Local Natives' Taylor Rice: When we play, there's a physical connection
It's been over three years since California's Local Natives released their debut album -- the sun-smeared, harmony-laden Gorilla Manor -- and a lot has changed since then with the Los Angeles five-piece. For starters, they're now only a four-piece, after bassist Andy Hamm left the group in 2011. The band members have also dealt with a series of financial and health issues, which in many ways culminated with the death of lead singer Kelcey Ayer's mother last summer.
But you might not know it from a first listen to their new record, Hummingbird, released this past January. Like its buzzed-about predecessor, Hummingbird -- produced by the National's Aaron Dessner -- is full of bright surfaces and ebullient melodies. For those who found Gorilla a little too monochromatic, this album isn't likely to feel any different. Yet below the surface there are darker themes at play that reveal a band trying to grow into the pressure of its own hype.
Gimme Noise chatted with Local Natives' Tayler Rice over the phone from Houston recently -- mere hours, in fact, after they escaped SXSW "by the skin of our teeth," as Rice puts it. (If you have at least a passing knowledge of the group, you probably know Rice as the "guy with the mustache.") Predictably laidback and enthusiastic, he filled us in on the Austin experience and on how life post-Gorilla has unfolded for the band.
Gimme Noise: I imagine it must be nice escaping all the SXSW craziness a little early.
Rice: South By kind of has a special place for us. It's this super-insane thing to have to do, with no sound check. Since we first did that, now we're accustomed to four-hour sound checks or whatever -- having as much time as we want -- so to be back in that vibe of plug-in-and-play is kind of fun.
You guys have done a lot of touring since Gorilla Manor came out. How has that reality of always being on the road changed things for you?
We're a band that touring feels feeding for us. A lot of times, there's this sense of touring as a super-draining thing; it is really, really difficult at times and can feel that way. But I think we really love playing live, we're just super passionate about it. It feels like a fueling thing to do. For us right now, because we did tour forever on Gorilla Manor but then stopped -- we didn't play a show for almost a year -- now to be hitting the road again...we're all really, really excited.
Why do you think you feed off of playing live like that? Is it just something about you guys as a group?
It does have something to do with that. The way the music is, we're a very democratic, very communal band in terms of our writing and our energy. Music, for us, there's this physical connection; even if it's a song we've played 150 times, every single time [we play it] it's in a new physical space, with different and new people there. I think there's literally a physical connection there's connecting everybody in the room.
Hummingbird is a little bit darker album in tone, and a little more personal too. With everything that's happened with the band since the first album, did it feel like you were working out some personal stuff? Does it feel any darker to you?
Yeah, it does. The word I'd use is cathartic. So when you say "working things out," that's what it feels like. We went through some really difficult times together as well as tons of amazing times. But there is kind of a more obvious tonal shift between the two albums. Playing these songs live, and writing them, it just felt like the honest thing to do.
You talked a minute ago about the communal aspect of the band. Since Andy left, has that dynamic changed very much?
You know, it's hard. Some things are very much the same. [With] Gorilla Manor, we were living in a house together while we made it -- it was this very specific moment in time and feeling. Now we live apart, maybe a mile down the street, but we build this little studio right in the heart of Silver Lake where we spent eight months pretty much writing all of Hummingbird... The thing with Andy was a difficult decision, and it was difficult at the time. But it was a decision that was made because it was a necessary thing to have happened, and now we're in a really good place.
Did those changes come through in the album then, as well?
One thing it did provide was we experimented more with recording as we went along. It enabled us to expand our palette and experiment with things that we've never done before... It was liberating to just say, "Let's work on songs together, and anyone can hop around different ideas."
With that said, the finished product doesn't sound that different from the first record. Would you agree?
I had an interesting revelation with that question where, when we were making it, I felt like it was extremely different. A lot of things, like, an obvious example is there's a song where the whole rhythm section is made out of drum samples that we took from the '60s and pasted together. So there's no live drum playing on the entire song, which is something we never would've touched or done.
It seems like there are fewer harmonies, too.
You know, we wrote harmonies and all these big things, and for us, we've been singing together since we were kids, so it's so natural. For us, it was this moment of clarity where we knew a song needed this open feeling to it, be more stripped back and direct in certain places. We tried to be more purposeful in how we used the vocal harmonies. But when we had space for a minute and went back, I did see, "Oh yeah, this is definitely the same band."
Considering how well received Gorilla Manor was, did you feel like there was more pressure on you as you recorded this time around?
It was a different kind of pressure. I think there's always pressure, right? You make your first album, there's pressure then too. It's just different because you want people to hear your record and you have no idea if they're going to. Then when you're thrust for the first time into knowing there's some sort of expectation, or that what you're writing someone is going to listen to it already beforehand, it's a weird thing and it can make you self-conscious. That's why we were very purposeful and really took our time, completely unplugged after we stopped touring.
Local Natives. With Superhumanoids. Sold Out. Saturday, March 23 at First Avenue.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.