California five-piece Local Natives are halfway through a world tour. Guitarist and songwriter Ryan Hahn took time out to talk to The Spinoff about their experimental new album.
Local Natives’ latest album, Violet Street, is both a tribute to personal growth and a harkening back to the band’s roots. The southern Californian group released their first album, Gorilla Manor, in 2009. It was the product of the five band members all living, creating and writing together for days and nights on end.
Their next two albums were made more slowly. They played Coachella and Austin City Limits. They toured and wrote and married. A decade later, they returned to live-in chaos to make Violet Street. They locked themselves in an LA studio with notorious Grammy-winning engineer and producer Shawn Everett. Ryan Hahn called me from LA to explain the pandemonium behind Violet Street’s surprisingly dark and serene soundscape.
So what’s Violet Street about?
I think in some ways it’s taking stock and thinking about all the things we’ve learned, and expressing gratitude. I think something about this was a feeling of getting back to those more innocent times when you’re making your first record, too. You don’t really know what you’re doing, but you’re enjoying the experimentation and seeing what happens. I think with this record we kind of got back to some of those happy accidents.
I saw that you didn’t do any pre-production for this album, you just went in and did it all.
Yeah, that was totally new for us. We’ve always kind of tried to sketch it out, you know, figure out what we’re getting ourselves into. But working with Shawn — he’s a mad scientist, and every day we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was maddening but really fun.
Do you think you’ll repeat that process with the next album?
Yeah, we really enjoyed it! I think as you get older your time gets more precious, and when you’re working on music you want to focus on it and try to make it an intense, creative period instead of dragging it out. So I think this kind of process works for that. You go in with maybe a couple of sketches of songs that everyone’s kind of psyched on and make a time capsule of that specific moment.
I saw you do an album roughly every three years.
That’s not by design! It always pans out like that because you have to tour so much now; it just seems to be a process. We’re not one guy, calling all the shots, making music on his laptop. It does require a certain amount of time for us to play music together. I guess it’s just a different process.
Because you do a lot of performing live, do you find it helpful to play the same songs to a crowd with different experiments, and change things up?
There were some weird things that got put on the songs, and so it was interesting trying to figure out how to perform this album on tour. It was cool to see, by the end, how the songs had changed. They kind of morph into something else. Yeah, the live versions are so different from the initial album ones.
I read that with this album you borrowed techniques from Brian Eno and the Talking Heads. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah! Without getting too technical and boring about it, instead of playing the songs live we recorded different parts in these different tape loops. They’re physical tape loops; we had to run them from a machine out into the room, sometimes 20 feet away, around a pole or a microphone stand. We had all these tape loops going and then we were using the mixing console, all the faders, all of us were turning things up and down for different parts. It looked like the five of us playing Twister, you know? Like, right-hand green. It was kind of crazy because we had to do it in one take. It was like playing live, but we were doing it in this weird way. You couldn’t do it the same way twice.
It sounds like a pretty chaotic production method. Then there are five members of the band, plus Shawn – is that too many chefs?
We’ve learned when to trust each other, and when to cede control to somebody else. Me, Taylor, and Kelcey [Ayer], we write the songs and kind of argue and fight for a long time about lyrics and things like that. Then Nik [Ewing] and Matt [Frazier] are doing their parts. It can be a lot, but I think it worked for this album. Maybe the tension is good.
There must have been some tension, because the songs seem very personal.
If there’s anything we spend too much time on, it might be lyrics. We talk about them a lot with each other. I end up doing a large portion of the lyrics, even on songs that Taylor or Kelcey bring to the table. On a song like ‘When Am I Gonna Lose You’, which is a very personal song for Taylor, it was nice to have that kind of relationship where he could trust me to get the ideas across.
When you’re writing – not just lyrics, but music as well – what’s the goal?
It’s always with the goal of something that feels honest, and has some degree of depth to it. Because it has to pass this test, with all these band members, we can’t really let anything slide or let something pass that doesn’t measure up. You’re gonna be singing songs every night for weeks on end, and you need to be able to mean it and feel it in some way. That might give the song a longer life.
So what’s your favourite song off this album?
I really love ‘Megaton Mile’ and ‘Someday Now’. We put them next to each other on the album because it’s a different groove. I don’t know, we were listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye. The drums from ‘Someday Now’ are the same drums in ‘Megaton Mile’ but slowed down. Then, at the very end of ‘Someday Now’, we slow down the tape machine even more and it sounds like we’re in Bikini Bottom or something. I really like that.
You said you’re listening to Marvin Gaye. Is that what you all listen to in order to get hyped up and make music?
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We definitely all have our things. Kelcey loves really sad music, so he probably gets pumped up listening to the slowest Portishead song. I’ve got into making a lot of playlists, and Nik and I run a Spotify playlist of songs we’ve been listening to lately. For me a lot of it has been more groove-oriented stuff, more soul music, I guess a lot of 60s and 70s stuff.
Will we see that groove and soul come through in the next music you make?
Yeah, I hope so! It’s always cool when you see people dancing to a song, instead of just nodding along. We sometimes have people crying to stuff from our old records, but then getting really crazy for a song on the new one. I think it’s a very diverse show we have now.
Local Natives will be playing at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on July 22nd.
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