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Local Natives are done waiting and back to doing what they do best

It’s undeniable that we all still feel the crunch of time in a more marked way following a lengthy pandemic period flowing into these following, transitional years. It’s been challenging, to say the least, and very much reflected in the art made during this period.

Local Natives initiated their own telling of the post-pandemic passage of time on their fifth album, Time Will Wait for No One. Reflecting pensively on time’s constant motion, they leaned heavily on their trademark vocal layers and polished production. The resulting sounds proved comforting for not only the transition out of an epic global pandemic, but also simpler changes like spring to summer, when time also truly seems fleeting.

The Cali band’s sixth and newest full-length album, But I’ll Wait For You, sees them homing in on pent-up feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability — “sadness, beauty and surrender,” as founding member Taylor Rice says. Amidst the quickening pace of days, months and years, the songs reflect those emotions best when the band leans on their musical roots as friends and bandmates to punch through with confidence that everything will settle in the end.

Lead single, “April,” — in heavy rotation on 88Nine — along with songs like “Camera Shy” showcase the more confident spectrum of the full album, employing plenty of pluck and fuzzed-up walls that build a secure base for the rest of the album’s more chill songs.

Before Local Natives play Summerfest on July 5 (appearing at both the American Family Insurance House at 4 p.m. and the Generac Power Stage at 9:30 p.m.), I spoke with Rice about being in a band with people you’ve known since high school, what it was like to work with famed producer and “musical chef” John Congleton for this latest record, as well as how it feels great to be making music together in person again and playing two albums’ worth of songs on tour.

Rice and I also took time to mull over how Local Natives’ work ethic has shifted as they navigate creative life with their growing families, and how they’re looking for recommendations on what to do in Milwaukee while they’re here. We’ll share an opportunity to make your suggestions on our socials, but here’s the interview in the meantime so you can get a little glimpse of what to expect ahead of their Summerfest show.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to go back to the very, very beginning. When you first start a band or a musical project, there are many hopes and dreams — even fantasies for the band. What's one dream that has come true that you had when you first started this thing back in 2005?

I’ve been playing with my bandmates through high school and college. I think from that place, it's just like this is my dream, and I have no idea where it's going to go. I just want to play music, and I want to play shows, and I want to write songs. It really just starts there, and the whole thing unravels in a way that's really hard to predict, you know? You just get in a van with your friends and go for it. There are so many things.

I think the main thing is just that this is what we get to do. I think we’ve always really loved playing live. That's such a huge part of our band and our connection with our fans. We've toured a lot over the years, and I’ve learned that not every band loves it as much as we do, but that's just something that really still is so energizing. It's just so amazing that we get to go have that communal space and play music live in front of people. I'm very grateful for that. That was definitely the dream playing in the basements and the backyards when we were in high school.

Not every artist is like that. Not everyone feeds off that tour energy or that live-space energy. So, as a musician, you're lucky that you veer that way because some people have stage fright or touring exhausts them, so that's a great asset to have as a musician.

Yeah, definitely.

Most of you met in high school and started playing together. Did you all meet in band class or sports or … ?

We grew up in Orange County, just south of L.A., where we've been based our whole “professional career slash band” lives. We obviously moved to L.A. right when we could. And in Orange County, the culture there — there's a lot of beach, and there's a lot of sports, and it's very “suburbs” and other stuff going on, and the music kids really just find each other.

There was a really thriving scene there at the time. There was a lot of hardcore and emo, church shows and basement shows and house parties and stuff. Yeah, the music kids just find each other.

What kinds of music were you all listening to at that age? When you started playing together, did you all kind of come together because you were interested in the same types of music? And did those things inform your own sound as a band?

Literally, I met Ryan the first day of seventh grade, and we started playing guitar in eighth grade together. So it's been a journey. The first band we were really into is At The Drive-In, this really creative left-field guitar band; they would just go nuts onstage. Their live shows were really kind of crazy. That was the first band that we were like, “Whoa, okay.”

So we were going at that for a while, and then it kind of changed through the years. As we started forming what would become Local Natives, we really got into a lot of the ’60s harmony bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Zombies, The Beach Boys … but especially CSNY because we had three singers.

