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Music writing

Local Natives think globally

interior-nativesThis article was published in the Guardian on November 12, 2010.

Imagine a band that sings harmonies like Fleet Foxes. Its arrangements twist and turn like Grizzly Bear. Songs gallop along like Vampire Weekend, crescendo like the Arcade Fire, peak like Broken Social Scene and break into Animal Collective pieces. It has the perfect contemporary sound, guaranteed to sell well and leave you feeling used.

This backhanded compliment has been paid to Local Natives ever since their breakthrough at last year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas – not least by the Guardian’s own Paul Lester, who described them as “a Fleet Of Arcade Vampires on Fire” – and it’s starting to make them angry. At first, they enjoyed being compared to bands they love, but as they chewed on it, the line left a bitter taste: the suggestion that their music is contrived, derivative and a little too eager to please.

“It’s really frustrating. When we were writing this record, we hadn’t even heard Fleet Foxes,” says guitarist Taylor Rice. “There’s a difference between being an artist and being somebody who looks at making music as a business, and we all truly are artists, so that’s why when there’s some sort of implication I take it personally and get very fired up.”

Keyboard player Kelcey Ayer cuts in: “I remember when Fleet Foxes came out, Ryan was like ‘guys, this is going to fuck up our shit.’” They all laugh. “We’d already written a big chunk of the album,” says guitarist Ryan Hahn, “but I suppose they helped us, because harmonies weren’t uncool anymore, so people were willing to listen.”

Perhaps angry isn’t the right word. These are, after all, polite Southern California boys who have been singing together since high school. “We used to practice in my garage, with a tiny PA that couldn’t pump out enough volume, so we did a lot of unison singing, then harmony, feeling the power of a live harmony vocal,” Hahn remembers. “Back then it wasn’t cool. Everyone was into the Rapture, this disco-punk thing, and we were listening to the Beach Boys.”

Hahn, Ayer and Rice went to neighbouring schools in Orange County, a wealthy, conservative area South of Los Angeles that has some of the world’s best surfing beaches. In recent years, its image has been defined by hit teen soap opera The O.C. – in which the adolescent children of millionaires play peer pressure games to a manipulatively hip soundtrack.

Although Ayer protests that the show’s portrayal of “uber-rich surf kids” misrepresents Orange County, saying “that’s not how we grew up,” it isn’t hard to picture them playing a set at The Bait Shop, alongside Modest Mouse, The Killers, The Thrills and Death Cab For Cutie. Their songs are certainly pop enough, with maddeningly catchy melodies. Airplanes begins with the whole band booing as Ayer bashes out a classic FM radio chord progression on the piano, but when the howling stops, the riff carries on, unashamed.

They’re cute enough for Sunday morning television, too. When they first toured Britain, the News Of The World made fun of Rice’s “porn star ‘tache” – seemingly unaware that half way between Clark Gable and Magnum P.I. is a fashionable look these days. Ayer sports the standard issue hipster beard. Bassist Andy Hamm rolls his trousers up to three-quarter length and wears a flat brimmed cap.

Their debut album is named after the house in Orange that they shared once Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier completed the line-up. This is rather misleading, in that Gorilla Manor sounds like a degenerate bachelor pad, when it was, they say, a hothouse of musical ambition where every waking minute was spent writing and rehearsing songs, pausing now and again for a spirited rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s Cecelia in the back yard.

Ayer waited tables, Hamm was the West Coast sales rep for a luxury fashion line, Frazier worked as a graphic designer and Rice sold kitchen knives, by appointment, to wealthy Orange County housewives. With the help of a $5,700 loan from Hahn’s father, they saved up enough money to make a record.

A week before last year’s South By Southwest festival, they only had two shows booked. But then the messages started arriving in their Myspace inbox, from British labels and promoters in Austin, eager to sign them up. By the time the event began, they had committed to nine gigs in three days.

“We ended up running with our amps between shows, and each show it snowballed,” says Rice. “The weirdest show was in a bike shop, a tiny place with concrete walls and a tiny PA. There were about fifty people, which was packed, but the NME and Radio 1 were there.” Local Natives are the latest American band to find an audience in Britain long before catching on back home. They signed to Infectious Records in September 2009, releasing Gorilla Manor soon afterwards. It took another six months to find an American label, French Kiss.

This is partly because Local Natives are control freaks – something they freely admit. They design their own artwork, pay for their own recording sessions and do most of their own promotion, directly to music blogs. Hahn’s dad got his money back in less than a year. There’s something very self-conscious about the way that Rice describes committing to the band full-time as a “foolish, foolish deed” when they have evidently treated it as a career from the start.

Last year, they moved to a new communal home in Silver Lake, East of Hollywood, to tap into the L.A. scene. But somehow, despite being five young men newly exposed to big city temptations, living in a shared house littered with amplifiers and takeaway cartons, they again kept rock’n’roll debauchery to a minimum. “We were taking ourselves very seriously, trying to make this a business, working twelve hours a day,” says Rice.

The changed economics of the music industry mean that bands at the start of their careers often end up touring more or less constantly just to break even. Having lived in close proximity for so long, this comes easier to Local Natives than most. On their first slog round the USA, with the Union Line and Voxhaul Broadcast, they crammed three bands into two cargo vans. By this summer, they were playing the major festivals and had a tourbus with six air conditioners and a kitchen to themselves.

One consequence of playing together so much, at home and on stage, is that Local Natives are incredibly tight. Their harmony singing is impressive. They cite the Zombies and Crosby, Stills and Nash as bands that taught them “how to use harmony without it being a cheesy, barbershop quartet, accapella group thing” and it’s ever present in their songs, so polished that it becomes the defining characteristic of their sound.

Their cover of Warning Sign by Talking Heads, for instance, strips the original bare, incorporating the bassline into a guitar part and bathing everything in a choral wash. In the process, David Byrne’s disturbing, schizophrenic lead vocal – “hear my voice, it’s saying something, it’s not very nice ” – loses all its menace and meaning.

Byrne has given their version his blessing, in an email, from his publicist to theirs, that arrived while they were eating dumplings in the East End of London. “We made a scene, started jumping up and down, lost our shit,” they admit. The next time they were in New York he turned up to watch them play at the Bowery Ballroom and stayed afterwards to say hello. Talking Heads guitarist and keyboard player Jerry Harrison brought his daughter to see them.

By completely transforming the song, Local Natives make Warning Sign their own. Most of their younger fans presumably don’t even know it’s a cover, because it sounds so consistent with the rest of Gorilla Manor.

What that sound owes to other contemporary bands is beside the point. It’s more interesting to consider what Local Natives lack that makes the groups they are often compared to so distinctive. Unlike Grizzly Bear, there is nothing ethereal or unsettling about their songs. There is none of the desperate yearning or wonder of Fleet Foxes – suburban California is a long way from the wilderness of Washington state, in every sense. While Broken Social Scene are a raucous gang, Local Natives are a focused unit, aspiring to a much more controlled euphoria. And beyond a tendency towards upper-middle-class, write-what-you-know lyrics (and an ability to pronounce Champs Elysees correctly) they have almost nothing in common with Vampire Weekend.

“The truth of the matter is that artists get inspired by other artists,” says Hamm. “It would be total bullshit to look you in the eye and say ‘we listen to Grizzly Bear and Broken Social Scene and Animal Collective but in no way, shape or form did that influence our music. But the last thing in our minds was ‘let’s write this because it’s the fad right now.’ We’re not like that.”