Lower Dens

Saturday, Feb. 15, 9 p.m., $15

Kings, Raleigh

In a recent piece for The Creative Independent, the musician René Kladzyk explained how to build a better music industry for the 2020s. Below reams of sage advice about the ethics of streaming platforms and community-building, Kladzyk offers one particularly tough yet pragmatic idea: “Be realistic about the nature of this industry and consider your wellbeing and goals through that lens.”

“I agree with everything in that piece,” says Jana Hunter, who leads the Baltimore art-pop band Lower Dens, which plays at Kings (with Ami Dang) on Saturday. On the phone, we skip the PR pleasantries and get right to the fragmented state of the industry, and how difficult it can be, even for critically acclaimed indie artists, to keep going after a decade in the trenches.  

“The last 10 years has been a particularly weird time to evolve as a band,” Hunter says. “At our level, even with our certain amount of cult fame, it’s not possible to support ourselves full-time. Our streaming numbers are good, but with touring income and the other things, the numbers have uniformly gone down, and it’s not feasible to live off anymore.”

Lower Dens cut their teeth in a different era. They were part of the freewheeling Baltimore scene, alternately austere and psychedelic, that spawned indie totems from Beach House and Dan Deacon to Future Islands—who had moved to Baltimore from North Carolina—and Wye Oak, who later moved to North Carolina from Baltimore. 

Released between 2010 and 2015, Lower Dens’ first three records featured some of the finest Roxy Music-esque synthpop of the decade, its 1970s vibe standing apart from a preponderance of ‘80s-flavored goop. 

Though they could have easily floated on as a bloggy, stand-for-nothing throwback, Hunter’s dedication to the fine details of his music and his strong perspective made him an engrossing figure to follow as the band surfed the various indie booms and busts of the 2010s.

Never politically shy, Hunter countered his city’s musical success in a thoughtful op-ed for Pitchfork in 2015 about how Baltimore’s music scene—despite a liberal, colorful, and subversive reputation—suffered from a lack of inclusiveness.

On 2019 album The Competition, the band contracted from a quartet to a duo and took their outspoken nature to a new level. A number of indie radio outlets flat-out refused to add or play the album’s major single, the tongue-in-cheek synth-pop takedown “Young Republicans,” citing it as “too controversial.” 

“So, so, so annoying,” Hunter says in a dry, amused voice. “The country is in chaos, but no, we don’t want to offend anyone by naming a song after a college political organization.” 

The song centers on a proud conservative initiate maniacally expounding on his elite brotherhood. He cloaks his sociopathy in a persecution complex, tossing out juvenile, inarguable justifications. Like an exclamation point on this character study, the surreal music video features men in suits cannibalistically feasting on Hunter’s entrails. 

According to Hunter, the album’s name and overarching concept stems from the competition created by capitalism, a “psychosis that accelerates our insecurities and anxieties to the point of total overload, corroding our intimacies, our communities, and our senses of self.”

Like the best of their sonic predecessors—Siouxsie Sioux, OMD, even Kraftwerk—it couches conceptual heft in lovely, otherworldly pop that largely feels out of time or trend.

Soaring album opener “Galapagos” is a respite from the void—a moment of connection earned through shared pain. Hunter’s vocals are thick and sensuous, selling a utopian conceit with dizzying ease.

The record was written during a particularly tumultuous three-year period in which Hunter moved to Los Angeles and began an ongoing gender transition process, something that affected his writing and led to bouts with his mental health. His voice sounds essentially the same on the record, but, as he told Billboard’s John Norris in an interview last fall, he’s still worried about not being accepted on his own terms. 

Whether Lower Dens will keep going indefinitely is an open question—Hunter suggests that a hiatus might be coming. Whatever the outcome, it would be a shame to see him vanish. His voice, elegant and incisive, is still one of the brightest in modern music. It’s a tough competition, this mid-level indie-band business, but hopefully Lower Dens can persevere in the unexpected, defiant ways that their music always suggests.

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.