By: Curtis Sindrey –
In 2010, Auckland, New Zealand’s Thom Powers, Alisa Xayalith, Aaron Short, David Beadle, and Jesse Wood arrived at the forefront of the international indie pop scene with the sweltering The Naked And Famous debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You. Riding on the feverish heights reached by singles like “Young Blood”, “Punching In A Dream” and “Girls Like You”, the album thrust the band into the limelight and onto the airwaves.
Touring incessantly, the band settled permanently in Los Angeles to create the follow-up, 2013’s In Rolling Waves. The sophomore effort cast a darker shadow over their sound, straying from the synch-heavy formula that had ripped up radio charts yet patiently showcased their unique skill, talent, and scope as artists.
The Naked And Famous set off to tour In Rolling Waves but after just a few months on the road, there were storm clouds on the horizon. Alisa and Thom’s relationship was the foundation of the band, as they started writing songs for The Naked And Famous the moment they got together at age 18. Eight years later, their relationship was in turmoil and soon so was the band.
The tour ended, Thom and Alisa separated, and The Naked And Famous became a group in ambiguous and painful hiatus. For the next year they barely saw one other. Los Angeles is a big enough place to get lost in.
Fast forward to October 2016, and the five-piece is back with their new album, Simple Forms, which came from a lyric in the first song that the band finished. Within the song “Falling”, it’s a contradictory statement that guitarist Thom Powers says – “We’re made in simple forms.”
In our new interview, Powers discusses the hardships behind making their new album, Simple Forms, artistic anxiety, inter-band breakups, and more!
This album was created in the midst of your breakup with Alisa [Xayalith]. What was it like creating in that kind of environment?
Pretty difficult really. (laughs) I don’t want to pretend that it was a happy one. It was really hard, she’s the co-writer in the band and we had to work together, so it wasn’t easy. It doesn’t matter how many times people ask me that, I never seem to have a good answer for it.
You and Alisa met at MAINZ Music College in Auckland. What was it like when you guys first met? Was there an instant creative chemistry, or did that happen over time?
We both wanted to be musicians, we both wanted to make music. We got together and started making music at the same time. I’m kind of a full on person, pretty consumed with wanting to do things and be creative and be productive. I’m not the kind of person who takes a holiday. We started working almost immediately and we haven’t stopped, to be honest. It was really difficult coming off the road and going our separate ways. Prior to that, the band was living in a house together in Los Angeles, we really hadn’t had separated adult lives. It was a big thing to get the band back together.
What was it like living in those closed quarters with each other?
I would liken it to a family. You love them, but you hate them. They’re a pain in the ass, but you can’t imagine life without them. We’re sort of stuck together at this point. We’re not old, but we’re not spring chickens anymore. We’re not those 20-year-old people we were when we started the band or when things kicked off for us. We’re an old family now.
Following the tour in support of In Rolling Waves, the band was at a breaking point. At the time, were you concerned that the band might’ve been on the verge of breaking up?
Yeah, it felt like it. I think everybody was very confused and thought the band might break up any minute. We kinda did you know… taking a hiatus is like ending a relationship. Everything was really murky for a little while.
As someone who doesn’t takes holidays, what did you do to keep busy during the hiatus?
I just started writing. I didn’t know what for, or where it was going to end up. I didn’t know whether it was a solo project, or maybe something to pull the band back together. I wasn’t sure, I just started writing because that’s all I know how to do. I actually took on a couple of other projects as well. I began producing and co-writing with Luna Shadows, she’s just put out her new EP, she’s working on new music at the moment. I helped another friend of mine, The Chain Gang of 1954. Their latest album is going to be out next year, I co-wrote and helped produce that as well. So I’ve been busy.
Early last year when you guys met up for the first time in probably months, what was the atmosphere in those first few meetings?
The thing is we did meet up a few times. We had some space apart, but I don’t even know where to begin. It’s hard to re-build things, so it took a lot of energy, and a lot of positivity to rekindle the relationship. It was really hard work, I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy. But like I said, we’re old friends. You can sort of fall back into routines and relationships in a way with being around one another quite frequently, so we had that on our side.
You guys have since permanently settled in Los Angeles. What was that transition like? Is there anything that you miss about New Zealand?
Yeah, we go home every year around Christmas and see family back in Auckland. The lifestyle there is something unique. Los Angeles is a great place to be a musician [though], it’s pretty exciting and happening here, it gives the impression that that’s where you want to be.
It’s the epicenter of everything.
It sure is, and that comes with it’s ups and downs, but it keeps me energized and at the very least maybe it’s different. Maybe I’m just tricking myself here, but I feel like I’m connected to a larger part of the music industry. The part that I’m invested in.
Beyond the obvious lyrical inspirations, what are some other themes that you focused on lyrically?
I’m always at a loss to explain lyrical content, we don’t really sit about and create a certain type of album. There’s no game plan from day one and then heading in the direction of the game plan. We’re just in the most simple, basic way, trying to write a song. The lyrical content is just whatever comes out, whatever is at the forefront of our concerns, or who we are as people. The things we complain about, the things we carry around with us, but that just comes from the surface. We don’t really put a lot into what we’re going to write about before we’re writing.
