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Free to Be You and Me: Local Natives Get Collaborative on ‘Sunlit Youth’

by Ryan Reed on November 17, 2016
"There is certainly an ego thing that always has existed and continues to exist in this band,” says Local Natives singer and co-founder Taylor Rice. “It’s this push-and-pull force for everybody. We want to collaborate, and that vibe is great, but you’ve got strong-headed people who want to get their musical visions across.”

Local Natives was founded as a democracy and, indeed, there’s an element of politics involved in balancing so many creative forces. The acclaimed indie-rock outfit juggles three multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters—Rice, Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn—with a rhythm section (bassist Nik Ewing, drummer Matt Frazier) that contributes crucially to their emotive, harmony-stacked arrangements.

That sense of healthy competition fueled the band’s fir t two albums, 2009’s Gorilla Manor and 2013’s Hummingbird—but creative strains lurked underneath, as the songwriters struggled to relinquish their material—to sacrifice their personal visions for a collective one. With their effusive third LP, Sunlit Youth, the quintet faced an even loftier challenge: controlling an artistic detonation. Over a year and a half of writing and recording sessions—spread across Thailand, Nicaragua, Malaysia, Hawaii and their native California—the band wound up with “at least three times the amount of songs” than usual, somewhere between 40 and 50.

“With this record, we’ve been in a healthy place, in general,” Rice says. “When other band members contribute to what we would say are ‘our songs,’ they become something else and something better. It’s what makes a band a band. It’s what separates us from being solo artists tacking a bunch of songs together. [Learning to compromise] has been a really healthy growing pain to go through, and it was hard for certain band members to accept at fir t. Once we did, the creativity level really exploded. That came from unleashing people’s individual creative potential a little more, while still maintaining that collaborative spirit.”

The chief catalyst for this rebirth was a “serendipitous” trip to Thailand toward the end of 2014.

“We were just going where our lives were leading us,” Rice admits. “We got this festival offer [for urbanscapes] in Malaysia. We hadn’t played there before but wanted to. But we were just digging into writing, and it’s a really long flight. You basically give up a full week to play one day in Malaysia. But I wanted to, and we were trying to justify doing it. And I just remember that, through a friend of a friend, this guy had this amazing studio that he’d built in Thailand. I looked up the flight, and it as about an hour and a half from Kuala Lumpur, so I said, ‘What if we justify this by making it this writing trip?’ We’d been writing at home in LA a little bit in our studio, but we’d been looking for a place to get out. It just fell into our laps. That Thailand trip kicked things off.”

The rejuvenated group spent two weeks in the exotic locale, which sparked the album’s two poignant lead singles, “Past Lives” and “Villainy,” both sung primarily by Rice. The tracks foreshadow the band’s ultimate path: the former a polished, arena-sculpted anthem that explores heady topics like predestination and reincarnation; the latter a resilient electro-rock gut-punch, their first-ever to not feature guitar.

“We are a band, and a song doesn’t sound like Local Natives until, at some point, we put it through that filter,” Rice says. “But we were excited about broadening our musical palette. Listening to electronic music and hip-hop also let a song like ‘Villainy’ happen. We took this Jon Hopkins-inspired beat and track that Ryan made, which we were all so pumped on, and worked these Beach Boys harmonies and melodies over it. And it tied it together and made it feel like us, even though it’s something we hadn’t done before.”

The other essential visit was to Nicaragua toward the end of 2015, after Hahn suggested they check out a studio recommended by a friend. “This guy said he would give us a ridiculous deal if we came and tried it out,” Rice says. “It magically happened.”

Ewing is quick to note that Local Natives weren’t gallivanting around the globe on some kind of cultural conquest. “This wasn’t like a Beatles’ White Album, where you go to India and you hear the sitar,” he says. “It’s not like there was a huge influence, but it was just about unplugging and getting away from our daily lives.”

But through all the country/ studio-hopping, the band came to a moment of clarity. Instead of trying to write what fans or critics or label heads might consider a “Local Natives song”—the layered guitars and keys, the requisite vocal harmonies, the all-organic instrumentation—why not throw out the rule book altogether?

“I think most guidelines are gone,” says Ewing. “Kelcey and Ryan were just writing a lot, and they’d show me something, and it’d be, ‘That’s cool, but it’s not a Local Natives song.’ But early on in the record process, we said, ‘Does that even matter?’ If we’re super stoked on it, and if it’s connecting with us, there’s no ‘We need to check these boxes. We need two guitars, three harmonies.’ There weren’t these requirements for it to be a Local Natives song. Whatever created a spark inside of us, we ran with it.”

It was a logical move following the brooding, turbulent Hummingbird, an album born out of personal strain: namely the death of Ayer’s mother and the departure of co-founding bassist Andy Hamm. “I really love that record,” Rice says. “But it was the result of us dealing with a pretty dark time, and we had to get out these songs. We had to wrench them out. Some songs, we would slave away on for months, and it was so cathartic in that way, dealing with some difficult times we’d gone through. And we’d gotten that out of our system, and it was a really different mind-set and vibe coming out of that.”
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