For Local Natives, the Music Begins At Home
This story was produced in partnership with FILTER Magazine.
So you’re in high school, and you have a band, and you want to play your first gig. You invite a couple hundred of your friends over to your dad’s house. What’s the worst that could happen?
You could end up with a hole kicked through your dad’s wall. You could also end up launching a world tour.
Both were the case for Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn, the guitarist/vocalists for Los Angeles indie rock band Local Natives, who are rolling with laughter recalling that story before they head onstage during a recent stop in Brooklyn. (They perform a trio of shows at SXSW this week.) It was like “out of a movie,” they explain: kids packed inside the house and wrapped around the staircase; the crowd moshed, the cops came. Oh, and somebody kicked a hole through dad’s living room wall.
But at least one good thing came out of it: The drummer from the opening band, a guy named Kelcey Ayer, asked the duo if they’d want to play together sometime. He’s now the group’s keyboardist — and one-third of the distinct harmony that defines the band.
That first show was years before the group — now on an international tour — added drummer Matt Frazier and bassist Andy Hamm. It was before they moved into a house together in LA and self-funded a debut album that would catapult them into rock darlinghood. (Gorilla Manor, named for the house). It was before they’d open for the National and Arcade Fire, and the three years of emotional highs and lows (like sales success and the departure of a bandmate) that would characterize their follow-up, Hummingbird (and land them at number 12 on the charts).
In reality, the making of the Local Natives began on a sunny fall morning in Orange County, California, on the first day of middle school, when Hahn, now 26, spotted an empty seat next to Rice.
“We’re the constant in each other’s lives in a way that I’m not sure many people really experience,” Rice says, his Lothario looks gentled as he talks of the bandmembers he holds as brothers.
It’s crazy how interlaced their lives still are, from the everybody-gets-a-vote struggles of selecting album artwork — this time around, it features an image of the guys looking like they’re being pulled off a concrete cliff — to workshopping each song, to the tragedies they encounter together (like Ayer recently losing his mother). “If something happens to one person in our band,” Hahn says, “it happens to everyone.”
As transparent as they are melodic, the albums are records in more than one sense.
Gorilla Manor feels like extended adolescence and the crazy idea that they could be a band fulltime. Listen to Hahn and Rice as they join Ayer in singing to his grandfather on “Airplanes.” It’s Grizzly Bear meets Band of Horses meets is this for real?
The new album shows that it is. And that early adulthood is hard, even when you’re a band on the make, as relationships fray, like when bassist Andy Hamm exited in March 2011. The record’s center, though, is a processing of what came three months after: Just after the band began work on the album, Ayer learned of the sudden death of his mother.
In many ways, the album is a dedication to her: the title, Hummingbird, comes from a line in “Colombia,” a goosebump-inducing track named for her home country.
“A hummingbird crashed right in front of me, and I understood all you did for us,” Ayer sings as the song begins. Soft guitars urge Ayers along as he prays that his mother felt his love. As momentum rises around him, he addresses her directly — “Patricia, every day I ask myself, am I giving enough?" — and the percussion builds, guitars tower, and Rice and Hahn join Ayers in the crescendo, the three old friends asking together, "Am I loving enough, am I loving enough, am I?”
The track shows why the album is, as Hahn says, a shared catharsis, both for the emotional weight of the songs and the work that went into them. Hahn had a version of “Bowery,” the album’s closer, before the first record, but it wasn’t finalized until they were in the studio for the second. Though the writing process began in their re-established home of Los Angeles, they had a “writing vacation” in a geodesic dome in the desert of Joshua Tree, and, for the last stages of recording, decamped to Brooklyn to live with and record in the home studio of a newfound brother — the National’s Aaron Dessner, who would produce their next album.
The band’s become succinct with the years. While they packed every guitar they could onto Gorilla Manor, they worked hard to make sure Hummingbird had room to breathe. Between the sonic sparseness and the emotional heaviness, Rice understands why people might call it their “sadder” record, though to him it’s much more “expansive” and “joyful,” as evidenced by the twinkling and heartsore “Breakers.”
“Where the songs were coming from emotionally,” Rice says, “they needed that space.”
The Local Natives will perform tonight at FILTER’s SXSW Showcase, Showdown At Cedar Street. RSVP here.
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