Naked and Famous: Five go mad in LA

By Scott Kara

As the Naked and Famous prepare for the release of their highly anticipated second album, Scott Kara visits the chart-topping New Zealand band at their home away from home in Los Angeles to hear the new songs - and how the band feel about taking on the world, all over again

Welcome to Echo Park. And welcome to Bedrock ... it's a big brick beast of a building in a narrow side street off the main drag through the Los Angeles suburb of Echo Park. Made up of 90 rehearsal rooms, where bands come to play as long and as loud as they like, it's where the Naked and Famous are holed up rehearsing for their 45-date United States and European tour, to follow the release of their second album, In Rolling Waves, on September 13.

At least, they're around here somewhere. Because as TimeOut wanders through the Bedrock foyer, past the Batman pinball game, the vending machine stocked with "shitty rock 'n' roll beer", and a room where a nasty raging metal band are going at it hammer and tongs, there is a maze of corridors and many plain brown doors that all look the same.

Our guide, Campbell Smith, who is the band's manager when he's not being the man behind the Big Day Out, leads us down a dingy hallway piled high with discarded guitar cases and assorted sound gear, and through a heavy soundproof door to where the five band members are.

Singer Alisa Xayalith, who now has a striking shock of blond-white hair, is in a separate sound booth with keyboardist and knob twiddler Aaron Short. Bassist David Beadle is tinkering away on a keyboard, man-machine Jesse Wood sits behind his drumkit, and frontman Thom Powers waves a quick hello as he carries on figuring out something on his guitar.

When they finally take a break - perhaps it's because there's another New Zealander in the room - it's Lorde, rather than themselves, that the band are keen to talk about.

"I was in a metal band when I was 16 and we were shit," says Powers. "How can she be so good?"

But enough of New Zealand music's golden girl, because we're here to listen to the band play some new songs off In Rolling Waves, the follow-up to their 2010 debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You, which topped TimeOut's best of the year list and saw the band scoop seven New Zealand Music Awards.

Before they run through five songs, Powers and Short are at pains to point out they are still perfecting how to play them live. They needn't worry because current single Hearts Like Ours, the track off the album that's closest to their most famous song, Young Blood, with it's soaring sing-along chorus and sweet "aah-aahs", is the band at their euphoric sonic-synth-pop-rock best.

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Then there's Waltz, which is unlike anything TNAF have done before ("There was a time with that one where Thom wasn't even sure if it was a Naked and Famous-sounding track," says Short), then the big epic anthem, What We Want, which recalls Fleetwood Mac. And the soaring yet forlorn mood of Grow Old is different again.

The standout is album opener A Stillness, which starts out as a wonky and woozy acoustic track that escalates into a beautifully mangled and fractured stomp.

"It's one of my favourite songs on the record," says Xayalith excitedly after they've finished playing it.

"It was an electronic jam written after our Glastonbury experience. I feel like that song stamps a moment in time of us being on the road and travelling."

The Naked and Famous moved to Los Angeles in April, 2012, after two years of solid touring. For 18 months they shared a house in the folkie enclave of Laurel Canyon, which was ideal for writing new material.

But now Powers and Xayalith (who are boyfriend and girlfriend) live together, Short and Beadle share a house, and Wood lives with his girlfriend.

Their new neighbourhood of Echo Park, a formerly rough ghetto area turned cool hot-spot, is also a Kiwi magnet with actor Michelle Ang, former Steriogram member Bradley Carter (who now has a band called No), Midnight Youth guitarist Simon Oscroft, and Sam McCarthy of electro pop duo Kids of 88 also living there.

In a leafy park just down the road from Bedrock, the band take a load off and reflect on the busy three years they've had following Passive Me, Aggressive You - and, with the release of In Rolling Waves next week, the prospect of doing it all over again.

They realise it's taken a while for their follow-up album to appear, but they've been busy, having toured 24 countries, including playing at festivals that have included Glastonbury and Japan's Fuji Rock.

And it didn't help that the release dates for Young Blood and the first album were staggered in different territories.

"In New Zealand," says Short, "Young Blood was released in 2010, so it's been ages. But for us it still feels so fresh because the international release schedule kept it going for so long, which was the reason we carried on touring. And when we started the new album last year, Young Blood was still doing its thing on radio in America."

"But everything is set up this time round," says Wood. "Last time we were doing it on the fly. Now it's more planned and easier to balance."

They've also grown up a lot and are noticeably more confident - a far cry from the band who gave a series of awkward acceptance speeches at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2011.

Beadle: "Travelling, meeting new people and being in different positions that you might not have been in otherwise can change you as a person. And I got a haircut."

He did. And it looks very slick and dapper compared with his unruly mane of old.

Xayalith says this maturity comes through in the music. "I definitely think the years of touring gave us the confidence to push ourselves on the second record. "So in that respect we've all grown up, just from life experience, and grown as musicians."

