Local Natives on the Power of Possibility and The Best Concert They Ever Played

The "hardest working band in the world" is back. After years of silence following their heartbreaking 2013 album Hummingbird and a massive globetrotting tour to support it, they just released the considerably more optimistic followup Sunlit Youth on Friday. Now they're hitting the road again, and they'll be performing at Tempe's Marquee Theatre tonight. We talked to songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Taylor Rice about his favorite destinations across the globe, playing his dream venue, and writing songs through what feels like divine intervention.

"The whole thing was kind of imbued with this feeling of possibility. Like, the world is complicated and is a chaotic place, but you have the ability to have your influence on it and it is this thing of openness and possibility."

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New Times: You guys must have touring down to a science by now. Do you have all your routines totally figured out? Like "This is my favorite hotel chain, this my favorite road snack," that sort of thing?
Taylor Rice:
Yeah, for sure. You definitely acquire tricks of the trade over time. A lot of it does get easier and more streamlined, but then it's so cyclical. We did just do a tour in Europe for a little bit that was kind of a pre-album promo type of tour, but not quite the same thing. But for this tour, it really feels like "Okay, here we go, we're embarking." And it's been years since we've done it, so you also kind of forget everything. Like, I remember I didn't bring earplugs or my own pillow on the bus for Europe, which are vital essentials. There's this whole routine you have to do to sleep on the bus, and I totally forgot because it had been, like, two-and-a-half, three years since we'd done that. But yeah, I definitely think you find your groove and find what works for you and find the little things that keep touring super fun and keep you going.

I don't know what metric you would even use to determine this, but do you feel like you could say what's the best show you've ever played?
I actually can, yeah. There's one favorite show in my life and that's when we played the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which is that Frank Gehry building where the Philharmonic plays. That show was very special because we played with a full orchestra, which we had spent about two months making orchestral arrangements of our songs for. That actually had been kind of my biggest life goal and dream. Like, two years before that I went to UCLA for school, and in my very last class, it was an architecture class, and my professor was on the board for getting that building made, and she took us on this private tour with just 15 of us. And there was this woman, this master organ player, rehearsing in the room, but it's one of the most perfect sonic rooms created. Kind of like a spare-no-expense super incredible space. And she was playing this organ and literally in the silences it would take my breath away. The silence would fill you up and the sound would completely envelop your being, and it was this pretty spiritual experience. And also it's my favorite building architecturally. I just think it's beautiful.

So that was 2008, and after that I said my highest goal for each tour would be to play in this building one day. And we played it in 2011, which was sort of much quicker than I thought that goal would come. So that one really stands out for me. There are a few others, but that one was just so special, especially because it was with an orchestra, and I love doing arrangements and things like that.

How did it feel hearing yourself in those perfect acoustics of that building?
The sound is really interesting there. We did half the set kind of just with the quartet and half with the full orchestra, and you can just hear everything in that room so well. It's a very awesome experience. And it's almost in a round - most of it's in front of you, but there's people off to the sides and some behind you as well, so it had a very intimate kind of feel.
So let's talk about your new album, Sunlit Youth. Did you have any goals or overarching themes you wanted to explore going into this one?
Yeah, we did. The context for making Sunlit Youth was that, like you mentioned, touring was super crazy for our second record, Hummingbird. And that record was made out of dealing with a lot of difficult things in our lives, and it's kind of a darker, more cathartic record with these songs that we kind of had to wrench out of ourselves. Then we just toured it and toured it and toured it, and it's so great to have that catharsis, that release, but then by the end of that touring cycle we'd really wrung it out of ourselves. We were in a different place, and we found ourselves at home in L.A. in this very positive, very excited place. So the conversations that we had were "Let's follow this idea that the only rule is that we have to be excited and chase that, and we'll throw away the rulebook of what a Local Natives song has to be or how it's made."

