LIVE REVIEW: Lower Dens with Ami Dang @ The Roxy

Indie pop band Lower Dens has built up a loyal following since its 2010 inception, with hits like 2015’s ’80s-inspired “To Die in L.A.” and 2016’s introspective “Real Thing” not just providing catchy music but also making people think. They released their fourth album The Competition in September and have since been touring with ambient sitar player and vocalist Ami Dang. On Thursday, February 27, they stopped by LA’s famous Roxy Theatre to perform for an intimate but enthusiastic crowd.

Dang prefaced each of her songs with an explanation of what inspired them, revealing deep meanings behind each. One song’s lyrics came from an old Muslim poem about “how we can not only respect and tolerate one another but find places where spiritually we align,” and another was based on One Thousand and One Nights, setting the stories to music with no lyrics to reclaim whitewashed translations. Behind Dang’s soaring, dream-like voice was a thunderous electronic sound that made my body vibrate. Her huge sitar and passionate, chant-like singing against a background of synths and electronic beats provided a sound that was both modern and spiritual.

Photo credit: Joey DeRusha

The setting was as quirky as the performers themselves, with blue lights cast by a disco ball and confetti sprinkled across the ground. The light on the stage turned from red to purple to orange as Lower Dens performed.

The main act played some of the songs off its latest album, including “Lucky People,” a mellow but dark ballad reminiscent of The Cure, and “I Drive,” an honest and relatable ode to troubled family relationships. The show also featured music from 2015’s Escape from Evil, like the slow, pleading “Ondine,” as well as the haunting “Brains” all the way back from 2012’s Propagation.

Lower Dens have built up their following through their innovative music and artful, poetic lyrics as well as lead singer Jana Hunter‘s outspokenness on issues like gender identity and racism in the music industry. But not all of these appeals translate well into live performances. Hunter’s style of singing often involves swallowing his words, leaving the audience unable to glean their intricate meanings.

The heavy backtracks made it even more difficult to make out the melodies and lyrics, and the band’s performance style was understated, with little movement or displays of emotion, which made the show feel low-energy. While this shoe-gaze style has been done to make a statement in the past, the way the Lower Dens presented themselves felt more like an attempt to play it safe, an unwillingness to commit to any statement — a surprising contrast to Hunter’s boldness in his writing and interviews.

Nevertheless, the band played for an excited crowd of people, who cheered when hits like “To Die in LA” came on and swayed along to the music throughout the performance. As someone who was familiar with Lower Dens but had not followed them closely, I wished they hadn’t buried so much of their music’s profound meaning and emotion. But the show did inspire me to listen to and research their music online when I got home, and perhaps that was the best way to experience its full depth.

Photo credit: Joey DeRusha


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Credit: Katrina Barber

When you’re talking to Jana Hunter, nothing is taboo. As his band Lower Dens has gotten big, he’s used his platform to talk candidly about societal problems, like racism in the music industry and the enforcement of the gender binary, as well as internal struggles, like the temptation of infidelity. The characters in his songs are intentionally genderless, and his latest song “Real Thing” is about a woman who wants to “get out and get it on” while she’s married.

Lower Dens have toured with Explosions in the Sky and opened for Yo La Tengo and Beach House, and they performed at the Day for Night festival in December. The day after their show outside an abandoned post office in Houston, I talked to Hunter about why internalized misogyny is so rampant, how white people screw up by pretending they’re not racist, and how he knows Trump’s a psychopath but Lyndon Johnson wasn’t. (The genderfluid singer/songwriter/musician goes by both pronouns but asked that I use male ones to balance things out, since people use female ones by default.) The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Suzannah Weiss for Audiofemme: I really like your new song “Real Thing.” What inspired you to write that?

Jana Hunter: I really wanted to write a song with an old friend of mine from Houston. He and I had been kind of sharing music with each other for a long time and had never written a song together, so we decided to. One time, when I was back in town, he had a bunch of old porn magazines laying around his house, including a couple of Oui magazine, I was trying to find lyrics, and I looked in one of those and found an advice column. And a woman had written in asking for guidance about how to respectfully step out on her husband, basically. So that’s what the song came from. I really identified with that struggle to be a good person in the face of the desires that are inherent in being an animal with compulsions.

Why did you think that was an important thing to sing about?

Because it’s something that dominates so much of our lives. That’s basically the story of every human. We are animals with really profound, compelling instincts, trying to pretend that we are some kind of super beings that have everything figured out and in control. It’s the struggle at the center of everyone’s life, and that’s a pretty good example of it. We force ourselves into very strict monogamous relationship social structures. We enforce all sorts of rules that don’t take into account our compulsions, our desires, our needs. It’s the beauty and tragedy of all kinds of people’s lives, so you could write a million songs about all different aspects of it.

