How to Make It
The Naked and Famous, New Zealand’s Synthpop Quintet, Is Here to Make You Happy
If a band of twentysomethings gets an indie rock song into a movie, is that selling out? New Zealand's The Naked and Famous just wants to be heard. And have some fun.
Something weird happens to the two thousand in attendance at The Naked and Famous’ sold out October Terminal 5 show in New York: We all feel eighteen again.
The New Zealand synthpop band, perhaps best known for their hit “Young Blood,” is touring for their second album, In Rolling Waves. The quintet of twentysomethings—singer and keyboardist Alisa Xayalith, her boyfriend and fellow bandleader Thom Powers, drummer Jesse Wood, bassist David Beadle, and everything-in-between Aaron Short—are on a victory lap after a wave of steadily crescendoing buzz carried them out of Auckland, to a headlining tour across the world, and to the soundtrack of an Oscar-contending film.
The set in New York is clean and well-rehearsed. Under swooping synths and Xayalith’s arrestingly clear vocals, Powers grounds tracks in guitar sounds that range from warm and sandy textures to the mind-bending reverberations of a vortex being ripped open in space. Fittingly, the stage is framed with light structures that remind one of what a fragmented Stargate might look like.
The band’s greatest talent is simple: The Naked and Famous make you really happy. They tap into some oceanic reserve of youthful joy and energy that’s more fun than fun. and more exuberant than Passion Pit. This is not lost on the audience. When Xayalith asks the crowd to sing the chorus to the next chune, nobody needs any cajoling. And when, in a flurry of light and color, the band plays “Young Blood” as an encore, the house erupts.
It’s not exactly common for a New Zealand band to make it this far. With the exception of Lorde and Flight of the Conchords, The Naked and Famous are probably one of the only Kiwi acts many Americans can name. The band is well aware of this. “Flight of the Conchords and Lord of the Rings, that’s all they know,” jokes Wood, on a couch next to Short in the band’s dressing room before sound check.
Their breakout success is a bit of a mystery, even to them. “Our story doesn’t really parallel any other success stories out of New Zealand,” says Powers, a few days later on the phone from Denver. The reason more New Zealand bands don’t “make it” in America comes down to how difficult it is to get help with touring, promoting, and all the things that come after the music has been made. Not everyone’s got the money.
“There’s a lot of really great music being made in New Zealand but unless you have an infrastructure, no one’s gonna hear it,” says Powers, whose position within the group Short likens to a director on a film set. “Admittedly, you look at someone like Lorde now, she has that infrastructure around her. But until she had it, she was just recording at my manager’s office.”
The route that The Naked and Famous (they take their name from the lyrics of a Tricky song called “Tricky Kid,” in case you were wondering) took to their headlining tour starts the way most DIY success stories do: with the Internet. The anthemic, MGMT-like “Young Blood” went viral at the end of 2010, garnering the kind of buzz people write whole books about. New York-based indie label Neon Gold pounced on the song and put it out on a 7-inch.
“It just kind of snowballed,” Powers explains. Debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You came the next year from Republic Records and was instantly omnipresent. Even if you think you haven’t heard the record before, you have. Its songs have been on TV (lending themselves particularly well to teen shows, like Skins, Degrassi and The Vampire Diaries), video games (you can score virtual goals to “Punching in a Dream” in FIFA 2012) and movies. Powers is particularly excited about landing a slot on the soundtrack for the upcoming Oscar-bait flick, Dallas Buyers’ Club.
“The days of the giant record label signings just seem more and more distant now,” says Short. “If you’re gonna be a full-time musician and rely on that as your main source of income, you don’t depend on signings the way you used to. It is more about getting your music in TV shows and movies and getting exposed to a new audience that way. It’s not just a money thing, it’s a whole new platform of getting—”
“Broadcast,” Wood says, finishing his sentence. “Even radios are changing so drastically. Like, isn’t there no rock radio station in New York?” There isn’t. New York’s last contemporary rock radio station died at the hands of CBS Radio’s AM sports simulcast, WFAN, last October.
“The world of sync music [placement in a TV or movie spot] is now, in some people’s opinion, a vital component to breaking a band and making a record and not just doing that, but making the financial aspect of it work,” says Powers. “Record sales now are incredibly low and people like Spotify don’t really pay musicians that much. Labels don’t wanna force Spotify to fix the problem—they’re either just lazy or rich white men who don’t care. So the sync world is pretty crucial.” Getting your indie rock song onto a commercial or TV show isn’t selling out, in other words. It’s business—and one of the best ways to get a young band’s name into search bars everywhere.
With the frenzy of their debut as the newest “it-band” behind them, the members of The Naked and Famous are happy refocusing on their music. In Rolling Waves, even with its lush electronic production, uses no backing tracks—a deliberate move, as the guys and Alisa wanted a record that could be entirely reproduced live. The process of writing and recording came down to one question, as Wood explains: “Have we run out of hands yet?”
“If you have limited tools, you’ll be creative with them,” he says.
“It prevents you from going absolutely wild with the production and layering, having ten different noises, going absolutely crazy,” Short chimes in.
Onstage it’s organically exhilarating, with the interpersonal dynamics of the band on full display. All five have known each other since high school (some go even further back—Short and Beadle were neighbors when they were five-year-olds), and Xayalith and Powers, both songwriters, have been a couple for years. The frictions of writing, touring, and being in a relationship with a bandmate have broken acts before. But for now, at least, that’s not a source of stress for Powers.
“There’s no romantic components to working in a band or in the recording studio,” he says. “Or at least in my experience there isn’t.”
“I think for a lot of bands, the reason why they fall apart, sadly, isn’t because they hit the point where they think, ‘You know, we’re not doing this because we have the passion to be creative people anymore,’” Powers says. “They really just despise each other and they can’t stand one another’s idiosyncrasies. And that is a really, really difficult aspect of being in a band. You have to manage that. One big ambition for me is that we don’t become one of those groups. I just have this awful vision of, like, old, old, old rockers stuck in their shitty ways and still rocking the haircut they did when they were like, 21. I hate that idea.”