Local Natives, Always the Underdogs

LA-based Local Natives return to San Diego to put on a show you'll remember

“Oh, no! How am I supposed to answer that?" Local Natives' lead singer/guitarist Taylor Rice cries out, struggling for the right words. The instantly personable and soft-spoken frontman is trying to find the most diplomatic way to answer the burning question: Which is better -- San Diego Mexican food or Los Angeles Mexican food?
Rice eventually goes with his gut -- and with an answer epitomizing the entire spirit of his band: "My grandparents always lived in San Diego while I was growing up. I spent a lot of my childhood in San Diego, and I have a bunch of siblings who went to UCSD. So I do have a sense of the food down there -- but I’m going with my hometown of Los Angeles."
It's quite OK (although he’s wrong). I doubt we’ll see San Diegans burning effigies of Rice and his musical cohorts at their Sleep Train Amphitheatre show (opening for Kings of Leon) on Sunday for semi-dissing our local taco shops – mainly because this is exactly how Local Natives operate: They're an LA band through and through. and it’s something they hang their collective hat on.
The quintet got together and rented a house (nicknamed Gorilla Manor, which fittingly became the title of their debut) in the LA suburb of Silverlake in 2009 and spent months crafting their first album. It became a huge hit and an indie-rock staple. Their charming, sepia-toned beach pop couldn’t have been more perfect for the musical landscape at the time. They eschewed the dark disillusionment of Arcade Fire, the complex cacophony of Grizzly Bear and the beautiful folk harmonies of Fleet Foxes for lighter, emotionally uplifting commentary on friendship and love. It sounded like a group of musically talented friends who got together and wrote music they could sing along to, and it was the perfect record for the summer nights that followed its release.
After playing more shows in support of that album than most bands play in their entire careers, the guys returned to their hometown (where they still live and rehearse) and -- spreading out over the LA boroughs of Los Feliz, Mt. Washington and Echo Park -- started working on their follow-up. They released their sophomore full-length, Hummingbird, in January 2013, and it was immediately pegged as a morose departure.
Fans expecting the beautiful airiness of Local Natives' debut instead got deep, serious ruminations on death and loss. The memorable, hook-heavy melodies and earnest, heart-on-your-sleeve vocals were still there, but they were darker this time around. A sense of subdued sadness surrounds the album, shrouding it in a wintery melancholy. If Gorilla Manor was the sound of a glorious christening, Hummingbird is the sound of a wake.
Rice talked with us about being the hardest-working band in rock, writing albums for today’s hit-it-and-quit-it musical consumer, getting into trance music and being in love with his hometown.
Dustin Lothspeich: You guys have toured with some of the biggest names in rock music. Is that crazy or daunting at all?
Taylor Rice: All of our experiences touring with massive bands and playing huge concert halls and arenas have been really fun and exciting. I feel like you get those jitters out. Like the first time we played Coachella, that show flashed before my eyes after the first 20 seconds. By the time we were touring with Arcade Fire and the National -- and I expect with Kings of Leon – we know it’s not really our show. We just get to come out and impress. We just have to put everything we have out there for a crowd that is largely waiting for the next band. It’s a weird challenge. On one hand, it takes the pressure off because it’s not your own show, but it adds this pressure to win over this crowd where, unless you do something awesome, they just want the next band. We always like that underdog role. It’s kind of fun, actually.
DL: Songkick named you guys the hardest-working band in 2013, playing 188 shows last year. Is that just part of the business now, or do you guys just feel like you need to reach as many fans as you can across the world?
TR: I think it’s partly both. But I think it’s more that we just want to reach everyone all over the world. Besides music, travel is all of our second-favorite passion. We’re just a band that loves touring -- and loves the live experience. If there’s ever an opportunity -- like, "Hey, do you want to play Scandinavia?" or, "Hey, I know we had this break planned but we could go to Japan" -- we’ve just never been able to say no [laughs]. We’ve just never wanted to turn down an opportunity to play our music for people in another part of the world.
DL: Have you noticed a difference in the shows you play across the pond vs. playing in the States?
TR: Yeah, there is, but I’d say it’s even much more micromanaged, culturally speaking. There’s these little cultures all throughout Europe that are super different from one another, just like the States, where there’s a lot of little cultures that are all super different from each other. For example, the first time we played Paris, we’re playing our songs, and we’re thinking, "It’s not happening, they’re not into it," because it’s really, really silent while we’re playing, and then we finish the song, and they erupt in applause. You realize during all the quiet parts, they’re actually listening [laughs]. They’re the most pensive audience. They’re a little less enthusiastic, but they’re really attentive. The wildest crowd we’ve had though, has been Atlanta, Georgia. All three times we’ve played there, from start to finish was … I don’t even know what to relate it to. But they were incessantly going crazy throughout the shows.
DL: Speaking of Europe, I remember watching the La Blogotheque Take Away show you guys filmed in 2011 for your Gorilla Manor single "Who Knows Who Cares," [watch here] where y’all were walking through these stone streets, with people looking around like, "What’s happening right now?" That’s got to be such a vastly different type of performance than you're used to...
