It’s safe to say that the Local Natives is not a band for people who can’t take honest feedback or who like to work alone. Because the key to the band’s sound in their debut album Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss Records) is collaboration. Not among two or three members, but amazingly among all five. While one member might bring lyrics to the group, it’s up to all five to work on the instrumentation for the song. With words in hand, they hash out the music. That’s not to say that they don’t give feedback to whomever wrote the lyrics, but according to bassist Andy Hamm, the band knows that the constructive criticism “is not a negative thing, but a growing thing.”
It’s a five man collaboration jam.
I caught up with Hamm a few days ago while the band was on the road, and we spoke about their creative process. Read what he said about about how the band works so well together.
There are multiple songwriters in Local Natives. How does the band write? Is there collaboration with everything, or do you each bring a mostly finished product to the others?
It’s all about the collaboration on a song-by-song basis. There’s really no formula for how we write the songs. Somebody might come to the group with a riff or a suggestion or ideas for something like the drum part, and we’ll all get together. So it’s five minds in the same room working the parts over and over until everybody looks around and agrees that it feels right. Or we might feel that something is iffy or off, and we need to keep reworking it or come back to it another day.
So it’s literally five minds working together?
Yeah. For example, sometimes somebody will come to the room and they will have the main gist of the song and the main melody. Or there will be other times when somebody has a bass line or a simple piano line and we’ll build off that. It holds pretty true with the group that everything we start with begins as an A and ends up as a Z by the end of it. It’s very much our process that we flip and turn something so that it’s new and it’s different than what we started with.
Does anyone come to the group with a complete set of lyrics?
We collaborate a ton more on the instrumentation of the song than the actual lyrics. With the lyrics, we try to keep it more from one member. If you write a meaningful or personal song, and you have four other members trying to contribute to that very personal experience, it kind of loses that genuine feel. But with the instrumentation, it’s five creative musicians and everyone can have their instrument or their idea to make it stronger.
For example, with some songs, Kelcey had almost all the lyrics, but some of the wording was weird. So while we were recording, we huddled together and Kelcey would say, “This is the idea that I had and I want to get it across, but the wording just sounds weird when I sing it. Does anyone have any ideas?” And we all helped out that way.
What do you mean when you talk about the words sounding “weird?” Is it just five guys throwing ideas around?
It’s really just learning as you go, five musicians and five friends. One guy might say, “I like everything, but when you say a certain word I don’t think it fits with the melody we have.” And the person who wrote the song will tell us the point he was trying to get across, and we’ll make suggestions from there.
It’s gotta be tough when you are writing from a personal perspective and someone tells you that what you have isn’t working.
Yeah, on both ends of the spectrum. It’s hard not only with the lyrics but with the instrumentation. Like we might all come together and I’ll be amped on something I’ve done, confident that everyone will be sold on it. You can’t help but feel a little let down at first when someone says they like it but it’s not quite there. But then you learn that it’s not a negative thing but a growing thing, because they want to help. They see the potential, that it’s something that can actually be great.
With the lyrics specifically, unless someone is asking for help we try not to step on each other’s toes. Even if some of us don’t like the wording of a song, sometimes it’s more about the overall message. So we try to keep that in mind. It’s fine as long as there is a genuine feeling in a song, even if’s not exactly how we imagined it.
When you collaborate, what helps give you a good vibe so that you are productive?
That’s something that we are still learning. We’ve been friends for a while, but as far as serious writing, we only have one album out. Writing on the road has been really hard for us. There are so many distractions. It’s probably best that we are blocks away from anything going on. But when you do get time off, you want to be by yourself.
Was collaboration something you had trouble with at first? Even though you are friends, writing can be an intensely personal experience.
Still to this day, it’s a very trying and difficult thing to do at times. You can only hope that it will get better with time. When we started, we may have had one person writing songs, then we progressed to two people writing songs. But that wasn’t really working, and we started being more honest with each other and assessing the songs from the perspective that we all wanted to put 100% behind them.
When that started happening, you can’t help but have a lot of tension when someone is telling you to your face that they can improve something that you created. And I think that process alone, still even now, is hard. It’s gotten easier, but if there wasn’t that tension, you can only assume that it’s because people are settling instead of really trying to make it the best it can be. We’ve come to the conclusion that a song comes out the best when everyone gives it an honest look over.
Have you ever had writer’s block?
I wish I knew, because I’ve never really had it…I think that’s the beauty behind the creativity of this band. There’s no real explanation for the inspiration or the spark. Sometimes it comes when you least expect it, other times when you really need it. And I am happy to say that I have no idea how it comes about. We are always striving for those little moments where we have something great and everyone in the band knows it.