“Young Blood” is one of those songs that instantly raises the tiny hairs on the back of your arm. The chord progressions, the tiny bit of echo on the synth keys, the heart-stopping pound of the beat — it all harkens back to the first time [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]MGMT[/lastfm]’s “Time To Pretend” came on. It brings waves of nostalgia, hope and most importantly — it just rocks.
[pullquote quote=”I think every band has one of those songs, where the song just writes itself. I wish that happened to us all the time.”]
[lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]The Naked And Famous[/lastfm] have taken the alternative rock world by storm in the last year-and-a-half. The New Zealand five-piece is now a must-see act at Night 2 of Almost Acoustic Christmas.
Their success stateside is largely in part to “Young Blood”, but I like to think this group of twenty somethings has touched a nerve with our collective conscious even deeper. They make music that directly reflects the times we live in — the emotions we feel going into 2012 and beyond.
I got a chance to hang out with the band before their first show on the West Coast this time last year. They had just come from a huge “buzz band” whirlwind in London and two well-received shows in New York City, and were clearly still trying to process their new-found stardom.
The showcase at Bardot didn’t exactly go off as planned — there were multiple sound failures and way too many drunk chicks blowing smoke directly into the band’s space (something they are not accustomed to in NZ, as I found out). But it was a convincing, powerhouse of a performance by a band not even close to the pinnacle of its potential.
While founding members, singer Alisa Xayalith and singer-guitarist Thom Powers, chowed down on vegan rice bowls post-soundcheck, drummer Jesse Wood, bassist David Beadle and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Short played grab-ass all the way to the green room of Bardot in Hollywood, where we sat down to talk the making of their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, their stunning music videos, their influence, and why you need a day job in the New Zealand music scene (Note: I could not distinguish the male Kiwi accents apart from one another. Not enough Flight of the Concords, I guess.) :
How did the New York shows go?
Awesome. Brooklyn Bowl is a really good venue.
Have you been to the Brooklyn Bowl?
I’ve passed through New York once, in an airport. I feel most people have in our country at some point. Was your show well received?
Yeah, people singing along. It was great.
Surprising to come to another country this early and see people singing along, getting into it?
I was just surprised to see people. [Laughs]
Well it’s going to be packed tonight.
Really? Oh s***.
You’ve been the most requested artist in the last two months.
Really? F*** me!
Alisa: We had no idea.
That’s f****d up.
Where did the name come from?
It’s a [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Tricky[/lastfm] song. I grew up listening to [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Massive Attack[/lastfm], Tricky and [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Portishead[/lastfm] and all kinds of trip-hop music.
You can tell. It comes through on a couple of the darker songs on Passive Me, Aggressive You.
Hopefully it doesn’t come across too often.
What else are you influenced by? The album is kind of all over the place. I mean that as a compliment.
Yeah, of course. That’s a nice compliment. I don’t know. Alisa?
A: [Ed. note: way too Kiwi-accent to make out]
Just alternative music in general. A lot of the bands you would find on Pitchfork.
So a lot of newer bands?
It was weird, right before we started recording music, there was that whole retro-rock revival thing. Just a ton of bands claiming they grew up listening to The Beatles and [Rolling] Stones. We weren’t part of that. Definitely not retro kids. Most of the music we grew up with was late-90’s alternative. It has kind of carried on to now.
How did the full band form?
[Thom] and Alisa met in 2008 at the same music college. I was doing an audio engineering course and Alisa was doing a contemporary music course. The first couple EPs developed from that. We [Thom and Alisa] dropped out. Aaron joined for recordings. David and Jesse joined soon after and we started recording and touring. Things evolved from there and became their own.
Why did you guys decide to drop out of college?
So we could brag about dropping out of college [Band laughs]
A: The reason I went to music college was to find a path with people I could connect with music wise. Thom and I met and we hit it off.
What was the first song you and Thom wrote together?
A: “Serenade“, which we recorded for our first EP.
A lot of the early demos were done in your bedrooms. In my opinion, the album seems like a bedroom pop record – there is a lot of dream-like, hopeful, early-20’s themes going on. Do you think those bedroom demos/recordings had an effect on the record as supposed to sitting down in a studio for a month?
I think differently. It’s cool to hear someone from the outside of the process comment on our recordings. Things took a big step up for this album and we did record it in a studio, but there are still a lot of elements that were finalized in those bedrooms.
You were quoted saying you knew “Young Blood” was going to be a special song early on. It shot to #1 in New Zealand in less than a week.
We didn’t know it was going to be that special. [Laughs]
Well what makes the song special for you guys?
I always thought it had a very immediate melodic nature to it. I think it has immediate pop chords and aesthetic. Everything about it: the chords, the noises, the production and the lyrics on top – kind of cool and interesting.
I get why it has connected with people on a global scale, just not tied down to New Zealand. It did the same thing for us while we were writing it. As soon as we got the song off the computer and the chords that Alisa came up with – the main melody – I started writing the song and it was really easy to tell where to go with it. I didn’t have to think about the chord progression or the drum beat. When we first jammed with it in the room…
I think every band has one of those songs, where the song just writes itself. [Pauses] I wish that happened to us all the time. [Band laughs]
I think part of the reason that song resonated with people, that along with “Punching In A Dream”, was that you had a “next-MGMT” label attached to you pretty quick.
