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Q&A: Jana Hunter on Exxon, Band Changes, and the Changing Future of Humans (Part Two)

May 10, 2011
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At the time of this interview, which was arranged and conducted in the span of several hours after it was announced that Will Adams was leaving Lower Dens on April 25, there was a growing local controversy surrounding an ExxonMobil commercial touting oil-sands technology. The reason: the oil company licensed the opening guitar chords from the Lower Dens song “I Get Nervous” to soundtrack its pitch to the American public that this technology would create jobs and protect the nation’s “energy security.”

As will become painfully clear in just a bit, it was not known to this interviewer that such an ad existed. But Hunter volunteered the information, and would go on to describe how the ad came to be, what the decision-making process behind licensing the song was, and where the money the band earned from the ad will go. This part of the interview (find the first part here) discusses this at length and also looks deeper into what lies ahead for the band, Hunter’s philosophy on the ideal future society in the information age, and her upcoming solo gig in New York opening for Cass McCombs.

City Paper: There was speculation because of the Record Store Day release that you guys signed to Sub Pop. Is there any basis in that?
Jana Hunter:
No, we haven’t signed a deal with anybody. We’ve been receiving offers, and we’re weighing our options right now. Since we’re not recording until June or July, there’s not really any pressure for us to sign with anybody immediately. We don’t need an advance.

CP: So what’s the big takeaway?
JH: What do you mean?

CP: How do you approach the future now?
JH: I don’t know that much will change for me from the way I’ve been operating, or that we’ve been operating. We work really well. We’ve kinda figured it out. We established early on, like, a story arc for our records—not really a story arc, but kind of more like a thematic guideline, and that might not even necessarily show up in the material on the record. [Bassist] Geoff [Graham] and I in particular are really interested in this particular time in the history of humankind being very much a transitional period, and so we kind of designed a thematic guideline for ourselves for writing these records, and we’re on to record No. 2.

CP: I’m sorry, what kind of period?
JH: A transitional period. Yeah, I feel like human beings are in the process of kind of removing the blinders a little bit, worrying more about themselves in the universe.

CP: When you say removing the blinders, how do you mean?
JH: I feel like our place in technology and people’s daily interaction with tools that facilitate immediate communication, leading to greater access to knowledge, generally it seems to me to have created a more honest situation. The kind of cross-pollination of fields of study, of cultures, in general, I think all of that is resulting in human beings having a greater opportunity than ever to kind of decide their own fate with more intention.

That’s kind of what I hope for the world and I like to think that thinking about those things kind of informs what we’re doing thematically. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the actual instrumentation of our music at all, but I feel driven by it none the less.

CP: So I guess you seemed pretty eager to talk. What did you want to get out there? Everything sort of came through in a stream of Facebook posts and Twitter updates.
JH: I think impulsively I wanted to express that I’m sad and the rest of this band is pretty sad about Will leaving, but that I’m not worried at all about that impeding the progress of this band. We’re not gonna break up. We’re gonna figure out what to do. We’ve made it through, I think, some pretty significant obstacles. And, you know, we’re a five-piece band now, we’re losing one member, that’s not gonna . . . you know, we’re gonna figure it out. That’s one of the things, mainly, I don’t want anybody to think that we’re gonna break up.

And I’m eager–maybe it’s premature, but I’m eager to start talking about the new record. I think because I’ve spent the last month listening to it every day. It probably won’t come out until the beginning of next year, so it’s probably really early to start thinking about it. But I also think it’s appropriate because we’re talking about a pretty significant stage in our band. At the same time that that’s going on, there’s a lot of excitement in our band with what we’re coming up on.

CP: You got anything else you wanna add?
JH: I’m doing a solo show in New York opening for Cass McCombs, and I’m really excited about that. I really love that guy. I think that his music only gets better. And we’ve talked about maybe doing some touring with Lower Dens later this year, but I’m pretty excited to be opening for him.

CP: Is it going to be your solo material or is it going to be Lower Dens material with just you?
JH: There’ll be a few songs that are older songs of mine and there are a number of songs that I wrote when I was writing stuff for Twin-Hand Movement. I probably wrote, like, 20 songs and we ended up putting 11 on the record, and there were a number of those that we didn’t put on because they, stylistically, didn’t work, but they work as solo pieces. So I’ll probably do a number of those.

CP: Where is that gig?
JH: It’s at the Bowery Ballroom

CP: When?
JH: May 12.

CP: And uh, anything else?
JH: Do you know about the Exxon commercial?

CP: The Exxon commercial?
JH: Yeah.

CP: No.
JH: That just came out the other day. We licensed a song to an Exxon commercial.

CP: Really?
JH: Yeah, and so . . .

CP: Why?
JH: They contacted us via our label, and our label took a look at it, I guess. And you know, probably in the scheme of things, not a huge amount of money, but a significant amount of money, so we considered it. Our first decision was that we didn’t want to do it, because even before we’d done any research in the company we decided we couldn’t get behind it.

Ultimately, we decided that: 1) not doing it wasn’t necessarily an effective protest of anything. And 2) we decided to give a bulk of the money toward–we’re setting up a donor-assisted charitable foundation. And that’s the primary reason for doing it. And the money that was left over is allowing us to basically work for the next couple of months while we’re writing the record.

