“We can do whatever we want,” goes the chorus of “Fountain of Youth,” a single from Local Natives’ latest album, Sunlit Youth — an album that, as a whole, seems to prove that the Los Angeles-based band have taken that mantra to heart. Sunlit Youth takes the sound that the band established on its first two albums, 2009’s Gorilla Manor and 2013’s Hummingbird — and presents it with a new sheen. Where once the band had relied on strings for atmospherics, the new album shows a newfound affinity for synthesizers and sampling. Or, at other times, the band switches up genre completely, with songs like “Coins” inching closer to a slinking guitar-based R&B that hints at the influence of D’Angelo.
It’s certainly a transitional record, with the band trading the introspective focus of Hummingbird for something a little more scattershot, but there’s something just as rewarding about watching the indie band broaden its sonic palette. (And songs like “Villainy” remain the catchy sing-along quality that made the band so magnetic in the first place.) Recently, the band’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer spoke about pushing the band’s sound forward and the album’s globetrotting writing process.
Weld: When you first listen to Sunlit Youth, it’s pretty clearly written from a much happier state-of-mind than Hummingbird was.
Kelcey Ayer: I think that Hummingbird was this thing that we had to get out of our system. [After Gorilla Manor], my mother passed away and we had all this inner turmoil in terms of relationships between band members and their [families]. It just was a heavy time, so we just needed to get it out of our system and that’s what Hummingbird was.
Once that was out and we toured it to almost no end, it felt like we’d stepped out of this fog and felt this comfort in being happy again, this comfort in being able to feel joy again. That definitely had a lot to do with the tone of this new album.
Weld: Did that also have something to do with the broader range of musical styles you explore on Sunlit Youth?
Ayer: Absolutely, yeah. I think I feel a little more comfortable in my own skin, a bit more confident as a songwriter, and I think that led to us having some sort of epiphany that we can really do anything that we want to do, creatively. If we wanted to go down an electronic path, or if we wanted to go down a straight folk-song path, we could do that and give it a shot and trust that we tried something [even] if it doesn’t work. I think a couple of things did work, and that’s what made it onto the album. It felt pretty freeing to be able to go to places we’d never been before.
Weld: One major element to Sunlit Youth that hasn’t been a part of your sound before is a strong electronic influence. Did incorporating those sounds change your writing process at all?
Ayer: As of lately, over the last few years, we’ve just been listening to a lot more electronic music and hip-hop and pop music. Our goal is always to write music that we’d like to hear and music that gets us excited. We’ve just been having these influences of more-produced music. You can’t really get the weirder sounds that you get from sampling when you have five guys in a standard rock-band set-up in a room. So this time around, Taylor [Rice] and Ryan [Hahn] and myself produced songs out by ourselves, and then we’d bring songs to the band. I think each of us brought like 12 or 15 songs to the table. In the past, that’s all we’d been able to write collectively because it’s just harder to get people to agree.
Weld: With Hummingbird, you worked pretty intensively with the National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced the album. The collaborations with outside artists on Sunlit Youth seem much less intensive.
Ayer: Aaron had such a more-intense role. He helped produce the entire record of Hummingbird. And on this record, I think we just were in the headspace of, “If it feels good, then do it.” We didn’t really have somebody like that. We were producing it on our own. We were able to get some friends to collaborate here or there, like Little Dragon. We’re big fans of theirs. And then we got Nina Persson from the Cardigans to sing on “Dark Days.” And Moses Sumney, who sings on “Jellyfish” — he’s an L.A. artist that’s just an amazing singer-songwriter with this beautiful, soulful voice.
Weld: A lot of this record was written all over the world, in Nicaragua, Thailand and Hawaii, to name a few places. How did those different locations influence the album?
Ayer: It was all circumstantial. We didn’t aim to travel to all these different places from the get-go, but we had this offer to play in Malaysia. We almost didn’t take it, but the head of our U.K. label has a friend who owns a studio in Thailand, and we did the math and saw that it was a short flight away from Malaysia, and so we just turned it into a writing and recording trip. We played that show in Malaysia, hopped over to Thailand, and spent two weeks there working on the record. That was basically the first writing sessions that started off making Sunlit Youth.
When we got back, we realized how amazing it was to get ourselves out of our typical day-to-day routine and just immerse ourselves in a situation where you’re in a completely new place and you have completely new things to mess around with and environments to get used to, and that affects music in ways you can’t predict. It’s almost like you don’t know what kind of good stuff you’re going to get out of it. But I think we learned that the more we’re switching things up, the more it’s stirring the pot.
Weld: It’s interesting, though, that so much of the record’s lyrics seem to be centered around Los Angeles.
Ayer: It’s funny, because we wanted to switch things up, but then we also wanted to really get to know our home city. We’d been touring for so long that when we came back, it kind of felt like we were strangers in our own town. So we really wanted fight that and put our roots down and really get to know Los Angeles again. I feel like it’s feeling this cultural epicenter where people are really willing to come to L.A. from their different corners of the world and find this place that feels really open to being a really creative space and so, yeah, we wanted Los Angeles to have a huge part in the record. And we even switched around to different studios in L.A. and tried to write most of it there.
Weld: The lyrics on this record, particularly on songs like “Fountain of Youth” and “Masters” have a political angle to them that you haven’t really explored on past records. While those were more introspective, Sunlit Youth seems to take its inspiration from looking out at the world.
Ayer: Sure, absolutely. I think a big part of this album was looking more outward than inward. I think after an album like Hummingbird, where we spent the whole time lamenting on our own problems — after we were past that, if felt like we could have perspective and see the world around us for what is going on. So I think it is an album of awakening or realizing these truths that we can change things, whether they’re big or small.
We were really inspired. when we were in Nicaragua. That was the last writing trip we took. We thought that the album was basically done, so we thought, “Let’s take one more writing trip out somewhere.” A friend of a friend of Ryan’s knew this place that had this tiny studio in the jungle. And we went out there and wrote 10 songs in 10 days. It’s the most prolific we’d ever been. One of those songs made the record, and that was “Masters.”
We met this German couple out there — this couple started this hotel in Nicaragua — and basically, they were living in Germany and just decided to buy a plot of land in Nicaragua and just decided to uproot themselves. That spirit just resonated with us, that these people don’t have to do what everyone wants them to do. Anyone can switch up their lives at any moment. I think that’s an empowering thought.
Local Natives perform at Iron City on Tuesday, October 11. No opener is currently listed on the venue’s website. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $27.50 to $29.50. $1 from every ticket sold will go to supporting gender-based violence and intervention and prevention programs; each ticket will also include a digital download of Sunlit Youth. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.