The year may have been full of dark events, but US indie rockers Local Natives infused their new album Sunlit Youth with plenty of summery, infectious optimism. During the final segment of the band’s US tour, guitarist Kelcey Ayer chatted to Young Post to explain why Local Natives took a different approach to songwriting, and why a record created from such a wide range of influences will always feel distinctly Californian.
How did you end up singing with [country rock legend] Willie Nelson and [actor] Matthew McConaughey at Austin City Limits festival? That seems random!
It definitely felt pretty random! Willie Nelson is really tight and close with Austin City Limits festival. This may have been the last year he was performing there. The organisers wanted to do something to surprise him for his last song. We were one of the acts they asked. There no was way we could say no: singing with Willie Nelson! We went over there and Matthew McConaughey introduced him. I went up onstage and it was pretty chaotic – the stage manager was trying to wrangle about 30 different artists. I got rushed to the side of the stage with the rest of the band. I looked over and there was McConaughey right there just chillin’.
Which songs from Sunlit Youth are going down best live?
I think they’re all doing pretty well. We usually open with Past Lives and that sets the tone. Coins has been going down best. From playing that to a few hundred people in different cities early on in summer, the song got so much enthusiasm. We’d never really experienced that before – when people are actually moved in that moment. That’s been an awesome thing to see.
You wrote the lyrics quite early in Sunlit Youth’s writing process compared to your previous two albums. Are there any other ways the process differed?
Yeah, definitely. For the first two, it was a standard rock setup where we were all in the room together trying to figure out the song together. But when there are a lot of people in the room, an idea can get shot down quicker. This time around, because we’d been listening to so much produced music, like electro or hip-hop, we were really inspired. We wanted to have more sussed out sounds in our spectrum. So Ryan [Hahn, guitarist], Taylor [Rice, guitarist and lead singer] and I would be on computers and making songs on our own. Through that process, we ended up with 15 songs each, and we brought them to the rest of the band to see what everyone else was feeling. It was a lot more fun that way, because then it wasn’t “do or die”. Everyone had five songs to choose from, and if someone didn’t like something, no one was heartbroken. There was a great momentum, and we ended up writing more songs than for any of our other records so far.
On [previous album] Hummingbird, you worked solely with Aaron Dessner [guitarist in The National] as producer, but on Sunlit Youth you worked with a number of different producers. Was that deliberate to bring a different kind of energy?
The main guy who helps us out is Brian Joseph, but there were a lot of different hands. We wanted to keep switching things up and keeping things interesting by going to different studios and visiting different places. That’s how we ended up working with Shawn Everett, who worked on the last Alabama Shakes record. He came up with a bunch of really awesome, weird electronic stuff. We also worked at Vox Studios with a guy called Michael Harris. It felt so awesome – a bunch of bands like Haim and Vampire Weekend have gone through there. It’s the oldest privately-owned studio in the US – it’s been around since the ’30s. We also went to Thailand at the end of 2014 with our sound guy and he helped us record a bunch of stuff there. I think the whole theme of the album was, it doesn’t matter how it was recorded or written, anything that feels good should be embraced. When I listen to the record, I hear things in each song that come from so many different places – a collage of different sounds. We were jamming in Thailand and Matt [Frazier, drummer] brought out a Tempest drum machine. There was a lot of weird and distorted stuff we kept from Thailand.
Did you go to Thailand specifically to write music?
The random universe put us there and it was awesome! We got an offer to play a show in Malaysia and we weren’t going to take it because we wanted to work on the new album. We’d been touring Hummingbird forever and it was the end of summer 2014. So we got this show offer, and we remembered that a friend of ours, who has a record label in the UK, owned a studio in Thailand. We talked to him, got a great deal, and took the show in Malaysia before going to Thailand for two weeks. And that basically started the writing for Sunlit Youth. After we got back to Los Angeles, Ryan, Taylor and I decided to take some other trips to places like Ojai and Joshua Tree, other places outside LA. It was fun. We wanted to focus solely on lyrics for the first time, and get them out of the way ahead of time. If the lyrics and melodies are already in place, recording is more fun. A lot of the vocals were recorded on some terrible Bluetooth mic onto a computer. But it didn’t matter: it felt good and sounded good, so we rolled with it.
You were in East Asia and you didn’t pop by Hong Kong? Rude.
I’m so sorry! That would have been really awesome. We’re hoping to next year, as the schedule is open. We’ll do some more US and Europe touring, for sure. Play a bunch of festival. It’s one of our goals to get to Hong Kong, mainland China, South America…
Who came up with the album artwork concept – having a different card and image for each song?
We’ve always done our own artwork, but for the first time we brought in [artist] Brian Roettinger as creative director. It was awesome, because his studio was just down the street from our rehearsal space. We totally got on the same page straight away. It was fun having a collaborator come in. The idea was a discussion of iconic objects that are unique to Los Angeles. We felt like LA was a big part of this record. We took a lot of trips, but we also wanted to make LA the home base. We had the idea to project images onto the wall and onto us. I think Taylor was goofing off and dancing in a slo-mo video. We took stills of that and it looked awesome, so then we all joined in. Ryan danced to the Bee Gees and I danced to Daft Punk. We had a lot of fun.
You’re really active on Snapchat! We weren’t going to ask, but ... which filter would you say represents the band best?
I’m glad you like my Snapchat! I’m clearly doing good work. Hmmm … the miles per hour one. It always feels like we don’t stop going anywhere and we’re part of this constantly rolling thing.