Death, members leaving, tour bus crashes – misfortune for bands comes in many guises, and some are unlucky enough to experience more than one. It’s a fate that befell LA’s Local Natives; riding high on the commercial and critical success of 2009’s Gorilla Manor, plans for their follow up were hit by the departure of bassist and founding member Andy Hamm and the untimely passing of Kelcey Ayer’s mother. Already bruised and emotionally spent from a hectic year touring the world, it was tough to take. “That was definitely really hard,” he told the Daily Beast on Hummingbird’s release earlier this year. “We didn’t set out to make darker or sadder record, but we always write, for the most part, based on our experiences, so it’s a kind of window into the last few years.”
Indeed it is. Darker and weightier than their debut, but no less majestic, it was recorded in New York under the watchful eye of the National’s Aaron Dessler at his home studio in Brooklyn. Relocation did them the world of good they tell me, Taylor Rice agreeing that “cathartic is, I think, the perfect word” to describe writing and recording their way out of the sadness. And, far from easing in gently, they’ve thrown themselves back into the game – tonight will be show number 162 of a tour that doesn’t end till Christmas, with plans already in place to write and record another album early next year.
Certainly, there’s no hint of road weariness when they take the stage later; they’re playful, humble, and razor sharp, new material slipping in seamlessly alongside ‘Sun Hands’, ‘World News’, and ‘Wide Eyes’. Rapturously received, there seems to be something stealthy about they way they’ve quietly become so popular. There’s nothing “buzzy” or “on-trend” here, just old-fashioned graft and killer tunes, and their trajectory looks awfully similar to the National. Sure, they’re a couple of stops behind, but the path is the same; critically lauded, cult following, blossoming reputation, before emerging as one the best loved and biggest bands in the world. Given their determination, and eye-on-the-prize steeliness, it would be no surprise to see them playing two sold-out nights at the Roundhouse sometime around 2015. We can only hope that in the meantime, misfortune decides they’ve suffered enough.
DiS: Hummingbird came out in January, but you guys are still on the road touring it. How does it feel to still be singing these songs?
Kelcey: It still feels good. Even with the old songs, there's a certain feeling you get when you’ve been playing and playing and playing, and you feel in good shape. So all the shows have been great, everyone’s been on top of their game.
Taylor: Bringing their A game!
Kelcey: Yeah, it’s easier to play longer shows without getting out of breath, your voice gets stronger, you feel more “on it”, you know? But at the same time, you've been playing for a year, so you do get a little tired – I think we’re all ready to go back into the studio and start working on new music.
Taylor: This show has also gone through a lot of transformation over the last year, and I think it’s in a really great place. We’re constantly working on the songs – they shift a little bit, but they also mould and change over time. This run has been awesome – it’s our last run, and playing here at Paradiso, we first saw this venue four years ago. Back then we played upstairs, in the little room, and ever since we saw the big room we’ve always remembered how incredible it was. So to be coming here, and finally playing it, is a very special night and moment. Even though it has been a long year, it’s been really fun and rewarding to come back to places after so long.
You toured Gorilla Manor for a very long time as well. What’s your strategy for coping with such long stretches on the road?
Kelcey: It helps to have lived together. We lived in two different houses working on Gorilla Manor, so it’s not like we weren’t together and then all of a sudden thrust together all the time. It’s been that way for while now.
Taylor: Getting to travel is probably the only thing that keeps you sane – it’s my second favourite thing to do after playing music. I love seeing other cultures and cities, and getting come to Amsterdam or wherever a bunch of times is a privilege. And this last tour around the UK gave me a really new perspective that I’d never had, because we finally got to go out and briefly explore places like Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle, and all these cities I’d been to but only ever seen from the inside of some shitty club. Getting to really see how amazing a lot of these places are gave me a new appreciation for the UK, especially considering it gets quite a bad rap from touring parties.
There was an unnaturally long time between your two albums; was there any point when you didn’t think a follow up would get made, or you didn’t want to make one?
