Although Baltimore band Lower Dens is only on their sophomore album — the recently released Nootropics — the Jana Hunter-fronted lineup has changed a lot since their debut disc Twin-Hand Movement dropped two years ago. And according to bassist Geoff Graham, all that metamorphosing has birthed not chaos, but one pretty rad butterfly of a band.
Over the last few years, the band lost one drummer (Abe Sanders) and gained another (Nate Nelson), saw a guitarist come and go and come again (Will Adams), and rounded itself out with another guitarist/keyboardist (Carter Tanton). Singer Jana Hunter and bassist Geoff Graham remained constant throughout the melee.
The result of that very literal game of musical chairs is a solid, atmosphere record bursting with crisp drums and meandering synths, pealing guitars and lush vocals — a second effort that had earned the band its share of music blog buzz and, consequently, a top ten spot on the MTV Music Meter (as well as our Music Meter Monday feature).
We caught up with Graham to talk lineup changes, collaboration and why he’s probably not going to be reading this article.
So you play bass in Lower Dens. Have you always played bass — since you were a kid?
Yeah, I started playing it pretty early, actually — around the age of 11. I had been playing guitar and my guitar teacher kind of put together a little band with the other students that were of a similar age and somebody needed to play bass. I had been interested in bass when I found out that all of my favorite sounds on the album Thriller were coming from the bass. So as soon as I started playing bass at that age, I realized that that was just where I wanted to be in a band — that was the role I wanted to play. So that’s my main instrument. I play some other things, but that’s the main one.
How would you characterize the bassist? I know there’s some stereotypes about them being the ‘mysterious’ ones?
Well, I don’t think a bassist has to be any certain kind of way. I guess in my experience, other people who I have met who are really serious bass players — I guess they just seem to be down-to-earth for the most part. I’m not necessarily talking about myself, just other people I’ve met. But I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.
So you say you’ve been playing for a while — what would you say your earliest memory related to music is?
I come from a really musical family — my mom teaches at a conservatory in Baltimore called Peabody, and she saw to it that from day one I was being exposed to music. So it was kind of always there very much in the forefront. I have really early memories of crawling around under the piano while my mom was playing it and doing the same thing at my grandparents’ house, too.
For me there wasn’t every really a moment where I was like, ‘Music is what I want to it,’ it was always just kind of like, ‘Is music the only thing I want to do? Or is there other stuff I want to do, too?’ Eventually I just came around to the realization that if I could just do this all the time, that would be really great for me, and just kind of coming to the conclusion that music is really important and that focusing on it and trying to get to a point where I’m giving it as much as I can was a worthwhile thing to do with my life.
So how did you become a part of Lower Dens?
I met Jana in 2008, I guess. I had known her as a solo artist and kind of all of sudden found out that she had moved to Baltimore, where I was living. Because it’s a small town, really, in a lot of ways — in terms of the music scene — it wasn’t long before I met her and I let her know that I would love to play music with her sometime. She happened to be looking for a band to go on what was going to be her last tour playing her solo music.
So I toured with her, learned the songs and learned some of the background vocals. It was me, her and another musician named Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez and then Abe Sanders on drums. By the time tour was over another tour opportunity had come up, so we did that one, too, and then we kind of decided that we work together pretty well and that we wanted to try and keep going as a band. Myself and Jana and Abe, we formed Lower Dens and then Will [Adams] joined shortly thereafter. We’ve had personnel changes since then, but that was how we came together.
I know, like you said, that some people left. How has that affected your sound?
Well, it’s definitely affected the sound. When Will left the band — he left and came back — and in the period while he was gone, we tried to replace him. And we kind of realized that what should have been more obvious — especially with him, he’s such an amazing guitar player and has such a specific style — that you can’t just kind of fly somebody in and have them pick up where Will left off. It was a lot more complicated than that. His playing was a lot more nuanced than that.
So I think with the people that we have in the band right now — even more so with Will back in and Carter Tanton and Nate Nelson in the band — we just have a very specific way of the five of us playing together. I’m not sure how much to elaborate on that. You build up a way of communicating with these specific people and a way of playing with them and everybody in the band right now I think really has a very, very specific style of playing. And I think that that’s great when you can get those types of players together in a band and have it work, as opposed to having it clash. I just feel really lucky. I feel really lucky as a bass player in the rhythm section to be playing with Nate Nelson — he’s just such an amazing drummer to me. He’s so subtle and tasteful. Everything he does it perfect.
It seems like a lot of bands like yours don’t have drummers. Especially bands with synths and keyboards, etc.
Yeah, we are using a lot of the technologies that a lot of bands are using now and sampling pads and stuff like that, but I don’t think we wanted to lose a live element. We still want to have it feel like there is a communication going on when we perform. I think when it’s not there, it’s just different to the audience — even if it’s on the very, very subconscious level, I think it makes a difference.
So you all have different, unique sounds, you say. Do you all write together?
We do write together. Jana is the primary songwriter at this point, so she comes up with the basic ideas for songs and then we all get together as a group and kind of flesh them out. Some songs are more group-composed than others. But for the last album it was definitely a collaboration between everybody involved.
So when you read interviews or articles about your music, what do you find the biggest misconception to be?
That’s a really good question, because I’ve been reading a fair amount of the stuff that’s been coming out in the last week since the album has come out and maybe I shouldn’t. Sometimes it seems like maybe it would be better if we didn’t read things and we just focused… On a personal level, that’s what I’ve come around to. I’m doing this because I want to be doing music and I believe in the music and it seems like the more I read about us the more I feel like… The things that are written about us, they don’t feel like they’re describing the band to me and I guess it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what that is.
With Carter and Nate coming in the band, they’re like our newest members, I guess I found it kind of a surprise that I haven’t really read anything that’s talked about their playing — the way the drums sound. Because to me the way the drums sound is so great on the new album. And the guitar parts and the synth parts that Carter has added sound so great and they fit in so well with the sound that Jana and Will and I already had kind of built up and it’s just this expansion. I guess I’ve been a little surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion about that.
But when I think about it, it’s like, ‘How would somebody that wasn’t in the studio be able to discern who is contributing what or whose idea was what?’ So I think it’s easier for the press to focus on the idea that this is a one-person project. I understand that and it makes sense and I’m not sore about it, but it’s not the way it feels being in a band. To me the story of Lower Dens is that it’s these five people and we’ve always worked so hard together and we’re continually working together as a group to build up what we can do and how we communicate with each other. To me it’s a very collaborative thing.
Image courtesy of Facebook, Lower Dens