Q&A: Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter Talks Band Shake-ups, Bohemians vs. Robots, and Exxon (Part One)
In a flurry of tweets and Facebook status updates on Monday, Lower Dens announced that Will Adams would be leaving the band due to exhaustion. It was the second major lineup change since the start of the year, the first being the departure of drummer Abe Sanders in early January. As part of a temporary fix, it was actually Adams who took Sanders’s place behind the kit, with John Hunter, brother of lead singer and guitarist Jana, taking over on lead guitar.
Monday evening I reached out to Jana Hunter, whom I’d previously worked with once before on a profile for The Washington Post–where I am also a contributor and have a day job doing music listings–to see if she would at any point want to talk about the state of the band for Noise. She seemed eager to clear things up, responding to the e-mail with: “Absolutely! Tonight or tomorrow morning would be best. That possible?” We arranged to meet at One World Café later that night.
After she arrived and ordered, we grabbed a table near the back. What ensued was a strikingly candid interview in which Hunter discussed, in great depth and detail, her take on the departure of both Adams and Sanders, the relentless grind of the band’s touring schedule, the struggles they had all gone through up to this point, the “workaholism” that continues to drive her, and the future of Lower Dens.
It wasn’t until Hunter herself brought up the name Exxon that I learned there was something of a minor controversy brewing over the band’s decision to license “I Get Nervous” to the oil giant for a commercial.
I expected the interview to last a little over 20 minutes; we ended up talking for nearly an hour. At points it was clear that Hunter was still deeply affected by everything that had gone on. At others, it seemed she was resolute about plowing ahead and seeing through the artistic vision she and the band had planned out.
Below is part one of a two-part transcript of our conversation. It focuses primarily on the band’s shifting lineup, group dynamics, and the events that brought Hunter and Lower Dens to this point. Part two will focus extensively on the band’s decision to license one of their songs to Exxon, how a significant chunk of the money received from the deal is dog-eared for charity, and what plans are in store for the next album.
City Paper: Espresso, eh?
Jana Hunter: I feel really cloudy. I’ve been basically, like, in one room for three days. I just need a charge.
CP: Is that as a result of this situation?
JH: Partly. I’m also decompressing from tour, and I’m still working on material for our next record. I’ve been getting it all on a computer.
CP: That’s hardly even decompressing. That’s like getting right back to work.
JH: Well, you know, that’s my favorite part of work.
CP: What exactly happened with Will leaving?
JH: I’m still a little unclear on it myself, but he called me the day after we got back. We left him in New York, that’s where his girlfriend lives. And he called [on Saturday] and said he wanted to talk about leaving the band, and that he wanted to do that, more or less, immediately. His reasons are really understandable. He’s really burned out; we’ve had a really heavy tour schedule. His girlfriend lives in New York, so he had less time with her than the rest of us had with our significant others and friends and family. And he said he just really didn’t want to be in a band anymore, and the idea of going on another tour was terrible.
And we talked for a while, and I tried to see if there was anything I could do or ask him why he hadn’t, you know—He said he’d been thinking about it for months, and I have no idea why he didn’t talk about it beforehand. I don’t know, he didn’t really . . . He’s not easy to read and he’s not always forthcoming, so I’m still a little confused about it. But this just happened. Can’t force him.
[Adams could not immediately be reached for comment.]
CP: He had to make the switch from guitar to drums. Do you think that might be part of it?
JH: Yeah. He didn’t cite that as a particular reason, but that was a really difficult time. We had a few weeks between tours and he was in New York learning the drum parts and he was also teaching my brother the guitar parts at the same time.
And he hasn’t played drums in a really long time, so he was spending long hours every day . . . He didn’t really get—I mean, none of us had a really significant break, because we had a lot of work to do during that time, but I think he got less of a break than anybody else did.
CP: Did he struggle with it at times, with switching to the drums?
JH: I mean he’s definitely more comfortable with . . . I mean, he’s a serious guitar nerd, he’s really good at it. It’s like an extra limb for him. And the drums he’s proficient at, but that’s not his love. There’s a good amount of anxiety with playing the drums. You know, playing drums, it’s a lot more obvious when you fuck up, at least to you or the other members of the band, and I think that finally got to the point where he started worrying about his role.
CP: Was there ever a point where you thought of bringing in a drummer, instead of putting him back there, and then maybe putting him back on guitar?
JH: We actually have a drummer. We found him right before the European tour, and we didn’t have time to get him up to speed or to buy a plane ticket.
