After the release of their debut album, 2009's Gorilla Manor
, Local Natives drew comparisons to big-time indie acts like Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.
The band’s first album feels bigger than a five-piece band, featuring Beach Boys-esque harmonies, skittery folk arrangements, and even a cover of a Talking Heads B-side. Now, the band has just released its third album, Sunlit Youth, and while the music is a little different, the goal is still the same.
“We just try to hit the ceiling every time we write a record or write a song,” says singer-multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer via a phone interview. “I think it’s just from loving the way that a really huge sound can move you so much.”
Ayer plays multiple instruments in the band and provides vocals for most tracks. He’s now one of the primary songwriters as well. The band has split up some of the songwriting duties, which he claims has worked well.
“There are three different songwriters, so everyone has the way that they like to do stuff. I’m more on the emotional end of the spectrum, as far as where we fit together. Like, I’m the guy at the party that’s playing sad music on the piano and somebody has to tell me to stop,” Ayer laughs. “That’s what I like doing. I think it’s possibly a response to me in my normal life; I like making people laugh, and making jokes, and being stupid, and then I balance that with the seriousness of songwriting. That seems to work for me.”
On last year's Sunlit Youth
, the band incorporates electronic elements into their sound and leaves some of the folk and baroque pop influence in the past. The multi-part harmonies that put them on the map are still present, but not as central to the music as was previously the case. The band brings a new focus and influences to the new record.
“I think on this record, we were looking to a lot more hip-hop and electronic music, and it just came out this way. We were just more excited about diving into that world — the electronic side of music is definitely a complex and dense world to dive into. We’re just constantly trying to figure out what is exciting to us,” Ayer says.
Though the band previously worked in a more collaborative mode between all five members, the writing process changed while working on Sunlit Youth
. The album’s two-year recording process allowed time for organic changes to the band’s chemistry.
“When we started, we were kind of in the same place we’ve always been, where it’s five guys in a room writing a song together, which we ended up feeling pretty limited by,” Ayer explains. “By the end of writing the record, it was Taylor, Ryan and myself working individually on certain songs, and then bringing it to everyone once we had something we were excited about. I think we had around ten or twelve songs to choose from for the first two records, but for the latest record, we had maybe 50 songs to choose from, just because we were creating so much more.”
Album opener “Villainy” starts with piano chords, but is interrupted by a synth line and chunky digital percussion. Single “Fountain of Youth” features swooning synths that might have been string instruments on a previous Local Natives album. “Jellyfish” features Moses Sumney, an upcoming solo electronic artist, and a writing credit from Swedish electro band Little Dragon. Throughout the album, the band takes surprising turns, subverting listener expectations. Recording in numerous cities likely contributed to the album's sonic qualities.
Ayer says that the band “liked the idea of going to different spots to embrace the unpredictability of what could happen."
"I think that when you take yourself out of a certain space, you get a new set of limitations that can really benefit the creative process," he says. "We dug getting out of our comfort zone and switching things up.”
Right now, though, the band is in somewhat of a transition period. Gorilla Manor
received loads of critical acclaim, leaving the band in the awkward spot of either appeasing the indie critics, or pushing forward with a new sound to reach bigger audiences. Ayer says that he doesn’t think too much about it, though.
“[Acclaim] felt nice, but I don’t think that we were trying to let that affect anything we were trying to write," he says. "You can’t really determine what anyone is going to say — we just tried to keep it what excites us and what gets us pumped, and that was the only thing to think about.”
Ultimately, to Ayer, it’s a catch-22, so he follows his creative process and hopes the rest works itself out.
“It’s sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ so I don’t know what to tell anybody," he says. "I think to be an alternative rock band is not the ‘coolest thing ever’ right now, so I can see how critics can knock that, but then people who are into alternative rock stuff, it’s almost like they’re bummed that the album is leaning more electronic…so you gotta just put your hands up. I’m just thankful that we’re gonna go on tour and that we have fans and can keep doing this.”
Even if the musical qualities of the record are a little different, the band’s themes and lyrical content haven't changed much. The band still aims to use the music to bring an emotional reaction out of listeners.
“I think that very early on, we started to realize that being honest and open with your experiences creates a better chance of connecting with the person listening.” Ayer says. “So basically, I just try to write honestly about stuff I’m going through and where I’m at. I find writing music to be very therapeutic, and I find that music is an amazing way to get through something.”
For some shows around the country, including Cleveland, proceeds from tickets will go to an organization called Plus1. The organization redistributes funds to local charities and organizations so that donors can be sure their money is going to a non-profit that can use it. Ayers explains that “they help us get money from each show to either a local organization that will use the money to help people in that city, or to a broader nationally based non-profit if there isn’t one in that specific city. They basically make it easier for people to give money to causes that they care about. We really care, and that was just a small way that we could help. We’ve been doing stuff with them for years; they’re a great company.”
Despite all the changes the band has been through in the last few years, Ayer says new music is on the way.
“We’ve already been working on some new stuff, we’ve got some surprises coming soon that I actually can’t talk about — but you’ll see soon,” he says. “But yeah, we’re working on new music, and already thinking about the next record. It’s starting to kind of build up. We’re going to see if we can get a record out quicker than every three years.”
Local Natives, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $26 ADV, $28 DOS, agoracleveland.com