Figuring out what an album’s about for us is an afterthought. We have to look back at it and see what we’ve written about. There’s generally always a connection, the album is a time and a place. This album, the lyric “simple form” comes from a song called “Falling”. “Falling” was the very first song that we finished, the very first song that we were like “okay, we have the beginning of an album.” The lyric “we’re made in simple forms”, that’s a bit of cognitive dissonance there. It’s an affirmation about how simple we are, but I don’t think anything is particularly simple and I think a poor way to look at the world is with a view that everything is simple. I like the contradiction and I like the anti-exclamation that it gave.
With the lyrics being more of an afterthought, I guess the music and the arrangements would be at the forefront with you guys, right?
No, I won’t say that it’s an afterthought, [but] the parameters of what we can and can’t write about, those aren’t really set. Lyrical content is definitely really important, but I mean that there’s no game plan before we begin writing a song. We just start and then lyrics will come out and that dictates what the song is about. In the past I would’ve agreed with you, I would’ve said “yeah sure, production is definitely a key factor,” but I feel like that’s now a lost art with so many young bands. [They’re] kind of unable to differentiate between producing, songwriting, and engineering.
All these things are combined into one for so many people. It used to for us as well, because of course, your laptop is your studio, but I really enjoyed separating those things on this album. I really enjoyed having a production day and just letting go of vocal stuff and really feeling out sounds. Then one day it’s just sitting down with the guitar and ignoring the computer, not letting myself be distracted by recording things. Just focusing on the melody and the lyrics.
Focus on one aspect at a time.
Exactly. I think identifying it is a really important thing for anyone in a band, or in any act. When you can understand the boundaries between those different worlds, it can be very useful. You stop distracting yourself [and] you can catch yourself when you’re just messing around with sounds. You may be really wanting to focus on the song structure, but you’re tweaking and you’re biding your time. Procrastinating in a way that feels productive, but might not be giving you what you want.
You pretty much produced this album yourself aside from some production work from Brad Hale. What was it like working mostly by yourself as a producer this time around as opposed to working with a larger production team on the last record?
Yeah. Justin Meldal-Johnsen came on for two songs on the last album, but it was actually a very similar focus between records. In fact I want to say almost identical. Justin Meldal-Johnsen produced two tracks, then I produced the rest with the band and we mixed with Alan Moulder and we engineered with Billy Bush, and this time around it was similar. We engineered with a guy called Carlos de la Garza who’s partnered with a little crew of people that we know here in L.A. A guy called Ken Andrews mixed it. Ken’s from a band called Failure, who were a 90’s alt band and he’s still in the band, the band is still around, but he’s a pretty terrific mixer now. Brad helped out with some production, and my buddy helped co-write on one of our songs, a song called “No Love”.
One of the singles.
Yeah, we’re actually releasing a lyric video for every single song on the album. So that’s not actually a single, it’s just one of the songs. (laughs) When you put out a video with everything it gives the illusion that they’re all singles. We’ve got ten singles! (laughs)
You guys have a habit of releasing a record every three years and in terms of the 21st century album cycle, that would be considered a long wait. Going back to what you were saying about focusing on each aspect of the creative process, was this a conscious decision to not rush yourselves?
Yes and no. That’s interesting, because had we been able to put out music any sooner than we have, it’s really difficult and it’s frustrating being in a band, because the last thing you want to do is excuse yourself to your fans. The last thing you want to do is say “oh, something else has come up, we couldn’t put music out.” The first time around, we were on tour for two years straight. “Young Blood” blew up, and Passive Me, Aggressive You, that album took us around the world and back. We just didn’t have any time, and then In Rolling Waves, we actually came to the end of that album pretty quickly, all things considered.
When we came off tour from In Rolling Waves, we went back out on the road, it wasn’t a huge amount of time. Nobody knows how long you’re on tour for, nobody cares, they just want another album. (laughs) Obviously the break up between Alisa and I really put a strain on the process. We didn’t know if we were going to make another album, let alone how quickly it was going to come out.
In terms of how fans consume music now, which is mostly by song, does that promote any anxiety in you as an artist?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s definitely hard to keep up with the changing industry. Hard to know what to do. We’re always just chasing the medium or format, or latest trend, as far as how to release music, which is frustrating. I just want to sit back and make as much music as I possibly can. That’s all I really want to do, I don’t care if we’re trying to come up with seven new ways to put music out there, it’s a pain in the ass. It’s really refreshing the other week to hear Thom Yorke complain about this as well. I heard an interview with him saying something to the effect of “who cares, just put it out.” I loved that, because that’s funnily enough the way the industry is at the moment.
It’s not about the one day release where the whole world gets to consume your album, it’s not about that anymore, it’s about creating a story. You just have to put your music out there, you can’t expect that in the following week if it doesn’t chart that you’re a failure or something. You have to put your album out and tour it for six months. Then maybe you have to tour it more, and at the end of that six months, put another album out. It’s growing, building your story, building your fan base, giving people something to invest in, and dedicating yourself to your life’s work.
Yeah it seems like fans want more and more content and bands and artists can only produce so many at a time.
And it’s frustrating too, because more and more content… my best version of myself is in my songs that I’ve slaved over. I don’t want people to hear me speak, I have an awful voice. I don’t want to put videos of myself up on the internet, I can’t even look at myself. (laughs) There’s that whole thing too that’s frustrating, but we do our best. (laughs)
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