Local Natives overcame personal tragedy to record Hummingbird, an early contender for album of the year. Ahead of their UK tour, they tell Andy Welch about the painful inspiration behind it.
By Andy Welch
When their debut, Gorilla Manor, was released in 2009, Local Natives were pretty much unheard of. A bunch of friends living together in a shared house, they'd written the material at home and recorded it in a tiny studio in Orange County, California.
But a wave of four and five-star reviews rapidly rolled in, drawing comparisons to the likes of Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend, which kicked off the kind of word-of-mouth excitement that doesn't happen too often these days.
Soon, Local Natives found themselves embarking on an extensive tour that would last almost three years, taking them round the world twice over.
After such extreme start-up success, following up Gorilla Manor was never going to be easy.
Today the band's guitarists, Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn, are in London, collapsed on a large leather sofa in their management office. Whether it's jetlag or delayed exhaustion from working so hard on their second album, the pair look tired.
They explain how, unlike first time round, they decided to work with a producer this time: Aaron Dessner of US indie stars The National.
"We went on tour with The National at the end of 2011, and we just hit it off [with Dessner]," says Rice.
The band had previously been against bringing in a producer, believing it was too difficult to explain what they wanted to sound like to a third party. That Dessner would get involved was something of a tour joke initially, but upon returning to LA and meeting with other producers, they realised it made perfect sense.
"He was on holiday in Hawaii when we finally emailed him to ask him, but he replied straight away and said yes. He was so excited. As were we," Rice adds.
Unlike some producers, whose fingerprints will be all over whatever they've worked on, Dessner's mark on Hummingbird is subtle - but that's not to say it's insignificant.
"There's much more space on the album," says Hahn. "That comes from having more confidence in our focused ideas, and we didn't feel the need for all four of us to be playing something all of the time.
"And Aaron pushed us to be spontaneous and to keep our first takes or leave in mistakes. Quite often he'd say, 'Right, we're recording', and we'd be like 'We're not ready, I don't know what to play', but he'd just tell us to get on with it. That brought up some great moments, just playing and seeing what came out."
Rice adds: "We had no idea how this record was going to come out beforehand. None at all. It's a very direct, personal album, and I think we really eliminated that wall between the song as it was written and how we imagined it, and how it is actually expressed on the album."
In 2011, Local Natives parted ways with bass player Andy Hamm. They describe the split as "devastating", but won't really go into more detail.
There was another, more serious event that year too - the death of main vocalist Kelcey Ayer's mother. Much of Hummingbird deals with the loss, or death in general, and where Gorilla Manor had moments of out-and-out boisterousness, this follow-up is strong yet sombre, heartbreaking even.
"Things got pretty difficult for a while that year," says Hahn. "We've all been friends since school, and we hang out so much, so when something happens to one of us, it kind of happens to all of us. All of us feel it.
"There was other stuff going on, relationships breaking down back home because we'd been on tour so long, Andy was gone, and then the death of someone close to us all. I don't know how much more I want to say about that."
In truth, he doesn't have to say much more. Ayer's lyrics on Hummingbird say it all. The penultimate track Colombia is the most honest, recounting his mother's final moments.
"The day after I had counted down all of your breaths, down until there were none," he sings.
"A hummingbird crashed down in front of us, and I understood all it did for us."
The rest of the song, set to glorious harmonies and gentle piano, deals with Ayer's subsequent fear that his mum might not have known how much he loved her, and later the promise to her that he won't make the same mistake again with those close to him - "Every night I'll ask myself, am I giving enough?"
It's difficult to listen to, once you know the story behind it, but at the same time, mesmerising.
"We almost didn't want to add any extra vocals to that because it's so personal," says Rice.
When things looked most bleak, the band, now a foursome, decided to take themselves off to the Joshua Tree National Park, not too far a drive from LA and isolate themselves from everything happening around them.
"We just had to get away," says Hahn. "We all lived together on the first record, so we wanted to get back to that, just us."
"It was a concentrated time for us," says Rice. "I think we got three of the songs for the record written in an eight-day period. Normally we slave and slave and slave over them, but these just flowed. That was a nice time, and it added a burst of spontaneity to the record that I think we were missing beforehand."
Now it's done, they can reflect on Hummingbird differently. Hahn wanted to make an album he'd be proud of when he's old and grey, and is satisfied they've done so.
"To go through what we have, and come out of it like this, I think that's a real achievement. People might say there's a sadness on the album, but I think there's a sense of elation. Recording it was definitely catharsis, and it will be good to play these songs."
Rice, meanwhile, hopes the album will propel Local Natives to a new league.
"Playing live has always been more important to us than anything else, and the tour in February is going to be fantastic, I can't wait. But I always wanted our second album to take our music to another level, and then for the band to follow suit. We're ready, and sound better than ever."
Extra time - Local Natives :: Local Natives are Kelcey Ayer, Taylor Rice, Ryan Hahn and Matt Frazier.
:: The band came together in Orange County, when Ayer, Rice and Hahn were friends at Tesoro High School. Cavil At Rest was an early name, before they changed it to Local Natives.
:: The trio were joined after university by Andy Hamm, who eventually departed in 2011, and drummer Matt Frazier.
:: Gorilla Manor was named after the house they shared in bohemian Los Angeles district Silver Lake, :: Hummingbird was recorded between studios in Montreal and Brooklyn (where Dessner lives) and in their own, self-built facility in LA.
:: Local Natives' second album Hummingbird is out now. They begin a UK tour in Leeds on February 8. Tour dates February: 8 - Leeds Brudenell Social Club 9 - Edinburgh Electric Circus 11 - Dublin Whelan's 12 - Liverpool Kazimier 13 - Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms 14 - London Scala