L.A.-based indie band Local Natives returned to record stores two Tuesdays ago with a follow-up to their wildly successful 2009 debut, Gorilla Manor. Their sophomore effort Hummingbird in several respects proves an audible departure from the previous release, with songs that are a tad darker and, at first listen, not as easily distinguishable from one another as their predecessors.
With that said, the music is pristine, the harmonies heavenly, the songs elegantly and eloquently delivered, and at every play they become more and more their own—tracks I can sing and often dance (or at least sway) along to. Hear: the pulsating “Black Balloons,” the melancholy yet twinkling “Bowery,” the head nodding “Ceilings,” and the raucous hand-clapper “Heavy Feet,” among others. Bottom line: it’s deliberate and seriously blemish-less.
The foursome, who pared down from five in March 2011 when bassist Andy Hamm agreed to take another tack, has been playing pretty aggressively the past couple weeks with three sold-out shows in New York and many more engagements to come in the year ahead. As Ryan Hahn (guitar, keyboards, mandolin, vocals) said during our interview, they’re basically booked ’til Christmas.
I was sorry not to catch the crew before the album dropped or at least in advance of their NYC dates, but they’ve been busy and hard to get a hold of. At long last, Hahn and I settled in for a chat while he and his fellow Natives (Taylor Rice, Kelcey Ayer, and Matt Frazier) drove back to Manhattan after a performance for Philly’s WXPN.
Hahn was sweet as can be, approachable and accessible. We talked touring, New York’s drastic temps, their meteoric rise from roller rink gigs, living together, and how they arrived at the bird-inspired title.
I’m really enjoying getting to know the new album. It’s growing on me every day. As for the aesthetic shift, what inspired that?
It happened in a really natural way for us. We knew we wanted to do something different, but weren’t exactly sure what that meant. It was just a bunch of experimenting, trying new instruments, writing songs. Slowly we started seeing a pattern and everything started to come together. We just didn’t want to repeat ourselves. I think that’s cool you say it’s growing on you every day. A lot of the records we love are records that take time and each time you listen to them you find something new.
For sure. How’s tour so far?
It’s been great. We love touring. A lot of bands have a hard time with it and we really enjoy it. We did it for so long [for] the first record. Now we’re ready to get back out there. We’re basically scheduled for the rest of the year, until, like, Christmas.
Damn. So, what’s life been like since the disc dropped?
It’s been a crazier [time] than we’ve ever experienced. We did three shows in New York, three shows in L.A. We’ve been playing every day and, when we’re not playing, we’re traveling. It’s been nonstop. Playing Amoeba [Music] in Los Angeles was probably my favorite show. We were looking forward to it for a really long time. It exceeded everyone’s expectations.
What’s the greatest challenge of being on the road so much?
Staying warm. We’re from California, so everywhere else in the world right now is damn cold. It can be exhausting. [We toured] a lot before we found success with the first record. We really tried to get out there and honed our craft and got used to being a touring band. So, we’ve had a lot of practice. I think we’re more equipped to handle this rigorous schedule.
When I interviewed the band Milo Greene last year, I told Graham Fink that their music reminded me of yours. He then shared a hilarious story about touring with you guys and playing in roller rinks.
Oh, yeah. Totally. He used to play in this band called The Outline. Both our bands were in high school. We tried to book a tour. It was our first attempt. We borrowed Kelcey’s dad’s van. I think our first show was at a roller rink. There were, like, three people there and they were all probably in the opening band. We laugh about it now, but that’s how a lot of the early tours worked. It’s crazy.
Going back to cold temps, when exactly were you in Brooklyn living at Aaron Dessner’s (of The National, with whom they worked on Hummingbird) studio?
I guess that would have been May, June and the early part of July.
So you endured the nasty summer months in New York.
Yeah, it was really intense, but I definitely prefer it to the nasty winter. It was cool because we lived in his house, so we could just walk around that neighborhood, go to the park. It was so different from being at home, but really cool to be able to experience New York for more than a few days.
I bet. So you guys all lived together for three months. You’re not used to living together lately, I presume.
