October 13, 2016

The term “sunlit youth” evokes many feelings — ones of nostalgia, warm weather, salty hair and sandy skin. For Local Natives, it is the name of their third album and signifies a breakthrough, not only in sound but in message. It is about Los Angeles. It is about empowerment. It is about looking forward.

In 2014, the band was wrapping up a marathon six-year stint of near-constant touring of their first two albums, 2009’s Gorilla Manor and 2013’s Hummingbird, the latter of which saw the vibrant rockers pulling from the depths of their emotional repositories.

“It’s a very cathartic record,” vocalist and guitarist Taylor Rice says. “It felt like we had to wrench these songs out of our souls in a way. It was really hard work, but necessary work.”

They ditched their hometown of Los Angeles and holed up in New York City with Aaron Dessner of The National, who produced the record, which saw the band dealing with death, breakups. Though tinged with a somber ominousness, Hummingbird still featured the grand vocal harmonies and sprawling instrumentation of Gorilla Manor.

On Sunlit Youth, which is available now at UO, the band returns to the sunshine, to their Southern California roots. The album is not a return to form, but instead, an expansion on what the past ten years playing together has taught them.

“It felt like reconnecting with L.A. and our hometown,” Taylor continues. “We found it to be this incredible, inspiring place and we’re so happy to be home. L.A. served as this setting and character. It’s one of the threads throughout the album.”

Experimenting with more R&B and electronic-influenced sounds, in addition to featuring social commentary in their lyrics — the bassline on “Coin” is deep and groovy, while Taylor bellows a battle cry of “And if we don’t change / Then who will change?” on “Fountain of Youth” — Local Natives have established themselves as a band who can evolve in the ever-changing landscape of contemporary music.

“We’re a lot more confident and we feel a lot more realized in what our strengths and abilities and capacities are as a band and how we work together,” Taylor tells us. “It feels like a really free time.”

Lead photo by Brian Sheffield, photos below by Nathaniel Wood

What was going on in the grander scheme of all of your lives when this album was coming together?

The broad stroke of that was coming off of this six-year insanity run, at the end of which was Hummingbird, and playing these cathartic songs over and over. It felt like this big cloudy mist was clearing out and we found ourselves at home. Now we’re all 30-years-old, looking at the world and feeling like it is very complex and crazy and it can be hard to feel like you have agency in ways. It can feel very chaotic and concrete, but actually, the world is really malleable and it’s made up new all the time and if you push on it, there’s actually an effect. That’s how we felt: this empowered feeling. We had this feeling of being in control of making the album that we wanted to make — not that we knew how, but feeling that we could do it if we could commit ourselves to the cause, which we did. Most of the record was made in L.A. in our own studio and in a couple other studios, but we ended up going all over the world to mostly super sunny places. We did a recording session in Thailand and Nicaragua and Joshua Tree and these songs have little pieces of all over the world in them. It felt like a positive and empowered time in our lives.

How is Sunlit Youth different from your previous albums?

There’s this one song, “Fountain of Youth” which is different for us. Most of our songs are personal and about our lives and relationships and we draw off of that lyrically almost all the time. “Fountain of Youth” is an outward-looking song. We’re going through this really insane election in America, but it’s mirrored throughout the world. There’s a struggle happening right now between these two sides. One is unity and progressive and love and one is division and fear. If you look at where all of the next up-and-coming generation is, they already know the right way that the world is supposed to go. We know how to make the world into the world that it should be — it may be a really long, crazy hard fight but I felt very optimistic about it.

Do you think it’s important for artists to look outward and make observations on the world as they see it?

That’s another thing that we had gone through, realizing that we do have a voice. Everybody does. The way that activism and acts of resistance and the way that they unfold is super tricky and there’s this crazy domino effect. You never end up knowing what your reach could end up being. It’s vital to look at the world and see the problems, but address them in a positive way — in a way that feels like we can overcome these things. There have been some victories in the last couple years like the LGBTQ movement. That’s been hard fought for over 60 years and it feels like in the last couple years, popular opinion toppled over with it. There’s an era of going in the right direction.

