Local Natives: Kelcey Ayer, 26, left; Ryan Hahn, 26; Taylor Rice, 27; and… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
At a placid outdoor table in the Silver Lake restaurant Local, the frontmen of Local Natives are drinking coffee and look entirely at home.
The restaurant is just a few blocks from their rehearsal space, a small house teetering above Sunset Boulevard and the indie-rock nightclubs where the quartet made its L.A. reputation. Singers Kelcey Ayer and Taylor Rice greet the server with the handshakes of old regulars, and along the way they hug members of another local act, Body Parts, that they had tried to land as openers for upcoming shows promoting their second album, "Hummingbird."
Yet for all the hipster-idyll of their neighborhood on a golden weekday afternoon, the album they made there came from loss and destabilization. The band's sets at the forthcoming Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival are a high-water mark in a career bigger than most Silver Lake bands could imagine. But "Hummingbird" is an elegy. It's an elegy for their hard-won camaraderie after parting with a founding member, and for twentysomething optimism tempered by death in the family.
TIMELINE: Coachella and Stagecoach
After first meeting as Orange County teenagers in the late 2000s, Rice, Ayer and guitarist Ryan Hahn moved to L.A. and honed an aesthetic both feral and mannered. They added bassist Andy Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier to fill out a sound that's equal parts tribal drum circles, Talking Heads guitar slashes and — most importantly — four-part vocal harmonies that made even simple tunes like their signature singles "Wide Eyes" and "Airplanes" feel grand.
Their month holding down Mondays at the Silverlake Lounge in 2009 made quick local stars of them, landing the high-powered manager Phil Costello of Red Light, sold-out shows at the Fonda Theatre and opening slots for major acts including Arcade Fire and the National. After selling more than 100,000 copies of their debut, "Gorilla Manor" (named after the shambling house the group lived in), that cycle crested with a collaborative set with members of the L.A. Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a night that still seems insane for the band.
"When I was at UCLA I took an architecture course and we toured there, and I thought, 'This is my favorite building in the world,'" said Rice. Wearing a push broom mustache and a very low-cut T-shirt, he's the embodiment of the group's beach-hippie good cheer. "That day, I thought that if I ever played here, I could die happy."
Local Natives had accomplished everything they could have imagined as a striving Silver Lake band. They were happy but had no idea that they would soon have to confront death — of relationships in the band and even closer at home.
The band's group dynamic is as much a part of their sound as any instrument. To hear their close harmonies and wild gang-drum breakdowns, you can tell this is a band that lived together, ate together and came of age in L.A. music together. But as their profile rose, success took its own individual toll on the members. In the run-up to making "Hummingbird," the band had to make the hardest decision of its career — to part with bassist Hamm.
Ayer and Rice wouldn't elaborate on the specifics of his departure and maintain that they wish him well (they are currently performing with a hired tour-only bassist). But it's clear that the decision wasn't easy and represented a rough break from the take-on-the-world feeling of being young and in a rising band.
"He was going in his own direction," Ayer said. The move "made sense, and it brought us closer in the end."
"'Gorilla Manor' is the sound of that energy of moving to L.A. and being in a band and all that excitement and openness," Rice said. "But after those tours came some difficult times. Life unfolds on you, and I know I feel like I lost a relationship."
Ayer lost an even more profound one after his mother passed away in 2011. "Hummingbird's" song "Columbia" is a brokenhearted but redemptive memoriam to her, and to watch the band play it live is to see a young group learning how to make sense of death and somehow translate it into music.
"It would have felt strange if I didn't write about it," Ayer said. "I know people want to hear that I tear up every time I play it, but it's really a document of a moment in my life. It's sad, but sorrowful events shape you as a person. I'm asking what it means that death is part of life."
"Hummingbird," which landed at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200, is the sound of Local Natives losing their naivete but gaining perspective. The album finds them paring gratuitous vocal arrangements or now-clichéd drum barrages in favor of gently experimental, thoughtfully written indie rock. From the pristine surf-jangle of "Breakers" to the '60s-drum samples of "Three Months," the album finds a band with loads of talent honing what they do well and discovering what else they're capable of.