Swimming in the Deep End

Local Natives reflect on their rise to Indie Rock relevance

click to enlarge Local Natives (Photo: Bryan Sheffield)
Local Natives (Photo: Bryan Sheffield)

A truly great band press photo — an image that, ideally, simultaneously depicts the key subject, creates a compelling and memorable visual and is suitable for mass distribution — is strangely a rare find. 

But in a picture tethered to the January release of Local Natives’ Hummingbird, the Los Angeles four-piece and photographer Bryan Sheffield have managed to work some magic. 

During his three-day shoot with the clever, playful Indie Rock/Pop band, Sheffield captured several images, but one of the group floating in cold water in Malibu, Calif., is particularly affecting. Local Natives are seen from pecs up, engulfed in what is presumably the Pacific Ocean, wearing pensive expressions and with no single off-screen object hooking everyone’s attention. The tint is faded and the colors drift toward the dusky, dark end of the spectrum. Mixed sensations — happiness, nostalgia, melancholy, uncertainty — hang over the scene. The whole thing is so striking that you’re instantly praying that the pic has some actual meaning to it. Thankfully, vocalist/guitarist Taylor Rice is able to deliver.

“Coming off of people (knowing) us from Gorilla Manor, the last few years for us have been super intense,” Rice says, referencing his outfit’s 2010 debut record. “There’s a level that’s pretty obvious in that the amount of success we got went far past what anybody even allows themselves to dream. We had all these incredible experiences, but we also had a lot of very surreal and difficult times as well. Hummingbird really embodies that dichotomy and that’s why, for me, that photo does capture that thing. We’re in California still, but it’s not like this bright, sunshiny day. The days of summer and the beach are not as evident on this record. It breaks into a little bit of a deeper place.”

Revisiting the true beginning of Local Natives means rewinding to when Rice and fellow vocalist/guitarist Ryan Hahn met in middle school during the first period of the first day of seventh grade science class. 

“He was one of the few people I knew in junior high school who didn’t skateboard, so I thought he was just a dork at first. But then again, I was a dork, so I gravitated toward that,” Hahn says. 

They forged a friendship immediately, soon bonding over playing guitar (which neither had done until that point), Punk Rock, At the Drive-In, sports, Monty Python, James Bond movies and video games. 

Details about the history of Cavil at Rest — the band that was Local Natives in its first, technically non-Local Natives incarnation — are scattered and scarce, but all sources point to Cavil existing since at least 2005. Sometime in 2008, Local Natives were a go; today, their roster consists of Rice, Hahn, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer and drummer Matt Frazier. 

The band’s back story hinges on everyone sharing a notoriously chaotic place they dubbed Gorilla Manor (which explains the album name), an entity that was, in actuality, not one space but two. 

“The best way to describe the reason we coined the nickname for the house is a photo Matt turned into a poster that comes with our album which comes from a massive food fight we had with friends at 4 a.m.,” Rice told Contactmusic.com circa 2009.

The majority of Gorilla Manor was written in their first house in Orange, Calif., with the remainder coming to life in their home in the L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake. 

“We had been playing in a band together for a long time, but we were all in school and had jobs and things like that, and (when living in the Orange house) is when we made that decision: ‘Let’s really try to be a band for real.’ (It was) kind of scary diving headfirst into this endless-pool-type feeling, but we had each other,” Rice says. “I think the record really does reflect that time for us and what it felt like to be that band.”

Huge developments occurred in the Local Natives’ world before and after Gorilla’s release — positive buzz surrounding their 2009 South By Southwest appearances, several critical compliments for the album, ample touring (including a spell opening for Arcade Fire in 2011), a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and a show in which the band was backed by a chamber orchestra at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. At the same time, several less specific but equally important sources sparked in-band turbulence, too: the death of Ayer’s mother, nagging health issues in the group, personal relationships gone wayward and bassist Andy Hamm leaving Local Natives in 2011 because of “unresolved differences within the band.” 

The band has emphasized in interviews past and current that Hummingbird is about them going deeper and, compared to Gorilla Manor, offering a better representation of where they are now and where they want to go. 

“It’s much more expanded. That’s kind of the word we keep coming back to,” Hahn says. 

Songs are frail and spare (“Black Spot”), loud and raucous (“Wooly Mammoth,” “Black Balloons”) and experimentally inclined, too (the rhythm section for “Three Months” is assembled from drum samples cribbed from ‘60s Soul songs). Rice reads undercurrents of joy and catharsis throughout the album.

As for Hummingbird’s title, that stems from the lyrics of the solemn, piano-heavy “Colombia.” 

“That song has a very specific personal meaning to us, a very direct symbolization for us as a band within that song,” Rice says. “Beyond that, in the scope of the record, a hummingbird felt like the symbol for what these last couple of years and what this record means to us. 

“The hummingbird is this very slight, super fragile creature, but at the same time, it’s very powerful and has to flutter its wings a million miles per second to stay alive. When people see a hummingbird, it makes you stop whatever you’re doing in your life.”

LOCAL NATIVES play Covington’s Madison Theater on Monday with Superhumanoids. Click here for more info.

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