TAS In Session (Glastonbury Preview): The Naked And Famous
It's Glastonbury Festival week and one of the scores of bands making a prestigious Worthy Farm debut is The Naked and Famous whose excellent debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, a massive hit in Australia and their native New Zealand, has quickly gained traction in the States, the UK and Europe.
The quintet, led by the dynamic vocal interplay between Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith, is spending the bulk of their 2011 touring the world. In addition to Glasto (they play the Other Stage this Friday, June 24), they've lined up Lollapalooza and five more New York area dates: Central Park with Friendly Fires and Cults (August 7), Music Hall of Williamsburg (August 12 and 13), the MTK: Music To Know Festival in East Hampton (August 14) and Webster Hall (October 27).
As for Glastonbury coverage, the BBC is splashed across the event, but not all content (especially televised) is available in the States; other options at this point include Glastonbury's own twitter feeds, Glastofest and Glastolive and the festival's own site.
The Naked and Famous, who are enthusiastic bloggers and admit to living out of two suitcases these days, have a truly exhausting tour itinerary that also includes stops at virtually every major festival, including Fuji Rock, Wireless, T In The Park Reading, Leeds, Paris' Rock en Seine, Australia's Parklife Festival and even Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina.
During a recent Stateside stopover while touring with Foals, Thom, Alisa, Aaron Short, Jesse Wood and David Beadle dropped by the TAS studios and played a terrific set of four songs, including "Young Blood," "The Sun" and "Punching In A Dream:"
Kara Manning: You’ve got your very first Glastonbury coming up - are you excited, nervous, thrilled?
Thom Powers: All of those things!
Alisa Xayalith: I have to buy some gumboots!
Kara: This debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, just came out recently in the States, but it’s been out since last summer in New Zealand and Australia. It shot to the top of the charts and you are the “it” people in the New Zealand alternative rock scene.
Thom: It’s bizarre. We’d hoped and aimed for the top ten of the college radio in the city where we’re from and it went a little bit further than that. We had no real expectation of the sort of success that we’ve gained off it. We would have been happy just completing the album and putting it out ourselves. It’s been bizarre and a wonderful twist of fate.
Kara: You won the [APRA] Silver Scroll which is a very big deal.
Thom: It’s very prestigious. It’s our copyright and songwriters membership so every songwriter is a APRA member and that’s where your royalties come from in TV and radio. It must be yearly, but they do an award for what the songwriters would consider the most well-written song and they voted for us! It was all of our peers, the majority of New Zealand songwriters, voted for us. To me there’s no higher award that you can be given than being recognized by other artists so I really don’t care if we win anything else, to be honest (laughs). That was about the most important one.
Kara: The last song you wrote for Passive Me, Aggressive You was “Punching in a Dream.”
Thom: Yeah, it was finished off weeks before the final mix came back to us. It was a disaster to record. The most horrific recording experience, but very rewarding. It was such a struggle to get through.
Kara: What made it horrific?
Thom: The only thing that was simple about it was the drum take which Jesse [Wood] did. He did two takes first thing in the morning and then had a coffee and went to sleep on the couch [in the studio] as he often did after finishing his takes (laughs). Every instrument after that was very difficult to place, lyrics were rewritten, vocals were shifted up a key, down a key, back up a key. Down one semitone (laughs).
Kara: You really have some killer singles on this album. You’ve only been around since 2006 or 2007?
Alisa: Yes, around 2007 we were writing but we weren’t a fully formed idea until 2008.
Kara: The lineup has shifted and changed, but the heart of it has been you, Thom and Alisa ….
Alisa: And Aaron actually.
Thom: He was behind the scenes when we first started so a lot of people weren’t as aware that Aaron was as involved as Alisa and I from the start. When we had this idea for the band it was really Alisa and I as the songwriters and Aaron as the producer. At the time he was really focusing on being a studio engineer and working behind the scenes and ended up doing a lot of our live shows, mixing the live sound. He played a lot of interesting and weird electronic stuff with me on the first EPs, but at the time we were writing this four-piece band sound. We weren’t thinking of performing as a five-piece live. Eventually he figured out how to take everything he was doing in the studio into the live realm. That was when we decided we’d make this jump from a lo-fi sound, that we were initially doing with our EPs, to the big, boisterous album.
Kara: Arena-sized. Big album. Thom, you and Alisa have such a gorgeous rapport. In your vocal arrangements, [you remind me a little] of the band Stars.
