“When the people shall have nothing more to eat,” goes the quote attributed to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “they shall eat the rich.”
There are days in the increasingly inequitable world we inhabit when you wonder if that prediction by the 18th Century social contract proponent might be tested. But in Lower Dens’ aptly titled music video “Young Republicans,” released in the spring, it was Jana Hunter who was eaten by the rich — laid out on a platter for a table of cannibalistic one-percenters taking bloody bites out of the singer’s torso, in a dining room bathed in MAGA red. A spirited indictment of elites, it might not be subtle, but it’s effective, as is the album from which the track comes.
Lower Dens’ fourth LP The Competition melds unsparing assessments of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog struggle for status and stuff, reflections on relationships gone wrong, radical empathy and lush, sparkling, orchestral synth-pop. Out Friday (Sept. 6), it’s exceptional, and Hunter is rightly proud of it; but as the singer and his band prepare to hit the road in support of the record (opening for Of Monsters & Men), he’s also nervous about what awaits.
It’s been four and a half years since Escape From Evil, a record that brought Lower Dens – now comprised of only Hunter and drummer Nate Nelson, with Curved Light’s Peter Tran joining in for live shows – to its widest audience yet. The ‘smart business move’ might have been to release new music sooner, and yet, life intervened in the form of Hunter’s decision to transition. The artist had already come out as non-binary in a moving 2015 Tumblr post that recounted the rejection he encountered identifying as a boy at a young age, and the long, difficult path to self-acceptance that followed.
Finally transitioning meant testosterone therapy, and along with it the potential havoc the hormone can wreak on a singer’s voice. It weighed on his mind, and he took testosterone so gradually while working on The Competition that his voice sounds virtually the same as on all previous Lower Dens records. But now? Hunter’s speaking voice, on the phone from Baltimore, is noticeably lower than when I last heard it, and his singing is fully “an octave lower.” “I’m terrified people are gonna reject it,” he says, though that’s hard to imagine.
The years since Lower Dens’ last album were also consequential ones for America and the world, as racism, xenophobia, misogyny and queerphobia became newly amplified in seats of power from Washington to Europe. Fortunately, the push back has been loud, too, and The Competition represents resistance in eloquent, artful ways. “Empire Sundown” is a defiant middle finger to plutocrats – Hunter opening with “Look them into the eyes when they push you off the raft and make them watch you drown” – but also offers hope, with “the tide is gonna turn.” Donald Trump is most directly excoriated in closer “In Your House” that imagines the president as a “snake swimming in snow on television” and asks, “Is all that we have left to us, division?”
In contrast, there’s the redemption of gorgeous opening track “Galapagos.” “Let me hold you up to the light/ You belong here” it proclaims, an embrace of queer and trans youth that echoes the welcoming themes of songs Hunter recently chose for a Billboard Pride playlist. Second single “I Drive” celebrates the chosen families that queer people create when they’re not accepted by blood relatives, while two mid-album tracks contemplate the darker side of relationships gone bust. The Beach House-y “Real Thing” declares “I love you but it’s not enough,” while “Buster Keaton” cuts to the bone: “Love is a true bitch.”
It’s a compelling collection from an artist increasingly comfortable with himself and consequently “having fun” more than ever. If he has trepidations about what’s ahead and is often burdened by the injustices of our times, he still finds reason to be optimistic, mainly due the generation that’s coming up next.
Not to be entirely predictable and be like, “Where ya been for four years-plus?” But one reason I ask why it’s been that long is that I feel like Escape From Evil maybe brought you guys to the awareness of an audience that didn’t know Lower Dens before that record.
A lot of the time was for personal reasons, just having to take time off from the record to deal with personal issues. It was definitely not something I consciously wanted. I wish it hadn’t taken so long. Because yeah, I feel like we did reach bigger audiences and more people with our last record, and I do feel like we lost a lot of momentum, especially with the speed of the world today.
It was about a year before Escape From Evil that you wrote this personal Tumblr post about your gender identity, how as a very young kid in Texas you sort of realized and proclaimed “I’m a boy” but then had to kind of re-bottle that up because of the lack of support that you encountered, only to come back to it years later. When you say personal stuff was going on, is it more of just your own sort of journey and evolution?
Yeah, that’s a big part of it. And like, for me, my transition is really bound up in my family history and has affected my mental health. And so a lot of the time in these past four years was spent reckoning with that. And since I made that Tumblr post, I have made a lot of progress, in learning about myself, and coming to terms with things. But you know, the identity I performed for a long time was ingrained, and kind of almost entirely composed my armor against the world. It was the way that I protected my internal self. But learning how to let go of that, and how to be myself authentically in the world, has been kind of an arduous and pretty terrifying process. And sometimes I don’t feel entirely sane or capable of being a part of the world when I’ve been doing that, and I don’t feel capable of working in those times either.
