Careening Through The Mountains: An Interview With Local Natives

Words and interview by Kyle Rother
Photos by JENZ

Southern California's Local Natives make it hard to draw comparisons. There are similarities here and there -- Broken Social Scene and Fleet Foxes are among the contemporary names thrown around -- but the Natives' style is less erratic than BSS, more ballsy than the Foxes. Their harmonic style is indicative of the influence of hazy beach bums of 60s SoCal and Zombified Brit pop, while their percussion philosophy derives from somewhere more natural: a unifying connection between the five-piece developed over hours spent living together in their own guerilla hideaway in Silverlake, Calif.

I sat down for a little phone chat with the guys as they made the arduous journey from San Francisco to Portland. My grasp for the topography of the region is nearly nonexistent, thus making our teleconference, in my mind, just another hurdle for the group in what might be the toughest climb amidst a sea of switchbacks and sheer crags. Since this setting is always more interesting, I kept the image in my mind and forged on through the midst of cell reception woe. I hit them fast and I hit them hard, with the sort of tough grit that would make even Harry Callahan squirm. With half a day to drive from San Francisco to Portland at top speed, I tested out their mental dexterity while they navigated the treacherous mountain passes of Northern California. So after a minute or so of making sure our cell phones were indeed connected and working, my interview began with a real humdinger.

So how are you guys doing?
Kelcey: We're doing good, on the road going from San Francisco to Portland. It's a ten-hour drive, the longest drive on this tour we're on right now. It's a little brutal, but it's all right... we started at 8 this morning.

I talked to (Tripwire photographer JENZ) earlier, said she had a little trouble getting into the show...
K: Yeah there was a little mishap with the list, a fuck up if you will, on our part. We tried to fill her full of drinks so that she could forget all about it.

That's all right, she mentioned she'll catch you guys again soon, opening for Ben Kweller?
K: Yeah, we're opening for Ben in June, so we'll have her out, it'll be a great time.

Awesome, is that opening spot a result of meeting him down in Austin (at SXSW)?
K: Uh, well we met Ben in Austin, (through) his UK booking agent as well as his national booking agent. He brought Ben out to the show, and he really dug the music and had heard a lot about us and really likes the stuff and so he was stoked to throw us on a couple shows for him.

I was actually there at SXSW for a show you guys played where he showed up, at this little house party the last night of the fest.
K: Oh yeah, that was the place, yeah we saw him there.

How did the rest of SXSW go for you guys?
Taylor: SX was so excellent for us. It was really awesome, none of us had ever been before and we really got (thrown) into it because we had nine shows (over four days). So it was really intense, but we had a great time.

And you'd never been to Austin before that?
T: Well we had played Austin a couple times, but you know, that city is just transformed for SX. There's like 2,000 bands and thousands of people and it’s really just like chaos for a week, which we really are akin to, we like that.

Nice. So you've got an album done, but no label?
T: Correct, yeah we've got an album but right now we're just kind of shopping it around and talking to people.

Did that chaotic week help you guys out in the way of finding a home for it?
T: Oh yeah, it was really cool. I thought it was great to see the progression over, as I said, nine shows. I think it was the second to last show we played was one we added literally the day before, and that show was probably the most packed out of all of them. So it was cool to see this progression where you know, we made some fans early and there were some people kinda spreading the word about us, and so by that show there were all these people there checking us out, from the industry and not. So yeah, the dialogue has definitely increased a lot on pretty much all ends.

Ryan: It was really cool to meet people from the UK, too. That was a good opportunity for us to get to some people out there.

So hopefully sometime in the future a UK tour?
T: Yeah definitely, we just signed up with our UK and European booking agent, and he's awesome and we're really, really happy. We don't have any firm plans yet but we're already starting to throw out some ideas of dates and stuff and we want to get over there soon.

So it's been a nice steep route you seem to have taken so far, you haven't been together too long, correct?
T: Um, sort of, it's been about two, two-and-a-half years in this lineup so not super new, but me (Taylor Rice, guitar/vocal), Ryan (Hahn, guitar/vocal) and Kelcey (Ayers, keys/vocal), the three of us met in High School. So we've been playing together, jamming for over six years. Then it was like everything really came together for us over the last year or so, really when we made our album, when everyone decided to throw all our eggs in the band basket and just go for it full time. We all (including Andy Hamm, bass; Matt Frazier, drums) got a house; we all live together in Silverlake and we've been really committed to this as our first priority. So that's really relatively recent, but we've been playing together for a while.