Thom: Thank you! You are the only person who has ever made that connection. We love Stars heaps and everyone’s always [comparing us] to the xx. And we’re like, “No! We’re Stars!”
Kara: You two found each other at music school and dropped out.
Alisa: Pretty much.
Kara: So how do you get from making music in your bedrooms to that gargantuan leap beyond? New Zealand must have a very small music scene.
Thom: I was looking to form a band since I was a little kid. I wanted to be a rock star when I grew up (laughs) but that slowly changed into [wanting to be] in an alternative band, putting out some form of recorded music. I always knew I wanted to do that. Alisa was just experimenting with being a singer, working with bands at music university, so we clicked. She was a naturally great singer so I thought, cool, found a vocalist. We weren’t really taking it very seriously when we started. We were sort of mucking about thinking it would be great to get a song on college radio. Same with Aaron; he was pursuing his engineering desires and we were working towards a similar goal so it all came together naturally. Very quickly it became quite serious and I thought that the band was something I was really feeling passionate about. Let’s put out some records.
Kara: Is Auckland the place where most of the bands converge?
Thom: It’s got the most people per capita and most of the bands and record labels are there. The majors anyway. It’s the hub of media and the equivalent of Los Angeles or New York. But it’s still a small music industry.
Kara: So do you automatically look to Australia?
Thom: Yeah, it’s a very natural step for New Zealand bands who haven’t the privilege that we’ve had of interest overseas. We’ve been pulled over to the UK and the US. That’s not a common occurance at all for New Zealand bands. It’s just so far away and such a feat to get them out of the country. It costs so much money. We’re very privileged not to just be going from New Zealand to Australia and being stuck in the Austrasian music industry.
Kara: I heard a story that you purchased a ticket to Big Day Out to see Nine Inch Nails, one of your influences, and then you ended up playing a gig with Trent Reznor?
Thom: It was just to a Nine Inch Nails concert at an arena and we bought tickets to go. News was out that there was a support band slot available so we went into the promoters office for the touring company that was bringing them over. We brought our records and asked if they could send them [to the band]. And they did! They sent them away, [Nine Inch Nails] listened to us and said, yes, we could support them.
Kara: Did you talk to Trent at all? Did he offer you some wonderful advice?
Thom: I chatted with him about some stupid fan crap that I remembered (laughs). I spoke to him about an old show where the Melvins were supporting them or something and the crowd was really outrageous. It was at some hockey rink and they started pulling up the floorboards.
Alisa: They had wooden floorboards so everyone was ripping them up and throwing stuff at the Melvins.
Thom: And he remembered it.
Kara: Well, Nine Inch Nails is one of your many influences - and you’ve got a broad expanse of bands that you love. But the track “The Sun” has a strong undertow, to me, of what Nine Inch Nails would do if they were The Naked and Famous.
Kara: What is the usual process with writing a track? Who comes in with what?
Thom: Generally it’s something that Alisa and I will get stuck into and then I will turn in a basic idea of a song, a demo. I’ll get stuck into it on a computer and turn it into a five-piece band song. We work on that idea, that basic structure, and pass it back and forth between myself and Aaron. When we’re feeling comfortable and the production is headed the right way, the instrumentation is feeling interesting and solid, we’ll go into rehearsal room and rehearse it as a live band. There’s three stages.
Kara: Do you each claim a song lyrically? Or you share it?
Thom: Some are me, some are Alisa, some are both. All three of those elements put together. A song like “Young Blood” is a good example of shared written parts. I just had the song as a five-piece demo, gave it to Alisa and she wrote all of her lyrics. I think I came up with the “eee yahs.” And that was it. The writing process was very swift. But a song like “Jilted Lovers” was all Alisa. We share lyrical duties all of the time.
Kara: Was there a performance that you saw when you were young or an album that you heard that really convinced you that this is what you wanted to do?
Alisa: I think we all grew up listening to albums and not really going to shows. Just listening to music and cherishing it that way was inspiring to all of us and I think for me, I felt really musically inspired when I discovered the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2003 or 2004. I’d never really seen a female frontwoman be as fierce and courageous as [Karen O] and it really made me want to make music and inspire other people like she inspired me. I always look to other female artists for inspiration, to feel empowered by them, and for that to come out when I perform.
Kara: Who else do you love?
Alisa: PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple and Björk.
Kara: Thom, what about you? Guitarists? Vocalists?