I talked to Mykki Blanco recently, and Mykki’s own identity journey has kind of had fits and starts over the years and left people confused at times; they said it hasn’t helped that it was played out in the public eye. Do you feel that way? Has what you do for a living complicated all this?
Yeah absolutely. It makes total sense, and it’s interesting to hear Mykki talking about that. Because it’s something that I think about all the time. Having a whole performative identity is a lot about controlling how you’re seen and making sure you don’t reveal the part of yourself that made you vulnerable to pain, and trauma. So when I start to peel off layers of myself and realizing that I’m not just being seen in my personal life, but by like – I don’t know who! People on the internet! People out in the world! It’s terrifying. And part of the reason that it’s taken such a long time is because I don’t know how that’s gonna be seen on tour. And I’m trying not so much to steel myself against it, but to just accept that, “This is my life, and I’d rather live it as myself than thinking I need to spend so much energy trying to control how I’m seen by people.”
How different are things now than years ago when you wrote that post?
I think that for me, coming out as non-binary, calling myself non-binary, was kind of like dipping my toe in the water, or something. And it wasn’t as big a risk for me, like I didn’t have to change anything about how I presented. You know, I talked some about it publicly, but I wasn’t like taking steps toward medical transition at that time. And now my voice has changed! One of the things that is the most frightening to me about the prospect of tour, is that people will hear my voice and – I mean my singing voice is an octave lower. But I recorded the vocals for this record before I was on testosterone.
Speaking to you now, I can hear it’s lower. But on the record it definitely doesn’t sound any different from the past.
Yeah! And I’m terrified now that people are just gonna reject it. And be like, “This is not…” [laughs] I don’t know, it’s kind of like – they’re not even fully formed fears, but a lot of them have to do with my voice. And my physical presentation. But my voice – that’s a big part of my identity. It’s something that I felt like I know really well, and it brings me comfort and it brings me joy to sing for other people and to sing for myself. And when I first started to notice a significant change in my voice, it made me like dissociate. I couldn’t handle it. It took me a long time to be comfortable with it, and it’s also taken me a long time to get it back into shape. Because when you – it’s not just that your voice changes, but a lot of changes happen in your vocal cords, and if you transition too fast, or even if you transition at the normal rate it can scar your vocal cords. I was terrified of that, of just losing my singing voice. That happens to a lot of trans men. They just stop feeling like they can sing.
So for tour, how will the songs change, with your voice as it is?
Yeah, I don’t know yet. I think that there’s gonna be a lot of difference because I think it matters what octave you sing in! I think what octave you sing in changes the way that the song is received.
You’ve gotten comparisons in the past to sort of rich-voiced female singers. I’ve seen comparisons to like, Karen O or PJ Harvey…
Yeah or like Victoria from Beach House… Which I love. But now my vocal range isn’t really there.
On to the record, and maybe “concept record” is overstating it, but I know there’s a concept behind the title The Competition. Can you talk a little about how and when that idea came to you?
Yeah. The idea is kind of something that’s been brewing in me for a long time. And it has to do with coming from a real working-class family. I hate how our lives were, and in general how people’s lives are dominated by what they have to do to survive under capitalism, and how much of the potential for happiness is stolen from us through that process. And I really view the people who benefit the most from capitalism as parasites, who leech from us what gives us life, and what makes life worth living. And I hate the pageantry that tries to hide that, and even make it attractive, make it appealing, and it just seems to be getting worse. Under this current administration, the increasing glorification of wealth, and this idea that we are all in competition with each other for money and the things that money can buy. And it doesn’t just make me angry – it’s also very deeply confusing to me. ‘Cause it’s not how human beings work, it doesn’t benefit us as people. Like, I don’t believe that any of those people are happy. I don’t believe that any of those things bring them happiness. I believe that they are motivated by something other than a desire for happiness. And that’s just really fucked up and backwards to me.
There’s also the competition now for followers and likes and shares and attention. What’s your take on social media?
I do like social media, but I feel like it’s both funny and pretty depressing to me that I’m working so hard to “sell” a record that is a criticism of capitalism. That it feels ridiculous to me, and I haven’t really figured out a way to square that within myself.
But I don’t know another way of trying to get people to hear it and trying to make a living off of all of that time that I spent working on it.
The Competition is the first Lower Dens album of what we’ll charitably call the Trump Era. How much of the record is the product of the man in the White House, or do some of the topics you get into transcend any one president or administration?
Yeah, they do. I think [closing track] “In Your House” is the one that’s pretty directly about him, about his invasion into our homes? But a lot of others, like “Empire Sundown” is a song that could have been written regardless of whether or not he was elected. I still feel like we were well on our way, careening towards this end-of-empire hoarding-and-fascism mode. And we probably would have gone there without him. Maybe. But I tend to be pretty pessimistic, so maybe not. [laughs]
Regarding “Empire Sundown,” which is a beautifully defiant track, you also offer hope, in lines like, “the tide is gonna turn” and “one day their stones will break.” Do you feel like we’re at a tipping point? Are you hopeful about what’s ahead or do you think it’s gonna get worse before it gets better?
