After some dark days, it seems like the clouds have finally parted for the Local Natives.
“We really went through this process coming out of Hummingbird. Making that record and touring it was sort of this low point for everybody,” Taylor Rice told us.
Even when talking about troubled times past, Rice’s voice brims with the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm like a band first making their mark. It’s early evening in late September and Rice, who plays guitar as well as sharing singing duties for the band, has just finished sound check prior to their show at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom. He sounds calm and relaxed, despite reliving some unhappy memories.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for this Silverlake based band. Their breakthrough debut album, Gorilla Manor, was pure indie-rock bliss featuring multi-part vocal harmonies, driving percussion, and warm, expansive melodies. They were welcomed with open arms on the festival circuit and the smaller clubs, with fans singing along emphatically to every lyric and vocal pirouette, their brand of vigorously physical music reflecting the innocent turmoil of being in your early twenties. But of course, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer’s mother passed away after a battle with breast cancer, and this loss cast a shadow over the entire group – most of whom have been friends since high school.
Hummingbird was a shift in direction for the band, and though well received by fans and critics alike, was quieter, more introspective and grappled with heavier issues. Local Natives were shook, and it would be some time before they could work through it all. The band never shied away from the grief, channeling it instead.
“We were going through this really tough time, and toured it and toured it and toured it,” Taylor reminisces, with a small, incredulous laugh. “We got it out of our system – playing this really cathartic record about this time of loss for the better part of two years.”
The many months spent on the road coping with this loss led to growth and maturity, and a sense of closure and perspective for Local Natives, according to Rice:
“We found ourselves back at home in LA with this open place in front of us, like, where are we now as a band, and what do we want?”
Thankfully for us, all they really wanted to do was get back to making music.
How has the reception for this album been? It’s quite a different sound from either of the previous records.
It’s been really great, it’s been awesome. I think the fans at these shows have already gotten into the album and are reacting to a lot of the new songs super quickly. We’ve kind of been taken aback by it. [Laughs] That was certainly not our experience on Hummingbird, which was more about loss, and a bit darker, and more cathartic – it took a long time for people to respond to those songs live; or at least that’s how it felt to us. But yeah, we’re a week in and people are singing along to these songs and responding straight away.
Sunlit Youth is a little more accessible because it’s not coming from a place of grief like Hummingbird.
That’s right, yeah! Definitely.
You managed to ride out the “curse of the second album” and you’ve been playing full-time with Local Natives for over eight years. How do you feel you’ve matured as an artist and as a group, collectively?
The process of making this record was really awesome for us. We grew in so many ways, feeling very much in control of what we wanted and confident about it. Understanding what our strengths were but still pushing ourselves. This record is the most diverse we’ve made, and we wrote so many more songs for it than we wrote for the last two albums combined. And we sort of opened up our process and said let’s throw out what a Local Natives song has to be, and not worry about the boundaries of that.
As a result we ended up pouring a lot more influences and styles of music into this record. The main thing is that we wanted to be connected to this feeling that we have: that the world is a thing you actually do have some control over. You can push on the world and there’s going to be an effect somewhere. And that’s the overall positive feeling we wanted to chase – and the only rule when we were writing was “are you excited by this idea?” And just following that. That was pretty different.
In the past, a Local Natives song would start off as a really early idea by one of the three songwriters in the band – Kelcey [Ayer, guitar and multi-instrumentalist], Ryan [Hahn, guitar] and myself, and we’ll get in a room as the five piece, and turn it around, and around, and around and build, and it’s a really democratic process.
With Hummingbird, some of those songs felt like there was this thing in there we had to get out, and we would wrestle with it for months on end, and it could kind of feel like you were squeezing this concrete block to get this song out of it, like it just had to come out. With this record, the three of us have become a lot better with producing on our own so we’d run a little bit farther with producing songs in our own right, and then bringing the rest of the band on a little bit later in the process. It was nice to be a bit more free and then say “right here I want a twenty piece choir” or I want everything to drop out in this electronic, Massive Attack-style beat. Or wonder what the influences of Madvillain and Fleetwood Mac together could be on a song? Just approaching things a bit more freely was super fun, and we were able to tap into a place that felt really exciting and possible to create a bunch of different new styles of music for us.