CP: What’s the program, the donor-assisted program?
JH: Well, basically you can set up a foundation and it will go through–like, there’s a Baltimore Community Foundation–and if you have a donor-assisted fund, you give them the bulk amount of money and they advise you on what to do with it. So they will send you proposals saying, you know, this school program is asking for $1,500, we recommend that they do these things to use their money wisely and effectively.

So that’s the difference between a donor-assisted fund and just like . . .  I have a sister that has worked in charitable non-profits for her whole life and we went to her asking her the best way to make use of that money. None of us has ever really been in a position where we could donate any money, but it was something we had talked about, that we had hoped to achieve as band, so we went to her asking, What do we do to make this the most effective?

And she said this was the kinda thing where you get the opportunity to help a lot of different causes–you can do it based in your community, you can have an interaction with people and have, maybe, even some sort of a relationship with whatever most of the money is going to. And you can have someone advising you who has some sort of knowledge of the organizations that you’re giving to, as opposed to just handing it over blindly to people who may know what they’re doing and not be doing the best thing with it.

CP: Which song did they want?
JH: “I Get Nervous.” We talked for two weeks straight about it before deciding to do it. We tried to get them to change the song in some way–and they did, ultimately. But we were talking about it because–well, I guess we planned on talking about it regardless. Even though they changed the song, even though we re-recorded it, it still sounded like our song, you know?

I don’t watch TV. I don’t know a lot of people that watch TV. Like, you know, my mom watches TV. But it was a difficult thing for me to imagine what it was going to be like when it was, like, out there. But people have definitely seen it, and they’ve contacted us on Twitter and Facebook and been like, Is this real? Did this actually happen?

And yeah, I definitely want the opportunity to explain that we ultimately decided that we can actually accomplish something good out of that opportunity. Because [Exxon] would find someone else to do it, because, I don’t know what they would do with it, but I don’t think they would start a charitable foundation.

CP: But c’mon, Exxon? That’s one of those big monolithic corporations that everybody loves to hate.
JH: Yeah, and that may be absolutely justified. By no means do they have a glowing reputation. But I don’t think that anyone who has an oppositional stance to big oil is going to be persuaded otherwise by our alluring chord progressions.

CP: But I mean . . .
JH: I don’t think us doing the commercial is in effect an endorsement of their company.

CP: Kind of a tough sell to your fans, though, don’t you think?
JH: Well yeah, we definitely are risking offending people and we’re risking negative attention. But I also welcome the discussion, because I hope that people that listen to our music, or that know us, have thoughtful, educated opinions about the future of energy, and I think that we did what we did for the right reasons.

CP: I think that’s all I’ve got, unless you have something else.
JH: We also did a commercial for . . .  No, I’m just kidding. There is a rumor going around that we did a million dollar Microsoft commercial, and that’s not true.

CP: Where do these rumors get started?
JH: I don’t know.

[Pause]

I feel like what I was saying about the new record was really confusing. But I have this sort of like, I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but basically we decided that we were gonna shoot for doing four records, like, four good records and then see what happens. We were thinking about the Pixies, thinking about a lot of our favorite bands—actually me and Will talked a year and a half ago about this, and we were like let’s try to do four good records, and then we involved Geoff in the conversation. And Geoff and I are actually both really interested in the environment and human interaction. You know, like, I drive a car that runs on vegetable oil.

So we talked about our mutual interest in this subject and came up with the idea that we like best, the idea of humankind that we like best is like . . .  Our ideal scenario: Human beings recognize the–I don’t know, appreciate, begin to appreciate–the culture that they live in, the community that they’re in–develop an honest connection to their community, and then figure out ways to improve their communities or their race and then gradually move toward those better ways of living wherein human beings are treated more equally, you use the resources of the environment more efficiently to create a more sustainable ecosystem. And then as we learn to make our own way, gradually we do build a new society. Like a very, very utopian idealistic idea of what we wish for humans.

But that is what we decided to have guide us, and kind of each of those steps I described. Like, there’s not going to be a song about learning about water reclamation or something like that. But there is going to be this kind of sense behind the writing.

CP: Some people would probably argue that Exxon is the kind of institution that would prevent that from happening.
JH: Well, I’m definitely not the person to argue that on any kind of scientific level. I don’t have a complete understanding of what their company does. Obviously, I understand some of the fundamental ideas.

The most optimistic of my hopes is, whatever kind of environmental [pause] wrongs that companies might do, they begin to be more honest about their motivations for doing those things, that they begin more honest about doing those things in . . . It would be better even if somebody that’s engaged in doing things that are harmful to the environment and to human beings, and they own up to it; it is at least better than trying to mislead people into believing that they’re doing something other than what they’re doing. So that’s the first part of that, like, where human beings are headed is honest communication.

And the second part of my belief is that companies like that are capitalist, which is the thing I think that all companies should ideally admit from the very beginning, that they’re in it for the money, and that they’re going to make as much money out of what they’re doing right now as they can before they do something else. Energy companies are probably spending–I mean, I don’t really know what’s going on because I’m not an expert in any of these fields–but I would imagine they’re spending tons of money exploring alternative energies so that when it comes time to, when they’re forced to transition to alternative energies, they’re going to make as much money off of that.