I do feel it’s gonna get worse, but I also feel really optimistic about the younger generation. They’re a lot less pessimistic, they’re more compassionate, they’re more involved and more engaged than my generation was. And they’re teaching us a lot, about things that are important to human life. And I feel awesome about that. But I think that we continue to underestimate just what it is that we’re pushing back against, and how much of that really is the backbone of the country that we’re living in – how much people who believe in white supremacy, believe in the supremacy of America, believe in their right to have what they what they want because they are ordained by God, like, how much harder those people are going to fight than we will be willing to fight. I mean, with all the mass shootings? I do feel really hopeful, but at the same time I do feel like it will get much worse. And I think the obvious effects of climate change will start to make our political feelings much stronger too. I think that we have maybe a terrifying future on the horizon that we don’t want to think about. And I am so excited to be wrong about that, but it’s something that I think about almost every day.
Are you still living in Baltimore?
I moved to Los Angeles in November of last year. But the band is still based in Baltimore, so I’m there a lot for band stuff, and I’m also seeing someone in Baltimore now. So I haven’t been in Los Angeles for about six weeks.
What prompted moving to L.A.?
A couple of things, like the end of a really shitty relationship, and also kind of the desire to find out where in the music industry I might fit besides performing. There’s a part of me where I am really starting to feel my age, and want to be close to home more often, and so I’m starting to think of how I can make that happen.
Because Baltimore was your home for so long, I have to ask what you thought about Trump’s comment – probably one of the top 10 awful things he’s said this year, though there’s plenty of competition – where he called the city “disgusting” and “infested” and said “no human being would want to live there.”
I think my initial reaction was just to laugh at him. He’s so much stupider than he realizes that he is, and he has such a narrow view of the world. In my opinion, just as far human beings go, he’s a complete failure. And I think in Baltimore, you could talk to any kid on the street and they’d know more about the world than Donald Trump ever will, and have a more realistic, level-headed view of it, and certainly be stronger and braver than he could ever be – without any of his wealth. I think that’s probably the way that a lot of people in Baltimore reacted. I mean, there were a lot of Instagram posts with pretty pictures of Baltimore or whatever, and I felt like that kind of was cool. It’s always cool to see solidarity in Baltimore. Also there was very little discussion of the fact that Donald Trump and people like Donald Trump are the reason that Baltimore has problems. The problems in black Baltimore, if they have problems, are the creation of rich white people.
In the middle of the new album, there are a couple of relationship songs, “Real Thing” and “Buster Keaton” – both lovely, but they seem to take a dim view of relationships. Are you kind of down on “the real thing”?
[laughs] No! I am very much not down on the real thing, but I do feel like we don’t write very much about the complexities in relationships, and the kind of negative times in relationships, and the things that drive relationships apart, even when people really do love each other, and they remain in each other’s lives after relationships, or have great relationships but still end up splitting up or divorced or whatever. These are things that I feel like I need to write about, but they aren’t the entirety of my relationships or the entirety of my view on relationships, but they have been significant for me. It sucks so much having a shared, polarizing pain with someone that you really care about. And that’s something that I have to write about for myself, because it’s part of the way that I process those things.
Finally, the opener “Galapagos” has these beautiful lines about how “you belong here” and “we want you here” and “let me hold you up to the light.” The first thing I thought of when I heard that was immigrants.
Well, I think at the time I was thinking, when I was addressing like the “you” in that song was more people like myself, like trans youth. You know there are really high suicide rates among trans youth, and that’s something that I was thinking about a lot at the time. But it was meant to be a sort of all-inclusive “you” who are rejected for something that is part of you, for something that makes you you, for something that makes you beautiful, saying like “whatever these other idiots are saying, you belong here, you have an inherent value” that trumps whatever people say about you. I can’t even use the word “trump” now – isn’t that fucking awful?
Oh totally. Every time I say that verb I catch myself.
It’s such a good word.
The first six weeks or so that the new album is out you guys will be opening for Of Monsters and Men. Do you, in a way, wish you were doing a headlining tour?
I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand there’s a part of me that wants to be out of the gate headlining, supporting this record, with a headline tour. But on the other hand, we’re playing much bigger venues than we would be able to with that. And the band that we’re touring with are a very good band and very nice people. And their workload on that tour is gonna be way more significant than ours. [laughs] So it’s kind of a nice way to tour.
In the videos and promo photos you’ve been rocking these tinted aviators and a sparkly baseball jacket. Are you bringing that look on the road?
I hope so! The more comfortable I feel with myself, the more I feel like, you know, having fun on stage. And it’s really fun to play the rock star part, you know? In those ways anyway – getting dressed up and being a ham and looking into people’s eyes from stage. I love that shit! It’s really, really fun, and it really does help to provide what you want for people, for them to be like immersed in the experience, and enjoying themselves, and not thinking about the misery in their lives. It helps with that! And I just love it.