In very early 2009, I was standing outside of the Beauty Bar in downtown Austin, Texas with my friend Eric, leaning up against the fence on a Wednesday night, trying to figure out what to do. There were grunts and groans from instruments coming out of the door to the venue, but other than a presumable sound check, there appeared to be nobody in the place, so Eric and I were prepared to find a different haunt. Just as we were deciding which street to wander down, a group of scraggly, rowdy guys came bursting through the Beauty Bar door, and the tallest shouted, “It’s time to find people to come to this show!!” This caused me to turn, and the tall dude saw me and asked, “Do you guys wanna see a show? It’s great!” I asked him who was playing, and he said, “Well, we’re in a band called Voxhaul Broadcast, and we’re playing with the Union Line, which is the band these guys here are in, and then the Local Natives are setting up right now, they go on in about half an hour.” I looked at Eric, we shrugged and said, “Sure!” I asked where the guys were from, and they said California. I nodded, and we promised the guys we’d head inside. About fifteen minutes later, we wandered in to join maybe 3 other people in the room. When the Local Natives began to play, it felt like it was for us and the bartenders. I remember being immediately drawn to “Airplanes,” and I remember the energy infused in “Sun Hands.” I became a total advocate that night, and was sorely disappointed to discover this Silverlake gem hadn’t recorded a full album yet, but I bought their split 7” that had “Airplanes” on one side, a Union Line song on the other. I chatted with their sweet drummer Matt, who informed me they’d be back for South by Southwest a few months later. Flash forward to April 23, 2010. I arrive at Antone’s on 5th street at 10 p.m. to a line snaking around the venue. Doors opened a few moments later, and we masses poured into the building, trying to stake out space close to the stage. By the time the Local Natives took the stage a little over an hour later, bodies filled every inch of space, jostling into one another, stepping on toes and craning necks to see over the forest of people around them. The band still sound checked themselves, exemplifying the strange space this band lives in – huge and completely deserved success garnered at a stupefying breakneck speed. Of course, the band has been working for years (previously with a slightly different lineup under the moniker Cavil At Rest.) They played through their entire album; yep, they now have a full-length album out on their label, Frenchkiss, called Gorilla Manor. Highlights included the sultry “Cards & Quarters,” with a completely jammable beat, the soaring harmonies in “Airplanes” which led to a solid three minutes of audience applause as the gentlemen of the band stood in complete awe, with the biggest grins on their faces and practically shaking their heads in disbelief, and the night’s encore and closer, “Sun Hands,” which exploded in rock and prompted some (read: me) to leap up and down in a rapturous state of mosh. I was completely lucky to stumble upon this band over a year ago, and could not be happier for them in all of the success they’ve experienced in such a short time. If you’ve yet to join the Local Natives fan base, but you like sweeping melodies, thumping rhythms, rich harmonies and Talking Heads covers, don’t waste another second – become a part of their incredible success story. Just walk through the door.
Local Natives' Gorilla Manor could have easily scored points with the Hype Machine hive mind based on a handful of qualities the band shares with some of the more popular indie acts of recent years—the choral harmonies of Fleet Foxes, the carefully considered arrangements of Grizzly Bear, and intermittent bursts of Broken Social Scene bombast. However, the band rises above the dregs of pale imitators, thanks in part to a lively rhythm section spurred on by the serpentine playing of bassist Andy Hamm. Speaking to The A.V. Club from the band’s home base in Los Angeles, Hamm discussed Local Natives’ decision to self-fund Gorilla Manor, the reason he can’t take credit for every bassline on the record, and why one song in the band’s set at Antone’s tonight, April 23, might sound a little familiar, though you won’t know why.
AVC: You recorded Gorilla Manor without the backing of a record label—was it scary taking on that kind of financial burden?
AH: We didn’t really have any other option. We had these songs, and we knew we wanted to record them, and we weren’t getting attention from a label at that point, or attention from a producer or anything. We were playing minimal shows and really hunkering down to make this album, and we knew we wanted to do it on our terms, as far as the writing and the sounds. And in order to do that, we knew that we had to do it ourselves. We started scrimping, saving here and there, everybody setting aside what they could. And then, luckily, [guitarist-vocalist] Ryan [Hahn]’s father came in—he’s been a huge supporter of the band—and he said, “We’ll set up a payment plan and I’ll front you guys some money so you can get it done on the cheap.” That came through, and we just went for it.