What would you write if you were the one answering her letter?

You have to talk to your partner and see if you can resolve your desires with one another, and if they’re irresolvable, you have to figure out what to do about that. The thing that you can’t do is act on your compulsions without any accountability to anyone else. That’s where all kinds of conflicts come in. People ruin their lives and a lot more if they’re careless enough.

You spoken before about how we need to talk about our taboo emotions more. What else were you referring to?

Something that I think about a lot lately is how we deal with — how in particular white people deal with — race. Humans generally have a difficult time acknowledging their flaws and their weaknesses and their insecurities, their fears. And so much of the damage that’s done by people who consider themselves white has to do with their inability to acknowledge their insecurity around what they perceive as weaknesses or shortcomings or guilt or their participation in unjust systems.

I think a lot about how much better things could be for so many people if people who consider themselves white or are white-passing could acknowledge those things about ourselves, could accept them and acknowledge them and just move the fuck on, you know?

So much of our problems have so much to do with our inability to accept our flaws, and it’s always confounding to me. It’s so easy to say “I’m wrong. I’m not perfect. I need to do something about it.” It’s so much harder to keep fighting with everyone and insisting that there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s so unrealistic. It’s just so completely unrealistic. None of us are gods. We’re all flawed.

Have you been guilty of that?

I think that there are times when I see people for their race instead of their humanity, and whether or not the intention behind that is a good thing, it doesn’t behave as a good thing. And I feel to an extent like it’s a lifelong practice, a pursuit, trying to figure out how to be a good person in that way, get out of the way and just let people live their lives. Be beneficial without invading space. Those sorts of things. They’re tricky.

You’ve written about exercising that form of denial toward yourself — dismissing the misogyny in the music industry and having to convince yourself it exists. Why do we do that?

I think specifically, if you’re on the receiving end of any kind of discrimination, it’s almost a violence to your own sense of self to acknowledge that other people are behaving in a negative way toward you because of something that you have no control over. In itself, that kind of acceptance is traumatic. And so one way that I think that our psyches are meant to defend us is through denial, trying to deny that that’s happening.

Unfortunately, that usually will mean we will take that sort of offense and internalize it and ascribe it to something that makes more sense, like “I deserve it for some reason.” And so that’s what I mean. My own experiences with misogyny usually end up with some sort of internalized guilt and an assumption that there’s some reason that I deserve it, because the alternative is to accept insanity. Discrimination is completely insane. It doesn’t make any sense It’s impossible to accept on its own terms, you know that I mean?

Do you experience a particular kind of discrimination in the music industry for being gender-fluid?

Not that I’ve noticed. I guess it’s part and parcel with the thing that I was just talking about. It’s very difficult to process discrimination towards oneself and at the same time, it can be difficult, even in the face of it, to recognize it as such. Like, is somebody staring at me because I have something leaking out of a hole in my face, or is somebody staring at me because they can’t identify a gender in me and that makes them uncomfortable? I don’t know, and part of me wishes that I didn’t even wonder. And that’s about as far as I get with it these days. I don’t ask or confront. I just have other things I’m interested in doing besides that. It takes a lot of energy. It’s too exhausting to confront.

What have you been focusing on instead?

Writing. I really want to put out another Lower Dens record. So I’ve been working on that. And then, there’s a  lot going on in the world to pay attention to besides oneself, so I feel like I’m keeping plenty busy.

What issues are concerning you most right now?

The election, the continued drama of the election, the liberation of Black Americans, the violence toward trans people of color in particular, the genocide in Syria, the situations in Istanbul and Yemen. There’s so much. And then, you know, I’m reading a book about Lyndon Johnson when I need to look away from the present world.

What about Lyndon Johnson interests you?

He’s a really fascinating character. And he’s also lucky enough to have several really good books about him written by an excellent author. So it’s as much about that author as Lyndon Johnson the man. Lyndon Johnson’s a very complicated creature, very intelligent, very desperate, very clever and crafty and diabolic. He also won major gains for civil rights, but maybe without even believing in them. He’s a hard man to figure out, if he actually believed in anything or if he only passed civil rights legislation because it worked for him politically at the time. He’s a master manipulator in a way that few other people are without being a true psychopath, which is really fascinating to me. A lot of the people who end up in those positions are psychopaths. They really have no concern or care for anyone else. They have no fear.

Do you think that Trump is a psychopath?

Yeah, I do. I think he has all the hallmarks of a true psychopath. He’s entirely too confident in himself, and he’ll say anything. He’ll say literally anything, whatever he believes benefits him in the short term. I don’t think he’s very good at a lot of things, but I think he’s very good at manipulating people in the short term without regard for any consequences. He’s maybe not so smart. It doesn’t even matter if he’s smart or not because he’s got other, more dangerous psychopaths around who are much smarter than he is, and all he has to be for them is a puppet, which he’s doing really effectively.

