Local Natives’ New Album ‘Hummingbird’ Reveals Darker Tone Born of Tragedy

The L.A. indie rockers are back with Hummingbird, the highly anticipated follow-up to their acclaimed debut, Gorilla Manor. Melissa Leon talks to singer Kelcey Ayer and producer Aaron Dessner about the making of the LP—and the personal tragedies the band overcame to do it.

Paul Bergen/Redferns, via Getty

At a sold-out CMJ show at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, Los Angeles–bred band Local Natives are, for the first time, performing tracks off their sophomore album, Hummingbird, and it’s going off without a hitch.

We hear the rushing intensity of harmonies and chiming guitars in “Breakers.” A cathartic (and beautiful) expression of grief comes in the form of “Colombia.” And fans get to hear the songs they came for, favorites from the band’s widely acclaimed 2009 debut, Gorilla Manor.

But then, two lines into crowd favorite “Airplanes,” something abruptly goes awry, and the lyrics go from clear to mumbled to inaudible. Kelcey Ayer—singer, guitarist, and keyboardist—totally just forgot the words.

“Um, did you guys notice that Kelcey forgot the lyrics at the beginning of the song?” Taylor Rice, one extremely mustachioed third of the band’s three-part vocal leads, crows after the song ends. “That’s how focused we have been on this new album!”

A few months later, Ayer sheepishly recalls the incident with a long “Yeeeep. That was me.” He confesses it wasn’t his first time forgetting the words to that song—though the last time it happened, it was 2008, and Local Natives was hardly a headlining band. “We did this West Coast tour with some friends of ours, and we partied way too hard. My voice was completely gone, all this shit was breaking, I almost had this nervous breakdown during the show, and I forgot some words. It was awful. It was the most horrifying experience ever. I just sat in the van after the show and prayed that I could turn back time.”

Happily, that’s not what happened on stage at CMJ. Surrounded by a maximum-capacity audience that seemed to know Gorilla Manor by heart, a chorus of non-band-member voices filled in for the line that Ayer forgot. “It wasn’t harrowing. It wasn’t terrifying—it was just really funny,” Ayer says. “It was so funny to look at those two experiences and how far we’ve come, how much we’ve played, and how much we’ve grown.”

And grown they have. Ayer, Rice, and vocalist Ryan Hahn started out as a high-school band in Orange County, Calif., and added drummer Matt Frazier and bassist Andy Hamm in 2006. By 2009 they had adopted the name Local Natives, played a breakthrough set at South by Southwest, and turned enough heads to get snatched up by Frenchkiss Records/Infectious Music. Then came Gorilla Manor, a euphoric, heart-swelling percussion-driven record marked by meticulous craftsmanship and Crosby, Stills, and Nash–inspired vocal harmonies.

Named after the Silver Lake house where they all lived, wrote, and got into food fights together, Gorilla Manor earned the band the chance to tour and open for the likes of Arcade Fire and the National, as well as spots at several prestigious music festivals, including Glastonbury and Coachella. To date, 117,000 Gorilla Manor records have been sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan—and for a band that spent years, in Kelcey’s words, “just hoping to get, like, a booking agent,” that’s a whole damn lot.

With all the world-touring success, however, came personal strains that cast a cloud over the music of their second record, Hummingbird, officially coming out Tuesday. Frictions resulted in a parting of ways with Hamm in March 2011 (the band still will not speak openly about the split, citing only “personal and professional differences”). Three months later Ayer’s mother passed away, a heartbreaking loss audible in the songs “Three Months” and “Colombia,” as well as the album’s title. Addressing his Colombian mother, Ayer sings on “Colombia,” “A hummingbird crashed right in front of me/And I understood all you did for us.”

“That was definitely really hard,” Ayer says. Her passing “and the Andy thing and there were also relationship issues and weird stuff that impacted the record and the mood of it and what we sang about. We didn’t set out to make a darker or sadder record, but we always write, for the most part, based on our experiences, so it’s a kind of window into the last few years.”

Aaron Dessner—a member of the National who coproduced Hummingbird in a recording studio at his Brooklyn home, where the guys of Local Natives cohabited for three months—puts it simply: “Lyrically, there’s a lot more going on on this record ... There’s an emotional aspect to the album, partly because of Kelcey losing his mom. But I think that just adds to it. This record has all the things you might recognize about Local Natives from [Gorilla Manor], but it has other dimensions to it, conceptually and harmonically. To me, it’s an evolution for them.”

Composing deeply personal songs with a self-described “democratic” and “collaborative” band comes with its own rules, of course. “Everyone will bring a song to the table, and it’s like feeding hungry dogs—everyone just goes at it and rips it apart and makes it something completely different,” Ayer says. “It was kind of hard to do that with such a personal thing.”

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Dessner also remembers the guys getting “a little dicey” during the hashings out of the recording process. But in keeping with the nicest-dudes-in-indie-rock reputation that Local Natives have seemingly settled into (it has been noted that they are “not the type to toss TVs from hotel windows”), Dessner adds, “Even then, they were all so polite and kind to each other. I was very impressed.”

“The whole thing, I think, was cathartic for us, to go through a lot of things. It was helpful,” Ayer now says. “I personally like sad records and sad songs and sad movies and stuff, so it was totally up my alley. But maybe for some of the other guys who like happier stuff ...” he trails off. “I dunno, I like it a lot!” he concludes, laughing, knowing he’s not the only one who’ll like it a lot too.