On paper, Local Natives' rise to indie-rock stardom reads like an overnight success story. The band's debut album, 2010's Gorilla Manor, was an immediate critical favorite, earning pivotal Pitchfork buzz with its dense, harmony-laden arrangements. In the intervening four years, they've released only one album, Hummingbird, from 2013, but they already feel like an institution, up there with career acts like Beach House and Grizzly Bear.
True to form for an indie-rock band in 2014, Local Natives have spent most of the past year on the road, promoting their new album. But, as singer and multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer notes, they've been "really spoiled"—when they aren't selling out their own headlining shows, they're opening packed arenas for Kings of Leon. Ayer is grateful for this head-spinning level of success, but he also realizes that their rise hasn't been half-assed or, in fact, anything close to overnight. They've earned it the hard way—by building chemistry over time.
Ayer and his bandmates Ryan Hahn and Taylor Rice have been playing together for 10 years, starting when they were high school students in Orange County, Calif. After graduating from UCLA together, the three recruited bassist Andy Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier for Gorilla Manor. (Hamm left the band in 2011 and was replaced by Nik Ewing.) That album showcased a surprising level of maturity and craftsmanship, utilizing the talents of three distinct singer/songwriters for intimate lyrical detail and epic, shape-shifting arrangements.
Hummingbird, produced by the National's Bryce Dessner, is even better, offsetting its lush production with dark, cathartic lyrics. "Colombia," the album's emotional centerpiece, finds Ayer mourning his mother's death over a slow-burning piano. Heavy stuff, and Ayer has spent the better part of the last 12 months revisiting those feelings onstage to sold-out crowds. But the burden has been lifting, he says, little by little.
"We've been letting it go for a year now, so it feels like a good feeling rather than a strain," Ayer says. "I think when we're sending the songs out to people, you can really feel the support. It almost does feel like therapy, like getting something off your chest. At this point, since we've played so many shows, the songs are so much easier to play. We've found that connection with the audience, not having to worry about how to play but just feeling the emotions."
It's interesting that, in a band full of individual songwriters, Ayer is able to channel such specific, personal emotions. As they wrote and recorded Hummingbird, Ayer and company often found themselves struggling to condense their respective visions in a way that satisfied everyone. That breadth of vision is Local Natives' biggest strength—and also their biggest creative challenge.
"I try to keep a healthy perspective on it all, but writing is emotional," Ayer says. "I think there's definitely an emotional response to that, where one day, I might push for things to be more in the direction I want. But with some reflection, I always come back to the fact that this is stuff I couldn't do on my own. It's a bigger thing when there's three songwriters putting the best material into this project that, if we worked a different way, it wouldn't work out. We are where we are because we have to swallow our egos a bunch and make something that works for everyone. At the end of the day, we're always searching for something bigger than ourselves. Whenever I get frustrated, I just try to step back and remind myself of what we're doing."
To Ayer, albums are merely "places in time," created without the benefit on hindsight. "[Hummingbird] is what we thought was the best thing to do at the time," he says. "Now we know all this stuff from that experience that will help inform the next album and help get it closer to executing our vision."
The seeds of that third album are already being planted, if slowly. After the insanity of the past year, Local Natives finally feel rejuvenated, ready to finish off their current tour on a high note and start fleshing out some new ideas in their rehearsal space once they hop off the road.
"I think slowly, after the holidays, we've started to creep back into work mode," Ayer says. "I definitely have a ton of stuff that I really want to work on, and I think the rest of the guys do, too. We definitely know how to navigate around each other, and we also know how to press each other's buttons. Sometimes that gets in the way, but things are in a really healthy place right now."