The Naked And Famous’ career trajectory has been stratospheric since the release of their critically acclaimed and commercially successful debut album ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’ in 2010. Their international profile rose (and rose) through the licensing of all those songs in advertising, games, television and film soundtracks, leading them to find a new home in L.A., and much anticipation for ‘In Rolling Waves’, their newly released sophomore album. Main man Thom Powers talked with Amanda Mills.
The origins of The Naked And Famous are by now well known to fans worldwide. Vocalists Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers met at MAINZ in Auckland, forming a duo named from a line in a Tricky song. Initially signed to Auckland indie label Round Trip Mars, they released two EPs in 2008 – ‘This Machine’ and ‘No Light’, gaining NZ On Air video funding and student radio support along the way, recruiting bassist Ben Knapp and drummer Jordan Clark for live shows. While the live performances were not then a strength, their potential was apparent, even beyond the local industry.
By 2010 they had generated a lot of interest and had their own label, Somewhat Damaged. New band members, bassist David Beadle and drummer Jesse Wood replaced Knapp and Clark, and engineer Aaron Short was now part of the band. A $50,000 NZ On Air grant was awarded to record an album debut (in the same round as Aaradhna, Motocade and Black River Drive), via CRS Management.
Recorded at their home studio and The Lab, ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’ proved a stonking hit, debuting at # 1 in the NZ album charts, and receiving 4-star reviews in UK gatekeeper press such as Mojo and Uncut. Second single Young Blood was especially significant, with platinum sales in Australasia and 20 million video views on YouTube.
The band toured it for two years, performing 250 shows in 24 countries, playing at Glastonbury, Reading, SXSW and Fuji Rock Festivals, not to mention the 2011 BDO. They topped off a huge 2011 with the APRA Silver Scroll Award for Young Blood, eight Tui awards and a finalist nomination for the Taite Music Prize.
Shifting flat to Los Angeles in 2012, The Naked And Famous focused on their international profile, earlier this year releasing a ‘B-sides and Remixes’ album. In July we got to hear Hearts Like Ours, first single from their sophomore album ‘In Rolling Waves’ which has by now seen international release on Republic Records (UMG), home to a literal A-Z of acts including Drake, Florence & The Machine, Crystal Castles, Nicki Minaj and Lorde.
The band members have been through a lot of adjustments since ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’ was released, acclaim for one, and I threw things open by asking Thom Powers what changes had resulted in the band’s outlook.
“It’s very hard to compare the two things – we’re just thinking a bit differently now… because two years can change you quite a lot as a person,” he replies. “I don’t quite feel the same as when we were making the first record. I think I’m a calmer person! At the same time, music making for me has been the same as it’s always been.”
The move to California was about the band collectively deciding to spread their wings.
“We worked very hard in America, it’s our biggest market. It sounds a bit un-musician-like and not very artistic at all, but we did a lot of work here,” Powers explains. “At the very start of 2012… we were like, ‘Guys, where are we going to live?’ L.A. just came up. At first, the idea of ‘rock band moves to L.A.’ just sounded like tragedy… but the more time we spent here, the more natural the decision was to come here. I mean the weather’s always good!”
The group initially found a Laurel Canyon house large enough for them all, but more recently Powers and Xayalith have been living in Echo Park, which he terms a “young, hip and cool area”. It helps that friends and peers in the NZ music scene have relocated there too. Sam McCarthy of Kids Of 88 recently moved to L.A. and lived on Aaron Short’s couch for a couple of months, while former Steriogram guitarist Bradley Carter, Midnight Youth guitarist Simon Oscroft and actress Michelle Ang all live in the suburb.
“Recently people have been asking, ‘How’s your moving to L.A. affected the record?’” Powers volunteers. “I think yeah, sure, your environment does have an influence on your life and all the things that happen in it, but ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’, doesn’t really sound like my mum’s house in Brown’s Bay, where I was living at the time I was writing it!”
Songwriting credits are shared between Powers, Xajalith and Short.This time, the quintet have looked outside their tight knit group for instrumental assistance, engaging violinist Andrew Bulbrook from the Calder String Quartet.
“That was fantastic – the first time I’ve ever worked with a session musician, he enthuses. “I’ve never written for strings other than synthetic strings on the computer, so it was really cool. I gained a lot of confidence from doing that, I felt like a real grown up, a real studio musician!
‘In Rolling Waves’ was recorded at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood, with engineering by the band’s close friend Billy Bush, who mixed ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’. Powers describes him as “…the glue that kept us sane!” While Powers and Short co-produced the new album, some co-production was also done with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a multi-instrumentalist and producer known for his work with Beck.
