Local Natives & Black Pumas
December 12, 2021 @ 6:30 PM
Let’s think about our musical heroes for a second. How few of our favourite artists rose from a burst of brilliant light and then rode that one, simple wavelength across an entire career. Those who have truly built a lasting lot, one with arcs, evolution, and focus—the icons who hold up the mirror to nature and push themselves to grow and change and persevere, and who challenge us, the listeners and fans, to follow them on their glorious, circuitous paths—those are the heroes who will truly live forever.
In 2010, Local Natives galvanised a musical scene in Southern California, crafting a sound that they loved, and that others flocked to in turn, with the breakout success of their debut album, Gorilla Manor. The five-piece from Los Angeles featuring Taylor Rice, Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn, Nik Ewing, and Matt Frazier have since created a series of different cathartic chapters informed by their constantly changing surroundings.
The band’s second album, 2013’s brooding and lovely Hummingbird, was born out of a period of darkness, a time spanning loss, grief and change. It was, as Rice calls it, an “existential nightmare” and a difficult writing process, but is remembered fondly by its authors as a beautiful and honest representation of who and where the band was at the time. After a multi-year tour that required the group to relive the dark introspection night after night within the explosive enthusiasm of their stage show, Local Natives were ready to transition into their next phase and to begin writing a new record with an entirely fresh perspective.
As the band began to grow, so too grew its lens, and suddenly the “indie rock” lens cap did not seem to fit any longer. These 30-year-old Los Angelenos had seen the world and heard its sounds, and knew, deep down, that there was more in them. And, as in the style and paths of those arcs of our heroes, when Local Natives filtered this whole new layer of influences through their spectrum, the result is an everywhere-you-turn showcase of vision and virtuosity and their grandest statement yet: their third album, Sunlit Youth.
“Coming out of Hummingbird, I think we took our time,” Rice says. “Part of that was to hit a reset, but also the whole process of this new album was very different. We made sure we were connecting to the joyfulness of making music and what inspired us, and we let that lead us. These songs have this outward effusiveness to them. We threw out our band rulebook and tried to push our dynamics and to think differently.”
The first step in this leap of faith was their songwriting process. As opposed to culling song ideas from jamming together as a group as in the past, the band’s core trio of songwriters Rice, Ayer, and Hahn each produced songs on their own more frequently than ever before, rendering each writer prolific and vastly increasing the number of
songs brought to the group space. “That just made us so much more productive,” Rice says. “It was more fun and more free. We wrote fifty songs for this album. I think the record shows that it was chosen from a much larger batch of songs.”
“It took us a second to get used to the idea that no matter how much you slam your head against the wall, a song isn’t going to be great unless everything truly comes together,” Ayer says. “We just focused on the good ideas and knew what to chase. I think getting better at writing songs means knowing what to grab and what to throw away. It’s better to see potential. This record is definitely a testament for us that if you write fifty songs, you’re gonna get ten or twelve that you really love.”
The kick-start album-opener “Villainy” signifies the band’s unbridled new energy and huge ambitions. As Rice sings “I want to start again / sunset’s new babbling man,” electronic notes sputter and swirl, rising and setting as drums pound and keys light the path. It heralds more of a focus in that energy—something the band has had in spades since the beginning—than a change in direction, and the way it reaches beyond the rafters and straight into the sun points the way for the tracks to follow.
As Hahn says, “We’ve gotten older and gotten better at our instruments. There’s a confidence in that, and a confidence to be selfish. You start thinking, ‘What do I want to hear?’ Forget about what we’ve done and what people expect. This is a song that I would want to hear. Selfishly, within the band, if we like this, it doesn’t matter if anyone else does. ‘Villainy’ was born out of listening to sounds that I would have never listened to for Gorilla Manor. We just wanted all the new stuff to have a different energy, and to challenge ourselves to do something different each time.”
Across the album, the band does just that, delving into dancier, poppy moments on “Past Lives” and “Masters,” Fleetwood Mac-inspired dark pop on “Dark Days”, blue-eyed-soul stomp on “Coins,” and prospective anthems on “Fountain of Youth” and “Call Me On.” And while this is new ground for Local Natives to some degree, the sound never loses those qualities that made us fall in love with them in the first place, an accomplishment the band endears to simply following their desire to please themselves.
What has always been there for Local Natives is their meticulous crafting of musical elements while constantly pushing and pulling melody, harmony, and rhythmic components from within their construct and out into the cosmos. Their method lends to a dynamic beyond cerebral execution and into pure, unbridled emotional and energetic territory. As the hedges grow higher in our minds, the band has tapped into that which got the seeds planted in the first place, and the result is an empowering concept of eternal life embodying what Sunlit Youth is all about.
