Local Natives Keep the Beat, Back With More Music

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.

Fun, huh?
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.

BlackBook Tracks #28: I Resolve To Come Up With Better Titles For These

Local Natives – “Heavy Feet”

After getting back in the game with “Breakers,” the LA band has released “Heavy Feet.” It’s an understatedly lovely cut from their forthcoming second album Hummingbird.

AlunaGeorge – “Diver”

In “people who are doing pop music their own way” news, AlunaGeorge are still on track to be this year’s darlings. “Diver” piles glitchy layers and crystalline vocals over a bass-heavy foundation.

Vampire Weekend – “Unbelievers”

The press cycle for Vampire Weekend’s third album is just beginning, so enjoy it before it turns into people getting angry about sweaters for no reason. Here’s the only song the band has publicly unveiled so far, hopefully with more to come soon.

Miles Kane – “Give Up”

British rocker Miles Kane knows how to pack a punch, and he nails it on the short and snarling “Give Up.” As a bonus, this song appears to center around the same basic principle as the classic 30 Rock episode “The Bubble.”

Free Energy – “Girls Want Rock”

It’s usually a bad idea to make assumptions about half of the earth’s population, but I’m pretty sure girls actually do want rock, so Philadelphia’s Free Energy are in the clear.

Total Warr – “Where Is My Mind”

For the forthcoming Loisy EP, this electro-pop duo has remade the Pixies classic with a French accent.

HAIM – “Don’t Save Me”

The LA band just won the BBC Sound of 2013 poll, so get ready to hear more of them if you haven’t already. Guitar pop’s new golden girls are set to make 2013 their year.

NZCA/Lines – “Airlock”

Electro/R&B crooner Michael Lovett opens this track with the line, “Baby, you look so cold.” I’m going to pretend he’s singing about me when I trudge down 14th Street wearing a neon green puffer coat and a displeased expression.

Peter Bjorn and John – “Eyes”

I’m going to keep reminding myself that there are places where it’s even colder, like Sweden.

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Indie-Rock Quintet Milo Greene Harmonizes Across America

California indie-folk fivesome Milo Greene—consisting of Robbie Arnett, Graham Fink, Andrew Heringer, Marlena Sheetz, and Curtis Marrero—have had a banner year. Well, year-and-a-half, actually, as it was March 2011 that they officially emerged as a united front, after having each been part of other outfits. Since then, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing—audibly anyway. They’ve had a few hiccups, as you’ll learn a bit about below, but, as a professional collective, both commercially and critically, the quintet has situated itself quite nicely in the likeable limelight.

From Carson Daly to Conan, Letterman to who knows what’s next, Milo Greene has been repping themselves successfully on late-night TV, as well as at venues, where they’ve been consistently selling out, across North America. One song in particular, “1957,” has given them much mileage, as this catchy single at once tugs at the heartstrings and demands we dance. (I’m willing to bet you’ll play the addictive-meets-emotive anthem at least twice over before moving onto the next number on their 13-track debut, Milo Greene, which dropped mid-July on Chop Shop/Atlantic.)

As for the band breakdown, Arnett, Fink, Heringer, and Sheetz share lead and backing vocal responsibilities, reeling us in with melodious harmonies, and swap instruments ad nauseam during live appearances. Marrero foregoes the madness, manning percussion while the others expertly negotiate who will play what when.

For firsthand experience, tune in tomorrow evening at Housing Works’ Bookstore Café on Crosby. The West Coast act will be co-headlining a benefit concert alongside Texas-based singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson. Or, if Wednesday’s no good for you, consider catching their set the next night at Bowery Ballroom.

In the meantime, get to know these guys (and girl). While in New York for a one-off private performance at the end of August, I had the pleasure of connecting face-to-face with Fink the afternoon following the promo show. Over Coca-Cola and vegan chocolate-chip cookies from City Bakery, we talked all about the group’s meteoric rise, Fink’s relationship with fellow Cali talents Local Natives, and a near death experience that in hindsight proves more hysterically funny than anything else. Read on for a few laughs, including an entertaining back-story surrounding the faux—but impressive—persona that is their namesake.

