It’s a sticky hot Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles, and while this spacious brewery doesn’t have air conditioning, they have the next best thing—cold beer. Lots of it. At a corner table, Kelcey Ayer and Nik Ewing sit in the shade drinking Eddie Pils, a hazy gold pilsner with a hop twist made here at Chinatown’s Highland Park Brewery. The speaker pumps out languid jazz that pairs well with the heat.
Ayer and Ewing—both friendly, thoughtful and bearded—are two of the five members of Local Natives, the LA-based rock outfit that broke through with its 2010 debut, Gorilla Manor. The album and its anthemic singles including “Sun Hands” and “Airplanes” effectively captured the sound and feeling of the indie rock era on LA’s eastside and earned Local Natives hardcore fans from Boston to Atlanta and back around to SoCal. With Ayer on vocals, keyboards, percussion and guitar, Ewing—who joined the group in 2012—on bass, keyboards and vocals and Taylor Rice, Ryan Hahn and Matt Frazier rounding out the band, Local Natives have since released 2013’s Hummingbird and 2016’s Sunlit Youth. Both albums are lush, intricately composed efforts populated with songs that roar to life during shows that have earned Local Natives a reputation as a band at the height of its powers while onstage. That ability was hard earned. The guys will proudly tell you that in 2013, Local Natives played more live shows than any other band.
But for the last few months the guys have been holed up in a downtown studio recording their fourth album. Ayer and Ewing won’t say much about the new project beyond that the vibe—that all important rock & roll X-factor—is promising. And after nearly a decade of making music together, they should know.
In the meantime, we drink beer.
I don't see innovative, small, thoughtful, brilliant craft beer on a tiny level going away anytime soon.”
Kelcey, as the band’s self-proclaimed beer nerd (and sometimes October contributor), what do you like drinking when you’re on the road and has that changed in your years of touring?
Ayer: I was pretty much into IPAs when we started. I remember seeing Lagunitas IPAs in dive bars across the country, and I was pumped, because 10 years ago that was the only craft beer you'd find in most spots. Even if they even had Sierra Nevada, I'd be pumped. Now, it's changed so dramatically. It's crazy thinking about a time when there weren’t a million things on tap that are super great.
Is there the city you love playing because of its beer scene?
Ayer: It's pretty amazing because now there are breweries in every town we play. I usually go by myself. No one else will go get a stout with me at some brewery at two in the afternoon.
Ewing: That's a tough sell for me.
Ayer: The enthusiasm is not there. As for smaller breweries being bought out [by larger corporations], I wonder if a brewery like Lagunitas even needs to compete with smaller breweries doing crazier shit. They'll always be one of the first huge craft breweries. We were on tour in Mexico a bunch of times and I was stoked when I saw Lagunitas. They could only do that because they're going through Heineken, which has South and Central American accounts. So I don't mind buyouts, because if I want to get something weirder or smaller, I can. I feel like it’s fine as long as the brand doesn’t fuck up their integrity.
It's like playing a boutique music festival versus like, Coachella. You know Coachella is going to have an amazing sound system. The lighting is going to be good. The systems will be on point. I feel like that’s similar to breweries making beer on a mass scale and doing it well and consistently.
Ayer: You go to Coachella to see a crazy show and to see some huge DJ or rapper do something huge, but you can probably go to Eaux Claires, Bon Iver's festival, and see something completely unique that you'd never see anywhere else, and both experiences are really amazing.
Ayer: I don't see innovative, small, thoughtful, brilliant craft beer on a tiny level going away anytime soon. It's only getting bigger, and so as long as they can exist and Lagunitas can become a behemoth, I'm cool, because I think they both do amazing stuff.
That's a refreshing perspective.
Ayer: Almost as refreshing as a beer.
You guys have been in the studio recording your fourth album. Has your writing process changed given that you’ve been doing together for almost a decade?
Ayer: You just get older and more confident. With each record, it's felt like we've gotten a little closer to fully expressing ourselves. It just keeps getting closer and closer to a language we're learning to speak better and better.
I feel like that's probably encouraging. Some bands say that it’s harder with each album, because the pressure is greater and the ideas aren't as urgent.
Ewing: You have your whole life to write your first album; then people expect something from you after that. We're lucky we have so many songwriters, so there are different variations and ideas.
Ayer: We take the support system for granted sometimes, but I think it’s a really good thing to grow up, be more mature and try to see things from different perspectives. I feel like we're always trying to figure out ways to be kinder and more compassionate to each other and just be better.
That's not the interpersonal dynamic one typically thinks of when it comes to rock bands.
Ayer: It's pretty odd. When we were coming up and talking to other bands, they were like, ‘You guys hang out together?’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean? We're best friends!’
When we play those songs live, they're more real to us than they ever were on the record. But the recorded songs are the most real to everyone else.”
What are the goals at this point in your career, or is it just to keep doing what you're doing, but do it more and better?
Ayer: I feel like we've just scratched the surface of what we want. It’s a question of how to be really ambitious and also appreciate what we have. We talk about that all the time. Because if playing the Greek Theatre [in Los Angeles] isn't good enough for us, what the fuck? The question is how we can be super pumped about the Greek Theatre while finding a way to get to the Hollywood Bowl. Like, doing "Conan" and trying to get "SNL."
Ewing: There are obviously goals everybody has, but primarily it’s about being able to make music and art continuously and just trying to make something better and pushing forward.
How do you maintain an appreciation of what you have while also pushing forward?
Ayer: It's tricky. We love talking about music and the business and everything about it. It's fascinating to us. We're always trying to figure out how to get to another level. We want to be one of these huge bands that we really admire, on our own terms. That's the ultimate goal.
Are there new tactics within this new album to help you achieve that goal?
Ayer: At the end of the day, no one gives a fuck about how you present an album. You can do all this stuff to get noticed, and none of that shit matters if the album's not good. Nothing matters if the songs aren’t good. That's why, with every record, we don't create any deadlines, we don't force anything or rush anything. We know we have to make the best album that we can in that moment, and that nothing else matters.
Ewing: All that other stuff is just super fun—marketing or artwork or production. But like Kelcey was saying, if the songs aren't good, it's kind of a vanity project.
I was listening to 'Gorilla Manor' on the way here and realized I still know every word. That album is such a new classic. Is there a sense that you guys captured something special with that first LP?
Ayer: I'm obsessed with Radiohead, and I remember reading interviews with Thom Yorke saying how he hated all of his albums. That blew my mind. People talk about our past albums favorably, and that's really amazing, but if I listen to them all I can think of are the things we should have changed and the parts that should have been different. So, I don't know that I'll ever be able to feel that way.
When we play those songs live, they're more real to us than they ever were on the record. But the recorded songs are the most real to everyone else. They exist on a different plane for us because we're playing them live every day and they're evolving and changing. The versions of "Wide Eyes" or "Airplanes" or "Sun Hands" we play every night are the versions that are real to us.
Ewing: All songs are living, breathing things to us, and so, on every tour, it's fun to reinvent old songs. They're never done.
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