A: We can see why people can make those comparisons. Once people here the full record they’ll probably change their mind.
“Time To Pretend” and “Young Blood” have very similar themes running throughout…
Yeah there’s definitely a correlation.
A: I think its that nostalgia factor that’s quite a universal feeling.
Aesthetically I can see why people see that. We’ve been compared to Passion Pit as well. It’s an obvious aesthetic a lot of bands have used recently.
The video for “Young Blood” matches those feelings as well.
Yeah those guys – they’re called Special Problems. They’ve got a great thing going on that is multidisciplinary. They’ve done a lot of our artwork and music videos since we started.
And contrast that with “Punching In A Dream”…
A: [Laughs] That was a really fun video to make. We got to fly paper airplanes. They boys dressed up as giant snowflakes. It was quite an experience.
It was also really f*****g hard to. The snow shots were silly. There were these socks that Alisa would run and jump into after a shot because it was so cold. They were sopping wet by the middle of the day.
We shot the video on this beginner ski slope. So if you were to look the other way it was just a bunch of crappy skier tourists going by our shoot. [Laughs] Our view was just big rocks and open skies.
With the album being so eclectic, how did you put it together? There are some piano interludes, a few songs blend into one another…
By the end of recording, we had about 30-35 final demos. Even with all those ideas floating around, we still had these ideas in the back of our head of what journey we wanted the album to take in terms of the sad moments, the dancy moments, the interludes.
Like for the “The Sun” interlude, we were always thinking that would be one song. Just a one minute interlude. It was always apart of the demos.
A: We really wanted to stay true to the album format – make something complete from start to finish.
How has London been? For Australia or New Zealand bands, that’s a big destination to go to. That’s where you make it. There always trying to find the next thing there.
Things happen very quickly there because their media (BBC) is national, you know? There radio is national. I guess here in the states the radio and media is all scattered, and things can take a long time. [Ed. note: yes.] Their “buzz” and music industry is a little more together and focused.
What are your goals and future for this band? How big do you want to get? Do you want to take over America?
In all honesty, we made [Passive Me, Aggressive You] with no money, no record label, no manager and just for play on college radio in New Zealand. And we’ll keep doing that. Anything that comes after those goals – making a living, touring full-time – who can say no to that? If you can tolerate living out of a suitcase…
What has the travel been like?
A: Easy, really. Except for London. I got laryngitis in London. I didn’t come fully right until our last show in New York. It was my first taste of making sure to really take care of myself on the road.
What’s the music scene like in…Auckland? [Ed. note: I pronounce this like any American would.]
Eh, close enough. That’ll do.
A: Small and scattered.
We can’t do more than 20 shows a year in New Zealand without playing to the same exact crowds. That about represents how small the scene is.
Were you in other bands before this?
Not like over here. There is no alternative music scene. No places like The Smell, with bands like [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]No Age[/lastfm] coming out of there.
Yeah, bands playing with one another until they find the right combination.
Exactly. Nothing like that in New Zealand. It’s a scene on a small, small scale. Ten people play to their ten mates and they fucking hate everyone within that group of 20 people.
It feels like there is only one successful band out of every genre doing well there. It is really exciting to come over here and see there is an abundance people playing.
A: There are only five main places to play in New Zealand – you can’t really play those several times.
There are no illusions of grandeur in New Zealand. You can’t be some dickhead rock star with a day job. [Band laughs] You can’t have an attitude an then been scene the next day working at the cafe.
It keeps you grounded.
My buddy down [in Australia] who helped me find out about you guys, he sent me a link of some New Zealand reggae band covering “Young Blood” after winning a songwriting award…
[Laughs] Yeah that was weird. Those awards are only ever won be non-offensive pop acts. Think [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Neil Finn[/lastfm] of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Crowded House[/lastfm]. Stuff like that.
[Ed. note: We know go into a random discussion involving the American Pie soundtrack, which I love, and New Zealand singer-songwriters. It is nonessential.]
A: So the national songwriter/publisher/royalties organization hands out this thing called the Silver Scroll. And you get your named engraved on it and get to keep it for a year. But you have to give it back to the band that wins next year! It gets passed around.
I guess they couldn’t afford more silver scrolls. [Laughs]
A: Every nominee had their song covered, and we had the biggest band on stage. There was this amazing guitar solo.
We’ll relocate to the U.K. in the near future.
A: So we can go back-and-forth. It’s really hard living in New Zealand.
Going to L.A. – its fine. We gain a day and it’s only a few hours difference. But going to London is tough. And all the time zones…
The jet lag is horrible. You get crazy by 6 or 7 p.m. and pull all-nighters.
A: You feel disgusting by nightfall.
Like one night in London, we were some damn delirious, we didn’t remember the dinner, who we talked to, what we talked about…