L.A.'s Local Natives hopes to feel right at home in Milwaukee
Near the end of our phone conversation, Taylor Rice from Local Natives turned the tables and put me on the spot. The singer/guitarist for the Los Angeles-based indie rock band asked me what were some cool locations and spots in Milwaukee to check out (I somehow refrained myself from saying "my apartment").
As it turns out, the group's concert Friday night at the Riverside Theater is providing Rice his first trip to Milwaukee.
"I have never been to Milwaukee," Rice said. "It's a rare thing to be completely new to a place. I'm really excited."
Rice and the rest of Local Natives, however, are no strangers to trying to new things. The band's recently released sophomore album, "Hummingbird," still features the soaring harmonies, dreamy arrangements and lyrical references to nature that made their 2010 debut "Gorilla Manor" a surprise indie hit. At the same time, it also sounds like a darker, more melancholy record. The sun they paid tribute to so much on "Gorilla Manor" has grown cold and fleeting on "Hummingbird."
It's an intriguing direction for Local Natives, one that reflects the dramatic highs and lows the band was experiencing in the three years between albums. On the positive end of the spectrum, the group was reaching new heights of fame, touring with Arcade Fire and The National.
"We were going to stop touring and work on the new album full-time, but incredible things just kept coming up," Rice said. "We were invited to play at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is one of my all-time favorite venues, so we had to take two months to write orchestral arrangements for our songs."
At the same time, the band was struggling with several personal issues. Singer and keyboardist Kelcey Ayer's mother died in 2011. They were also coping with relationships that were "completely deteriorating," resulting in the band parting ways with former bassist Andy Hamm in March 2011.
"Life can be super hard, and that's a big part of the record," Rice noted. "We want to be honest and direct with our music, and it wouldn't have been to leave these things out."
While these were painful times for Local Natives, the difficult moments opened up the band to new sounds and methods of making music. The loss of these close friends and family helped create and develop a more expansive sound for "Hummingbird," with "songs going further in opposite directions with their sound and emotions," according to Rice.
Even the way in which they wrote and recorded songs changed due to their personal struggles. In Hamm's absence, co-producer Aaron Dessner played the role of a "ghost fifth member," and the group's overall mindset toward the process evolved into something different.
"'Gorilla Manor' was pretty much written with everybody in a room, hashing the songs out and then recording it," Rice noted. "We wanted to liberate ourselves and try something new – mainly because we were shorthanded. So we took this approach of, 'Let's record as we go, not worry about what these songs will be like live and focus on that later.' It made us open up a lot of new doors and experiments, and push ourselves into new territory."
This approach ended up pushing Local Natives out their hometown of Los Angeles as well. Though most of their new album comes from their studio in Silver Lake, they decided to leave their comfortable confines of California to create and record some new material out in New York City.
"The idea was to be in a state of, like, uncomfortability, where you're not in your own atmosphere and don't feel completely safe," Rice said. "We wanted that energy and atmosphere to try new things and be different people."
With all of these massive changes and events happening for Local Natives, it should come as no surprise that it took three years for the group to release "Hummingbird." That's a fairly long time in between albums, especially for an up-and-coming band that's trying to build a fan base and momentum in a crowded indie rock field, but Rice said the group wanted to take their time.
"It's a weird thing to have expectations like that, but there was never any pressure from the labels or anything," Rice said. "We just want to be super happy with everything we make and be sure that we're all on the same page."
A large part of the process was the writing, which involved locking themselves away for about eight months and writing together with a very democratic process. According to Rice, it can be difficult but rewarding in the end.
"Kelcey, Ryan and I have been singing and playing songs together for over ten years," Rice said. "We know each other so well, and I know that when I bring a song to the band, it's going to transform into something greater than I could just do. The songs always go through between one and nine crazy transformations, and morph into completely different things. I think that's kind of the magic of being in a band."
As for whether they intend to keep and develop the darker, moodier content and sound of "Hummingbird" in the future or go for something new, Rice says he has no idea. He remembers trying to speculate things after "Gorilla Manor," and he ended up being completely wrong, predicting a guitar-heavy record that "Hummingbird" most definitely is not.
"There's no master plan," he said. "You either wait for the spark or create the spark, but you don't know where it is or where it will lead you."
Luckily for the band's fans in Milwaukee, it led to the Riverside stage.
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