With Nootropics, Lower Dens seek dynamic stability

| June 20, 2012
At a distance: Lower Dens
At a distance: Lower Dens
- Photo courtesy of The Windish Agency

For a group whose records depend on so much wanderlust, the topic of "home" certainly comes up often in stories about Lower Dens.

Based in Baltimore when they released their much-buzzed debut, 2010's Twin-Hand Movement, none of the three original members live there now. Instead, as the stylistically divergent follow-up Nootropics earns Lower Dens new momentum, the original members have scattered in search of something resembling home: Singer Jana Hunter returned to her native Texas, while bassist Geoff Graham is relocating to Berlin to pursue a relationship. Guitarist Will Adams currently lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend.

That restlessness not only colors Lower Dens' backstory but also informs the band's new songs. Nootropics questions humanity's place in an era of unparalleled scientific evolution—hence all the ink spilt in stories about the band's fascination with Transhumanism, futurist Ray Kurzweill's books and robotics, as well as Lower Dens' turn toward more synth-processed textures and Krautrock's motorik beats.

But over two years of constant touring, that inability to stay still nearly torpedoed Lower Dens. Adams quit in April 2011, partly because that exhaustive road schedule—more than 200 dates in one 12-month stretch—had obliterated the concept of home life.

"We'd been touring the same songs and having trouble keeping a lineup," the 35-year-old guitarist says. "It seemed like we were going to do the same thing until we ran ourselves into the ground."

Hunter and Adams had known each other from Houston's small independent music scene, back before the singer left for Baltimore and wound up on Devendra Banhart's Gnomonsong label. After stints in Paris, New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Adams headed to Baltimore at Hunter's request. He added guitar parts for her 2007 solo record, presciently titled There's No Home. Together with Graham and drummer Abe Sanders, Lower Dens coalesced as a psych-rock/ shoegaze mix most notable for the blend of Adams' twinkling guitar parts and Hunter's Kaleidoscope-era Siouxsie Sioux-like vocals. But with little label support available, the foursome accepted tour after tour in support of Twin-Hand Movement. Amid the grind, Hunter and the band dismissed Sanders over creative differences, forcing Adams to sit in on an instrument he hadn't played in years. But Adams' dream-gaze guitar textures were so integral to the sound of Lower Dens' debut; his departure felt more ominous. In interviews, Hunter seemed to say as much, despite attempts at positive spin. "I think [Nootropics] will be good whether or not he plays," she told one reporter, "but it's hard for me to imagine him not being on it."

He took a tour off, and the time at home proved an essential tonic. By the time Lower Dens entered Michigan's Key Club studio for Nootropics' five weeks of recording, Adams was back in the fold, which now included new drummer Nate Nelson and keyboardist Carter Tanton.

All that uncertainty fundamentally altered Lower Dens: Virtually every note of Twin-Hand Movement, Adams says, had been considered before entering the studio. With the band confined to the creative space of a tour van, Nootropics' songs were mere sketches done on laptops and computer MIDIs.

"We were trying to make sense of little blips on a computer screen rather than stuff we'd come up with from playing," he explains. Even the new record's subject matter stemmed from endless hours spent in a van discussing esoteric matters.

With touring for Nootropics just beginning, Adams isn't ready to pronounce the band's issues resolved just yet. But listening to his enthusiasm discussing the new record and the band's injection of fresh blood, it's clear that Lower Dens is—for now, anyway—a home away from home.

"I found myself working with them so much while I was 'out of the band,' by the end of it I felt like I didn't want to tear myself away again," he says. "Just playing with Jana is the right thing for me to do."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Flexible nest."


Lower Dens plays at Kings Thursday, June 21. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $8–$10. No Joy and Alan Resnick open.

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This band truly and deeply sucks. When you get compared to Siouxie Sioux it is time to Quit and Go Home. Game Over!

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Posted by Ray Johnson on 06/20/2012 at 9:45 PM
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