First of all, how did this ensemble cast of bandmates come together?
We were all in different bands, but were getting to know each other [and writing music together]. Long story short, we found each other, and, after a few songs were written, we realized this band was special. We all quit the bands we were in, and here we are adventuring. We played our first show last March [2011]. That’s when we announced ourselves to the world, if you will. It’s been a pretty insane year-and-a-half.

What’s it been like, since things took off?
It’s been crazy. We did a tour with The Civil Wars, which was huge for us, because it gave us a fanbase throughout America. Their fans are amazing. And, our album’s out, which is really exciting. It seems like the response to this band has been overwhelmingly positive from the beginning, and that’s a nice feeling. We’ve all been [playing music] a long time and now we’re touring on our own and filling rooms in Madison, Wisconsin. Places we’ve never played are full. That’s what you hope for. It’s still a really tickling feeling.

Madison, huh?
That was the one place that stood out because we had never played there or even been there. We were like, “This is going to be weird.” We got there and it was sold out. Madison was awesome.

Experiencing a live set, there’s a lot of shifting instruments.
The four of us are guitarists first and foremost. When we started this band, we all had to adapt and play other things. We move around like crazy people. When we were getting the songs ready to play live, we jumped around and, when something felt right, we stayed there. We’re all on different stuff throughout the set.

But you’re all vocalists.
All four of us were lead singers in past projects. We knew we wanted to be harmony-based and vocal-based.

I have to admit, when I first listened to you, I heard Local Natives.
We get that a good amount. There’s harmonies. It’s pretty vibe-y. I think it’s a normal comparison. We have similar influences; Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Maybe it’s a product of California music-making. Funny thing is, those guys are actually good friends of mine. I’ve known [them] since we were teenagers. Before they became Local Natives, they had a different band. My old band and [their old band] would tour together. We played, like, roller rinks throughout California.

Small world! Roller rinks?! Dude.
The roller rink really takes the cake. There was a guy named Bruce, with a handlebar mustache, who ran the concerts at [one] roller rink. There were probably 25 people there. They set up this immense stage in the middle. I think people could still [skate] around [the stage] while the show was happening.

That’s a riot. I can just picture it. On the topic of Cali: L.A. versus New York? Go.
I’m biased because I’m born and raised in L.A. It’s not just L.A. It’s home. Family, friends, childhood, life. Everything. I love living in L.A. and visiting New York.

I’m just the opposite. Back to funny stories, anything Milo Greene, rather than roller rink, related?
We almost drove off a cliff in the Grand Canyon once. This bug flew into the van. It was, like, a winged prehistoric creature. It looked like a dinosaur-turned-fly. It flew onto Marlena’s hat. She was sitting right behind Curtis, who was driving the van and trailer and all of us. I’m sitting next to her and I watch what she’s about to do. I see her thought process. She thinks to shake it out the window. But, by shaking it out the window, she’s reaching over the driver’s head, who, you will find out, is deathly afraid of insects. She shakes it off over his head and it flies directly into his face. We’re going around canyons and this entire van and trailer is swerving back and forth. I think for sure it’s going to be the end of the entire band. Like a Billy Madison moment.

“O’Doyle rules!”
[Laughs] Luckily, we survived that.

Indeed. So, do you fight over what to listen to while driving?
Driver picks.

What do you pick when you’re driving?
I usually get Robbie to deejay for me and play, like, nineties hip-hop. He’s good at assembling nineties R&B and hip-hop. TLC, Eazy-E, Ice Cube. If I have my druthers, he’s pulling that up for me.