We were like, “Okay, we all want to sing. How are we going to do this?” They would sing where everyone's singing, and there's not necessarily a lead all the time with the harmony. It’s like, that's the sound. We were just really attracted to that. And that was kind of a nice roadmap for us to figure out our sound.

We've just been singing together now for like 20 years, and it's really a fun thing. That's how all our songs kind of start — around a piano or a guitar, the three of us singing and just seeing what happens and playing with that.

I wonder, too, if that's why you all have had such staying power because the egos are brushed aside when you don’t have a lead vocalist and you have more of a collaborative vibe to your band. Maybe it's more of a collective thing.

Definitely. Yeah, we're a very democratic band, for sure, with less-defined roles all the way across. It's cool. There’s lots that I love about it and also challenges, too, but it's really amazing. It’s an amazing way to make music as a team.

Being involved in any group is a really big commitment, especially a long-term group. It's like a marriage of sorts. Do you see Local Natives as being a lifetime project without any end? Is that something you can't see the end of or do you just not think about it that way?

Yeah, I think it's a great question. I think I don't know the answer to that. I don't see an end necessarily, but I also feel like I don't know what I don't know. I think, for me, as long as it feels vibrant and alive, and as long as it feels really special and really creative, and as long as the music feels amazing and all that feels good, then I don't see any reason why it would end. We've been doing that so long, and we’re all starting families now. It's a different phase.

For so long, part of our story was that right after we graduated college, we all moved into this house together — all of us into this tiny house. And we really lived and breathed this band nonstop, constantly our whole lives. Obviously, it's shifted now as you start families and stuff. But, yeah, when we get together, when we get in the studio, when we get on the road, it feels really amazing. And so as long as that feels right, then I don't think there's a reason to think about an end.

I want to talk about the last album, which also piggybacks off the album before that. They're kind of a “dual companion album” situation. First, the new album, But I'll Wait for You, was just released in April. Can you walk us through some of the big themes? What was all going down during the writing of this new record that bubbled up?

You kind of have to unfortunately go back to the pandemic to talk about the very beginning process of it. For us, what was so insane about that time period is that it literally was the longest time period where we hadn't been together or I hadn't played a show since I was 14 years old, you know? Obviously, everybody went through that, but for us it kind of stopped this constant in our life in this way.

So when we got back together after that, we had our first show back at The Greek Theatre in our hometown of Los Angeles, and it was a sold-out show. The first time everybody could come back, it was also my son's first show that he got to see because he was born right before the pandemic, and it was just so overwhelming and this wild experience.

When we got back together, all of this music just started pouring out, and I think we were more prolific than we'd ever been. That's how this double album kind of came together. We made all these songs, and then we're like, “Gosh, it's time to put out an album and do this thing, but we're not done. We have to keep writing.” It was really fun. It was cool. It was the first time we ever had a project that was this ambitious and had all these themes connecting from the beginning.

So the first album is called Time Will Wait For No One. The second album is called But I’ll Wait For You. And that lyric, together — like that couplet — is the first lyric of the first record, and it's the last lyric of the last record.

All these themes kind of came out of our time. No matter what is happening, no matter what you do, time is changing you imperceptibly and changing your life. You can't stop that, but you can choose what you do inside of that. That's the only control that you have. There's a sadness to that and a beauty and a surrender. A lot of it was just coming from that place across these 20 songs that we ended up writing and recording.

That's an ambitious but thoughtful project. Just remarking on the passage of time and the pandemic underlines all that stuff for many people, I feel like.

Yeah, definitely.

Taking on a double album, basically, seems like quite the challenge. It's challenging enough to release one record, let alone two consecutive records. Did you have any challenges when it came to putting out kind of a massive project?

You know, it really felt more exciting to us because this is our fifth and sixth record, and our first four were very much on the same track. It would be one full year of writing and recording an album, two full years of touring it, one full year. … There's these big three-year cycles, and so this felt great.

It was so awesome to put out a record, be playing all these new songs and be like, “We know something,” which is that we have a whole ’nother record right around the corner. That's actually been really exciting. So now doing these tours, too, it's like we get to draw off both records and just have so much more new music to play with. For us, it's a really novel experience, and it's been awesome to do.

