It’s 3:45 in the afternoon, and Local Natives are sweating through soundcheck in the unforgiving sunlight onstage at the Greek Theatre, where they will perform later in support of their new album “Sunlit Youth.” Right now, they are more than sunlit, they’re baked, a day of hometown-show stress behind them, 90 minutes of euphoria ahead.
In another half-hour, Ryan Hahn connects with his mother, who points out that Local Natives last played the Greek on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 and are about to play it on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. The bearer of numerological good omens is one of about 100 on the band’s gargantuan guest list, which includes Queen Latifah and some other L.A. luminaries.
If it’s bedlam, Local Natives, who’ve been road warriors since before their 2009 debut “Gorilla Manor” was released, aren’t fazed. “Everyone’s entire family is here, so the guest list is always a fiasco,” Hahn says during a moment doing press obligations, mercifully in the shade. “It’s always, ‘Who has an extra spot? Somebody give me an extra spot!’ You don’t see what when you’re touring the middle of the country.”
||| Photos by Michelle Shiers
And the L.A. quintet — Hahn, Taylor Rice, Kelcey Ayer, Matt Frazier and Nik Ewing — has done that. In 2013, the year their sophomore album “Hummingbird” came out, Local Natives played 188 shows and logged more than 119,000 miles. That’s equal to halfway to the moon.
It’s a test of mettle Local Natives have passed, solidifying the bonds (and the attitude) apparent in the music of “Sunlit Youth,” a record that sees the quintet growing their sound and outgrowing the downcast mood of “Hummingbird.” In place of the latter is an optimism that, as a generation, “we have some power and some agency to make our world into what we want it to be,” Rice says.
There’s something to be said for the notion that you really don’t know what your 20s are like until you’re out of them. And Local Natives — remarkably, all five were born about a year apart and are either 30 or 31 years old — just graduated. “I think a lot of this record was us processing that time in our lives,” Rice says. “Going through our 20s, touring, having this big exciting explosion with ‘Gorilla Manor’ and things going crazy, and then we have this huge dip with ‘Hummingbird.’ … We kind of came out of that existential crisis, that darker zone, and felt like really positive about our place in the world and our ability to have an effect. Being a little bit older, you see how crazy and chaotic the world can be, and there is a lot to potentially be depressed about. But what we focused on is what we could do.”
That’s articulated in the song “Fountain of Youth,” perhaps the least Local Natives-like song Local Natives have ever made. Like much of “Sunlit Youth,” it dials back the rhythmic complexities for which the quintet is known in favor of an anthemic sound and the stadium-sized rallying cry, “We can do whatever we want …”
“It was one of the thematic cores,” Rice says, adding that while factors like the Trump candidacy, Brexit and general worldwide turmoil fuel a “deep cynicism,” he sees “a turning of the page.”
People are sick of the general cynical nature of things, and they do have control over it.
“People are sick of the general cynical nature of things, and they do have control over it,” he says. “Look at the Bernie Sanders movement; people are idealistic and super fired up. I think there’s a strong vein of that.”
Not that Local Natives are being pollyanna. The single “Past Lives” acknowledges how hard it is to break free of old habits and patterns; “Coins” nods to humanity’s common ground and chasms (“We’re on the same side of different coins”); and “Mother Emanuel” feels “the weight of Carolina’s pain” in the wake of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston.
That’s the band “trying to make sense of seemingly horrible tragedies,” Hahn says. “They happen and they’re on the your screens everywhere, coming to you from far-off places. You feel helpless and you wonder, ‘Is there any way I can help?’ Sure, people get numb to it. But how do you make things better?”
In “Sunlit Youth,” the band addresses these affairs in a way that’s … native — although a cynic might say that’s easier to be hopeful in Los Angeles, a mecca for all that is progressive and artistic. Local Natives freely acknowledge their hometown’s influence. The album’s lead track, the guitar-less “Villainy” — a song about coming home and starting over — obliquely references Disney Hall, the “chrome palace” where Local Natives played a milestone show in May 2012.
People would say, ‘You’re from California, does that have any effect on your songwriting?’ And we’d say, ‘No, of course not, what are you talking about?’
“There was something funny that happened when we would tour outside California,” Hahn says. “People would say, ‘You’re from California, does that have any effect on your songwriting?’ And we’d say, ‘No, of course not, what are you talking about?’ Then after having gone to all these cold places, we get back home and realize that, yeah, it really has informed our our musical education. Now we just own it.”
Adds Rice: “Growing up in California, living in L.A., those things have a profound effect on your perspective.”
It’s a sentiment Rice would reiterate to the Greek Theatre crowd later (and one also expressed in the amphitheater at that show three years ago): “L.A. is the best place in the world.”
★ ★ ★
It’s 8:30 p.m. and the concert’s impressive opener, Canadian singer Charlotte Day Wilson, has finished up. One final piece of Local Natives’ pre-show routine remains. “We’ve had a few traditions over the years,” Hahn says. “I think the one that stays with us is gathering in a huddle and taking deep meditative breaths. Sometimes there’s so much chaos going on. But it’s important to come in, bring it together, set ourselves and focus on the next 90 minutes.”
They open with new songs “Past Lives” and “Psycho Lovers,” go back to the first album for “Wide Eyes” and then play “Villainy,” a song that more than any other on the new album sees the band experimenting with heavy synths and samples. Live, the song does not feel as out of place as it does in the quintet’s catalog, and the hometown crowd is more than willing to go wherever Local Natives take them.
We feel like this record is really diverse, and it really opens the door for us to do more musically.
In this case, it’s a place where, as Rice said earlier, the quintet truly “allowed ourselves to be creative. We feel like this record is really diverse, and it really opens the door for us to do more musically. We could do anything now.”
Bathed in orange light, Local Natives immerse themselves in that moment of derring-do before their set returns to the familiar, three songs from “Hummingbird” (“You & I,” “Breakers” and “Ceilings”) around the exuberant first single “Airplanes,” punctuated at the finish by Rice’s shout of “We love you!”
Then came the introduction of surprise guest Nina Persson of the Cardigans, “who flew over from Sweden to be with us” and sing on “Dark Days.”
“Heavy Feet,” “Coins” and “Mother Emanuel” followed, after which Rice told the audience how inspiring they (L.A.) had been during Local Natives’ soul-searching after “Hummingbird.” He then introduced “Masters” as a song the band had written after a trip to Nicaragua, then joined Ayer in a duet for the opening of “Colombia” and its thematically relevant confession, “Every night I ask myself / Am I giving enough?”
“Fountain of Youth” followed, every bit the mass sing-along you’d expect. We can do whatever we want. (Wink, like play guerilla show on the roof of their Silver Lake rehearsal space and not get in trouble.) We can say whatever we mean. (Like “I have waited so long, Mrs. President,” which earned squeals of delight from the Greek crowd).
“Who Knows Who Cares,” a chestnut by now for these fans, knowingly awaiting Ayer’s banging the floor tom, ended the main set. The electronics-heavy closer to the new album, “Sea of Years,” kicked off the encore before Local Natives finished the show as they often have in their sea of years, with the agitated rhythms of “Sun Hands.”
Back-to-back, the songs felt like bookends to Local Natives’ eight-plus years as “Sunlit Youth.”
“This album feels like this cap of a trilogy — this three-album album thing that ended our 20s and feels like a statement,” Rice had said in the afternoon shade.”And we’re already super-excited about going on and pushing ourselves farther.”