Well, we used to. It’s pretty hilarious to think about now, but for a while we lived together when we were writing Gorilla Manor. That was our first attempt to be a band full time, so we lived together. We were obviously with each other every day on tour. But, when we got back, we got our own places, moved out and gave each other the necessary space. Then we wanted to get out of L.A. to record the album, to get away from distractions and focus. We all lived in a house together again in Montreal. And then again at Aaron’s. It was a lot of fun.
I mean, it’s obviously not all good times. We definitely fight like brothers. When you’re working on something that everyone’s so passionate about and everyone’s so opinionated on and you’re as collaborative as we are, it definitely can get really tense in those moments where you wish you could step back for a moment. But, yeah, it was really enjoyable. I’m glad we did it the way we did. It [took] us back to our first record when we were all all in and all completely focused on it.
Apart from the weather, how would you compare New York to L.A.?
It’s hard to put a finger on it. It’s funny, though, because we were like, We’re going to get away from all these distractions. Next thing you know, in New York there’s always something going on and we ended up knowing just as many people out here. There’s always something happening. But we did end up missing L.A. Going back home felt really, really good. We all really love living in L.A.
Switching gears, you called the album Hummingbird, after a lyric in the heartfelt and luminous song “Colombia.” Was that arrived at easily, as an homage to Kelcey and his late mother, or what was the impetus for that title, which doesn’t derive from the title of a track, but instead is hidden within?
I’m sure we talked about it forever and probably fought about it and hashed it out. That song’s very important to us, obviously. Very personal. In a lot of ways it seems to kind of encompass the whole record. The album is so much more expanded. There’s more bombastic moments than the first time around. A lot more aggressive, energetic moments. And then, on the other hand, there’s [this] more spare set of intimate moments that are quieter than the first record. In a lot of ways we felt like hummingbirds represented this dichotomy. This fragile little creature beating its wings, like, 1,000 times per second and always on the move. It just felt like it fit [for] this album. It’s symbolic of everything we’ve been going through.
Do you listen to your own music?
I really don’t. I haven’t heard Gorilla Manor in years. Once we finished working on this album, I put it down for a few months. I wanted to step away. I don’t have any perspective on it, to a certain degree. We’d been working on it for so long. With this album we didn’t really write it with the live show in mind. It’s been nice playing [the songs] live, because they take on a whole new life. I’ve been able to appreciate the record more and more and I’m really proud.
Who do you like listening to?
A lot of Bowie. Probably too much. And [I’ve] been really enjoying Leonard Cohen. Neil Young. A lot of New Order lately. Our sound guy, Jeff, got me into a lot of dub and reggae music. He’s been sending me albums and I’ve been devouring [them]. I’m really enjoying discovering new music.
You once told me the music video for “Wide Eyes” was "…a play on [your] ridiculous fear of sharks.” What inspired the music video for “Breakers”?
The truth is, we had another video in the works that fell through and it was like, Well, okay, we’re either not going to have a video or we’re going to go crazy in the next few days and do it ourselves. So, in typical fashion, we took it upon ourselves to do a video, something we’d never done ourselves before. That song in particular is about the conversations you have with yourself, almost trying to talk yourself through something. I have a close friend who this song was inspired by, and they deal with anxiety a lot. Just trying to look at it through their eyes and their mind, how they deal with talking themselves through situations in their life.
Interesting. It turned out well. Also the last time we talked, Kelcey said to me, “This band has always been about longevity.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
It comes down to all these decisions we have to make. We really like to be hands-on with everything, making sure we’re earning every step and looking at the longer-term picture. It comes up time and time again: what kind of music do we want to make? We want to be truthful and honest with ourselves and put stuff out that we’re proud of. We want to keep challenging ourselves and not fall back on what people expect of us. If we can keep pushing ourselves, that’s our goal. We want to be a band that’s evolving.
You were playing together for a while before you shot to the top. Can you comment on your success trajectory?
For us, everything has been so gradual. We try to earn every step. We’ve been together since we were in high school. We’ve been working on this for so long. We’ve had our heads down, just working at it. Other people’s perception is going to be what it’s going to be, but we’re going to keep working hard and keep having a good time.