– Interview by On Tour Monthly / Photos by Crystal Prather –
“Local Natives Speaking the Universal Language“
With music proliferating on the Internet non-stop these days, finding the proverbial “diamond in the rough” has become a passionate mission for many music lovers. Tired of what the mainstream offers, these passionate ‘scavengers’ find utter delight in finding that one gem of a group no one knows about. At least not yet! The current jewel that has these treasure hunters waxing philosophically about is a four-piece group out of Silver Lake, California called Local Natives.
Though the moniker for the group is about as pedestrian a name for a band as you’re likely ever to come across, the music these individuals create is not. The band’s critically-acclaimed debut album, Gorilla Manor, scored rave reviews from critics and fans alike. The recording launched the band onto the global stage where they headlined dates in clubs and theaters throughout America and Europe. Local Natives even scored opening slots on tours with Arcade Fire and The National. Not too bad for three high school friends who genuinely felt that given a chance, there really was an audience out there for the music they were crafting.
Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn and Taylor Rice are finally settling into the fact people across the fruited plains actually care about the songs they write. Add drummer Matt Frazier to the mix, and you have a solid group of like-minded souls determined to share their musical thoughts with any and all individuals willing to give them a chance. With the release of their highly praised sophomore album, Hummingbird, Local Natives have returned to their non-stop touring ways. This time out, however, the band is enjoying a triumphant run of sold-out dates from coast-to-coast. The polish on this gem has grown to be quite an attraction.
ON TOUR MONTHLY: When did it dawn on you that the fate of Local Natives rest in your own hands?
Ryan Hahn – band, book tours. We did our fair share of terrible road shows. Very quickly you just realize that the only people that are going to be able to do what you want to do are yourselves. After those experiences, we made sure our music was how we wanted it to sound; our artwork was how we wanted it to look. We then started reaching out to blogs to introduce our music to them. All of us did whatever we could to get our name out there.
OTM: The tech intrusion to the music business created a revolution the likes I’ve never seen. Last century, when record labels mattered, bands had to have real talent to make it in the music business. Today, all you need is desire and an internet connection. It is a very tough environment for bands to compete in these days.
I keep hearing the world ‘oversaturation’ when it comes to the music business these days. There are a lot of bands out there competing for attention. In a way, it does make it harder to stand out from the crowd. Anyone can make an album in their bedroom using tools available to them on the Internet. I still want to believe that quality will always emerge, or rise to the top above the noise that’s out there. At the same time, there are unique personalities popping up from time to time without the benefits of a huge record label thanks to the Internet. It’s a Catch-22 situation for everyone these days. You cope with it the best you can.
OTM: Ryan, this comment you made I found a bit disconcerting. “Everything the band creates comes from a complete collaboration between their members, from songwriting to artwork.” When you have too many chiefs with no assigned roles, everyone has a strong opinion, and everyone thinks they are right. That’s either a recipe for disaster, or something spectacular. How do you all come to a compromise, when disagreements arise, without stepping on one another’s toes?
First off, I see why that comment threw you off a bit, and why you’re asking the question. There certainly have been times when the atmosphere around here has been very tense. The thing is, the members of this band have all known each other for so long, we can be brutally honest without it being misconstrued as arrogant or rude. At the end of the day – and this is very important – we all respect one another for what they bring to the group. Our attitudes and feelings about what this band does come from a very passionate place. Since we’re all working toward the same goal, we have a sense of fair play in Local Natives. Listen, I’d be lying to you I said our band lived in this perfect, harmonious world where the writing process always went down smoothly. What we have going for us is this. We were all good friends before we sort of stumbled upon this band thing. I think the communal approach to creating music is just the way we’ve always done it. We feel that if everyone is involved and happy with the final product, then everything else will fall into place. I trust these guys, we trust one another. Yes it is difficult to be in a band. Yes it takes a while for us to write a song. At the end of the day, when we have created a product everyone is in agreement with, the song becomes even more special and unique to us.
OTM: Even in a democracy, there has to be a leader to resolve conflicts, or settle the tough question, otherwise nothing will ever get done. Does the band have its own arbitration process it goes through to deal with the tough decisions?
To be honest with you, no! Everything really is equal in this band. At a certain point, everyone knows their strengths and what their contributions are going to be. For instance, Matt and I do most of the graphic design work for all the merchandise we sell because we have the background. Jim and Kelsey will kind of acquiesce on some of those decisions because they know we’re working on what’s best for the band. Taylor, Kelcey and myself are the songwriters. We all have an equal say in what we’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, the three of us do end arguing about stuff at times, but somehow we make it work.
OTM: Did Andy Ham become a casualty of your laid back attitude?
I don’t think that’s the way I would put it. I really don’t know how to answer that question.
OTM: Do you remember the first song you all liked, that had been written in the spirit of cooperation, where everyone looks at one another and says, “Okay, we got it. Now we can move on.” There had to be one song that kept you all together and finding for a common cause.
