Lower Dens’ journey to prominence has taken a bit of time. Sure their debut album, Twin Hand Movement was an instant hit with critics and made it on to various ‘best albums of 2010′ lists. But the Baltimore-based quintet see their rise to be anything but an instant sensation. “The success we enjoyed from Twin Hand Movement was gradual and, I think, due greatly to a lot of touring and a word of mouth build up of fans,” bassist Geoff Graham explains. “That’s really different than an overnight sort of success.”
So when they returned to the studio to work on their sophomore album Nootropics, there was a strong sense to create a great or even better album, but not the kind of pressure that would make the band rush or worry about how to top the first record. “We worked gradually towards our second album,” Graham reveals. “There were two years in between the recording of Twin Hand Movement and Nootropics. As a result we weren’t rushed, and the songs and our interest in a new album developed at a good pace. We were very ready to record when we entered the studio.”
Not only did Lower Dens take their time on Nootropics, but they were also able to experiment with everything from the songwriting to the production. “We were able to use a studio, a producer, a lot of new unfamiliar equipment, and have much more time on Nootropics than on Twin Hand Movement,” he says. “As a result there was time for a lot more experimentation and multiple takes. We had room and time to let things expand. The first album was done quickly, efficiently and specifically. This one was more of an elaborate experimental construction.”
They also got creative with the themes explored on the album. Frontwoman Jana Hunter’s fascination with transhumanism – using technology to expand a human being’s capabilities – combined with the fact that many of the band members read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, a book that further explains the future of humans and technology, did more than inspire interesting lyrics. It breathed new life that is abstract when one first experiences it but then becomes clearer after a few listens of the album. And while that might be confusing and difficult to digest, it seems that this new record is Lower Dens’ attempt at challenging the listener to see beyond what is really there. “Nootropics have a sort of symbolic significance here,” Graham explains. “They represent an inherent attitude about the brain and about humanity itself. That it needs work, improvement. But what is the goal? Increased intelligence? Why or why not? That’s part of the question the album poses.”
Aside from being influenced by the idea of transhumanism, the band was greatly influenced by krautrock, which is apparent in songs like ‘Alphabet Song’ and ‘Lamb.’ However Graham admits that the rhythm section in particular had a strong Pink Floyd feel that was not an aspect that Lower Dens expected to come out. However with all the time and scientific inspiration the band had during the recording of the album, each track has at least one layer in it that simultaneously brings everything together pretty seamlessly but also gives all the songs their own distinct quality. And this creative and free-flowing environment was something they enjoyed and that made the songwriting and recording process more fun. And for Graham, this is especially true for ‘Brains.’ “We just keep adding delicious sounds, and it kept getting thicker and better,” he reveals. “It was like a bunch of kids crowding around an ice cream sundae pouring more and more candy and sugar and flavours on it, and it just kept getting better and deeper and more interesting.”
‘Propagation’ is another song that blends fuzzy guitars and buzzing bass with Hunter’s hauntingly fluid vocals. While the song sucks us in, Graham explains that there is more to the track than its entrancing nature. “I often think about humanity as really nothing more than just another species that propagates itself simply because it wouldn’t be here if it didn’t,” he expresses. “We get caught up in right and wrong a lot, which is all very good and moral of us, really, but in the grand scheme I don’t know if it makes a lick of difference. I have no idea. Sometimes it’s interesting to just ponder humans as piles of matter moving through piles of other matter.”
Although there is no denying that ‘Brains’ is a great track, Lower Dens take epic songs to another level with ‘In The End Is The Beginning,’ which is possibly longer than three of the band’s songs combined. The orchestral vibe on the track adds yet another explosive element to the album and seems to take Nootropics full circle. “Nootropics takes on some really big themes, and in taking those themes very seriously it felt important to create a grand, sort of orchestral epic song that takes the listener a really long way,” he says. “It may be a little less approachable due to its length, but I think if you plug yourself and listen to the whole thing, you have a real experience over that course of time. Will’s guitar really goes somewhere, and the shift into the second part of the song. I just think it describes a cycle that is greater than the human/technological cycle. There are things way bigger than us, and, to me, this song gets at those things.”
As previously mentioned, Lower Dens really tried to build their network of fans through the traditional methods of playing as many gigs as possible and just hoping that the buzz spread via word of mouth. And as they have spent the past few years working together, he admits that the band has become more than just a bunch of musicians playing together. “This is really starting to feel like a family to me,” he says.
Graham continues, “We like to exercise and eat well. We like to find things we can all laugh at. We all have unique scents. We like to see and hear each other when we play and when we travel, too.”
And being on the road so much as they are, there are a few things that Lower Dens need to survive their gruelling tour schedule. “ [A] head lamp,” Graham reveals. “It helps on stage and lets me read when everyone else is sleeping or on night drives in the van. It weighs nothing and takes up no space. Plus when I wear it I can pretend I’m camping in the mountains and there are no people around, which is comforting.”
The band is currently on tour in the U.S. and will be heading to Europe in August. As Lower Dens’ popularity rises, their gig venues will continuously upgrade, which is something Graham thinks is great but still admits that he misses the smaller shows, too.
“I’m happy about the new venues we’re in, but I miss house shows,” he says. “When we can still make those happen, in smaller towns, I love it. The network of DIY people doing music and theatre in America without monetary aims is really precious and always in danger of shrinking. We have always loved playing in that context.”
Nootropics is available now through Ribbon Music, and new single ‘Candy’ will be released on 13 August.