‘In Rolling Waves’ progresses past ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’, with less emphasis on keyboards and more on the guitar, and I suggest, song structures.
“Maybe what you are hearing is the band element,” Powers responds. “We put a lot of effort into making sure we could perform all of the songs live, and that we weren’t having to re-learn them after we finished them. ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’ had a bit of half and half… All of This and Young Blood, we were playing a few months before we even recorded it. With this record the songs were rehearsed. Written, rehearsed and then recorded. I like marrying the two ideas of the album and the tour, and the band are right now being part of the same thing.
He describes the writing process for the new album as similar to that of the first.
“A lot of it is me, my writing, then Alisa, and then… Aaron’s role was far more co-production on this album. Not for any reason other than we’d realised that even for the first record we were naïve about just what production was.”
The band’s sonic intentions have however changed, he reveals.
“I think there was a greater focus on a lesser range of instruments… we were trying to do more with less. Because that’s more challenging, and I think you can create a greater dynamic scale. So, I took everything that I learnt off the first record and tried to do more, to do better, to challenge myself.”
One new song already gaining a lot of attention is What We Want, with its Fleetwood Mac-vibe in the laid-back chorus and soaring harmonies. It has a long history says Powers.
“That was a song we demoed at the very beginning of the touring we started in 2011, with a friend from an English band – Max McEligott from Wolf Gang. We didn’t know it would end up on the record, it was just this song floating around. I’m glad it never got finished until now because it’s such an important track on the album.”
In a record bursting with dynamic songs and sonic differences, The Mess stands out as a dialogue between the band’s two vocalists. The song is intense and personal, perhaps reflecting Powers and Xayalith’s relationship – or was it entirely fabricated?
“It felt really natural lyrically, it was just one of those songs… that wrote itself,” he explains. “It’s just so over the top… it’s a very serious song, but at the same time it’s so serious that it’s just got this fun element to it! It [draws] on many experiences, and a few things that I’ve experienced with several different people… Sometimes you have this inspiration to start a song, and you’re writing from a very specific place. But, where you finish it… you might come at it from a completely different angle. At that point the song takes on a life of its own and becomes more broad, and gives people the opportunity to make what they want out of it.”
One thing influencing the band’s decision to move to the City of Angels is the fact that they clearly feel appreciated there, that their hard work has paid off.
“America is the rock’n’roll epitome, it’s the where the biggest audience is, I think. It’s where we end up doing the hardest work. At the same time, we have an amazing career in Germany, which is very important to us as well. And England is very important too, but it’s a fickle industry, it’s a difficult industry to navigate, really. So, I’d say those three places are important.”
Powers recalls their first big tour of America under the wing of U.S. band Foals. Only a few months later they were headlining a tour of their own that was bigger than the one they’d done with Foals. Their latest tour, which started on September 25, included a gig at L.A.’s 3000-capacity Wiltern. They also played two nights at Terminal 5 in New York, to a potential audience of 5000 people. Powers still doesn’t seem to believe this many people want to see them.
“It’s insane, right? Obviously there’s places where we’re not as popular, but I think with this record, we’re ambitious to try and really engage the audience we’ve already developed, and hopefully, gain some more fans.”
Their songs have been used heavily both in NZ and internationally, in advertising and video games, television series (including Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, True Blood, One Tree Hill and The Almighty Johnsons), and film (Cabin in the Woods), earning great revenue and exposing the band to widely different audiences.
“Music fans don’t have the same view that they had maybe a couple of decades ago, where, if you had licensed your music you were just selling out,” Powers muses. “It’s a crucial, fundamental part of the music industry now for any act wanting to spread the word about their music… you do reach people… and all of a sudden… you sell a bunch of records. It’s pretty unreal.”
While ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’ qualified as an international hit, their major success has been with singles, especially Young Blood, which won the Silver Scroll and debuted here at #1. Powers acknowledges there was again emphasis on singles this time around, but makes the point that they were in charge of it.
“There was a point when everyone else became involved, and we sourced outside opinions from the label and management.”
The band’s Kiwi management remain close and often join them on tour.
“They’ll come on tours that we’ve never been on before,” Powers enthuses. “We went to Japan to do Fuji Rock… both of them came to Japan and we did all this crazy shit.”
For the current tour the band have a tour manager and seven crew. The coming months will see them play 22 US dates, 24 UK and European dates and the six BDOs around Australasia, bringing them back to play Auckland at the start of 2014, which Powers is more than happy about.
“I am pretty thrilled to be doing that. It’s exciting, it’s going to be so different!”