By the time the Local Natives' Kelcey Ayer croons the first words to the lead-off track of his band's new album Hummingbird, he sounds tired and beaten, his high tenor a lonesome wail lamenting lost love. Local Natives' latest is a far cry from the band's exuberant debut Gorilla Manor, the sunny harmonies and multicultural quirks of which brought to mind Animal Collective's shiny, happy psychedelia, Fleet Foxes festival-tent folk-rock, and the Talking Heads' Afrobeat pop. Its formula was a winning one.
On the strength of the expansive and scrappy single "Sun Hands" — not to mention a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork — Gorilla Manor reached No. 3 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart and garnered rave reviews. And with success came rewards. The band built its own rehearsal space and recording studio in its hometown of Los Angeles and landed primo opening slots for bands like Arcade Fire and the National.
"We did pretty much three years of touring non-stop," drummer Matt Frazier says about the band's Gorilla Manor era. And it was the band's time with the National that proved most fruitful. The band tapped National guitarist Aaron Dessner to produce Hummingbird, decamping in Dessner's Brooklyn studio after initial tracking in Montreal.
"[Dessner] felt like the right fit because he comes from such a similar environment of being in a band that's a collaborative band with a lot of egos and opinions," Frazier says. "We're also so collaborative and everyone's so opinionated, so he knew when to push and pull with us."
Dessner co-wrote three of Hummingbird's 12 songs, but his influence is readily apparent across the board, as on "Heavy Beat" and "Wooly Mammoth," which mimic the National's steady, somber charge. The lead single "Breakers" is also built on that same brooding insistence, rising and falling like tides between delicate verses and rushing choruses.
But make no mistake — the Local Natives of Gorilla Manor, the one that pitched a tent between Technicolor indie rock and stonily serious folk, is not gone. They've just grown up.
"We had never worked with a producer before," Frazier says. "We were nervous about bringing someone in, creatively. But [Dessner] really fit in as kind of a fifth member during the recording process. He pushed us ... to do things we probably wouldn't have tried in the past."
But Dessner's role as a fifth band member — and, indeed the band's growth as a whole — was borne out of necessity: Bassist Andy Hamm left the Local Natives in 2011, right as the group was peaking, leaving it a quartet. It's a split the band described to Pitchfork as "heartbreaking," and just one of the many lows the band's members hit as the unit was reaching its highest points. Hummingbird is a darker record, Frazier concedes, built on the emotional framework of finding oneself stretched between those opposite poles.
"We didn't have this meeting where we said, 'Oh, this is what we're going to write about and this is how it's going to sound," he says. "It was all very natural and very organic, and I think the lyrical content was similar in that we had these amazing moments, and then we hit a lot of really dark times, some of the most trying times we've gone through as individuals."
Indeed, one of those trying times led to one of Hummingbird's most beautiful moments: the elegiac "Colombia," a song written by Ayer after his mother suddenly died last summer. As the song swells in orchestral complexity around its plaintive piano riff, Ayer offers this arresting bit of catharsis: "If you never felt all of my love/ I pray now/ You do/ Oh, every night I ask myself/ Am I giving enough?"
"It was cathartic for him to write these songs that reflected on his experiences with her and her passing," Frazier says of Ayer. "I think that's the key word for this record — cathartic. It feels very much like this reflective experience of what we've been through in the past couple of years."