Kelcey: From our perspective, this is how it went. Gorilla Manor came out in the UK only at the end of 2009, but then it came out everywhere else in 2010 and we toured the shit out of it. Then the next year we had an opening slot for Arcade Fire, which was amazing, and we got the opportunity to play the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, the Frank Ghery designed building, and we spent two months on the arrangements for that. So we ended up getting all these opportunities that spilled into 2011 that stopped us from working on the record, but from the summer of that year to summer 2012 it actually took one year exactly to make it. But then all that stuff in the meantime just got in the way of getting it out as quickly as we wanted to. The whole time we were just thinking we don’t want to rush it out, we don’t want to come back with an album that isn’t as good – that whole sophomore slump thing, you know? We just didn’t want to mess up an opportunity to take a good next step with something that we really want to have a career in. So we didn’t rush it at all as we didn’t feel the need to – we all agreed it would be way better to take a while to put out something we felt really proud of, rather than rush and regret it later.
After everything you guys went through personally, both prior to and during the album, did you find making it cathartic or was it just a struggle?
Taylor: No, it was very cathartic to write and record. Now, here we are, almost at the end of 2013, and a lot of that stuff does feel very processed and behind us. We’re in a very, very different place to where we were while we were making it. Cathartic is, I think, the perfect word – that’s how it felt to write and perform those songs.
What were some of the musical differences that prompted Andy’s departure?
Taylor: It wasn’t really a musical differences thing, it was more about not really getting along and not seeing eye to eye on how to go about the band. A band, especially being in our band, is really, really intense and hard because we’re a pure democracy. That’s great, because everybody gets a say, but it can also makes things a constant struggle. We were touring a lot, and it didn’t really work out – we were pulling in different directions.
Did playing Coachella in such a prominent slot feel like a triumph and vindication after everything you’d been through?
Taylor: Absolutely. Coachella is a very important festival for us because we grew up around it, so that was the one we always went to as kids. It has a special place for us. Plus, it was one of the first festivals we ever did, and that experience was one of those things where you're still getting used to what’s happening and I remember that show, for me – this was 2010 – going by so quick. It literally felt like five minutes and it was over. Playing the outdoor, sunset stage slot this year, where I’d seen so many amazing bands play before, felt incredible – like a hometown kind of thing. It felt really good.
Hummingbird sounds heavier and sadder than Gorilla Manor, which is no surprise, but to me, it also sounds unmistakably urban. Do you feel the need to be plugged into city life to write and record?
Kelcey: It’s funny, ‘cause I always think we get pegged into the more folk-y genres, so to hear it be taken as urban sounds awesome to me.
Taylor: Aesthetically, we had that debate when we were taking about where to record. And also, it should be said that we wrote most of Hummingbird in our studio in LA – we were there for about eight months writing. But when it came to recording, we talked about isolating ourselves; that’s cool because it offers you this really alone, no distractions kind of perspective, but it wasn't appealing to us aesthetically. It didn’t feel like the place we wanted to go to make our record. We recorded in Montreal, Brooklyn, and we chose there for that very reason – it felt like a more urban, energetic place, which is where we wanted to be.
I read the Pitchfork piece that suggested you were carrying the mantle for LA bands. Do you feel that way, or feel that pressure?
Taylor: That was such a weird thing.
Kelcey: We definitely don’t feel any pressure, and we’ve been away from LA so long that it’s felt…I want to get back there, and get my hands dirty with LA again. But that conversation…I don’t think that’s anything we can be a part of. It’s just all from the outside, and we’re just so in the middle of it. We get surprised all the time with the things people tell us about how they view the band because we view it in such a different way.
Taylor: I don’t feel any pressure from carrying LA on our backs, or representing it. We’ve a lot of pride in being from LA; it’s our home, and probably the highlight of this year was playing The Greek Theatre, which was a goal that was maybe mentioned in that very interview.
It was indeed.
Taylor: Yeah, I mentioned that I’d be happy if we could play The Greek, and it was just everything we wanted it to be. It felt so good. But that perspective just feels competitive in a weird way that I don’t think is reflective of the way the actual musical community is like. We have so many friends from Brooklyn, and in bands over there, and the whole East Coast-West Coast isn’t anything outside of some journalists talking about it. I don’t feel the scenes are at odds, or that we need to be holding up the tent pole or something.