It sounds like the degree of trust is so much higher now – you’re not creating songs by committee, necessarily, but allowing band members to explore their ideas and move things the way they want, and the rest trust that instinct.
Yeah, I think there was a lot more trust and letting people run with their vision a bit more, and it allowed us to be more creative. As a result, songs only made it to the end as a Local Natives song when everyone’s excited about it and get to that place where everyone’s involved.
A song like “Dark Days” is the least complicated drum beat we’ve ever done – super complicated rhythms have always been a big part of our sound, and our drummer Matt is so incredible at that, and Kelcey often drums with him – but it’s an ultra simple groove the whole time. You know, it’s not radical in the world of music, but it is for us. A really simple groove and no chords, but a three note bass line as the basis for a song. We ended up wanting it to be a duet and did a collaboration with Nina Persson from The Cardigans, and it’s just so different from anything we’ve done before. It’s one of our favorite songs on the album.
How did the collaboration with Nina come about?
Well, I wrote her an email. [Laughs] We didn’t know her before, and she was our dream vocalist. Ryan and I are huge fans. “Dark Days” is this nostalgic song about being a teenager and sneaking out of your house. We grew up in Southern California, and it’s pretty much always sunny, but there were these overcast days where the sky is greyed out and it’s really romantic. We made a dream list of people we’d want to sing on this song, and Nina was number one because her voice is so amazing and iconic and sexy and nostalgic. So I wrote her an email, and she said she loved the song! She recorded her vocals and did the whole thing from Sweden.
You mentioned writing a lot more songs for this album than the previous ones – close to fifty tracks. What was the criteria for a song making the cut?
I have to think about that. [Pauses] There was a general thing of excitement, and how energized is the band as a whole on this group of songs. We ended up with twelve songs on the record, and I had really wanted a ten song album. In the final month leading up to it we had narrowed it down to twenty tracks, and those had all risen to the top because they felt special and connected to what we were doing thematically or lyrically.
I think we grew in terms of songwriting for this album, because we put it to the forefront. Historically we’d come up with melodies and then procrastinate on locking down on lyrics, but this time we pushed ourselves to have these come together at the beginning of songs. It had to work on that level to get to a special place. So, we got down to the final twenty, and did we did our bitter politicking amongst the band members – it was very Game of Thrones-esque – buying and trading votes to try and get your favorite songs to the top of the list. [Laughs]
You spent some time recording part of Sunlit Youth in Nicaragua. Why there? What was that experience like?
Yeah, we were near San Juan Del Sur, at Playa Maderas on the West Coast. It was this weird serendipitous thing – we wanted to do one more songwriting trip, and the album was almost done. These kids opened up a hotel situation down there in the middle of the jungle and right on the beach. It’s pretty undeveloped, and they built a studio, and we were there for a couple of weeks. That was kind of the crowning moment for us as a band, creatively – we had this experience and wrote like ten songs in eight days, which is just a thing that would have taken us six months to do a year before. It felt like this great moment for us. We were at the peak, I think.
What are you most looking forward to in getting back on the road to promote this album? Is there anything you’re doing differently on this tour versus tours past?
The tour has felt amazing off the bat. It’s been one of the most fun tours we’ve done, maybe ever, and I think it correlates with how the older you get the harder it is to be away from home for like a year straight. Everyone’s slightly less enthused. [Laughs] But all that said, this tour’s been so great, and it’s nice to have three albums to choose from when creating the set list. These songs from Sunlit Youth just came alive really fast and felt good in a live setting. It’s been great! [Laughs]
What are we doing differently? I used to warm up for hours before every show, especially when playing Gorilla Manor – I was always so nervous. But now it’s like we get ready fifteen minutes before going on stage and it all feels a lot more natural. I think we are trying to carry over the same attitude the album was made from – don’t lose track that this is exciting and fun. And yeah, it’s stressful, but follow what feels good. The rest of it takes care of itself. It’s harder to do that on tour than it is when you’re recording on a beach in Nicaragua, or at home in LA working on music, but we’ve been trying to keep that theme going throughout it.