The landscape of indie rock is virtually unrecognizable from where it was when the Los Angeles group Local Natives broke through a decade ago. The band, which is almost completely intact from when they first formed (bassist Andy Hamm departed the group after their debut, Gorilla Manor), utilized a buzzing blogosphere and independent radio to build a following in Los Angeles. Early residencies at the Echo and the now-closed Spaceland proved a perfect forum for the group to display their finely tuned live show. They spent their early days touring relentlessly, building a reputation as a live band before releasing music ― a concept that seems impossible today. Following in the footsteps of groups like Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, Local Natives become a West Coast emblem for a new generation of indie music. Gorilla Manor was a lightning rod album, attracting a devoted following but inviting backlash from a critical apparatus already looking for the next wave of talent.
“We had issues with being compared to so many bands in the scene. I could see similarities, but we didn’t like being written off as an amalgamation or something,” explains Kelcey Ayer, who sings and plays keyboards, percussion and guitar. “We felt like we had spun our music in this unique way. It felt like ours,” says guitarist and vocalist Ryan Hahn. “I remember we got some scathing review in The Guardian or somewhere like that about how much we sounded just like Fleet Foxes. That pissed us off.” In hindsight, Local Natives are less a product of this scene than a key contributor to it.
Vinyl Me, Please spoke with Local Natives over the course of two days, first interviewing Hahn and singer/guitarist Taylor Rice, before meeting with Ayer and drummer Matt Frazier the following day. The conversations revealed an intimately tied group continuing to succeed in a brutal industry. Ayer, Rice and Hahn have known each other since high school and Frazier became acquainted with the trio shortly after. The band has retained a stunningly loyal core audience, and while they may not actively be accruing new fans like they once were, Local Natives is one of the most inspiring success stories in modern independent music. It all began with Gorilla Manor, 10 years ago in a crammed Echo Park house.
VMP: What was the initial reaction to Gorilla Manor’s success? Was it completely shocking to the group?
Ryan Hahn: So we’d been a band for a long time leading up to that point. We had a bunch of songs before we did early tours in the U.K. and made an appearance at South by Southwest. We already had a bunch of the songs.
Taylor Rice: Yeah. It was a little slower because our first South By that got us a lot of attention, especially overseas, was in 2008. We had recorded half of the album at that point. It was a bit more gradual, but there are all these moments along the way. This was our dream and we’d been working so hard at it for years and years and years. But then it just started happening, which was totally insane.
And what’s your perspective on the album now?
Kelcey Ayer: Well, you start feeling the positive aspects, which are like, “Oh, I’m seasoned.” And then the negatives are like, “Oh, I’m old.” You’re just swinging back and forth, the pendulum is going. I mean, it’s dense. I still have all the feelings.
You guys seemed to be participating in a West Coast version of what was happening in Brooklyn. There seemed to be a clear dichotomy. Were you aware of that at all?
Hahn: Maybe not the level of, “Oh, like, we’re carrying some kind of flag for L.A.,” but we knew of all of those bands and love that music. It made us feel like we were a part of something new on the West Coast. It felt like there was a scene, playing like Silverlake lounge and Spaceland. New York had its thing, but it felt like something was happening in L.A., too.
When you think back to just the early days of the record, what’s the defining moment for you?
Hahn: We had done a residency at the Silverlake Lounge. It’s a tiny spot and it felt like there was momentum. We came back after our first South By and we were feeling pretty confident in our ability just to play. We’d done so many shows and it felt like a culmination of so many things. When we did the Spaceland residency, I remember there was a line around the block and I was geeking out. I had one of those cell phone cameras, and I remember filming the line. I couldn’t believe that people were coming to see this show and every week it seemed to get bigger and crazier and that, to me, felt like the moment that stuff started happening.
Ayer: The goal of Gorilla Manor was to play The Echo. We just wanted to fucking play shows and put out a record. We were naive for sure, but I don’t know, we always wanted to be a national, international touring band. We wanted all these things from these other bands we looked up to, but we were not under the impression that it was a sure thing or it was going to happen. Then things started happening so quickly that we blinked our eyes and then we were playing the Walt Disney Concert Hall and just pinching ourselves, saying, “I don’t know what is going on.”
Frazier: I remember doing a Silverlake Lounge residency and then there’s a line out the door and we’re like, “What, how, what?” And then we’re doing this Spaceland residency and there’s a line out the door there, too. Then we were getting these tour offers and then getting to go overseas and then coming back to L.A. and playing shows and selling them out. There were these incremental boosts that kept happening and it was surreal.
Does that era feel 10 years old to you?
Hahn: In some [ways] it doesn’t because we still play these songs live. We’re constantly changing and evolving them, though. But I bet if I listened to the record it would feel older and I’d be brought back to that time, I think.
Rice: My relationship with these songs is dynamic and fluid, but I view the recorded versions as a moment in time.
You guys blew up with heavy support from blogs. Was that an intentional approach?