AVC: What was the turning point where you started receiving more outside attention?
AH: We’re still such a small band, so when we got offered to do a residency at a place like Silver Lake Lounge or Spaceland—things like that for us were a big attention-getter. We were playing to a lot of new ears in L.A., and as each week progressed there was more and more people, so within the band, those were pretty big milestones for us. We were like “Wow, there’s not only people paying attention, but the right people, and we’re doing things that we were setting out to do. It seemed like we were getting the right attention for the music that we were making.
AVC: A major part of the Local Natives sound are those thick vocal harmonies. Is that something you have to drill in rehearsal?
AH: With the singing, nobody in the band was classically trained—it’s not like there was one guy who used to be in a barbershop quartet or was a choirboy growing up. I think any time you have a band where there’s more than one person who can sing the lead, harmonies are going to happen. It’s just a matter of everybody sitting around a guitar or piano and playing around with different harmonies and everybody looks around and says, “Oh, that sounded really cool. Maybe we can tweak it here or there.” Very much trial-and-error at this point.
AVC: Is that how you approach your bass parts as well?
AH: Within the band, nobody has one specific role. It’s not that Ryan is only in charge of doing the guitar parts for the songs or Kelcey [Ayer] is only in charge of doing the piano parts. It’s very much a group effort. Somebody might have the skeleton of a song that they’re working on, and they bring it to the group and then we all jam it out and feel it out and Ryan will say, “Oh, I’ve got this idea for a bassline in my head,” and he’ll try to work it out on the guitar and then I’ll try that. And then I’ll say, “Well, I have this idea for a guitar line that’s in my head,” and he’ll feel out that. It’s a lot of time in the studio or just playing a part over and over. Trying six different melodies over a progression until everybody looks around and nods and agrees. And then we move on to the next part.
AVC: What was the discussion like when you were considering your cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” for inclusion on Gorilla Manor?
AH: The cover stemmed from back when we were living in Orange County and we were trying to play a live set and we wanted a cover song in the set to fill it out. I was diving into Talking Heads and researching them, and I think the band as a whole was starting to get into what Talking Heads did past the songs that we would hear in passing. We all loved the band—which is hard for us, to find one band that everybody in the group really likes. And then I heard “Warning Sign,” and I saw potential to cover it, but not just to do a bastardized version of the original—to try to do something that respects the song, but at the same time gave it a Local Natives touch. And when it came time to do the record, there were people around us that we trusted and they were all pushing to get it on the record—there was never any intention of putting a cover song on the record. It was a last-minute decision, and now looking back, everybody’s really happy that we did, because it’s become a staple of the record and more so of the live set.
AVC: Playing the song live, do you notice a spark of recognition in the crowd as the song unwinds?
AH: If we didn’t say, “Hey, this is a song by Talking Heads,” I think that people wouldn’t really know. “Warning Sign” was never a huge hit for Talking Heads, and unless you were a big fan of the band, you probably don’t know the song that well. And from the little feedback that we’ve gotten, most people are like, “Wait, that’s Talking Heads?”
AVC: You created the cover for Gorilla Manor, which depicts the heads of all five band members exploding. Were you trying to convey that Local Natives has too many ideas for one band to contain?
AH: Somewhat—you’re the first person that’s come somewhat close to putting that together. If there was a concept behind the record, I think the underlying theme is the five us all in the kitchen together, throwing in different things, and with that comes a lot of patience and a lot of time. And there were a lot of stressful situations in trying to do this record all on our own and learning as a band what it takes. It was that balance of trying to really enjoy it and have fun with, but at the same time everybody was so serious and passionate about geting these songs exactly how we wanted them. So that conjured up images of heads exploding, but when they did explode, it was a very colorful and very beautiful thing. That juxtaposition is pretty much the idea behind the name Gorilla Manor. It’s this manor where things are trying to be held up as very serious and very prestigious, but at the same time it’s really just five friends knocking around these songs together.
Local Natives will be playing with Voxhaul Broadcast on the 5th of June at the Bootleg Theater. Advance sales of tickets have ended but you can check back here. No idea if they are going to open up online sales again but they plan to sell a few tickets at the door the night of.