And it was Will’s idea to do this temporary thing that he did. He was the one who suggested bringing my brother in and that he play drums.
CP: And who’s the guy you brought in to play drums?
JH: His name is Nate Nelson and he plays in town, in one of my favorite bands. They’re called Crazy Dreams Band. And he’s also in Mouthus. He’s great. He’s really good. He’s a stellar drummer, and I’m really excited to be playing with him.
CP: And there was the whole situation with Abe. What happened there?
JH: That was an amicable split. That was more our decision, the rest of the band, and I hesitate to go into details. But that was more something that we felt like needed to happen.
[When asked for his take on it, Sanders replied via Facebook: “I was ‘let go due to ongoing tempo issues.’ That’s the gist of it. If there were any other reasons, they weren’t expressed to me.” He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on anything mentioned specifically in my interview with Hunter.]
CP: With these lineup changes, an outside impression could be that things are—I don’t know, there might be something toxic there.
CP: Or things are disintegrating a little bit. How would you characterize it?
JH: I think that maybe we could have done too much. We’ve been pushing ourselves, I think, as hard as we possibly could since we’ve been a band. Any level of touring can be difficult, especially if you’re not, you know, 20 years old and in it for the party. And we’ve done something like 200 shows in 12 months. We’ve been writing and releasing singles during that time. There’s basically nothing that we . . . We went to CMJ, we played 11 shows. We went to South by Southwest, we played seven shows. We have taken very little time off and very little consideration for our mental, physical well being. And that’s what happened with Will, and what happened with Abe was a different story.
And with Abe there’s [pause] a seriously fun, wonderful guy who just needed to be doing something else besides being in our band, and I think that would have happened naturally anyway.
CP: You think he would have left on his own?
JH: I think that he would have eventually, yeah. He always seemed like the least comfortable with a lot of the things we were doing, you know? He had more of a free spirit, or something— like more of a bohemian [laughs]. You know? And we kind of like, you know, are robots.
CP: That doesn’t jibe, the bohemian with the robots?
JH: Yeah, I mean, there were times where we wanted to [pause] put a lot of consideration into aspects of the band that wasn’t his thing. [pause] And I think that caused a little bit of tension. And I think he started to lose interest, or it seemed like he was losing interest in the music, because you know, I don’t know, because I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but it was reflected in the way he played.
CP: Certain things he didn’t want to focus on? Can you be more specific?
JH: Um. [pause] Like we started to talk at one point about what we wanted a stage show to look like, once we got beyond where we were always playing DIY shows, where the only important aspect of the stage is that you’re intimate, face-to-face with your crowd, and you’re interacting with them on the basement floor.
We were spending a lot of time with bands that clearly put a lot of thought into that, a lot of thought into how to represent themselves on the stage without forcing typical rock ‘n’ roll behavior. We’re not that band—I’m not that kind of lead singer. We’re never going to be swinging the mic around or cracking crappy jokes. But I wanted, and other members of the band wanted, to make sure that our stage show was engaging, and that was the kind of thing that Abe thought was—he thought it was kind of bullshit to think about stuff like that.
I respect that mentality, like, you should be completely natural and let it all come about organically. But there’s also a good amount of merit to putting a lot of consideration into other things like that. And that’s what I’m going to do in this band, that’s what the rest of us wanted to do. But he did not.
CP: Obviously you went through this with all of them, the endless tours and all of that, and just grinding, so what’s it been like for you?
JH: I mean, it has been really difficult, but I definitely come from a family and a history of workaholism. There’s nothing that I like more than throwing myself into work as hard as I can. There are times where I’ve felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, but it’s almost impossible for me to say no to an opportunity to work.
And I know at this point that we need a break, and we’ve made significant strides in the last few months—we’ve figured out how to slow ourselves down a little bit without really losing momentum. One of the things that’s so confusing to me about Will leaving at this point is that I feel like we just did get to that point. Like, at the end of this Deerhunter tour, for, you know, the next three months, we’re playing like a handful of dates every month, we’re spending most of our time at home.
We’re writing during that time, and we’re probably recording during that time, but we’re not traveling, we’re not out late every night. Compared to what we’ve been doing, it’s living the life, you know? We even have a planned vacation, which, I don’t know if I’ve ever taken a vacation in my adult life.
CP: As a group? [laughs]
JH: Well, we’re taking time off at the same time.
CP: That’d be fun: band vacation.
JH: No, yeah. We could not do that [laughs].
CP: But um . . .
JH: Maybe Will is just sick of seeing our ugly faces during the day, you know?
