There’s no denying 2016 has been a time of change for America. Whatever your political opinions, it’s fair to say that recent events have highlighted a degree of turbulence across “The Land of Opportunity.” To say a voice is needed to pilot the plane is an understatement, it is imperative to unite a profoundly divided society.
One band that are stepping up to the plate is LA five piece Local Natives. On release of their third LP Sunlit Youth they’ve had a realisation, as keyboardist and vocalist Kelcey Ayer describes:
“I had a political awakening becoming aware of everything crazy in the US. I just felt like that if we had a megaphone whatever size, no matter what our reach is, we have an opportunity to spread a message.”
Local Natives’ message is progressive, full of youthful energy and optimism. This is perhaps most evident during ‘Fountain of Youth’, a song at the centrepiece of Sunlit Youth. In the song the band collectively yelp “we can do whatever we want.” Moreover, the ‘Wide Eyes’ band even played on Bernie Sanders’ campaign trail this summer, highlighting a real testament to their message. ‘Who Knows Who Cares’? Well Local Natives certainly do…
Anyway, I sat down with Kelcey at their show in Leeds on the eve of the US elections. We discussed the underlying optimism of Sunlit Youth, voting Hilary Clinton and Local Natives’ regrets.
Starting from the beginning. You’ve released three critically acclaimed albums and toured all over the world – when starting out did you ever envision this level of success?
I never know how to answer that question! I think when you start doing anything your passionate about you’re young and naive, you just hope for the best. I always hoped and dreams that something would happen with music. It’s a combination of working our arses off and also meeting each other in the band in this small area of Orange County which didn’t have a lot of music stuff going on. I feel that when you’re living in a city or an area when there is not a lot of music you end up meeting the likeminded people- you just find each other and then stick together!
Now I’ve just turned thirty, and we have all these goals that we haven’t hit yet that we want to hit. There’s a balance of being content with where you are, playing in places that you’ve never played before and going places in your life that you would never have the opportunity to go to, if we had not experienced success. And then wanting to play Jools Holland, or SNL or success on radio – they’re all things that every band hopes for.
Talking of all the places you’ve visited, you do seem to play a lot of live shows. I remember back in 2013 Songkick named you the hardest working band of the year. Do you still enjoy the touring lifestyle?
I think that was a crazy year. We played more shows than anybody in music that year, which was a nice badge on your jacket, but we don’t think we’ll do it again. I think you can overdo it where it becomes a little bit monotonous. It becomes harder to stay healthy on the road physically and mentally. It is pretty hard to be creative on the road. You just wake up eat, soundcheck, eat, play and show and try not to drink too much, but then you suck at that so you wake up feeling bad! Then again and again.
We’ve figured out a good pace to try and stay healthy on the road. It’s also quite early on for the record cycle for us. We put Sunlit Youth out early September and we were playing shows here and there all summer. This is the eleventh week we’ve been out so I’m ready to go home. I think next year we’re going to figure out how to tour and have breaks in-between because we’d love to get more time in the studio and write. It would mean a little less time on the road, but it would perhaps be better for the shows because when you get to a certain spot it gets hard when it should be fun.
It sounds like a pretty relentless touring schedule. Is there anywhere you would like to go on tour where you haven’t been?
Yeah, we’ve never been to South America and I’m part Columbian, that would be awesome. We just haven’t figured out a good way to visit. Other places would be India, Asia. We got to play a show in Malaysia, which is the furthest we’ve been in that part of the world. This started us writing on Sunlit Youth. We took the show in Malaysia and then after hopped on the plane to Thailand. A dude at our label in the UK knew this other dude at a studio in Thailand, and then we went there for two weeks and started writing the album.
For your third album Sunlit Youth there is a clear evolution in your sound. The album employs new textures for Local Natives resulting a much more synth heavy album. Did you ever worry about alienating your rather devoted fanbase?
I think you never know how people will react to stuff. So if you stick to your compass and do the things that you’re excited about, you might lose some fans and gain some fans, you never know what it will be like. I think the artists that we respect and admire change what they are doing. Maybe people are interested in a lot of what they already know, but I think longevity wise you need to keep growing. But if you can’t keeping going you’re going to have to hang up the towel.
I read you approached the writing of Sunlit Youth differently this time; with you, Taylor and Ryan writing songs individually. Did you feel this improved the quality of Sunlit Youth?