Who do you think is more dangerous than him?

Oh, Steve Bannon, without a doubt. That guy is very smart. Truly dangerous. People make these understandable but false equivalencies between Hitler and Trump. But I think the equivalences between the people around Hitler and the people around Trump are much more accurate. And of course, they’ll never act in such obvious ways because they’ve learned the lessons of history: mainly, don’t get caught. Don’t be so bold. But their motivations are no less evil. There’s nothing to stop them from taking us all down with them, so to speak.

How do you feel like you’ll be personally affected by Trump’s presidency?

I don’t know. I haven’t given it a moment’s thought. It’s not a time where it really seems possible for me to live anywhere but in the immediate moment. Making the most vague plans in order to know that you are going to have one foot in front of the other makes sense. “I am on a path of some sort” is about the most specific I can get for myself at the moment, but as far as what that’ll look like, especially in a greater context, I have no idea.

I think situations like the one we’re in right now are likely to reveal things to people about themselves that might make them very uncomfortable. And not like their capacity for anger, but more like their capacity for cowardice. What I hope, my only hope, is that his presidency doesn’t reveal to me that I’m a lot more of a coward than I think that I am. You know what I mean? I feel like a lot of people will find that out about themselves if they don’t work really hard against that.

What sort of things are going to bring that out?

There’s a very obvious push right now for people to align themselves with a very dangerous ideology. One of our strongest instincts is to fit in with whatever we consider to be the norm so that we survive. And it’s that sort of situation that could compel a lot of us to ignore the pain and the injustice suffered by other people in the name of us being able to survive comfortably. And that could take many different forms, and it will.

What are you exploring in your next album?

This one we started with a lot of reading about fundamentals of music and how people interpret sound, which is kind of the most indulgent part of it for us. And then, right now, I’m working on the basic kind of song structures, because we have all these instruments and sounds and ideas, technical and experimental ideas about what we want to do with the record. And so now I’m focusing on song structures, making songs that are simultaneously simple enough so that almost anybody can enjoy them, and aren’t so dumbed down so that they hold no substance.

One of the main pitfalls of modern music for me is that you write a song that’s all aesthetic and no substance, and that’s to be avoided and also very difficult to avoid if you’re going for accessibility. That’s where I’m going right now. I haven’t written the lyrics yet. The closest I get to theme is that I want the songs to contribute something to people’s lives that’s a real measurable benefit.

How do you feel like that compares to your past music?

When I wrote solo records, I put really no thought into them at all. I just was writing songs kind of as a form of self-therapy. And then I can’t really analyze them beyond that. They’re just very personal. And then when I started with the Lower Dens records, I wanted to write songs that held up to the songs written by people whom I admired most, and I felt that I needed to put a lot of complex composition into them. When I look back at them, they were needlessly complex, and I feel like the further along that I’ve gotten, the more simple they’ve gotten, and the more condensed and effective they’ve gotten.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

INTERVIEW: Jana Hunter

Jana Hunter

Before Jana Hunter became the woman behind the Baltimore-based Lower Dens, she was a solo singer-songwriter from Houston, TX. After releasing her 2005 debut Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom and two follow-up albums through Devendra Banhart’s label, she started her current dreamy, psychedelic project. We talked to her about the band’s latest video, their upcoming album, and got some advice for shy musicians.

Escape From Evil, the band’s third release, comes out March 31.

AF: I read that you’ve coached at the Girls Rock camp in your hometown, Houston. Did teaching kids about music give you any creative insights?

JH: Definitely. That was one of the better experiences I’ve had as a musician, and as an adult. You want to teach them something about their instrument, but the most important thing to focus on is not being so afraid about impressing other people, or perfecting their craft, and to remember to have a good time. And kids, once they see that is a possibility, they’re quick to embrace it, and that is really refreshing to be around… kids can really throw themselves into something and lose their sense of self-awareness that prohibits them from enjoying and developing their creativity. That was really cool and I feel like I learned way more from them than they possibly could’ve learned from me.

AF: I think sometimes girls, especially, need that push of self-confidence from a mentor.

JH: Yeah, and they said as much. Throughout the week we were working with them on a little video documentary and they would say, ‘This environment helps me feel like it’s ok for me to do whatever I want.’ I imagine that had something to do with being around a lot of women, and people who were not… um… men (laughs). And not having to worry about impressing boys or anything like that.

AF: Did you take music lessons when you were young?

JH: Yeah, I started playing when I was eight or nine. My first instrument was the recorder, which I played in music class in elementary school. Then I switched to violin. I still play it, I just don’t take lessons or anything anymore. But yeah, I did a pretty rigorous study of music.