So we really opened up our creative process, and it ended up being really really fun to make this record. We made it mostly in L.A., but we also traveled around the world and made some of it in Thailand and Nicaragua and Ojai [California] and these cool places, and we wrote like three times the amount of songs that we have for our last two records. And the whole thing was kind of imbued with this feeling of possibility. Like, the world is complicated and is a chaotic place, but you have the ability to have your influence on it and it is this thing of openness and possibility. And I think that theme runs throughout the record, even lyrically, and I know for us musically that was the feeling while making Sunlit Youth.

I've been thinking about those ideas since you talked about them in the statement that came out along with "Past Lives." Obviously those themes play into your music lately, but does it also play into the way you live day to day?
You know, that's the ideal. I think that we were really successful with that while making this album, but life can get hard, and getting ready for the release and doing all these other things, being in a band, you have to put on these other aspects besides when you're just being creative and making music. We had to get ready for the tour and for the album release, and it introduces all these other types of stress. But it is a bit of a mantra that we keep repeating and just saying, "Let's just follow what feels good here and that's going to help things kind of take care of themselves." If we follow that path, I think that we can really trust that. It's been tougher since we've been done writing the record, but we're still very much in that ideal in our personal lives for sure. And then also, most of our writing has always been very interpersonal and all about our relationships and our lives, all very autobiographical. And this record is no exception except for that it also takes a step back and looks at the world as a whole and what's going on, and what's going on politically in America right now, and also what we heard from across the world, and there's been some crazy polarized situations. And I think it's important to have that mindset as well, that we all have the power to influence the world in that way. And obviously that's still very precious and on our minds in this moment.

You guys are historically very collaborative in your songwriting. Is there any one member that tends to take charge or is it equal all the way through?
Well, that is one of the things that we changed up for this album cycle. I think the first two record were much more the five of us in a room, and that's how a Local Natives song really gets its soul and its form. It has to kind of come together in that format. And we wanted to open ourselves up from that, because on some level that's gonna produce a similar result. Kelcey [Ayer]and Ryan [Hahn] and I are the songwriters in the band, and all of us have gotten much better at producing on our own and we're interested in making different types of music and breaking boundaries, where I can use a '60s drum sample, or a choir of 30 voices, the kind of ideas that won't necessarily come together with five guys in a room.

So as you were doing more songwriting on your own, were there things you discovered about yourself as a songwriter that you hadn't had the chance to access in a while?
Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, we're all growing over time as songwriters. Maybe one example is that we really pushed ourselves to have lyrics done and as an integral part of the song earlier in the process, knowing that the lyrics have to really be speaking emotionally and working at a level for a song to reach the place we want it to. So we put a lot of effort, or just impetus, on that. I think when you're a younger songwriter, it's easy to make these melodies and these beautiful sounds, and at least for us, we'd sometimes say, "Oh, I don't want to tie myself into the lyrics yet," so you just do some gibberish and you figure it out later. But you can kind of back yourself into a wall if you do that from a songwriting perspective. So that was something we pushed ourselves on, and I think to a really good result. I think lyrically all the guys are really excited about their lyrics on the record, and for me it feels like a breakthrough.

And then the other thing I learned about it is that, trying to be in that place of just following that excitement and allowing yourself to kind of run wild, sometimes songs would feel, like, hand-delivered to you. The whole thing would just come out. I had that experience with "Fountain of Youth." I was out in Los Angeles, I was outside somewhere, and I kind of heard the chorus and this melody and this lyric, and it grabbed my attention, and I was like, "Okay, I need to go home right now." And I went home, and most of the song - all the melodies and the structure and most of the lyrics - all came out within the next 40 minutes. Usually that's a many months process. So it doesn't always happen, but I think being open to that inspiration, to when a lightning bolt can strike you, is really important as a songwriter, to just be aware and open to that kind of thing. I think all of us had different types of that experience.

That sounds like the kind of songwriting process you see in a bad movie about a songwriter.

There are so many classic songwriters, like Neil Young or Dylan, who tell this story of feeling like songs are delivered to them in some way. It can make you feel frustrated, because it doesn't always happen, but certainly being alone and allowing yourself to be in your own space is helpful. Because collaborating is awesome, but it can slow down the channeling of that inspiration, at least in that raw form.