Bands, Interviews

Interview: Local Natives on David Byrne, Performing in Barns, and Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles”

Amy Rose Spiegel :: Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 12:45 pm

When I met Local Natives before one of their shows at Bowery Ballroom in May, its members were “running on no sleep, fumes, and coffee,” according to Kelcey Ayer, who sings and plays keyboards, percussion, and guitar in the band.  After playing at the Bowery in New York the night before, they had traveled to Philadelphia to perform for radio station XPN and then driven back to New York that night to play yet another Bowery show.  Despite their well-earned exhaustion, they and the opening band, Suckers, seemed to have no trouble impressing the crowd that night, which happened to include a very pensive-looking David Byrne.

It turns out the guys in Local Natives are as talented at keeping secrets as they are at creating fleshy, well-crafted pop songs.  Before the show, I had asked them if they had gotten any kind of reaction from Byrne regarding their excellent cover of a Talking Heads song, “Warning Sign.”

“We heard that he had heard it and enjoyed it.  We haven’t ever met him or heard from him personally, but we all have our fingers crossed because we’re all big fans and we hope to run into him at the right place, at the right time,” relates Andy Hamm, who sings and plays bass.  It turns out Hamm, along with the other crafty guys in the band, knew that the “right time” would happen later in the evening, but as they told me after the show, wanted it to be a surprise.

Ayers fondly remembers the first tentative feedback they had heard from Byrne about the song. “We just did the cover and didn’t think about what would happen next. We just wanted to cover a Talking Heads song. We were building it up in our heads, about how they’re obviously a huge band and it could be a really touchy subject for some people if you fuck with it in the wrong way. But we were stoked about how the cover came out, and when we heard that he heard the song and dug it, we all lost our shit in the middle of this restaurant in London.”  You know you’re having a good day when you’re traveling in Europe and getting love from the man who single-handedly made the 1980s worthwhile.

The band has worked hard to earn this kind of respect, which is also shared among critics and suckers for folk music with interesting, modern sensibilities. “It’s a workload,” says Ayer.  “It’s really interesting when this passion that you have becomes more of a job.  It’s strange how the juxtaposition of the two things works.  You have to be disciplined and get somewhere on time and not drink until eight o’clock in the morning because you have to perform the next night.  But I can’t imagine doing anything else, any other job.”

Hamm tried to juggle a career in fashion with playing with Local Natives, but it didn’t quite work out.  “It just got to a point where we were touring so much that my boss fired me.  He did it via e-mail.  He tried to keep me on, I’ll give him that.  He used to be a musician, so he was like, ‘Yeah, man!  Fashion and music go together!  I’m really happy your band’s doing well!” and then three weeks into it he was like, ‘My business is plummeting!  I need you here!’ But this is always what we all wanted to do.”

Many of the band members have shared not only musical chops, but living quarters as well.  “Kelcey, Matt and I lived together in Orange County for a long time, Taylor lived there for a year, year and a half, and then we lived in LA for a year, year and a half.  So about three years of living together,” says Ryan Hahn, who sings and plays guitar.  ”I’ve never really met anyone like them, both musically and personally,” says drummer Matt Frazier, so I’m guessing it was more or less domestic bliss.  This living arrangement probably helped them adjust to constantly being on the road, where having your own bench in the van is “a luxury,” laughs Ayers.

Among all the shows they’ve played on this decidedly lengthy tour, the one that might have looked the worst from an outside perspective ended up being the band’s favorite…even if they might have lost some equipment along the way. “We had one show in Nashville, and on paper it was a horror show for me.  My bass amp went out, and then I plugged into a new bass amp and a cord broke.  We even had to play one song twice.  But by the end of it, that crowd was going crazy.  It was one of those shows where everyone was having so much fun.  Something was in the air.  By the end of it, I was like, “This is so much fun!  I don’t give a shit about my amp anymore!  I don’t care if it’s broken!” says Hamm.  ”Something that could have been an awkward catastrophe to kill a show gave it more life and more nuance, more this feeling of ‘we’ll get through it together!’” agrees Ayer.