Speaking of the album, the title is Gorilla Manor, is that right?
T: Right, yeah.

There has to be a story behind the name...
T: Well, yeah. So when we were writing the album we were all living together in a house, sort of sequestered ourselves, secluded away and it just kinda became the moniker for the place we were living, and we just came to identify (the house) with the whole process. Our band is really collaborative in terms of the songwriting process and so everyone is constantly throwing out ideas, and during this time (writing) we kinda felt like we found what was our sound and we found these threads that we felt unified us. So that's kind of why we identified that with the album.

Well I have to say the few songs I've heard are excellent (I won't go into my fan-boy-ish love for their track "Airplanes"). There's a thoughtfulness to them, I can only hope that's translated to the rest of the album.
T: Yeah me too. (Laughs.) Seriously, we're very happy with it, which is actually saying a lot. We really tear all of our songs apart. As a result of the collaborative thing we work over things pretty hard.

And who did you guys get to produce the album?
T: We recorded it in L.A. in a place called Rancho Park with a guy named Raymond Richards, and he's got an amazing studio in his house. It's called Red Rockets Glare, and we made the album there over last summer, towards the end of summer. (To rest of band) Would we say he produced it? We kind of self-produced it, but I mean, he helped us a lot. He really is a master at all the tones and the fun toys that he has in his studio, and that was something that was really new to us. We had never done an album before, so he was so easy to work with. But we were really hands on in everything we did with the recording.

So any leads as far as what you might do with it?
T: Yeah we do, we're talking with a lot of labels right now, but it's all very tentative and superficial at the moment. Can't really say much. But we'd love to find a home for it and have a goal to release around the fall so...

Awesome. Now the sound that you guys have, it's very natural, your combination of almost tribal percussion, and the harmonies. Is that a result of your surroundings, something that naturally finds its way out, or is it something that you guys have made a conscious effort to emphasize?
T: Those two things are very much the kind of threads that we've found in a lot of our writing. Now way back when, we started out as a "guitar" band as most bands do, but now we spend almost all of our writing time, or most of it, on our vocals, the melody and harmonies, and also on the percussion. And I'm sure that has something to do with the area but it's also mostly to do with our personal preferences and influences and who we listen to. You know, the 60s harmony bands is fairly evident, we're huge fans of The Zombies, Crosby Stills & Nash for example, and we're also huge fans of Animal Collective or Broken Social Scene, who really have that kind of strong percussive element that we're drawn to.

I'm guessing Talking Heads is in there somewhere, seeing as you guys have that cover of "Warning Sign" out there and in your set...
T: Yeah we were actually just listening to that.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I actually find your version a little more enjoyable.
T: Oh man, wow.

I mean it's a great song, but you guys have really taken it and made it your own. It's almost a different song now.
T: Well, I always think, well we all do, that when you do a cover it's way more fun to take something that's not exactly your sound and try to make it your sound. So it was really fun to try and make these pretty three part harmonies out of these David Byrne yelps.

You should start a cover of the month club.
T: (Laughs.) Yeah, we've thought about it.

So the rest of this tour you're headed up into Canada?
T: We are, we're gonna try. We've got Portland, Seattle and then Vancouver. We've never crossed the border as a band, and we've learned that you have to get this immigration exemption thing from the venue and all this stuff. So we're really kind of winging it and we really hope that they don't charge us like $800. That would be sad.

Well at least it'll be a fun attempt if you can't make it. So what do you foresee, or hope to see happen in the next six months for you guys?
T: Well we already kinda talked about it, but releasing the album is a major goal of ours and the fall seems like a really good time for that. Other than that, just touring. We really want to be out on the road as much as possible. Hope to have a national tour with a bunch of dates and then go abroad. Like I said, we've got some dates we're planning on.

Ryan: It's been a dream of ours to go to the UK and tour and now all of a sudden it looks like that's going to become a reality in the near future.

Have you guys done much touring nationally so far?
R: We've toured twice nationally. We went out to Chicago one time and then we did a month long tour to New York and back. Other than that, we've done two little West Coast tours. So we've done a fair amount of touring, but we really like it, we're trying to do it as much as possible.

So how much longer do you guys have on the road today?
T: Six more hours, or something like that.

And with that I wished them luck on their way, a group of nice guys making nice music for the masses. The Canadians are going to love that.

Careening Through The Mountains: An Interview With Local Natives