It’s a lot of work at intimacy, even if you love the people that you’re with. They’re not your marriage partner.
CP: Was there tension on the road then? ‘Cause, like you said, that’s a lot of touring. Inevitably something will . . .
JH: We have in the past, yeah. We’ve had a lot of fights and a lot of emotional implosions and explosions. But something else we’ve put a lot of effort into was learning to communicate with each other, something like you would in relationship—being really honest with each other and trying to figure out what everybody needed from everyone else. Because it became a band, at some points, that if we didn’t do that, then we could not continue to function.
And I feel like we’re really good at that now. We get along really well, we work really well together. [pause] We’re relatively healthy, compared to how we were getting a year ago—emotionally and physically.
CP: Last year was pretty big for you guys, the record came out and got lots of praise, lots of critical acclaim. I think when we first talked, you know, you got all these great opening slots on tours. Everything was going right. What’s it like to go from that to this sort of point?
JH: Well, that never really stopped for us. The record only gained momentum. We only got offered bigger tours. Unlike a band that kind of, it happens, where their attention, or the rate of audience growth happens exponentially for them, all at once—we just kept developing. The record would get press in a new area or on a different blog or one of our friends who is better known than we are would talk it up. It was [a] really gradual development from our standpoint.
And that always felt great, and that was always an honor to be, you know, asked on tour. We did as many as we could, and there were more that we were offered and couldn’t take on.
I guess at a certain point it started to feel like if we didn’t, kind of like, fend off that snowball, that it would run right over us.
And also we didn’t have any time to write. It took me forever to figure out how to write on the road, and that was driving me absolutely crazy. I really think that I’m not content within myself if I’m not making music. Especially playing the same—we have, like, 15, maybe 20 songs in our repertoire, and we’ve been playing those [for] a year-and-a-half, two years.
CP: What did you learn that made that possible, writing on the road?
JH: I just feel like I’ve always written with a guitar and a tape recorder or a four-track, and it’s always involved shutting myself off in a room and isolating myself in time, and trying to be as removed from the world as possible. What I did was kind of try to create that environment again, which was as simple as, I bought a laptop and I got a mini keyboard, which I had never used before, and I worked out a deal with the guys where I got to have the back bench of the van, and I would write everyday on the tour.
We have, more or less, an album’s worth of songs, or close to it, that all exist on a computer in GarageBand right now. And then the band will take them in the studio and turn them into the real deal.
But it was actually really awesome. It got me through that tour. I didn’t really experience burnout on this particular tour because I was, everyday, in my own world—working on songs, writing. And since I don’t really enjoy keyboards, and I’ve never really written like that before. [I]t was engaging in the same way that it can be when you’re a kid and you first encounter a Zelda or a Bioshock, or maybe even Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2–an all-consuming, endlessly amusing time drain, only in this case the result is more rewarding than mastery of a virtual ocarina..
CP: So is this just an instance of biting off more than you can chew? Is that the sum of this?
JH: I guess so. I think the conflict between that and Will Adams’ inability to let the world know when he needs something. He’s the kind of guy like, we didn’t know—At some point on tour, he got pneumonia and didn’t let any of us know about it for two days because he just didn’t complain about anything. Then somebody noticed that he was feverish and coughing, and we were like, “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine eventually.”
We all got sick and realized we had pneumonia and we got it from him [laughs], because he didn’t wanna . . . He’s very stoic that way.
CP: And he’s an old friend of yours from Texas, right?
CP: Has he always been that way?
JH: We were more casual acquaintances before I asked him to be in the band. We knew each other musically, and had played some music before, and got along really well via that medium, but were never tight before. But as far as I know, yeah.
CP: So what happens next?
JH: We start practice tomorrow with the four people who are currently in the band. We haven’t figured out yet exactly what we’re going to do about finding a new guitarist but we will. And we’re talking to Will to see if we can situate him to make it a little bit of a smoother transition, if we can ask for him to help us writing the record. Also really hard to imagine doing it from that end. You know, I feel like his . . . I feel like we could have made that record without him, but I think that he made a significant contribution to Twin-Hand Movement.
I think we’ll be fine. The songs, I have a lot of confidence in the songs that we’re working on. I think they’ll be good whether or not he plays, but it’s hard for me to imagine him not being on it. John easily can make that happen. Regardless, we’re looking for somebody to replace him playing lead guitar.
So yeah, we start practice tomorrow, we work with the new drummer, and then we start arranging the record in May, and we get it recorded in the summer, mix and master [by] fall at the latest, and it’ll probably come out early next year.