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Local Natives' Big Vaulted Ceilings 

On their new album, the rising indie-folk act show who they are and what they've become

Thursday, Jan 24 2013
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Orange County–bred indie-folk band Local Natives took Southern California by storm in 2010 with their debut album, Gorilla Manor. On the buzz of the album's first single, "Sun Hands," the L.A. transplants initially found fans around small bars and clubs in Silver Lake. But their lush vocal harmonies and catchy guitar melodies soon were heard nonstop on KCRW, KROQ and pretty much every rock station in a 200-mile radius, and Gorilla Manor earned them Pitchfork's best new music distinction and flattering write-ups in Rolling Stone and Spin.

Fresh off a European tour that followed lengthy stints opening for Arcade Fire and The National, they're gathered today at an organic café just a block from their practice space in Silver Lake. They're enjoying some downtime in preparation for the release of their second album, Hummingbird, produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, due out Jan. 29. The kombucha is flowing.

"We're a democratic band, which basically means that we're a barely functioning band," laughs guitarist and singer Taylor Rice, whose bushy, black mustache has evolved into something of a trademark. He notes that the band members handle all of the artwork and merchandise, and recently directed their music video for "Breakers" with the help of a friend. The video sees members of the band meeting their demise at a number of local landmarks, including the historic staircases of Silver Lake.

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In the late aughts, after graduating college and deciding to pursue music full-time, Local Natives closed up their rehearsal space in an avocado warehouse in Orange and headed north. They were welcomed into the thriving indie scene upon relocating to Silver Lake in 2009.

As childhood friends who'd been playing together since their punk and hardcore days in high school, they were already fairly seasoned. Though still in separate bands, Rice and guitarist Ryan Hahn originally met lead singer Kelcey Ayer sophomore year during a show at Rice's father's house, which was shut down by the police.

By their senior year in high school, everyone's influences had expanded from At the Drive-In to The Zombies to Animal Collective, and they soon began working to polish their chops. They struggled to stay close, with members scattered to different colleges across Southern California, but by the time they all graduated in 2008, they were ready to record their first album.

In Los Angeles, they soon became the go-to band for last-minute shows at Spaceland, resulting in opening slots for popular indie bands such as Born Ruffians and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

Local Natives quickly found an audience and were championed by local music blogs Aquarium Drunkard and Buzz Bands L.A., the latter going as far as booking their first residency at the Silverlake Lounge in February 2009. "It's insane how well it paid off for us. L.A. just embraced us really amazingly," Rice says. The Silverlake Lounge residency spurred a small, loyal fan base, but barely anyone else in the rest of the country had heard of Local Natives.

In the month before the residency, they embarked on a self-booked national tour, playing for mostly tiny audiences. Though there were glimmers of hope — a packed house in Hattiesburg, Miss., and a successful show before a prospective manager in New York — the tour was doomed from the start. After failing to acquire their own van, they were forced to share space and equipment with two other bands, and each night after playing they appealed to audience members and venue waitstaff for a place to crash.

Still, the group's members are grateful for those experiences. "I feel like we appreciated everything so much more when we started to play bigger shows and didn't have to worry about sleeping on floors," Hahn says.

Along with their stunning songs, Local Natives benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Artists like Elliott Smith, Devendra Banhart and Rilo Kiley had already established a folk-tolerant indie scene in Silver Lake, but by 2010, Smith had committed suicide, Banhart had gone overboard and Rilo Kiley had split, leaving a void.

Not long after the release of Gorilla Manor in early 2010, KCRW got behind the album, and appearances at Coachella, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury soon followed.

After they opened for The National and Arcade Fire in 2011, bassist Andy Hamm left the band due to personal differences, and the rest of the members took a break to write new material.

Rice and Ayer had befriended The National's Dessner on tour, and having him produce the next Local Natives album was a running joke. But by January 2012, Dessner had just completed production on Sharon Van Etten's Tramp, and since he was in between albums with The National, he agreed to produce and record the album at his home studio in Brooklyn.

Initial ideas for Hummingbird evolved out of a monthlong stay in a geodesic dome in Joshua Tree, where Local Natives played at all hours. Their goal of finding a place to write, unencumbered by the distractions of family and girlfriends, was fulfilled. "It had this big, vaulted ceiling and the sound was great," Rice says. "In retrospect, we probably should've stayed longer, because we had songs come together so fast that it was kind of a magical experience."

The album took on a different tone, however, after the death of Ayer's mother, whom he addresses on "Colombia" in a helpless whimper: "Patricia, every night I ask myself. Am I giving enough?"

Ayer was informed of her passing just after the band had finished recording a demo for the song, which still didn't have lyrics.

"I knew that when that happened I should try to channel that energy into that song, and I think it kind of helped me get through it," Ayer says. "Everything about that first album for us was having fun with a sound we could all agree on. With this one, we'd already done that, and it just made sense to get more personal."

The catchy, upbeat melodies from Gorilla Manor are sublimated on Hummingbird with cold drum machines and dense keyboard arrangements, immersing the listener in an experience that is considerably more profound than their debut album. In contrast to the vibrant melodies and sunny vocal inflection on Gorilla Manor, Hummingbird's sparse production sounds more like that of a winter album.

Of the recording experience in Brooklyn, Dessner points out that Local Natives were more prepared than The National have ever been. "I really appreciate the level of craftsmanship in the band," he says via email. "They work their asses off and really experiment heavily with where a song can go."

Dessner and Hahn played bass on the album in the absence of Hamm, who has been replaced by touring member Nick Ewing, formerly of Brooklyn indie band Pop Etc.

But after three months of recording on the East Coast, all of the members were ready to return to Silver Lake. When asked if they'd ever consider leaving Los Angeles, they laugh and shake their heads. "We're so tied in to Southern California that it wouldn't make sense to any of us," Ayer says. "The winter would come around and we'd die."

Reach the writer at afrank29@gmail.com

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