?  

I think the guys I am playing with have been playing their whole lives and that’s what they do. I feel like our band gets to that point sometimes, but this particular ensemble still hasn’t been playing consistently enough to develop the kind of psychic repore you’re describing, but I think it’s available to us if we want to seize the opportunity. This group has worked better than any other group we’ve had before. I think it has to do with all of us being career musicians who know this is what we want to do and it’s what we are going to do whether we want to or not (laughs).

Having no options makes a big difference.  

Yeah, when you feel like, “I don’t really have a choice,” I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life or it is at least always going to inform who I am, and it really does mean something to play with people who have that same outlook, like shipmates. We’re in the ship together. And by coincidence we are people who share similar values and views on politics and we get along very well. Those things combined have endeared us to one another very quickly.

..and the fact that you’re not a diva helps. 

Well, you haven’t seen me in band practice.