On the new record, there’s a song called “You & I” and that was almost the ‘holy shit’ moment for the whole album. When we finished that song, it gave us all the energy to finish a lot of the other songs we had been struggling with. If you are talking about from the very beginning, all I can say is this. When you are chasing a dream, you sort of instinctively know if your music has that sound with the ability to connect with people. We always recognized those moments with the songs that accomplished that for us. Vividly, I can remember when each tune we wrote happened, and the circumstances around how it was written.
OTM: It’s funny who one accomplishment can have a snowball effect on other things around it.
You’re right, it is strange! Up until we finished “You & I”, we had the hardest time pulling our other songs together. After we had figured that song out, all the others came together pretty quickly afterwards. As songwriters, those are the moments you are always chasing. When you finally get in that groove for whatever reason, it’s amazing how clear things appear to you.
OTM: When you lost your bass player, it appears as though you constructed the music in your songs around the instrument.
When we recorded the new album, I played bass. When we were writing the music for the record, all of us couldn’t fit into one room, so we used a variety of methods to put things together. At times, we did a lot of the music on the computer. Each of us would record ideas for demos we were working on; then duplicate those parts with our instruments when we got together to actually record. Consequently, you hear a lot of different instruments covering the lower registers of the songs. That opened us up to creating different sonically textured music by trying out various instruments to fill the void, or gap, not having a bass player in the band.
OTM: A lot of groups have the signature voice that brands their music in the listeners mind. Some bands have the monster guitarist that defines a group’s sound. Local Natives, however, have none of those signatures because of all the musical differences each of you brings to the table when you write music. Is there a single thread that runs through your music that defines the band, or is it a crapshoot and you get what you get?
I wish I could say there was this one thing, but we kind of realized there was no point in us trying to pin it down. Now this might just be me, but we have been through so much territory, there is only so much space we can cover. I don’t think the band has been put into any type of box that defines what we do. The music on the new record can go anywhere. When we were putting the songs together, the goal was to expand and experiment beyond what we did on the first record. Whatever direction the music was going, we followed.
OTM: For lack of a better word, the music business can be quite terrifying. Look at the tens of thousands of people every year that try out for American Idol, or America’s got Talent, the Voice, X Factor – all those people think they have the talent to go to the next level, but they can’t, because unlike your band, they don’t “believe” they can actually do it, they just hope they can. Believing is the single biggest hurdle any band can overcome. Do you remember the moment all the band members went from thinking to believing you had something special, something real?
Listen, a band isn’t going to make it in this business if only one person believes they are good enough to go all the way. Everyone has to be convinced in what you are doing, or you might as well fold up your tent and go home. Believe me, we all put in the time and sacrificed quite a bit to get here. Everyone was dedicated to the cause from the start. We’re all passionate about the music. A very early example was our appearance at South by Southwest in 2009. We had just finished recording a lot of the songs that would be on our first album, Gorilla Manor. All of us had just moved in together and rehearsed our asses off. The payoff for all our hard work was the reception we received at South by Southwest. Coming back to L.A., we then took up a residency at this venue in our neighborhood. Every Monday, we would see the crowd grow. That will forever be our symbol of hope we can look back on from our early days.
OTM: Most musicians in this country never get beyond the local level, or leave their garage, because they can’t see the big picture. All they ever see are the problems and that keep them tied down. At what point did your band look beyond that to see the brass ring?
We have always been ambitious, don’t get me wrong, but we were somewhat taken by surprise on how much traveling we were able to do on our first record. It went beyond what we had hoped for. We always wanted to tour our asses off, and the fact we did as much of it as we did was quite amazing. Very early on we got this buzz going and it kept growing from there.
OTM: I always hear musicians say they gave up a lot to get to where they presently are. Honestly, I don’t believe that. The only thing you are sacrificing is time. There isn’t anything you leave behind you can’t pick up again. You are basically starting a business you believe in, and you are all employees working for the start-up. I think you should have a band disclaimer that reads, “No humans were harmed in the making of this project.” Do you understand where I am coming from?
You know, I can go back to several junctures in our lives to where we had to make a decision that was going to affect our futures. There are so many elements that go into the making of a band, pursuing it the way we did probably wouldn’t work for other groups.
OTM: As I was reading about the history of your band, it dawned on me that one day the band was looking at their reflections in the mirror and suddenly someone says, “Hey, let’s do things the opposite of what we’re doing and see what happens.” I say that because literally, that’s exactly what Local Natives did to get to where you’re at today.
There are a few storybook elements involved on how this band arrived to where we’re at today. Our manager, Phil Costello, who has been with us a long time, heard one of our songs on a local radio station. It was the first time any of our music had ever been broadcast on the airwaves. Unfortunately, that would also be the last time as well. A week later, Indie station 103 went out of business. Phil just happened to have the station on when our song came on and he tracked us down. It was serendipitous the way it happened. Like I said earlier, we learned early on to do everything ourselves if we wanted to move this band forward. We would get on music blogs and invite the person to listen to our music just so they would at least talk about it. We were already fans of what these people were writing about, so we figured they would like our music and reached out to them personally. A lot of times it worked.
OTM: Do you think there still needs to be an aura of mystery around a band, or has social networking displaced that notion you have to reach out and touch someone literally 24 / 7?
Within our band, we battle on just how much we want to be involved with the social media thing. It is obviously very important, but at the same time, there is a thing of being out there too much. I think there is a real danger of over exposure. Today, music journalism has sunk to who is fighting so and so today just to attract attention to themselves. It’s all bullshit. We really like talking to our fans and social media is the perfect way to do that. For instance, when we were at sound check today, someone posted outside of the venue on Instagram they had driven five hours to see us play. They were outside the theater, waiting for the show, because they didn’t know where else to go. So we walked outside, said hello to them, and hung out for a bit. That kind of stuff is great, meeting genuine fans like that.
OTM: It is small unselfish gestures like what you guys did for those people that drove hours to see you in concert that makes fans for life.
The human connection, besides the musical one, is just as important as anything you can post on the Internet. That’s the real deal.
OTM: You’re in the luck business just as much as you’re in the music business. The two inexplicably go hand-in-hand.
Looking at our situation, this band was extremely fortunate. At the same time, however, I don’t know a band that has worked harder than we have to earn that luck you’re talking about. What’s the cliché, “fortune favors the prepared?” Not to toot our own horn, but we earned everything that happened to us. Nowadays, there are so many bands that blow up overnight, they never really had the time to figure things out before they were thrust into the spotlight. Every step of the way, this band worked hard to achieve success at one level so we could move forward to the next one.
OTM: Local Natives releases their first album. The band members have the finished product in their hands. What next?
We recorded our first album before we ever had a label. At first we were going to release it ourselves, but after our appearance at South by Southwest and some touring, we got label interest. Before that, the initial plan was to just tour after our appearance in Austin and get ourselves in front of as many people as we could. There were obviously some other plans involved, but that was the general consensus after we recorded Gorilla Manor. We just wanted to tour for as long, and in as many places that would have us. For basically two years, that’s exactly what the band did. Obviously that kind of grind made it that much harder to write our second record.
OTM: Were you all able to support yourselves strictly from touring, or did you all hold down other jobs until you got to the point that music could support the band members?
Believe it or not, we were able to support ourselves from touring on the road. All of us were living in a tiny house at the time. The landlord didn’t know there was that many people living there, and I’m sure we would have been in trouble had they found out. I don’t want to give you the impression we were eating fine food every day. The thing is all of us were eating one dollar burritos on tour, going home to get food from the folks, etc. When I tell you this band kept our living expenses down to a bare minimum, believe me, we did!
OTM: There is no diet plan when you first start out as a band. You grab anything you can to sustain yourself.
OTM: With the band living on the edge like you were, how could you afford to travel to London and meet with the label that was interested in you after your South by Southwest appearance?
We signed with Infectious Records out of London before we had any deal in America. They flew us over and we did a few gigs there. As a band, there was no money to be made, but the label helped us out and somehow we made it work.
OTM: Perhaps a solo artist, like a well-known guitarist or singer, can hop on over to Europe and make it work, but for an unknown band to jet off overseas on literally a wing and a prayer, that’s unheard of.
We had some friends over there, so we slept on their floors, which was nice. We did our first tour overseas on the cheap. The band would stay in these hostels and I have vivid memories of that experience. These places are like dormitory rooms and you rent out bunk beds. It wasn’t unusual for the six of us to be in a room with like a random French girl and other people. Our manager, Phil, went with us and stayed in them as well with us. It was pretty funny to see our 55-year old manager doing the same thing we were. When I think back upon the overall experience, it was a pretty awesome first European tour.
OTM: I alluded to this earlier. You don’t need a record company anymore. What did the English record company offer Local Natives you didn’t want to turn down?
Listen, we had no idea what was going on in Europe. To us, it was an exotic locale and we thought it would be neat to have our record released overseas first. This was a very small label with like two other bands on it. To this very day, it’s still the same way. They were very passionate about our music, and they had a plan for us. Who knows what would have happened had we said no. Looking back, I think it was important that we did say yes. You have to remember that when this occurred, we didn’t have any money or any concrete plans. Signing with Infectious really helped the band out. The momentum they provided actually paved the way for the U.S. getting on board. What we accomplished overseas spilled over onto these shores.
OTM: One of the casualties of the tech revolution that swept through the music business was art itself. You can’t download an album cover, you can’t download liner notes and you can’t download the actual handling of an album itself. You were responsible for the graphic arts of your records, how has this affected you?
It’s a shame really, that everything you just noted has come to pass. Now you have to come up with other ways to express yourself so that fans can actually experience what you do as a band. We still design all our t-shirts and posters. We also design and maintain our web site. People are still buying vinyl, which is great, so we make our albums available that way. We have people come to our shows asking us to sign their limited edition records. There are elements of the past that are alive and well. We’ve learned to roll with the punches, and throw a few ourselves. Basically, in the music business, you either adapt to change or you die.