They like the kind of shows that are more like house parties than real venues, which has led to some weird engagements, including a wedding reception.  Don’t start picturing Local Natives covering ’80s power ballads, though.  ”I told [the bride] we weren’t a cover band, and she was like, ‘No, I love your music,’” says Hamm.  Although they didn’t exactly pounce on the opportunity to make a boozily congratulatory speech to a couple they barely knew, “I said some cheeky bullshit to the bride and groom,” says Hamm.

Right as we start discussing their “barnstormer” tour with Daytrotter, we get stormed in on in a way as well.  Quinn Walker, the lead singer of Suckers, appears in the stairwell where we’re sitting, and, oh, what an appearance it was.  He was fully decked out in full face-paint and a colorful sheet slung across his chest.  ”Can you read what it says on my face?” he asks us.  We squint, but no luck.  ”It’s a little Insane Clown Posse, right?”  He then delves into an impromptu performance of  ICP’s ”Miracles,” and the guys from Local Natives joined in immediately, decrying scientists and magnets as well as if they were natural-born Juggalos.  At that moment, it truly was magic all up in that bitch.  ”This is going to go good with what we’re talking about, man!” laughs Ayer.

So maybe killer clowns and acoustic performances in barns aren’t exactly a perfect pairing, but my interest quickly returned when they continued to tell me about playing in the rafters of a stable.  ”We’re a lot more comfortable in those kinds of smaller venues.  We’ve been having to kind of adjust to these bigger venues.  It’s less of a shock than it was, but it’s still pretty cool.  Like, two Bowery shows is pretty awesome.  This is one of our favorite venues,” says Ayer.  ”The atmosphere is great, the room sounds amazing, and people have always responded really well.  The shows we play in New York are usually pretty great.”  Aw, you’re nice too, guys.

Although they had a place to stay that night, they used to view lodging as a luxury during past tours.  ”This tour is the first tour in the U.S. that we’ve done that’s been mostly hotels, and then a few families and friends along the way.  It used to be vice versa.  We would either have a family friend or we’d just announce halfway through the set - if people were cheering, we’d sort of look at each each and be like, ‘Hey, if anybody has floor space, we don’t have any money and we need a place to stay!’  Which is actually what we prefer most of the time, but this time around it’s been nice to have a bed.  We’ve been really busy for this tour, so it’s been nice to get rest,” Hamm tells me.

They underscore this point by telling me about one particularly bad experience that they had staying with a bizarre show-goer who offered them a place to sleep in El Paso.  ”We followed him home on his motorcycle and he stayed up doing coke all night with his friends while we were trying to go to sleep!” says Ayer.

Hamm takes up the story from there.  ”Well, he was a bit older and he came to the show.  I think he was sober as can be at the end of the set, but there was a band playing after us.  He was like, ‘Hey, I have a really nice apartment!’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to wake up really early, we’d love to just crash out, we’re not in the mode to stay out all night.’  He was like, ‘Yeah!’  Flash forward to an hour later and we’re following him on his motorbike and we’re all in the van and he’s doing some zig-zags.  It’s to the point where you laugh the first time, and then the fifth time, you’re like ‘This guy’s going to die!  We’re going to witness a horrible accident!’”

“Come to find out, we get to his apartment, and he’s on - God knows what that guy was on.  He was drunk, and he was taking something, and it proceeded to just be a night of horror.  His apartment was not nice.  It was pretty unkempt!  He stayed up all night, and it was us trying to sleep while he was playing Linkin Park or something all night.”  ”Some sort of butt rock,” interjects Ayer.  ”Whatever it was, it was definitely not our first choice.”  They spent the rest of the night hiding from the Fred Durst enthusiast, as “any rationally-thinking person” would do, according to Ayer.  A note to fans: If you happen to meet Local Natives after a show, don’t offer to blow lines to ’90s mall-metal with them, in case you were thinking of offering.

Lucky for us New Yorkers, they’ll definitely keep coming back, after stopping off in Europe for the festival season.  They’ll continue to tour the states in the fall, including a stop at Governors Island on August 7th.  Their album, Gorilla Manor, is out now on Frenchkiss.