Amazing. Love the classic jams.So, this is a little tangential, but what did you study in college and does it apply anymore?
I studied psychology, and you bet your ass I use that on a daily basis being in a band with these bozos. It’s helpful to have that background because [of] interpersonal conflict and the stresses of being in close proximity all the time. I tend to be a moderator, a source of positive energy and sanity, when I can. I’m not perfect, but I try to be a calming force in the band.

Who’s the whip-cracker?
That would also be me. I’m the funny man, and I tend to, when we don’t have a tour manager, take over most of the tour manager duties by default. If anybody has to crack the whip, it’s usually me.

Lastly, why the name Milo Greene?
When everybody was in different bands, Robbie and Andrew didn’t have access to a real publicist, booking agent, or manager. [They had] an idea to [fabricate] a publicist to seem more professional. They invented him in, like, ’06. They made up an email account and a MySpace for a man named Milo Greene who would reach out to clubs and promoters to book shows for their separate bands. Then, when we started writing together, it made sense to pay tribute.

Was everyone down with it?
It was never really a conversation. It was just the name for the project from day one.

What would Milo Greene be like if he were real?
He actually has an identity. He’s British. He wears a three-piece-suit. He wears a monocle. He’s albino. He has chops, sideburns. Every time we do an interview, he gains attributes. When Robbie would originally make calls to booking agents and stuff like that, he would put on a British accent. It started British and it’s kind of evolved over time. But, he’s confident, charming, well read, well spoken. He’s a gentlemen, the kind of guy we all aspire to be. Other than Marlena.

Perhaps that’s whom she aspires to be with!
Touché! And Milo Greene’s partner is Johnny Lauderdale. He’s from Florida. He’s a very different persona. I can’t do it justice, but Robbie puts on this voice. [Proceeds to imitate.] That sounds more New York than Florida. You get the idea.

Photo by L Gray

BlackBook Tracks #18: Ten Acts To Catch At CMJ 2012

It’s that time of year, when the music industry flocks to New York City for the CMJ Music Marathon. (It’s definitely not a sprint.) If you’re in town for the week, here’s a selection of acts to check out. Pace yourself.

Slam Donahue – “I Turn On”

A couple of Brooklyn everydudes put honest, relatable lyrics in weird pop contexts. It’ll make you feel better.

Avan Lava – “It’s Never Over”

These masters of futuristic funk put on an unforgettable show. Everything’s better with confetti cannons.
 

Le1f – “Yup”

Still going strong from the success of “Wut” this summer, the New York rapper has been continuing his upward trajectory on a tour with Das Racist and is set to play a number of high profile showcases this week, including MTV Hive’s and Pitchfork’s events. This song contains the line “The fabric of my life is a sexy fucking textile.”

Team Spirit – “Teenage Love” 

Team Spirit, led by former Passion Pit keyboardist-turned-garage rocker Ayad Al Adhamy, just signed to Vice Records–in blood. (They’re otherwise not particularly comparable to Joy Division, though.)
 

Skaters – “Fear Of The Knife” 

Skaters’ debut EP Schemers serves up some damn fine lo-fi rock. “Fear Of The Knife” suggests something bigger and brighter, a beach day song that still sounds good in the off season.

Osekre and the Lucky Bastards – “Why Are You Here?” 

With an energetic live show, the Afropop outfit has become a fixture on the Brooklyn scene. New single “Why Are You Here?” is catchy and immediately memorable.
 

We Were Evergreen – “Baby Blue” 

This London-via-Paris trio effortlessly charms with plenty of hooks and sweet harmonies. Indie pop doesn’t get much better than this.

Yan Wagner – “Forty Eight Hours”

This Parisian singer/producer punches up new wave influences to make sharp, resonant electro pop delivered with wit and wisdom.
 

Gold Fields – “Moves”

The rising Australian band makes driving electro-rock that’s set to take them far. The frenetic “Moves” showcases their sound.
 

Local Natives – “Sun Hands”

You loved this in 2010 and you still love it now, right? The LA indie rockers are back, and hopefully better than ever.

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