A decade after ‘Young Blood’ was released, The Naked and Famous are still making hits. Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith talk about their early years in Auckland, their present in locked-down LA, and how their new album was forged in between it all.
A decade ago, there was a script musicians in New Zealand could follow: become successful in Auckland, get a record deal in London, and move home after two years. When the album Passive Me, Aggressive You – and its breakout single ‘Young Blood’ – whipped The Naked and Famous away from Auckland and into the bright lights of Los Angeles, they tore up that script. The band’s core duo, Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith, never came home.
Powers remembers saying to himself, “We have to stay overseas, we have to maintain this, we have to not come back to New Zealand.”
They’d always aimed high, which attracted some ire from fellow indie musicians. In the years before they left our shores, Auckland was in a guitar boom. “There were a whole lot of bands in the wake of The Strokes,” Powers said. Even they weren’t immune; when The Naked and Famous started out, they just wanted to open for the Mint Chicks.
“I remember we went to a Mint Chicks gig at The Kings Arms and we tried to give them a flyer,” said Xayalith. “We used to hustle.”
After experimenting with synths and getting an EP featured in the Herald on Sunday despite never having played a live show, it was clear The Naked and Famous had bigger aspirations than a couple of years abroad. “We got so much shit for it,” said Powers of having the EP featured. “We had all these snobby, pretentious – I don’t even know if you could call it pseudo-philosophical, because I don’t know what the philosophy was – but we received so much angry tall poppy syndrome for doing that.”
Now, 10 years on and happily set up in LA, they’re far removed from the New Zealand music scene; and their sound is nothing like the Mint Chicks’.
While the band’s members have changed over the years, Xayalith and Powers have always stayed the course, even when it involved their public break-up, a process detailed in the 2016 album Simple Forms. Simple Forms was emotionally heavy, both to make and to listen to. Hit single ‘Higher’ is still a mainstay of break-up playlists.
Their new album, Recover, is more uplifting, despite the subjects and titles of songs ‘Death’ and ‘Bury Us’. The tone of Recover is bright and vibrant, while lyrically a little more complicated. “I feel like Simple Forms was very stoic,” said Powers. “It was a very serious rock album, and this is a very bright, electronic-leaning album.”
Despite the album’s positive outlook, its lyrics are rarely overtly happy. On ‘Death,’ they sing: “And we both like the idea of / A checkered kitchen floor / And dying by the ocean side / Maybe there’s nothing more?”
It’s a lovely sentiment, but one that strikes a little more melancholic than most love songs. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to create easy, throwaway, happy-go-lucky kind of music,” said Powers. “We just end up laughing.”
Lead single ‘Sunseeker’ is as close as they get to full-on pop music happiness. It’s about Xayalith’s dog, and is a bright, booming ode to unconditional love.
It’s not really the time for optimism. LA is still in lockdown, and it doesn’t look like the situation will improve any time soon.
They’re currently figuring out how they can promote an album in the middle of a pandemic, and – like most musicians – they’re heartbroken over what’s happened to their industry. At the beginning of the year they put all their time and money into a tour: on pre-production, on auditioning a drummer, on relearning old material and perfecting the new; and then, soon after touchdown in Australia, Covid-19 took over.
“We had four band members lined up for that show, and five crew,” said Powers.
“All the other shows we’d scheduled on the side that were going to cover costs have been cancelled. It’s a big financial loss for us. It was gutting.”
“We’re coming to terms with how we can be creative, because touring isn’t an option any more,” said Xayalith.
Earning money from streaming only works if you’re at a certain point in your career, which, thankfully, is a threshold Xayalith and Powers meet. They’ve got enough to live on, but their careers have been ripped away from them.
“I literally spent months just crying, trying to make this record, and I don’t know how it’s going to be received or how far it’s going to reach,” said Xayalith. “It wasn’t an easy process, so the idea of not being able to promote it by touring – it’s devastating. I feel ripped off. I feel cheated.
“I don’t want to just forget about this record I’ve laboured over for the past two years.”
Talking about the album after it’s been made is one way the artists can step back from their work, and appreciate their own efforts. “It does feel like the opportunity to talk about the album has kind of been ripped away from us,” said Powers.
The Naked and Famous have always had music more famous than they are. “We’re an art-first, music-first band, and sometimes that’s been to our detriment,” said Powers.
They don’t get bugged when they walk down the street, but they also don’t get the respect from labels that celebrity can give a musician. “We’ve had people turn us down because they don’t hear a second ‘Young Blood’,” said Powers.
“They don’t care unless you’re making all of the money. Apparently making some of the money isn’t good enough,” he said. “It’s really strange, and maybe that’s the downside of the unbridled capitalism that exists in this country.
“I wish we could cash in on rolling out of bed and saying something stupid,” he said. “I wish I could name my child after some maths equation and make cash out of it.”
Instead, he and Xayalith have written one album about their break-up and another one about how they’ve maintained their friendship, formed new relationships, and all the strife and struggle that happened in between.
Before it was even released, Recover had heavy hitters: ‘Bury Us’ played during halftime at an NFL game, reaching 15 million viewers. ‘Sunseeker’ was number one on Triple J’s most played. If there’s one thing you want to do, it’s let The Naked and Famous talk about their album.
This content, like Recover, was made possible with help from NZ On Air.
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