L.A.’s Local Natives have had a turbulent few years. After the 2009 release of their debut, Gorilla Manor, they went out on tour again and again — both as headliners and as the opening act for Arcade Fire and the National. Then they went through a rough patch: Singer Kelcey Ayer’s mother died (the subject of their new song “Colombia”), several band members had health problems, and bassist Andy Hamm left the group.
Now a quartet of three singer/multi-instrumentalists — Ayer, Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn — and drummer Matt Frazier, they recorded Hummingbird in Brooklyn with kindred spirit Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s a darker, more subdued album than Gorilla Manor, both in its lyrics and in its sound. But it’s buoyed up by the group’s resonant three-part harmonies and fondness for rich, swampy instrumental textures from outside the rock tradition.
eMusic’s Douglas Wolk spoke to Ayer as the band was getting ready to fly to Oakland for the second show of what promises to be another long tour.
It’s been more than three years since you released your first album. How did the songs for Hummingbird evolve over that time?
At the beginning, we were trying to find our bearings and write whatever felt good. We tried to rely on working hard and working a lot; we trusted that if we put in the work, we’d get something good out of it. Probably around five months in, we had seven songs we were excited about but we weren’t really sure what direction the album was taking yet. We had a breakthrough when Ryan and I got together and wrote the song that became “You & I” on the record. I’d had this piano riff forever, and a melody, but we just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. But I jumped on this SPD-S [electronic percussion] pad that we got, and we came up with that song, and it gave us a direction that we felt comfortable going in.
We all had bits and pieces flying around; I think I’ve had the chords for “Three Months” since 2009 or 2010. “Bowery” was a guitar riff that Ryan had had for a long, long time, since around 2007. But he totally revamped it on a demo where he played it on a Rhodes instead of guitar, and came up with this pulsating beat that ended up being what “Bowery” is now. That was cool to see how he reimagined it — you have something in your head for years, and then lightning strikes.
You’ve mentioned that one of the songs on Hummingbird has an entirely sampled drum part — which one?
That’s “Three Months.” At first we were really nervous about it — it’s such a departure for us, for a band that doesn’t even use many guitar effects pedals — but we just inched our way in, and it gradually felt good. Now I feel comfortable with it, and I couldn’t imagine the album without it. When we play it live, Matt is sampling each part of the drums on the SPD-S pad — he’s not actually playing it, but he’s triggering it in time. I don’t think it’s cheating.
You’ve spent an enormous amount of the last few years touring. How do you pass the time on the tour bus?
We all get along really well. I just bought a five-way splitter for headphones — that is a must for any touring band, ’cause you want to share what you’re watching, you know? With as many people as can fit on the bench.
Does the band have a favorite movie?
I think Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is right up there. And we just watched the whole first season of Boardwalk Empire. I love Michael Shannon and Michael Pitt; I think they’re such amazing actors, and it’s cool to see them in one show together.
Local Natives famously decide on everything collectively. Does that work in practice?
Yeah, we can talk about the artwork for a billboard for hours. But we don’t know any other way to do it, and it’s worked so far. It really helps that we’re proud of everything that we’ve put out there so far.
Do you have models, within or outside music, for a career of making art?
The answer definitely differs from person to person, but for me — I’m a huge, huge Radiohead fan. If we could have anything close to the career they’ve had, that would be amazing. They’ve been around for so long, and changed into so many forms, and to this day they feel very current and alive. And they did it all without compromising any of their vision. That’s incredible. And also Damon Albarn — The Good, The Bad and the Queen? Have you heard that record? I just think he’s a pop mastermind. Every melody that comes out of him gets in your head, and it’s not cheesy.
Who has the best facial hair in the band?
People always say that about Taylor, so I will pick me. [Laughs.] As sick as I am of hearing about it, I would never want him to shave it, because it looks really, really great.