It’s fair to say that Local Natives, the Californian band who emerged on the scene in 2009 with the album Gorilla Manor, have navigated the difficult second album period succesfully at this stage; They’ve had great critical and chart success (the album reached #12 in the Billboard top 200) , and their live shows continue to be a huge draw (the just-concluded European tour, with Cloud Control, was without a doubt one of the hottest tickets of 2013).
That’s not to say it was easy – their second album, Hummingbird, was written and recorded against a backdrop of death (Kelcey Ayer, keyboardist and vocalist lost his mother in 2012), and disruption (the band parted ways with bassist Andy Hamm in 2011). Describing the atmosphere for the writing and recording, Taylor Rice, the band’s guitarist and vocalist commented that it “definitely put us in an uncomfortable place, so that we could try new things”.
One result of that dislocation was that it gave the band a chance to experiment more. Rice, again, points out one of the fundamental differences: “With the first record, we were so concerned with making sure we could do everything live, but with this one there was a cool kind of freedom to be like, ‘Let’s just try stuff.” The results of ‘just trying stuff’ were stunning – under the watchful ear of Aaron Dessner, guitarist, songwriter and producer with The National, the band have managed to put together a dense, dark, mature, and powerful album that is without a doubt one of the highlights of 2013.
At the conclusion of the European tour Taylor Rice gave TMO this interview (via email):
For me, if the process of creating music is honest, I feel like I don’t have complete control over how I want the songs to come out.
How would you describe the similarities and differences between Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird?
Gorilla Manor was a plug and play affair. It was informed by the hundreds of local shows we’d played in tiny clubs where you could hear your voice bouncing off the back wall better than you could out of the monitor. The songs were written in a room and then recorded pretty straightforwardly. Hummingbird is a more subtle album. Emotionally it comes from two opposite sides of intense joy and having achieved our childhood dream of playing music around the world, and also death in family and relationships that came unexpectedly. You can hear both of these things pulling at each other in the album, which we spent a lot more time arranging and composing. You’re supposed to listen to it in headphones.
How important is the album format for you? Is it still a viable format in an age of digital distribution and shared playlists?
The album is super important to me as both an artist and a music listener. Dedicating yourself to a full body of work to represent a moment in time makes way more sense to me than trying to produce tracks as you go, touring or whatever else it is you do. The producers that are popping up, or musicians following more of a singles release plan than an album create some interesting music, but in general have trouble capturing my heart and getting me to feel very invested.
There’s a great book called The Novelist’s Lexicon, where various writers are asked to sum up their work with one word. Let’s steal the concept, and ask you if you had to associate one word with your work what would it be, and why?
The idea of surrealism emerged again and again in my mind when we were making hummingbird. My favorite writer is Haruki Murakami, a Japanese surrealist fiction writer. I think the music video we made with my friend Jaffe Zinn for Breakers captures the way that I feel about that period of my life.
Amongst the great reviews for Hummingbird, it seems to be universally recognised that it’s a ‘challenging / thoughtful’ album . How do you feel about that – is it something you intended, that you hear too?
I think that’s a fair assessment. For me, if the process of creating music is honest, I feel like I don’t have complete control over how I want the songs to come out. I think we were in a challenging/thoughtful place when we were making this album. Right now, we’re in a much different spot and things don’t feel as dense, since making this record felt like purging a lot of that emotion out.
Music, good and bad, gets under your skin like nothing else; If there was one song in the world you could forget, what would it be and why?
Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. That answer immediately popped into my head, that song is too catchy for its own good and I really wish I had never heard it.
Tell us a little bit about the title Hummingbird – why did you choose it for the album? How important are titles for you in general?
A hummingbird is very fragile, but also a really powerful creature. The duality of it is super strange, it’s so frail but you can’t help but stop whatever you are doing and just watch a hummingbird if one goes near you. Albums represent an era both musically lyrically and personally, and I think its important to find the right title to capture that.
You recorded Gorilla Manor in Orange County, and for Hummingbird you moved to Brooklyn – how important was geography/location to the recording/sound – does it have an affect, or is it just a case of getting together with the producer anywhere?
Not quite, let me set the record straight there. Gorilla Manor was written in both Orange County and LA, recorded in LA. Hummingbird was written in LA (in our own studio we built out) but was recorded in Montreal and Brooklyn. I think that geography and surroundings have an impact on how the music comes out. The energy of a city gets into you. For us, leaving LA was a matter of wanting to get outside our comfort zone so we could push ourselves to try different things.
Let’s playfully imagine that you are forced to choose one song to represent Gorilla Manor and one to represent Hummingbird, what are they and why?
Wide Eyes for Gorilla Manor and Breakers for Hummingbird. They are two of the last songs to come together in each case, and I think we were the most in a united creative space when we made them. We are a super democratic band, and both of these songs came together only after bold strokes were made by several different of the guys.
What’s the best musical advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not supposed to be perfect. Aaron Dessner kept telling us to mess up our vocals, and almost never let us re record them. A song is best when you are feeling what you are singing, not when you hit every note right.
Mike Scott from the Waterboys has written ‘ I figured music wasn’t worth the air it occupied if it didn’t change both its makers and its listeners’; do you agree? Can you tell us how one of your own tracks, or someone else’s has changed you?
I completely agree, though I find it hard to imagine listening to any music that didn’t change you, even if you hated it. It’s surprising to find out how my music effects other people. They’ll tell me what a song means to them, and I’ll just be thinking, wow, wonder how you got that idea, but that is awesome.
The first time I heard Miss Misery by Elliot Smith I was completely changed. I was 12, and realized how deep a song could get into you on just the first listen.
If Local Natives could write/record with any musician – alive or dead – who would it be, and why?
I’d love to sing a song with Archy Marshall (King Krule). I’d like to do an all vocal and drum track with his voice doing big harmonies with us.