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Before he started working on a record called Nootropics, Lower Dens bassist Geoff Graham had never heard of the term, but you can hardly fault him for that. Odds are you haven't either. Pronounced "no-uh-tro-picks," it refers to substances—usually nutrients, plant extracts and chemicals—that boost cognitive functions by playing with the brain's supply of neurochemicals, causing unnatural evolvement: remembering things more clearly, being more aware of your surroundings, feeling more motivated or creative. It's the perfect subject for the crafty, Baltimore-based five-piece, whose new songs focus largely on the effect of drugs that increase the brain's functioning and lead to superhuman perfection.
"Plus, we liked the name and the fact that probably nobody would know how to pronounce it," Graham says. "It's not a reference to how we made the album or what we do with our bodies."
Led by Jana Hunter—a psych-folk artist who miraculously transitioned into electronica—Lower Dens combine traditional four-piece instruments with analog synthesizers, the result being a murky, alluring trip-hop soundscape with a post-punk frame. Nootropics (released in May on Ribbon Music) is a kaleidoscope of gloomy, inexplicable dreams—a soft, ominous, Kraftwerk-influenced offering that moves methodically and thought-provokingly through all 10 tracks. Hunter keeps her lyrics vague and sparse but has elaborated on the album's subject matter throughout several interviews. "Brains," for example, is about "anxiety over technology, like the very modern kind of anxiety over artificial intelligence," she says. And "Alphabet Song" is an examination of man's relationship to his animal self. While some songs hinge on these kinds of esoteric concepts, others just seem downright depressing. For example, "Lamb" is a darkwave lamentation built on icy keys and sterile drums that imagines the lonely existence of a human immortal.
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Despite veering into science fiction, Graham says, the album's fascination with neurobiology and robots is rooted in our concrete, human desire to be better than what we are. "The album isn't just about machines, but about people and machines and people changing themselves and altering their own species," Graham says.
The band began engaging in discussions about technology and the way humans are changing around the end of 2010; they realized these topics could make for good song material. Graham personally cites two authors—the optimistic Ray Kurzweil and the cynical Derrick Jensen—whose competing perspectives on the possibilities of technology fascinate him, but, the bassist says, when it comes to evolving as a species, good music plays almost as a big a role as genius inventions and special drugs.
"Music is arguably, from a utilitarian standpoint, not necessary for survival. It doesn't feed people. In most cases, it doesn't provide people with jobs, if you consider that necessary on a survival level," he says. "But clearly, music for most people is a very profound experience and an important part of life. Making good music hopefully results in people being more complete versions of themselves—maybe more connected to things that are abstract but really important."
In that case, the process of listening to a Lower Dens album might just be a nootropic in itself.
This article appeared in print as "Brain Games: Lower Dens' brand of electro rock is for advanced (and slightly depressed) humans only."