“There are a lot of feelings in the air tonight,” says Local Natives’ Kelcey Ayer in the tiny, sweatbox basement space of Hoxton’s Courtyard Theatre. The band have been making a habit of intimate pop-up shows like these of late; miles away from the kinds of stages that the band’s soaring ambition has earmarked, and all the more special for it.
“We’ve been away for a minute, so we wanted to reinvigorate our fans and be able to play the new stuff,” says Kelcey of tonight’s performance. Such a show also has an air of familiarity. It was here in London, after all, where the band first felt truly embraced – championed by Zane Lowe and Radio 1 way before journalists back home in the US paid all that much attention. In 2010, following the release of debut ‘Gorilla Manor’, they played a similar last minute show in the capital; just a short walk around the corner in Hoxton Square. The band recount fond memories of a place that will always hold a special place in their hearts. On their return tonight however, their trajectory is an entirely new one.
It’s been almost four years since their last LP ‘Hummingbird’, and Local Natives’ approach has fundamentally switched. Back in 2013, things kicked off for the Los Angeleans with the release of that album, and finished with them being one of the hardest working bands of the year. They racked up 188 shows throughout the year, travelling almost 200,000 miles in the process. It was an emotionally gruelling record, born out of difficult periods in the band’s lives, including the passing of Kelcey’s mother and the departure of bassist Andy Hamm. “While we’re engaging on stage playing these songs - they’re about heavier times that we’ve gone through - you’re reliving them over and over,” says guitarist Ryan Hahn. “I’m sure that did have some kind of subconscious psychological effect,” Kelcey picks up, “a wariness that just compounds over time.”
Coming off the back of the ‘Hummingbird’ tour, the band was burned out and exhausted, admitting now that perhaps they pushed themselves a little too hard. But it’s a process that has guided them to the space they’re in today, and contributed to a rejuvenated outlook this time around. “It was very cathartic for us,” says Kelcey. “After the tour ended, we took a second to breathe and then it felt like coming out of a fog. We felt like we had expressed that… Now that it was done, it felt okay to feel good again. It felt okay to try new styles of music and write about new things because we’d kind of put that aside.”
That rejuvenation seems to have sparked a sense of liberty within the group, with new album ‘Sunlit Youth’ projecting beams of optimism and exploring avenues previously untouched. Beginning to free themselves from some of the insecurities around expectation that loomed over their first two releases, the band felt more confidence in following what excited them. They describe a writing process that spawned more than 50 tracks, but with positivity running through the veins of these new songs. Compared with the emotional weight of last time out, it’s little wonder that Local Natives could be so prolific.
“We took a second to breathe and then it felt like coming out of a fog. It felt okay to feel good again.”
— Kelcey Ayer, Local Natives
Returning home to Los Angeles after so long on the road proved key to the band reconnecting their roots. LA was just the starting point. “We knew that we wanted to do most of it in Los Angeles,” says Kelcey. “We wanted to get to know our city again. Through that process, the city kind of melded in to the record. There’s such an energy to Los Angeles right now, and it felt like it was the perfect time and the perfect place.” Changing scenery from the dingy, low-ceilinged, mould-ridden space that had housed them through the writing of ‘Hummingbird’, the big-windowed warehouse that the band made their own proved a springboard for their new approach. “The vibe was just night and day between those two spaces,” confirms Ryan.
The band’s horizons were about to be broadened yet further. A trip to Malaysia to play a one-off show in the latter end of 2014 spawned a process that took the band on to Thailand and Nicaragua, as well as writing trips closer to home in Joshua Tree and Ojai. “Originally we were like, ‘no way – why the hell would we go all the way to Malaysia to play one show?' But then we remembered that our label boss in the UK had always mentioned this studio in Thailand that one of his friends owned, so we thought we could maybe record there for a while,” explains Ryan. Kelcey goes on to say those sessions were pivotal in shaping the process. “That was such a prolific time for us, writing and getting so much work done that we wanted to take a few more trips and do that again. So throughout 2015, we’d take little writing trips.”
Of course Local Natives are no strangers to globetrotting, but these circumstances were worlds apart from the intense touring of two years previous. “We wanted to write songs in new ways, and wanted to get ourselves out of our comfort zones,” says Ryan. “What happens if you put yourself in the jungle of Nicaragua? What comes out of that? This was an album where wanted to go all out and try everything. Nothing was off limits.”
One track on the record – ‘Jellyfish’ – was the only song on the record not to be put through what the band describe as the ‘live Local Natives filter’, but a little anecdotal nugget about the track epitomises the band’s approach to the record’s process. Ryan recalls recording all of the vocals with a USB microphone on the kitchen table of their rented house in Joshua Tree – a recording so DIY that you can even hear Taylor preparing a bowl of cereal in the background. “We tried to re-record them,” he says, “but I just didn’t think they sounded as cool. There’s a vibe to that off-the-cuff-ness.”
“If you have a megaphone of any size, you might as well use it for something that you believe in.”
— Kelcey Ayer, Local Natives
“I think that kind of situation is true of the whole record,” continues Kelcey. “It didn’t matter if it was in the really nice studio, or just on somebody’s computer. If it felt good and it sounded right to you, then that was what we went with. The whole record is a mix of so many different studios, so many different houses and so many different cities.” These new horizons just served to solidify the optimistic worldview that inform the record’s narrative, meeting new people and hearing the stories that they had to tell. “It was like that Talking Heads line – ‘How did I get here?’ – There was a German couple we met in Nicaragua that had moved there with their baby. There was this feeling that you can live your life in so many different ways, and that the possibilities are endless to a certain degree. I think Taylor was really inspired by that – that we could be the masters of our own realities. It was just a really freeing feeling.”
These themes are new territory to a great extent, drawing on broader existential and political themes compared with the more introverted, personal approach of ‘Gorilla Manor’ and ‘Hummingbird’. It’s certainly no coincidence with the current state of political tension in Europe and the United States, and it was simply a case of figuring out how best to use their platform. “We definitely wanted to try and look outward,” says Kelcey. “If you have a megaphone of any size, you might as well use it for something that you believe in. The stakes are so high in the States right now, it truly is now or never.” ‘Sunlit Youth’ is no grand political gesture looking to answer all of the world’s ills, but its outlook certainly shines bright amid some of the gloom.
Local Natives' new album 'Sunlit Youth' is out now via Infectious / Loma Vista.
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