I think the main thing that improved is having more songs to choose from. For the first two albums we mostly wrote as five persons in a room, and you’ve heard the term ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’. With an idea there is always going to people against it and then the idea gets shut down, it doesn’t have the room to grow. Basically for the first two records we got to about fifteen songs to choose from in the albums. Through this process it was a lot more fun. Ryan, Taylor and myself did stuff on the computer and made demos on our own, so we came up with many more songs to choose from. At that point it wasn’t so difficult to bring the ideas to the band, not so life or death.
Before when I had three songs to offer and then nobody liked any of them I was heartbroken, I was an emotional train wreck. But if I’m bring ten or fifteen things, you just roll with the momentum of what everyone is feeling. That made for a much more fun record to make, we weren’t banging our heads against the wall to make a song work!
So with the three of you writing individually you must have had a lot of songs that didn’t make Sunlit Youth, what’s going to happen to these songs?
I just think the life of the song needs someone to believe in it. If something doesn’t work out, it didn’t fit that moment. There’s a bunch of my songs that didn’t make the record. I read a lot of darker stuff and listened to sadder ballads, the stuff that makes me happy oddly. This wasn’t quite the vibe we wanted to put out for this record.
So do you end up recycling the songs then?
You know ‘Bowery’? I used to be a poppier, energetic that was a B-side on Gorilla Manner that didn’t make it. Ryan thought it was “such a cool riff”, instead of playing the riff on guitar he played it on keys and added this sub bass arpeggiator thing. This led to the song being reimagined and reawakened!
I personally think this new approach to Sunlit Youth paid off, it is my favourite of your three albums. One song that stands out for me is ‘Fountain of Youth’ with the lines “I think we better listen to these kids, we can’t keep pretending we know what we’re doing?” How important was it that Sunlit Youth had a social message?
I think that us all getting over the hump of being thirty years old it seems like an inherently reflective time. We wrote Sunlit Youth nostalgically looking back on our youth, and then looking to the future.
Personally I had a political awakening becoming aware of everything crazy in the US. I just felt like that if we had a megaphone whatever size, no matter what our reach is, we have an opportunity to spread a message to what we care about. It felt irresponsible not to talk about certain issues that we really care about.
I noticed on your Facebook page that you’ve been encouraging everyone to vote in the US presidential elections. How are you feeling for the election?
Yeah, it’s been a very tense time for us, there’s a feeling of dread- what if he becomes president?! It’s a really weird time, you’re floating in limbo and you don’t know if you’re going to heaven or hell.
On ‘Fountain of Youth’ a particularly powerful lyric says “I have waited so long Mrs President”, was this lyric contrived to support Hilary Clinton?
Taylor wrote that song, he wrote it in April 2015 so she wasn’t even the nominee then. That was more of a touch on feminism and gender equality, so that was on our minds, the line was more to be a president of anything- whether that be of America, a company. We just want to push for a matriarchy.
Then all this Hilary stuff started happening, so the line took on a new meaning which is cool. We were Bernie Sanders supporters, but we are trying to push for Hilary with everything going on!
Shifting the subject away form politics, as you’ve mentioned you’ve all turned thirty and are building up quite a discography, I wondered what is your favourite Local Natives song?
I’m most proud of ‘Everything All at Once’ the second to last track on Sunlit Youth. I brought that song to the table, I had to fight for it on the record. I pushed for it and when the album finally got released we were looking on all our socials and it looked like that song in particular was one that people were talking about the most – it felt like conviction!
So on the flip side, is there any Local Natives songs that you’re not so proud of. Is there any in particular that you regret or wish you could change?
Regret?! There is a second, more evolved, version of ‘Cubism Dream’ that we did for Daytrotter, they were bigger a little bit ago. They were the site where bands would go, bands would show up at their studio in Illinois and do a session. They did them on tape, and they were called Daytrotter sessions- then it became a thing, like it’s a thing to do a la Blogothèque session. So we did a different version of ‘Cubism Dream’ that I prefer.
I’ll have to go check it out. Finally, you’ve done loads of interviews, and been asked all sorts of questions. But is there anything that hasn’t been covered that you want to tell the world?
(Laughs) No don’t think so! I just want the world to know that we exist!
Local Natives’ third LP Sunlit Youth is out now and you can read The Yorker’s review here.