AF: The music video for “To Die In L.A.” was great, and the timing of its release- a week or so before the Oscars- seemed perfect. Was that intentional?

JH: No, I didn’t think about that at all, until I saw in our Twitter mentions a Spanish publication said something about that. That’s amazing, that we didn’t think about that at all. I wish we had. And obviously, everyone wants to know what Lower Dens thinks about the Oscars…(laughs) you know, here you go, burning social commentary. 

AF: You make an appearance in that video. Is being on camera fun, or does it get tedious?

JH: I loved making that video, but there have been others that were decidedly more difficult, but this one was worth every minute of it. I think that crew was amazing, and [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][director Cody Critcheloe] is amazing.

AF: Lower Dens is starting a tour in March, correct?

JH: Right, yeah. We start touring fairly soon, but we haven’t played any shows together in a long time.

AF: Are there any favorite cities you enjoy visiting on tour?

JH: Baltimore is a place that treats local performers really well. In some towns it’s hard to get people to shows if you’re from the town. But Baltimore, for whatever reason, playing for those people is like playing for your family. People are very enthusiastic when they come to your shows; they’re also not necessarily going to hide from you when they’re not enthusiastic about what you’re doing. You have to face that honesty… There are very few places that I don’t like. If there’s one person there that’s interested in hearing you, then it’s worth it to go play there and it can be a fun and exciting time.

AF: Are there any artists or records you’ve been stuck on lately?

JH: Yeah. I did a review of Future Brown. They’re producers. They all have their own individual projects, but they got together to make a record. I was psyched about them anyway and I got to review their record for Talkhouse. I’ve listened to it definitely more than any other new record and I love it. I think it’s brilliant on a lot of levels.

AF: Do you spend a lot of time writing?

JH: I was doing more last year. This is, like, my fourth review for Talkhouse. I haven’t had as much time and I’ve also been wanting to read a lot more lately.

AF: What are you reading right now?

JH: “Escape from Evil,” which is the book we titled our record after.

AF: Speaking of your new record, what was your approach to writing new material for Escape From Evil?

JH: It’s changed for me over the years. When I was really young, the only way I really liked to write music was to walk around, or ride around on my bike, and sing to myself, come up with things spur of the moment and then match them with arrangements later. When Lower Dens started I was writing guitar loops and making up words with them at the same time, so more or less spontaneous writing. But after being in Lower Dens for a few years, we settled into an ensemble approach to a lot of things we do. We decided to write this record collaboratively. The initial step was getting together with the band, and writing instrumental stuff. I hadn’t done that with a whole group of people, and it was difficult to navigate the process at the beginning, but I think the record is a lot better for it. It’s complex in a way I wouldn’t have been able to achieve myself.

AF: When Lower Dens isn’t recording or touring, do you guys hang out, or are you sick of each other after working so closely?

JH: I think at the end of a long tour, yeah. But it’s not so much we’re sick of each other, that we miss the other people in our lives. But we’re friends, we’re all very close. We don’t have a purely working relationship. It’s easier for me to understand now why bands break up, why they can’t make music anymore than when I was a kid, and I hated people for doing that.

AF: I was looking at your recent profile in Vogue, and they described you as shy. Do you have any advice for artists who are trying to get over their shyness?

JH: Just that it takes time. What takes time is developing methods that allow you to communicate with people in a way you can showcase your vulnerabilities in a way that becomes a strength, and you don’t judge yourself for the things you’ve revealed to people. You will inevitably feel as though you’re fucking up and revealing too much. But eventually it becomes easier. Nobody ever told me that, it’s just that I went on tour, and I was miserable until I figured that out. It was just the repeated conversations nightly with people I’d never met before that made me feel comfortable being- not necessarily more of myself, but learning to present a version of myself that I felt comfortable sharing with people. And learning that I can show shades of myself instead of my entire self.


TRACK OF THE WEEK: Lower Dens “To Die in L.A.”

Lower Dens

I live in Brooklyn. Despite years in the entertainment industry, I don’t know L.A. So if I were to die there, I imagine it would be in the air above in a plane crash or by having given into all my vices and overdosed in a mansion dressed still wearing my black leather pants. Either option sends me out at the rock star age of 27. That’s just where my morbid mind goes.

Lower Dens are an “entropics” band from Baltimore. “To Die in L.A.” is hot off their forthcoming third album Escape from Evil, to be released on March 31 via Ribbon Music. A preview of what to expect from the whole damn thing, “To Die in L.A.” is dark; it’s whimsical. The voice of Jana Hunter reverberates loud and bold over an experimental track that standing alone could work as the theme for an indie horror flick. “I wish I could count on you…” echos Hunter’s vocals in the opening line.

Lower Dens will play a release show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on Tuesday, March 31. Buy tickets here.

Listen to “To Die in L.A.” below.