So you’re not tempted to start some Twitter beef with Grizzly Bear or someone?
Kelcey: We’ve always been tempted to just start something ‘cause it gets people riled up and you get a bunch of headlines, you know? But seriously, that stuff always seems beside the point and unnecessary. We also believe in karma, and if we don’t like a band, it’s not something we need to get on a soapbox about because other people obviously like that band – we just leave them alone and let them do their thing. Just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean it has no value.
It does seem though that in terms of indie rock and alternative music, there aren’t a huge number of bands from LA who make it big compared to the number from the east coast. Why do you think that is?
Kelcey: That’s kind of what the Pitchfork article was getting at too. I’m not sure…
Taylor: I don’t know if we’re super qualified to answer, but it’s so weird because our experience of LA is that it was incredibly supportive for us; we had a couple of residencies at places like Silver Lake Lounge and Space Land. These clubs were like incubators for us and really helped put us into a national spotlight in some way. It’s strange that that hasn’t happened for more bands, because there is the talent. Maybe it’s just too sunshine-y and too easy a life, man. You know, there's a hustle to NY and Brooklyn that is, from an LA-er’s perspective, really crazy, but we’re a very hard working band. We were just counting actually; this will be our 162nd show of the year tonight, and we’re gonna hit over 180 before the tour’s over.
Kelcey: We thought we might break the record [for that], but we just looked it up and 30 Seconds To Mars broke it a year ago.
What is the record?
Kelcey: It’s like 300 and something shows.
Taylor: What? They must be counting double headers or something…
Kelcey: I don’t know what they’re counting, but the Guinness Book of World Records recognised it. So it’s verified.
How would you not go crazy doing that many in one year?
Taylor: Well, the show is the best part! It’s really not that – the show’s always the most fun, awesome hour of the day. It’s the travelling and everything else around it, but like I said, travelling really makes it awesome too, especially if you have a passion for going out and seeing the world. The thing that makes it the hardest is staying connected to your loved ones at home – that’s definitely the hardest part. I feel that if that wasn't an issue…we’re a band that loves touring and we could do it pretty much indefinitely, but we have an anchor pulling us and our hearts back home.
It seems apt to ask about Lou Reed, who sadly passed away recently. Are you fans of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground? Did their music have any influence on you and your music?
Kelcey: Some of us are, but your probably talking to the two guys who aren’t as much. It’s not like we didn’t like his music, but we didn’t really get into the Velvet Underground as much. At least I didn’t…
Taylor: Yeah, I've been listening to it a lot these last couple of days, and I know the historical background of it and everything. It wasn't something that touched me when I was younger, but I find it very inspiring and I've really been enjoying listening to it this week.
Kelcey: It’s really crazy because when it happened, everyone started reading up on Lou again and so on, and we saw that he put us on a playlist just a couple of months ago. To think somebody like that even knew of our music was really otherworldly and strange – I just didn’t know.
I’ve read that you’ve already started writing and coming up with ideas for new material, and a new album. How’s that coming along?
Kelcey: We’ll be done at the end of November, and I think we won’t start getting super serious until we’re into next year – like February or something. But everyone has little bits and ideas that they’ve written on this tour and I think this record cycle has been a little easier to handle: we’ve been on a bus all year, and that’s really afforded us the time to be creative. So everyone has stuff, and is really excited for next year. We can’t say where it’s gonna go, or what’s gonna happen, but we know that we’ll try to explore something new. It’s exciting to not know what's around the corner, but everyone is itching to start.
Taylor: I have all these specific ideas of what I want to do, and how I think it should be – in my head, it’s going off and expanding – but I know that at the end of Gorilla Manor I got ahead of myself and said the next one was gonna be this and that and so on, and I was completely wrong. So I don’t want to jinx anything or do away with my ideas by putting them out there. But yeah, plans are brewing.
Hummingbird is out now via Infectious. The iTunes Session EP is also now available.