Among the wealth of rock ‘n’ roll’s storied half-truths and mysticisms is a tenet it shares with the real estate business: Location, location, location. Much of the genre’s illustrious (and infamous) history is aligned with specific geographic venues, with each region contributing its own elements to perhaps the most complex musical narrative ever contrived. Sure, push-pinning these sites on a map helps to understand this narrative, but in the current post-chillwave, buzz blog-heavy environment, is it still fruitful? Are trends and traits still confined to zip codes, or are we seeing the birth of the internet as a virtual hall of influence that transcends geographic confinement?
New Orleans trio Native America is something of an anomaly in this context, providing strong evidence for both conceits. Stylistically, the music of Ross Farbe, John St. Cyr and Ray Micarelli owes much to the scuzzy garage rock typically associated with Memphis, as well as the sun-soaked pop melodies of Southern California. Obviously, New Orleans has carved its own legendary niche in the annals of rock history. But where Native America embody the musical heritage of their home city is instead in its ethos, which rests on a strong inclination towards live performance.
“You have to go and play a good show here,” vocalist and guitarist Farbe tells me over the phone from the band’s practice space. “It’s all about making people dance.”
And striving to make people dance, Farbe admits, is second nature to Native America. The band has cut its teeth on the road the past few years, earning their stripes through an active touring schedule. Farbe talks about how it’s informed the band’s chemistry both on and off stage, but shrugs off the notion that it’s part of an effort to relive the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I never thought of it that way, doing it the ‘old-fashioned way.’ I just always thought that’s what we had to do. That just seems like the most logical thing to us to just get out and tour a bunch. It’s been a very good thing, just being busy,” Farbe says. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
Native America in its current form is a well-oiled machine of a three-piece, meshing tight, compact grooves with off-kilter melodic runs from Farbe and bassist St. Cyr. But the band wasn’t always a dynamic entity; it began as a solo recording project of Farbe. After enlisting the help of both St. Cyr and drummer Micarelli, Farbe realized he had a whole different animal on his hands. A series of recordings posted to Native America’s Bandcamp page caught the attention of Inflated Records and the band inked a deal to craft Grown Up Wrong, its first full-length to receive a proper physical release.
This landed the band in a real studio for the first time together. Farbe explains that most of the record was tracked live with all three players in the same room. This tactic was employed to reflect not only the band’s cultivated chemistry, but its identity as a live-minded band.
“It works for this record really well in my mind. In this band, the way it is right now, it is very centered around John, Ray and I playing live together,” Farbe says.
“But I definitely love the other way too. It started as a bedroom recording project where I was just layering all kinds of weird stuff. And then as it became a band, the recordings became more and more live, like three people playing together.”
At its heart, Grown Up Wrong is a fantastic pop record. On tracks like “Dance With Me” and “Old Friends,” Farbe’s bubbly melodies drive equally jagged and jangly chords. “Like A Dream” recalls The Kinks at their most contentious while “Caroline” finds Farbe and company taking a shot at the subtle, brooding pop of Brian Wilson in his studio prime. It’s a record steeped in reverence, but not one absent of subversion.
On Grown Up Wrong, Native America prove to be masters of pop disruption. Sure, the album boasts its fair share of sugar-sweet hooks, but its refusal to lay its hat on these hooks is where it succeeds. With one blues lick or groove shift, the band clouds a saccharine melody with a sordid, seedy tinge. Farbe’s melodic sensibilities may be honorable, but that doesn’t mean his band’s intentions are.
If Grown Up Wrong is a vehicle for pop subversion, then St. Cyr is in the driver’s seat. His fuzz-drenched, frenzied bass runs defy convention, creating a welcome sense of unease that pervades the album’s 11 tracks.
“We always talk about John as more of a giant guitar player than a bass player. He doesn’t always do the conventional bass playing, he definitely does some weird stuff,” Farbe says.
“It’s kind of out of necessity in a way because when there’s only three of us to keep things interesting, that’s just what we’ve leaned on—not really leaned on, but gone to first. All three of us have to be doing something that we really like and is interesting to us to make it stay up live in front of people.”
Talking to Farbe, it seems everything comes back to playing live. It’s as if he views his band’s records as supplemental material, optional reading that informs rather than dictates the live show. It makes sense that a band from New Orleans would go this route, tapping in to the most primal, unadulterated aspect of rock ‘n’ roll, the live performance.
“It definitely is nice to play shows where people dance and have fun,” Farbe says. “If we didn’t ever get that kind of response, it would feel weird making these recordings.”
It’s raw, immediate and a whole hell of a lot of fun. And if people keep dancing, hopefully there’s a lot more where it came from.