Do people frequently ask you what you were doing in the three years between Hummingbird and now Sunlit Youth?

It’s a big world, there are a lot of places to go and visit and that’s super important to us. Seeing our show live is an important aspect of connecting with us as a band, so we make it a point to not leave out as many countries and cities as possible. A lot of it was touring and we certainly had a pretty big reset. When we came home from Hummingbird, that was the end of six years, from making Gorilla Manor to touring it and then we went straight into a darker time for us, which was Hummingbird. We made a lot of that in New York, we were away from home and toured that super heavy.

It’s interesting how geography plays a huge role in someone’s creativity.

When we made our first record, people, especially internationally, but even on the east coast and around the U.S., would really say, “Oh, you’re this Southern California band. You’re these guys that grew up together and have been playing together since you were kids in Southern California. Has that affected your sound?” And it sort of went over our heads. We didn’t really see how it directly connected. You get out and tour the world and now it’s really obvious to us how much living in Southern California, being exposed to the Beach Boys and all these harmony bands and living in the sun all the time has this profound impact in our lives in a way that comes out in the music.

When Gorilla Manor was being released, there was a lot of press that labeled you as a buzz band from L.A. Do you feel like you’ve escaped that label — or do you even want to escape that?

[With Hummingbird,] we had this desire to go somewhere more dark and dreary and that’s the state that we were in. But for this album, we don’t want to escape that. We feel proud of holding up that mantle and being an L.A. band and that feels really great for us. That city has been so important to us throughout our whole career. L.A. is having this amazing cultural moment right now where it’s at the top of the game. It’s a place where you can make dreams become realities.

How do you think the “indie rock” landscape has changed since Local Natives has been active?

Even that term feels almost inapplicable now. There was this height where everybody fully embraced that. Everybody agreed on what it meant and it’s really fallen away. We’re certainly not alone in the way that boundaries and genres are overlapping so much. Electronic and hip-hop and rock music have been overlapping. On this record, it was important for us to throw out that rulebook of “This is what a Local Natives song has to be.” We had this one rule where to follow the excitement and if there was an idea you were excited about, then you could do it. This is our most diverse. We have a song with no guitars and we have a song that’s super soul and R&B influenced. We’ve sampled a lot on this album.

What were some of those exciting things you chased after?

One thing that kicked the record off was one of the very first songs, a song called “Villainy.” Villainy” was created on a laptop by Ryan when we were still on tour at the end of Hummingbird. When he made it, he wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a Local Natives song because it was so different for us, but we really loved it and started singing on it and messing with it. There was this one idea of layering this huge 7-part chord and we’ll all triple it and it’s got this big Beach Boys-like chorus on it. When you open yourself up, you can have an idea and try it. It doesn’t have to fit this specific format. “Villainy” was this really early breakthrough. Another early one is “Past Lives.” That is a song that I brought to the band and I had it really simply on guitar. Maybe our normal process was the five of us jam in a room and that’ll be a starting point. Instead, let’s deconstruct it and what else can we do? We replaced the guitar and the rhythm with this super weird bass part that carries the song along and then added this electronic dance beat underneath for part of it. We had so much fun doing it. Writing this record, especially with the context of Hummingbird, which was us processing a heavy or more difficult time. With this album, we’re in such a different place and feeling like we had gotten that out of our system and feeling like we could be free and open. It was a positive creative environment.

Did you need to have that breakthrough on Hummingbird to get to this point?

It’s a part of our story. We had no control over it. Deaths in the family, breakups and band members moving on — all of that combined with this existential second album pressure. Our collaboration was definitely processing those things in whatever way we can. It didn’t feel like we had a choice at the time, but looking back now, I very much feel glad that we went through that.

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