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By his own admission, Thom Powers—guitarist/vocalist in the Naked and Famous, a fresh-faced five-piece who have effectively become New Zealand's great white indie-rock hope—has been part of several "terrible, terrible bands."
"Everything that was terrible about '90s rock music—I did that," the Auckland-based musician says, sounding a bit embarrassed as he references his defunct metal and hard-rock projects (which he declines to name). He estimates he has been in more than 20 groups, as the friends he grew up with were into music, but all of his projects were just for screwing around—the sort he now collectively dubs a "learning experience."
By the time he helped to form the Naked and Famous in 2007, his creative tastes had changed considerably. After leaving high school, Powers says, he grew interested in "alternative music and new artists," listing playful New Zealand power-poppers the Mint Chicks and TV On the Radio's Young Liars EP as being major points of inspiration.
Passive Me, Aggressive You, their debut full-length, came out in New Zealand in September 2010 and in the States this past March. As you'd guess, the album contains no hints of metal or hard rock; in fact, Powers' current act drifts between indie rock and electro-pop. Passive Me is a grab bag of musical concepts: synths build bouncy dance-floor melodies; synths go scratchy and angry; clipped beats mingle with a solemn piano; guitars revel in earthy, wide-open choruses. Powers shares vocal duties with Alisa Xayalith, creating malleable he/she, low/high dynamics.
The record did gangbusters business at home, entering the New Zealand charts at No. 1. Reviews have been kind, even if they've repeatedly doled out comparisons to MGMT and Passion Pit—two key indie-pop names in contemporary America. Powers says he was aware of both bands before writing Passive Me but didn't pay particular attention to either until after the record was finished, though he's quite comfortable with the frequent comparisons.
"It's wonderful for us, especially [since we're] from a place like New Zealand, to be compared to something that isn't in our own industry. So very few New Zealand bands seem to have something other than New Zealand bands [associated with them]. It's really flattering," he says. "At the same time, I do think those bands don't have the hard edges we have. I don't mean that in a critical way; I just think that there are definite emotional differences."
Powers thinks the band stray from the "fun and kind of euphoric" quality of Passion Pit's well-known Manners and MGMT's interest in sprinkling psychedelic sounds and '70s references into their records, but evidence of that isn't entirely conclusive. At this stage in the Naked and Famous' career, not having a particularly original or solid identity isn't so bad. Passive Me, Aggressive You is very much the product of a band in flux, with much of the appeal coming from guessing which ideas they will cling to and take forward.
This article appeared in print as "Asserting Himself: Thom Powers of the Naked and Famous rises above his embarrassing hard-rock past with his new indie-electro-pop outfit."