Lower Dens w/Violens
April 28, 10 p.m., $10, The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, (203) 288-6400, thespace.tk
What is the role that technology should play in the life of the human animal? That's the kind of question being posed and kicked around on the new record by Lower Dens.
Lower Dens started out as a backing band for the singer and songwriter Jana Hunter. Back in 2008 Hunter had moved to Baltimore and was putting together a group to take on tour to sing her songs. At some point during those shows she thought it might be her last solo tour, according to bass player Geoff Graham, who was on the tour. But instead of calling it quits, Hunter and members of her backing band, including Graham, decided to put together a band. Hunter went from being a solo artist with ties to and praise from Devendra Banhart to being a team player, part of Lower Dens.
Hunter now lives in Texas, and one member lives in New York, but Graham still resides in Baltimore, and Lower Dens is set to release Nootropics, its second record, in early May. The band plays The Space in Hamden on April 28. Graham spoke to the Advocate from the road — on route to Virginia from New York City.
Nootropics begins with a spare, tumbling, jazzy drum figure, but it quickly moves into darker, more artfully bleak territory, with echoing keyboard parts, reverb-saturated vocals, howling feedback and minimal drums. Some of the songs have a robotic pulse and rhythm, a blank mechanized feel, all kissed with the human longing that comes through in Hunter's expressive singing.
“There definitely is a lot of interest in krautrock,” says Graham. You can hear it. But if krautrock often conjures a world of stylish unfeeling cyborgs, here the robots seem to have evolved to the point of complex sensitivity.
The sound, the vibe, the general thrust of Lower Dens is one that just morphs and takes shape from their own tastes. (The band had just recently performed a cover by the legendarily weird Texas psychedelic band Red Crayola for a satellite radio show on the day we spoke.)
“I think for the most part you just write with your ears,” says Graham.
A preference for emptiness and openness over clutter and sonic density is aesthetic preference that comes through on the new record.
“I think that that's a really important part of any artistic creation — it's just as much about subtraction as it is about addition,” says Graham.
With five people working on a record, Graham says that listening in for the spots where details needed to be carved away or removed was just part of the process of recording. Sometimes the band decided they needed to “introduce space.”
By some standards, there might not be a ton there on Nootropics, (the title refers to “smart drugs” or neuro-enhancers) but — no matter how they arrived at it — what there is rewards close, repeated listens. It's the kind of skeletal music that is bound to create its own high-wire act of tension and risk in a live setting.
Graham says the album is about the question of what's the appropriate amount of technology in human life. Is there such a thing as too much mechanical assistance and convenience? Can we invent our way to a better life? How is our relationship with technology changing? Asking these questions is as basic a human trait as crafting tools, and working to create art and music that embodies and perhaps transforms our ideas about the nature of the world is all part of that.
“It's what defines us as an animal: We're the animal that builds stuff,” says Graham.