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Local Natives on the making of ‘Sour Lemon’ and where the band stands ten years later [Interview]

Five friends get on a zoom. Each one framed by a different background—some plain, some busy. They make jokes, they laugh, they stare trustingly into their screen, knowing that the other side holds the reason why they're still here at all—their fans. Having had to halt any tours or live shows for the past seven months, L.A's Local Natives have been itching to occupy the same space together again and breathe some life back into the songs that have made up the majority of their past decade. Thanks to updated safety regulations, negative COVID-19 tests, and of course—the internet—they were finally able to reunite with each other and their dedicated crew members to livestream their new EP, Sour Lemon, for the first time from the Lodge Room in L.A this past Wednesday. The setting was dramatic, the songs beautiful, and the energy palpable, but it was their virtual hangout with fans afterward that marked the band's true homecoming; their long-awaited return home. 

Taylor Rice's 10-month-old son is transitioning between cooing and excitedly screeching in the background as he gets on our phone call, joining his longtime friend and bandmate, Kelcey Ayer. "I'm watching him right now and he's going to the [medicine] cabinet at the moment," he calmly shares, exuding the type of confidence that only parents who have seen their children fall can. It's the same confidence that has been pumping air to the (at times) deflated tires of the high school dream band that against all odds, managed to become a reality. Having undergone minor member changes, and experienced life's full cycle in one way or another, the five friends who formed a band remain to be a band of five friends, sharing their stories along the way. "I look back on so many songs, and I think we really do focus on what's going on in our lives and most of our writing has been very personal," Ayer notes. "And so to have these timestamps throughout the last ten years, I'm definitely grateful for it. On my best days, I'm grateful. On my worst days, I'm extremely embarrassed," he chuckles, unwilling to peg their accomplishments on anything other than simple human experience. 

Credit: Jonathan Chu

Local Natives have long been bordered by their unique Southern California indie sound, offering a niche sense of comfort whenever they released a new song or entire body of work. They could switch from hopeful to melancholy at the drop of a hi-hat, with the authenticity of their searing confessionals always remaining intact. While they battled darker days with some even darker work on Hummingbird, their 2019 album, Violet Street, felt like the sun rising on a brand new day. And as they release their new EP, it seems as though that sun never set. Though the lyrics remain to be philosophically introspective, they're often juxtaposed with a loose production of jaunty drums and flirting brass instruments. Even as Rice coos, "Now you wonder where you are / Skull drifting through the fog" on the narrating "Lost," a self-assured drum beat carrying him along, it feels more like a soothing bedtime lullaby than a cautionary tale. The walls that they built all those years ago, confining their cheeky instrumentation and creative writing to a safe and familiar space, are expanding.  "We've all been changing and evolving and trying to push our music in new directions," Ayer admits. "Whenever you get complacent, then you're just kind of treading water. It feels really good to be ten years in the game and still feel like we're contributing ideas on a level that feels fresh, at least to us." 

And they didn't do it alone. One of the most surprising finds in Sour Lemon is Sharon Van Etten's name on the leading track. "'Lemon' is an outlier on this EP," Rice explains."Ryan [Hahn] had this very beginning of that song, toward the end of writing for 'Violet Street,' and we didn't finish it in time. We had met Sharon years ago when we were making 'Hummingbird' with Aaron Dessner in Brooklyn. She was living there, and she just finished an album with Aaron, and she was so sweet."Ayer jokes, "[Aaron] is the indie Jay-Z, this indie kingpin puppet master," alluding to Dessner's unmistakable connection to almost everyone in the industry. "We had the idea to do a co-writing session with her, when she just moved to L.A," he continues. "She wrote with us on it for one day. So after we did this writing and whatnot, we were like, 'will you do it with us?' and she was like, 'yeah I would love to, love the song.' That was so fun collaborating on writing to having a duet, and we just fell in love with her voice." 

Of course, collaborating with outside influences is not always a smooth process, something the band is still trying to find the right balance for. "We've tried to collaborate with a couple of producers and songwriters early on and that hasn't worked out great for us. But the few times now we sort of started doing it more with artists, you know, rather than people who are songwriter or producers, I don't know if it's because we just speak the same language and that works for us or because Local Natives already has three songwriters and so many singers, if maybe that's another reason. But it's really been great. And I think we just, yeah, we kind of have our own world and so much collaboration within the band, but we'd love to open it up more." Despite their propensity for internal development, the band's growth hasn't been stunted by their limited close quarters. On the contrary, it's been notably augmented by it. "I think over the past ten years we found different strengths that we rely on more than we used to. If you talked to us during 'Gorilla Manor', we'd be like, 'everyone does everything, no one stands out in any specific way.' And now we've learned to really shine a light on all the strengths that we all have and feel good about what makes us unique and how that all blends together on something we're really proud of. People usually think of our songs as either a Kelcey song or a Taylor song, but no one knows that a third of them are actually Ryan songs. It's amazing how far he's come of like, an engineer, a producer and now a lyricist as well."

The writing on Sour Lemon is soft, a gentle whisper in your ear that recites pastel poetry ("Future Lover") and cloudy memories ("Statues in the Garden"). It feels liberated, free to simply exist without the pressures of fitting within a larger picture. Rice and Ayer admit that this EP was always meant to hold just four tracks, written in the moment of time, and not dragged out over a multi-year recording session. It's simple, inviting, and completely unapologetic for the space it occupies. It's just five friends, sharing their stories, and having a few laughs along the way. 

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