You also worked with notable producer and engineer and musician John Congleton, as well as an orchestra from Budapest, which is really cool. What was one of the highlights, especially of working with someone like Congleton? What was your favorite “Congleton moment,” and what did he bring to the sound of this batch of songs? 

Congleton is such an amazing producer, and he's made so many records that are just incredible. It was our first-time meeting, and working with him and every producer we've worked with is so different from the other ones, and it takes a minute to figure it out.

With John, what's really amazing is in the studio, sometimes it's like, “Let's start kind of jamming and figuring it out.” Then it's just a starting point, and we can add on a million layers and mess around and be creative and be crazy. With John, it was a little bit more like, “All right, play the song. All right, that's what you got? That's what's going? Cool.”

It took us a second to adjust because the previous producer, Sean Everett, who's another incredible engineer and producer, he's the polar opposite of this technique. What it ended up doing is really refining the song down. So we're like, “Okay, cool.” We had to adjust to that.

The song just had to be amazing and beautiful and work at its most stripped, basic form in the room. That was really awesome. I really appreciated that about working with John Congleton and a lot of the songs I think benefited so much from his approach with that.

Sounds like he was just distilling everything down.

He would distill, but I don't want to sell him short. Here's the other part of it: He would do that, but then he would do this special “John Congleton sauce,” and he wouldn't tell us what he was doing, which is funny. He would make this kind of atmosphere in and around the song and do this thing that was just so incredible, and then that would be a huge identity of the song as well.

So he somehow did both things. He was like, “What have you got? Distill it down. It's got to be the best it can be.” And then he would put his own personal spin on it. I'd have to kind of go song by song, but he would make it really magical and give it a very unique Congleton identity as well.

The chef never talks about the sauce?

Usually, the chef does. Every other producer I've worked with is like, “Let's do this, and here's what we're doing” and talk you through it. [Congleton] would just quietly do it and be like, “What do you think?” And we were like, “Yeah, that's amazing. What'd you do?” He's like, “Don't worry about it. Just get in there.”

Maybe he's just like, “I need to get you guys doing what you're doing best. Not thinking about what I'm doing. You do you.” Right?

Totally. He did that. Yeah, it was amazing.

It sounds like a rewarding experience to work with different producers. Would you say you would work with Congleton again, or are you just trying to go through and experience different things in the studio?

I think maybe because the band is so democratic and it's such a different vibe and we always want each album and era to be so different, I think that might be a reason why we've always worked with a new producer each time we've gone to make another record.

Because I've loved so much working with every producer we've had, so sometimes it's kind of just like, “Oh, we're making a record,” and then that person … maybe we'll check in and they're busy. But I think a part of it is a continued exploration of, like, “Cool, now we're really interested to try this out. This producer could be cool for that.” So we kind of always tend to go that way.

I like this democratic band thing. It works. It works.

It makes for a lot longer decision-making process, but it does technically eventually work.

My final question to you — or remark — is that you're coming to Milwaukee on July 5 to play Summerfest. We're all looking forward to it. Do you have any favorite Milwaukee spots or things to do when you come back to the city?

What comes to mind in Milwaukee? I think in Milwaukee we've usually played the show and had to go, you know? So I would love some recommendations from you or somebody who's got two and a half hours in the city. We always find a great spot to go eat and do that, but what would you recommend for a musician coming through and you've got like, an afternoon?

We just had Sam Beam of Iron & Wine come in recently. He did a session with us, and he went to our Public Market for lunch. He said that some of his favorite food has been there in Milwaukee. Also, he always visits the Bronze Fonz. I'd say you can't go wrong with going to the lake; just walking along the lake is absolutely wonderful. You also have to find cheese curds somewhere, of course.

That sounds like they'd be good for after the show and not before.

[laughs] Yeah, totally, totally not good for your vocals, but I think what we should do is put the ask out to our listening audience on social media when we post this interview and maybe they can hit you up with some suggestions, too.

Oh, please send me your recommendations. I would love that. And I've really heard tales of Summerfest that it's really an amazing festival. I'm excited. It's hyped up.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee