Bands as sturdy as L.A.’s Local Natives don’t come around too often, and neither do debut albums as fully-realized as 2009’s Gorilla Manor. In our “Best New Music” era, where music listeners are constantly bombarded every five minutes with the “next big thing,” here was an indie-rock band that screamed longevity straight out of the gate, with three multi-instrumentalist songwriters (Kelcey Ayer, Taylor Rice, Ryan Hahn) and a tastefully dextrous drummer (Matt Frazier), all of whom wrote and played with a grace and subtlety of a band two decades into their career. In our flashy digital age, Gorilla Manor sounded like a thrillingly organic relic from another time: choral harmonies, artful arrangements, lyrics that felt lived-in and wise.
But even if their music sounded assured beyond its years, this was still a young band—one faced with that cliched dread of the sophomore slump. In the face of the obvious critical and commercial pressure, they could have taken the early Beatles approach, quickly cranking out another album to build on their blossoming momentum. Instead, they followed their instincts and took the high road.
“Any sort of pressure that we felt would be self-imposed,” says Kelcey Ayer. “In the end, we all would just love to do this for the rest of our lives and have a career like so many bands we look up to, so I think we all knew what it would mean to have a great second record or a shit second record and what that would mean for us going forward. We wanted to write something we were proud of, and we weren’t that concerned how people would react. It was less about what people want to hear and more about us trying to evolve. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. I think we all really look up to artists who move in one direction or another between albums. So that’s definitely something we set out to do, but we didn’t want to put something out there before it was ready, so we wanted to take all the time we needed to do it right.”
And time they took: After touring the America and Europe (opening for high-profile acts like The National and Arcade Fire), the band retreated to an abandoned bungalow rehearsal space in Silver Lake, where they immersed themselves in sonic experimentation, testing out the various effects and juxtapositions that would define their forthcoming album. After initially tracking in Montreal, they enlisted the assistance of National guitarist-producer Aaron Dessner, who invited the band to his Brooklyn home, where they lived while tracking in his convenient studio-garage. The result is Hummingbird, their more varied, visceral, and vulnerable sophomore album.
“There were a number of other songs that didn’t make it on the record that were pretty cool,” Ayer says, “but if it didn’t have the fingerprint of each member, it wasn’t going to feel like a band song. But with that in mind, we always try to collaborate as soon as possible on an idea so that it can grow with two people and bring another person in and finish it with the four of us. It can happen in a number of ways—Ryan and Taylor and I write, in any incarnation of us, and Matt on drums will always try to see where it goes. It’s a bit of an argument process—it just takes us a long time to work on stuff and get on the same page because everyone’s so opinionated. And everyone’s involved—it’s not just one main songwriter writing everything. That can lead us to be frustrated sometimes, but I think everyone in the band is so focused on when the four of us can create something we all like and we all want, but it’s just hard to get there.”
Dessner’s presence on production was undeniable. Tracks like the jagged, tense rocker “Breakers” seem to draw influence from their mentor’s own band—but his influence was more vital as a sounding board, another opinionated voice to help resolve disputes and focus the sprawl of three songwriters and their grand musical ambitions.
“Most of all, we did look up to his opinion a lot,” Ayer says, “but what was cool about Aaron is that he could provide perspective outside of where our heads were at. We’d been writing songs for a year before he came into the mix, so it was cool for him to have one foot in on the creative process and help us sort things out, and one foot outside of it. He would just always say, ‘Don’t over-think.’ And we tend to do that, but he helped us step outside of that: ‘Don’t worry about that part; don’t worry about that line.’ It was nice to have that kind of help.”
“It was kind of daunting to think of working with someone else in a creative capacity,” Ayer continues. “We’ve never done that before—it’s always been us writing music. We tried out a couple producers, and nothing felt right. But with Aaron, it happened really organically. We went on tour with him and kind of got to know him a little bit, and we realized that he writes a lot of The National stuff and does production work, and the thought of him helping out became more appealing because not only is he a producer but he’s also a songwriter and knows what it’s like to be in a band. He knew when to push and when to step back.
“He kind of just melded, or kind of integrated himself into the process to the point where I think our idea of what is going to be good for the album and songs kind of lined up—when he came into the mix, we’d already been consciously trying to do things more purposefully. I think you’ll notice there are not as many harmonies on the record, and I think that was a conscious choice of, ‘Does this need a harmony? Does this part need extra drums? What does it need?’ Getting it to the essentials. And when he came in, he really reinforced that even further. I remember especially with ‘Three Months,’ he got really excited, like, ‘No guitars! Don’t put any in there!’ We did end up putting some in there, but the idea of making it more sparse was something we wanted to do, but he ended up helping us.”
Among the album’s many highlights (the spacey, slow-building “Ceilings,” heartbreaking piano ballad “Columbia”), “Three Months” represents everything Local Natives do well: raw emotion, breathtaking vocals, and tasteful playing. But it’s also a song they wouldn’t have been brave enough to write three years ago. Both musically (its sparse piano arrangement and sampled drums) and lyrically (Ayer’s reflections on his mother’s recent death), it’s a step into the unknown.
“I had that piano chord progression for a long time,” Ayer sighs. “And when my mother passed away in 2011…it’s called ‘Three Months’ because I wrote the lyrics three months after her passing, so that’s the perspective of the words and how I was feeling dealing with it. It was really strange, like I felt like I should have been sadder or more emotional. It’s one of those things I think that sets in at different times—I know that now; it’s almost been a year and a half. So that’s what that song’s about.”
“Sometimes I find that I have trouble getting the right words to come out,” Ayer continues, “and finding topics that I can write about that don’t feel forced and feel genuine. And since everything that I write is my own thoughts and experiences and feelings, I don’t know how I could have not written about that since it’s so personal to me and earth-shattering. I would feel wrong doing anything else. But it was also a tough topic because the band is so collaborative and we’re always helping each other on things—not only the music but the lyrics. So when it came to that, it was really difficult because it’s so personal because it’s hard for them to get in on it. But they knew her pretty well too because we’re all really close.”
“We’re all so close as friends—I don’t even know what you’d call the relationship that I have the other guys, if you’d call it a friend or a co-worker or a brother. It’s really strange. But I think that really helped with those songs—as personal as they are to me, bringing them to the group.”
That intense, inseparable chemistry is makes Local Natives tick. This is a band designed for the long haul, growing and maturing as human beings through their music.
“During the process,” Ayer says, “I started to realize that when you write songs, especially with other people, the end product is not going to be better or worse but just different. So I just had to get used to that idea. These songs took on a life of their own. They become something that you didn’t intend for them to become, but you kind of have to roll with it, you know? I think that’s kind of what we did—working hard to get that to happen.
“There are amazing artists out there that can do it and create something beautiful down to them and a couple people helping them out, but I really don’t believe any of us could come up with something as good as what we do together. We all kind of rely on each other.”