Short: "Yeah, doing 200 shows in the course of a year does things to you, and how you play your instrument."

Recorded at Sunset Sound, the new album is more solid and self-assured than Passive Me, Aggressive You, although you could argue there is nothing quite as catchy as Young Blood on it.

The band still love that song, even if it has started to haunt Short in his sleep. "I was saying to David in the car the other day: 'Can you imagine what it will be like when we're 50 or 60 and still singing Young Blood'. Well, I dreamt it last night. It was so depressing. We were all old. A bit worn out. It wasn't cool."

Xayalith remembers playing Young Blood for the first time to 20 people in Hamilton in September, 2009. "There was a test match on the same night," she says.

Less than a year later it went to No. 1, and went on to win the 2010 Silver Scroll, and took out best single at the music awards in 2011.

Internationally, as well as selling more than 500,000 copies in the US alone, it has turned up on everything from TV shows such as Chuck and Gossip Girl, to video games and fashion commercials.

Xayalith: "You can't deny that that song connected with so many people and the people who connected with that song will definitely be searching for that same connection on this record.

"So it makes sense for us to try to write something that fills that spot and I feel Hearts Like Ours is the perfect way to open up to people who haven't heard from us for a while."

But, says Powers, they didn't want to repeat themselves and don't feel the pressure to follow up such a big song. "We just wanted to do a record that was deeper and evolved on from Passive Me, Aggressive You. But it's not like we've abandoned anything, we've just elaborated on things we did well on the first record."

Powers is a focused and forthright chap. But for all his bluntness he's passionate about the band's music and why they do it.

"You hear musicians talk about doing it [music] for themselves. That's a little bit ignorant and self-centred because if you're on a label and playing live shows you obviously want an audience.

"So I think now that we've got a big audience I feel a huge amount of respect for people who have bought into us as a band. I don't feel like being half-arsed about that. It's quite a big debt to repay and I like that idea of trying your best to engage your audience and giving them something that might challenge them, or maybe just giving them something they already love."

So there's The Waltz, with its fuzzy, smouldering clip-clopping sound and the great line "as the words pile up, like an accident", the strings-soaked A Small Reunion, featuring New York's Calder Quartet, who have played with the National and Arcade Fire, and The Mess, a fiery duet where Xayalith and Powers go at it.

"It's a fun song," says Powers with a smile.

"I think," continues Xayalith, "there have been other songs that have been in the same vein as The Mess. But The Mess speaks its own language in that it's more honest, more direct and less fluffy like male-female duets can be. It's a big fight."

It's great, I offer.

"Yeah, it really is," she laughs.

The next day, over dinner at Cliffs Edge restaurant just up the road in Silverlake, Smith arrives with some good news. Hearts Like Ours is the most added track on the Billboard Alt Songs chart for the week. It's an indication of the impact the band made in the US the first time around and that they're on the right track this time.

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Over dinner, talk turns to everything from Xayalith's love of cooking and meeting musical heroes such as Nine Inch Nails and Dillinger Escape Plan (one of Beadle's favourite bands) to spotting Miley Cyrus in Laurel Canyon ("David just lost his mind," says Wood) and why they chose to live in Los Angeles.

"To stay in LA was too exciting," says Powers.

"Getting out of New Zealand is costly enough but it's so difficult to strategically do anything as a group [from down there]. It's just a complete nightmare. And it's also about the idea of staying away and living the dream."

Still, Xayalith and Short admit they get homesick, and it's made harder today because Short has just found out his family dog - who got a shout out in the Passive Me, Aggressive You album credits - has cancer.

"At one point we considered London, but it's 30 hours of flying to get home for Christmas," says Short. "But from here it's one trip to anywhere in the world."

After dinner we head to El Prado in Echo Park for the bar's Tuesday night record club where you bring your own vinyl for the DJ to play.

As well as the Naked and Famous, Carter, McCarthy and Oscroft are also here for an ale-filled Kiwi reunion. Powers recounts gleefully how he and Oscroft went to Rangitoto College together and they once played Stinkfist by Tool at school assembly.

In the early hours of the morning the music takes a turn from Pavement and the Pixies to Ghostbusters, with Xayalith trying hard not to bounce around to the 80s hit, and the theme to The Never Ending Story.

"I wish I'd written that song," says Powers passionately.

At around 1.30am, and with the synth strains of Italian keyboard legend Giorgio Moroder in my head, it's time to go.

As I take off in the taxi, the band and their hangers-on wave goodbye from the sidewalk. They look happy. In fact, the Naked and Famous look right at home.

Who: The Naked and Famous
Line-up: Thom Powers (guitar/vocals), Alisa Xayalith (vocals/keyboards), David Beadle (bass), Jesse Wood (drums) and Aaron Short (keyboards)
New album: In Rolling Waves, out September 13
Debut album: Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)
Live: Big Day Out, Western Springs, January 17.

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