TR: That feels very different. You’re a lot more isolated and out of your element. That was the second time we worked with them. They’re incredible. They allow those beautiful, crazy moments to exist. We found that little grotto shopping area and thought, "Hey, let’s just freestyle it." We planned the whole thing in less than 10 minutes. It was such an awesome experience. You can see in the video that little girl singing the song and a little crowd of people at the end -- some of the shop owners were mad and calling the cops to get us out of there. That’s what it’s supposed to be about. Putting you on your heels.
DL: Last year’s album seemed to put some people on their heels. It’s a bit darker, way more serious. Gorilla Manor felt like you were lying in the sunshine with your friends. But Hummingbird feels like you’re walking through the rain after an intense argument with a lover. Do you hear the difference, too?
TR: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I think I’d have to be pretty unaware as an artist not to hear the difference. Especially as you lay it out like that – that’s probably the most drastic laying out I’ve heard of the difference between the albums, as so starkly contrasted. But you’re right. We write music from a personal place. We didn’t set out with the thought of, "This is the kind of album we’re gonna make!" There was no blueprint or grand architecture. We just feed of each other like a band does -- and whatever comes out, comes out. As you put it, both albums feel like they come from two pretty different places. On Gorilla Manor, we all decided to move in and do this -- like really go for our dream despite the fact that it’s a really crazy thing to do. And I think that album captures what that felt like. And the three years since that time have been really, really good ... mostly. Right around the end of the writing for Hummingbird, we went through some pretty difficult times as a band, and as people -- we lost a family member, and there was definitely some catharsis that we were working through. Now, we’re writing for our third record, and it feels like a third, totally different chapter.
DL: Do you feel like it’s harder to get people to just stop what they’re doing for an hour and really digest an album? Or do you think that technology makes it easier?
TR: It’s much harder. It’s just easier to bounce around. When we were kids, you didn’t have a playlist of 2,000 mp3s of all different artists that you could plug into your car. You know, you would get an album from Wherehouse Music and you would live with it. Culturally, there is a challenge of getting people to want to become engaged in an entire album, and that’s something we’re very much focused on. When we make an album, we want it to be this whole piece heard together.
DL: I think real fans connect with that, along with the personal nature of your lyrics. Do they come from a highly personal place? Would people be wrong in assuming when you sing lyrics like, "Patricia/Am I not giving enough?" [from Hummingbird's "Colombia"], that it’s from a relationship you were in?
TR: No, that is correct. I think every single song we have is autobiographical. I don’t think we have any fictions. We haven’t really done that with our writing. With "Colombia," that was a song that Kelcey [Ayer, singer/guitarist] wrote, and Patricia is the name of his mother, who right when we started writing, died from cancer. That was kind of huge for all of us to endure. We were best friends in high school, and we’ve been close for a really long time. All of us were going through that though for him.
DL: I’m really sorry to hear that. But it’s one of those things that affects all of us, and I’m sure the fans relate to that as well. I saw that you guys have offered up the stems [the original, individually recorded tracks for each song] for Hummingbird to your fans on your website [download them here]. What was the inspiration behind that?
TR: We did that for the year anniversary of Hummingbird. I think it’s just a really awesome thing to do. If there was an album that I loved and I could listen to all the stems, I’d be really excited. I feel like it’s offering up something to that group of people who are really interested in it. What comes from it is, you can download all the stems for free, and then you can submit a remix to that same website, and thus far, even though the stems have only been up for a month and a half, we’ve had over 300 remixes submitted to us. Which is really cool. I love having the opportunity to give people these little pieces and let them be creative with them, and have them make their own thing.  Some of the remixes are really awesome and really beautiful. It breathes a little bit of new life into the music for us too. So it’s a symbiotic relationship.
DL: Is it interesting to hear what kind of different directions you guys could take your music?
TR: Well, most of them don’t sound like Local Natives. I don’t know if we’re about to do a live, trance, dance beat version of "Columbia" any time soon [laughs]. Nonetheless, it is very interesting to listen to that song we just talked about -- which is so heavy and serious -- with a fun dance-beat vibe.
DL: So what’s next for you guys? Are y’all trying to be the hardest touring band in 2014, too?
TR: No, we really want to be the least touring band of 2014 [laughs]. But as you know, it’s too hard for us to say no if we get an offer to play a festival that sounds really fun. This will be a very light touring year in comparison to 2013, though. We’re just going to be working on new music and our next record. We’re in a really exciting place as a band, writing right now. So, actually, when we tour, we’re like "Aw ... we have to stop writing full time!?" But then we get to play an arena show with Kings of Leon, so that’s cool, too [laughs].
DL: It’s kind of a nice trade-off, yeah?
TR Yeah, it’s a nice trade-off. It helps make up for it. 

Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Chess Wars and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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