So in my best optimistic outlook, companies like Exxon will at some point be responsible for the widespread use of alternative energies. I don’t know if that’s overly optimistic or what. Again, our personal, ethical standpoints didn’t factor into that decision beyond our desire to make charitable contributions.

CP: No, I mean, that certainly makes sense. But I guess when you hear about the [Transocean Ltd.] executives who have the oil rig in the Gulf [of Mexico], and they’re still taking their bonuses despite that really bad performance, I don’t know, that just seems too optimistic.
JH: Sure. I mean, admittedly, I just don’t know. [Pause] I don’t know what exactly I’d be welcoming by asking people to tell me what greater harm could have been done licensing that song that would outweigh what we were able to accomplish with it. But I couldn’t figure that out.

CP: You said you don’t watch much TV, but what is the context that they use the song in? You said people have asked you about it. Do they have YouTube links or something like that?
JH: No. People that have told me about it have said they saw it’s on during sports games, they show the commercial a lot. I have no idea what the commercial is. I still have not seen it.

CP: Pretty wild: sports games.
JH: Yeah. Yeah, I wonder who they’re trying to convince of what.

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  • Anonymous

    I saw the Exxon commercial a few weeks ago and was really saddened by the use of the Lower Dens’ song. I know it is ultimately the bands’ decision what they want to do with their music, and I don’t want to be one of those people who accuse bands of “selling out.” I don’t even think that the concept of “selling out” is relevent anymore. It’s just the nature of the way that music has evolved and will continue to evolve– smaller bands that aren’t necessarily mainstream will always need funding in order to succeed, and where they get that funding is their business. Perhaps it’s even the nature of this entire generation of 20 somethings. We are facing a time of serious economic hardship that is not going to go away for a number of years. Young people are graduating into a world where jobs are scarce and a college education is no longer sufficient for guarenteeing employment. With that being said, I wish that Jana Hunter and the rest of the Lower Dens had done a little bit more research into some of the recent projects taken on by Exxon Mobil. The commercial makes mention of alternative energy sources, including natural gas drilling. I grew up in a community that will soon be directly affected by the process of “hydro-fracking,” the method used by oil companies to extract natural gas from the earth. This process injects billions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals that are proven carcinogens and toxins into the ground to aid the release of the natural gas deep beneath the earth’s surface. The effect of this process across the entire Marcellus Shale region of the Northeast will essentially be equal to strip-mining. It will not only destroy the ecology of this region, it will place the people living in this region in serious danger. The water used in hydro-fracking leeches into the groundwater of surrounding areas, meaning the people living in the regions where natural gas drilling is taking place will be essentially drinking poison, bathing in poison, cooking with poison, etc. In addition to the dangerous health and environmental risks caused by natural gas drilling, the people who will be affected are being taken advantage of by large oil companies such as Exxon. These are people in living in central New York State and rural Pennsylvannia, people who have been living on the same farmland for generations, and who are now being pressured into leasing their land at cut-rates to large oil companies. Not only are these people being manipulated by oil companies, they are being lied to about the affects of natural gas drilling and hydro-fracking. I worry about what the long-term impact of natural gas drilling in the Northeast and other parts of the United States will be. I wish that Jana Hunter had taken the time to worry about that as well. I know that she doesn’t feel like liscensing the Lower Dens song to Exxon was an endorsement of what they do. But coming from someone who lives in a region where what Exxon Mobil does will affect the lives of the people I love, it felt like an endorsement. It’s a battle that people across New York State are fighting every day — we don’t want our homes destroyed, and to hear that song during that commercial sounded the same to me as Sarah Palin’s too-often quoted “Drill, baby, drill.”

  • Judge Mental

    As a musician who knows how hard it is to make a living w music (almost impossible) I hate to be Judge Mental, but licensing your tune to an exxon commercial, in my humble opinion,TOTALLY invalidates your status as an artist and anything you have to say with your music.  I hope someday the members of Lower Dens will visit the Exxon Valdez museum in Homer, AK, talk to some of the real victims (many alluded to by Anonymous above) and do some real research as to the sickening destruction done to this world in the name of obscene profits by this company.  Then perhaps they will realize that they made a deal with evil, that anything coming from that blood money will be cursed, and will beg forgiveness from their fans and whatever deity they might believe in.  Until then I’ll be boycotting anything and everything that has to do with Lower Dens.
    Ain’t singin for Pepsi
    Ain’t singin for Coke
    Aint singin for anybody
    Makes me look like a joke
    -Neil Young

  • anonymous

    Now whenever I hear that song, previously my favorite track on the album, I’ll equate it to Exxon and that commercial. Really, LD? Bummer. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ANIUNJN3G4TDEE2FSXN7P2M3XY atomic

    Easy for Neil Young to say he ain’t singing this or that when he is rich.  I guess you don’t drive, or ride in a bus or use heat in your home.   It is not like they are supporting Apple or something. 

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