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It’s a Friday morning in Austin, Texas, and South By Southwest is racing along like a runaway Prius. Lines have gathered outside the bars, restaurants and clubs clustered downtown, and zombie-like queues of bleary-eyed masses wait for another day of music. Outside the legendary venue Emo’s, a woman pushes her way to the front of the line, waving a laminated pass. “Excuse me, I need to get in there,” she says to the doorman, who looks irritated. “I’m here with,” she pauses and leans in close to slowly, deliberately whisper, “Roll-ing Stone.”
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Pulling rank works; the agitated presswoman walks right in. Clearly, Emo’s is the place to be.
It’s a little past noon—still morning by musicians’ standards—and the Pitchfork/Windish Agency showcase is under way. Inside Emo’s, LA’s great female-fronted psych outfit Warpaint unleash their careful cacophony onstage, wielding a precise balance between quiet and noise.
But during one of Warpaint’s quieter moments, the cheers of another crowd in Emo’s outdoor venue creep inside, followed by thumping drums and bouncing guitar lines that float into the knot of people. Some audience members catch wind of the surging percussion, faintly recognizing the sound. Then with a powerful blast of a four-part harmony, the band reveal themselves.
Outside, the band are already in full force, stoking the crowd with their energetic rhythms. Kelcey Ayer stands center-stage, playing keys and belting out the soaring chorus to “Airplanes,” while bassist Andy Hamm and drummer Matt Frazier drive the beat to a steady, pulsing kick drum.
Sporting ratty T-shirts, nice guitars, mustaches, beards and everything in between, Local Natives could go missing in a gaggle of Brooklynites. Their sound has been lumped in with Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer and other Manhattan-adjacent bands who bite off from the Talking Heads (from whom, by the way, Local Natives gleaned “Warning Sign” for this SXSW performance).
But something about Local Natives rings truer. Unlike many of the skronking mope-rockers who populate the early-’80s wannabes of the current “it” list, Local Natives are different, distinct. The packed crowd outside at Emo’s feels it during the breakdown of “Wide Eyes,” as the rolling drums meet up with Ayer’s percussion kit and guitarist Taylor Rice shakes a tambourine.
Those who once nursed hangovers with breakfast hot dogs and Heinekens were now enthralled and dancing at the break of noon, all eyes fixed on the stage. There seems to be 10 of them, as Local Natives switch instruments, trade off on vocals—but there’s just one sound. For Local Natives, there are no parts, only the sum, a single-minded entity comprising old friends and new compatriots who once joined together in a house in Orange County with a plan: release a monster.
* * *
A week after SXSW, Local Natives have returned home. Their empty tour van waits in front of their house in Silver Lake, the hilly Los Angeles enclave with a dense population of both established and aspiring musicians. Inside, the house has that anonymous mid-’70s vibe that so many Southern California houses exude: the dark-wood cabinets, popcorn ceiling, frosted lights. A piano, obscured by amplifiers, looks like it has seen its fair share of abuse. Guitar cases, drum boxes and cables litter the living room.
“Sorry for the mess,” Frazier says. “There’s been a bunch of car break-ins lately, so we didn’t want to leave anything in there.”
For Local Natives, the van is often their home, so during the two weeks before their Coachella debut, they are taking the time to enjoy the comforts of the great indoors. Frazier is eating yogurt and granola for his breakfast—a far cry from SXSW’s cavalcade of junk food—Hamm sits on his half of a bass cabinet, and the rest of the guys squeeze together on a thrift-store couch.
“We’re used to close proximity,” jokes guitarist/vocalist Ryan Hahn, before he and Rice squeeze together to muss Ayer’s hair. Now in their early 20s, the three couch-sitters have known each other for years, and it shows. They pick on one another, playfully making jabs at any faults that come up. Rice misspeaks and says “slong,” which is way too close to “schlong” for Hahn and the guys to let it slide. They laugh and riff on schlongs in the way only close friends can.
After all, Local Natives weren’t just a band; they were a tight-knit family living under one roof in Orange. Between their van and that raucous house they lovingly dubbed Gorilla Manor (from which their debut album got its name), the guys have shared space for years. Rice, Ayer and Hahn grew up together in OC and played in bands throughout high school.
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