Thom: I just like girlie singers to be honest too! I like the ones that Alisa is talking about. Guitar players that I grew up with are very heavy metal. All the boys did except for Aaron; he grew up with an electronic, dance music. So did David. We all had an alternative, hard rock background collectively as well. Very common teenage growing-up in New Zealand. To be what we call a “bogan” which is a metalhead. It’s kind of like Beavis and Butthead; that would be New Zealand bogans. Maybe some dreadlocks in there as well. So lots of things, like Marilyn Manson and Tool. A few bands that I’m too embarrassed to talk about too.
Kara: Oh, you have to tell us one.
Alisa: There’s no such thing as guilty pleasures!
Thom: There’s plenty of guilty pleasures, but I’m not going to tell you them! Just assume the worst.
Thom: ["No Way"] was one of Aaron’s favorites because of the way that it came together. I can say this because he said it in another interview! It was very much the truest form of our process of writing songs; Alisa sitting down on guitar. She wrote the verse. And then gave it to me and I changed it into a basic rock demo. It was just sitting on the computer for a while and then I gave it to Aaron and he added all of these electronic elements that took it out the context that it was in because I was quite bored of it. I just thought it sounded like a silly rock ballad and then it came back sounding bizarre and quite outrageous. We all fell in love with it. It was a reinspiration. It holds a strong place on the album because there’s not many songs that sounds very singer/songwriter and that’s one where we use acoustic guitar.
Kara: You’re in between homes right now. It’s hard to live in New Zealand, but spend the summer doing the European and UK festival circuit. After the summer is over, do you see yourselves relocating to London or somewhere more central?
Thom: We’re pretty much booked up this year and we’re making one trip home for the New Zealand Music Awards around the end of the year. It was looking like two weeks and now it’s looking like one week so we’re only going to be home for a tiny bit this year. We really don’t have a home right now.
Alisa: We live out two suitcases. We change between them.
Thom: HQ is London, I think. The label is based there. We’re going to spend a lot of time doing a lot of English media and press.
Kara: I assume you’re already thinking in terms of the second album? You’ll record it in London or you’re not that far along in thought about it?
Thom: Not that far along. But I’ve started to collect folders full of demos on the computer. First things first, we want to put out an EP at some point this year. But not sure when we’ll get stuck into album two, to be honest. I imagine that we won’t be looking at recording it seriously until the very end of the year. In reality we won’t get to record it until early next year. We’ve resigned most of 2011 to Passive Me, Aggressive You.
Kara: You’ve gotten a lot of questions about the band’s moniker which is a lyric that you pulled from “Tricky Kid.” I think, Thom, you said that it was the aesthetic of Tricky that appealed to you and why you gave the band that name.
Thom: There were a bunch of things that made it seem relevant. Band names are a horrible thing to come up with because no one every likes them. You put something out with a band name and it sticks. You forget about what it means literally and it becomes what the band’s aesthetic is about. Like Queens of the Stone Age. That’s a ridiculous name for a band.
Alisa: And Smashing Pumpkins.
Thom: Both ridiculous names but you associate Smashing Pumpkins with 90s alternative, gothy stuff and you don’t think about pumpkins or damaging things at all. It’s really hard to commit to a band name, but Naked and Famous seemed over the top, it had good humor, a good sense of irony especially when we started out. The irony has dissipated a little bit because we’re getting a lot of traction with radio and stuff all over the world but I hope that people understand that it’s a joke and cynicism.
Kara: The song that broke you open was “Young Blood” which was the first song, fairly, that you recorded the way you wanted to record.
Thom: Prior to that we’d done it and put it out as a single. The first official album track, though, was “Young Blood.” We had a bunch of demos, we went into a big studio. The five of us working the way that we’d figured out was going to work. Then we went back in and actually re-recorded parts of all of this in that same studio.
Kara: And Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio did a remix of “Young Blood” - how did you hook up with him?
Thom: An A&R fellow at our label, Fiction, flew over to New Zealand when we were playing some shows to sign us. He was the dude we got along with really well. He has contacts with Dave, hit him up, and nagged him and nagged him. But I got to say thanks to Dave electronically.
Kara: You’ve had so much attention paid to you - like BBC Sounds of 2011, the NME Radar Award - how are you keeping yourselves grounded?
Thom: Just by being idiots I think (laughs).
Alisa: Things like the BBC Sounds of 2011 and the Radar Awards, they were both surprises. We weren’t expecting anything like that. So anything big that comes our way is just a bonus. It’s like, cool! Sweet! And then we get back to what we’re doing.