Hahn: I think we embraced the internet at a perfect time, too, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that now, because blog culture isn’t what it was. It seemed like as soon as we had recorded songs that we liked, we emailed everyone.
Rice: I emailed every blog on Hype Machine because they all had their email at the bottom of the site. We would just go crazy with it, and it was interesting the way in which that started this conversation among all the different blogs, which worked to our advantage. I don’t know if that even occurs anymore in the same way.
What was it like having such a successful first record and then having to go and try to follow that up? I imagine there were some expectations that were difficult to deal with.
Rice: It definitely was for me. It was the feeling of knowing that there’s an audience waiting to hear what you’re going to do now. That was just the weirdest experience ever. As an artist, you start as a kid being like, “I’m going to make it.” All of a sudden, there are thousands of people waiting to hear what you’re going to do. It also didn’t help that there was a cloud over the recording process, filled with death and breakups and all this stuff. It was a really tough time.
Hahn: You don’t want to make the same record again. But even in that, in doing that and trying to subvert expectations, you’re like, “Oh, now I’m paying attention to these imaginary people that are going to hear it.” You start overthinking it and then you realize you just have to do your thing. But we’re just such different people that doing our thing meant just something different.
I guess because Gorilla Manor came out of nowhere, it felt bigger. But Hummingbird hit pretty high on the charts and was in many ways more successful than the first one. Does it feel that way to you guys?
Hahn: Definitely chart-wise I think it did better. But the interesting thing is people talk about our first record a lot of times and they’re like, “Man, your first record was so big.” We never had a radio scene. I don’t think it charted or anything like that. It wasn’t in the sense of commercial viability. It wasn’t some smash hit. It just felt like we connected with a lot of people.
Rice: I think the lesson that we’ve learned as a band over the last 10 years is to let go of expectations and realize that you can’t control anything and just try to make the most genuine and incredible thing that you’re inspired by in the moment. And for Hummingbird it was difficult because we were pretty young and we had just come off of this success. I think we perceived Hummingbird as not fulfilling our expectations in some way. It didn’t feel like as big of a success as we had hoped for in a certain way. Looking back, though, it did even better than Gorilla Manor. There are just so many things to be grateful for.
My favorite part of the record is this idea of a bunch of kids putting a Talking Heads cover on their first albums… and it fucking rips. It’s great. But the bravery to put that on there is bold. It’s almost naive, in a way.
Rice: We just wanted to do a cover in the live set and that song came together pretty quickly. I don’t even think we realized that it was a crazy move to put a Talking Heads song on our first album. It seems clear to me now that it’s a crazy thing to do, but at the time I didn’t even think anything of it.
Ayer: Oh my God. Yeah. It’s an excellent point. I never even thought about it.
Frazier: In hindsight, I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe we did that.” But at the moment you’re like, “Fuck it, whatever.”
Ayer: Andy, who was the bass player for Gorilla Manor, was a big part of our gestation period, getting that version of the band up and running. We talked about Talking Heads and then he brought up “Warning Sign.” We just wanted to pick something that was a lesser-known song in their canon.
Did the album face any backlash in your minds? It came on the heels of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. Did you guys pay attention to any of the criticism that may have come or were you pretty able to tune that out?
Hahn: Yeah, we were aware that we were a part of this scene and obviously we love Animal Collective and stuff like that.
Rice: We definitely had a chip on our shoulder about it because every article mentioned similarities to Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes.
Ayer: We got lucky where we got insulated pretty quickly with our own fan base. It was an uphill battle already with critics and people writing us off as indie paint-by-colors bullshit. We’ve been slowly feeling the decline of indie rock over the years because it’s just so much different right now than it was in 2010.
What do you guys think has kept the band together for 10 years? You’ve been so solid with consistent releases and touring without any drama.
Hahn: I think our relationships with each other really is the thing that has kept us so strong and so focused and so united. There are certainly egos in the band, but we just put our relationships with each other above everything. It’s the most important thing.
Frazier: I think there’s a mutual respect for one another that we always really tried to uphold. We like to spend so much time together. Before the record came out, the core of us had been playing together for at least four years and touring and doing all those crazy shows playing to no one. Those experiences really bonded us in a way where we’re this family unit that has to learn how to navigate each other’s emotions and differences.
I know the cycle of recording and touring can get exhausting. How have you guys been able to combat some of the typicalness and sort of automation of it over the years?
Ayer: We toured more than anyone else in music in 2013. You get pretty used to it. It’s definitely a very specific lifestyle and if you’re not down, it’s like hell on earth. I wasn’t taking care of myself on the first record. Since then, you just learn what you need ― what you need to do less of, what you need to do more of. Matt, for instance, brings his bike on tour now.
Frazier: You just learn how to adapt. I bring my bike on tour and find my couple of hours in the morning to just go ride around somewhere. I think everyone finds their own little moments of zen throughout the days. Being in a different city every day, it can feel like you don’t have a routine, it can feel chaotic. But if you are able to capture those little moments each day, it becomes a great experience.