“The record is optimistic and does suggest this feeling that we—as individuals, as society—have the power to take life wherever we want. It’s exuberant and joyful but I think we have a self-awareness in this world now that you can’t have when you’re twenty years old and making your first record. We’re realising that there’s a cyclical nature to it all and there’s always a new perspective. I think it’s this optimistic vision of how the world works, and this album is about facing those realities. A concept like ‘Fountain of Youth’ isn’t an individual, selfish desire to live forever, it’s more the kind of regenerative way that the world is made over and over again. We can do our small part, even if you don’t know how it’s going to affect the change. That is what optimism and changing the
world into what you want is. It’s a metaphor. We could connect each of these songs to that feeling of empowerment. ‘Sunlit Youth’ evokes that feeling. It feels like a nice wrapping-up of this trilogy of who we are: these Southern California kids who grew up feeling like the world was this endless possibility. We make music for a living. It’s the most insane thing that any of us would have imagined.”
Looking back upon their own youths yet constantly moving forward to the future, Local Natives have embraced their evolution and made what could be seen as the most Local Natives-sounding album of their young careers.
Sometimes, a life-changing connection can be closer than you think. In 2017, singer and songwriter Eric Burton made his way from California to Texas. Born in the San Fernando Valley, he grew up singing in church and then got heavily involved in musical theater. He started busking at the Santa Monica pier, where he brought in a few hundred dollars a day and developed his performance skills. Burton traveled through the Western states before deciding to settle down in Austin, TX—setting up his busking spot on a downtown street corner, at 6th Street and Congress, for maximum exposure.
Meantime, Grammy Award-winning guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada was looking to collaborate with someone new. He reached out to friends in Los Angeles, in London, but nothing seemed right. A mutual friend mentioned Burton to Quesada, saying that he was the best singer he had ever heard. The two musicians connected, but Burton took a while to respond (“My friends were like ‘Dude, you’re a mad man, you need to hit that guy back!’”) Finally, he called Quesada and sang to him over the phone. “I loved his energy, his vibe, and I knew it would be incredible on record,” Quesada says. “From the moment I heard him on the phone, I was all about it.”
The results of that inauspicious beginning can now be heard on the acclaimed 2019 self-titled debut album from Black Pumas, the group that Burton and Quesada assembled. In just a couple of years’ time, Burton and Quesada turned their unplanned meeting into a Grammy-nominated act that with songs that have racked up millions of streams and won overwhelming critical praise and multiple sold-out tours across North America and Europe. The album won acclaim from Rolling Stone, who praised “the tireless, charismatic energy of singer Eric Burton,” Pitchfork, who raved, “The duo’s flair for drama is so stirring, they can seem acutely cinematic,” NPR, The Fader, The Guardian, Billboard, Essence, and many more.
Quesada had a storied reputation from playing in bands like Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, accompanying artists from Prince to Daniel Johnston, and producing such acclaimed projects as 2018’s Look At My Soul: The Latin Shade Of Texas Soul. For the tracks that kicked off this project, though, he had a different direction in mind. “I was looking for somebody with their own identity,” says Quesada, “who liked Neil Young as much as Sam Cooke.”
Burton’s taste, range, and experience proved to be exactly what Quesada was seeking. “We just take to the same kind of music,” he says. “I listen to East Coast hip-hop, old soul music, folk music. We were on the same wavelength from the get-go.” KCRW would eventually describe their sound as “Wu-Tang Clan meets James Brown.”
The first day they got together in the studio, they wrote and recorded the dusty funk that would become the Black Pumas’ first two singles, “Black Moon Rising” and “Fire.” Quesada had produced the music for “Black Moon Rising” on the day of the 2017 solar eclipse, and Burton took that concept and ran with it. “Right away, the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” says Quesada. “I knew, ‘This is it—this is the guy.’”
The duo also knew that they didn’t want their sound to be too retro or imitative. “We didn’t want to just do throwback soul and pretend that hip-hop never happened,” says Quesada. “It had to feel sincere coming from us. I have a certain aesthetic in the studio, Eric has a voice that evokes a certain era, but I don’t think we reference that too directly.”
“Adrian has had the time and the interest to really dive into a specific sound, to recreate something he heard on a Motown record,” adds Burton. “And because of that specific knowledge, he provides an interesting sandbox for me, whose background is in theater, to do something super-unorthodox—to be an art student and play with all the colors I have, but to put it on something that’s more familiar to listeners’ ears.”
With Black Pumas having evolved from an idea to a session and eventually an album, they decided to put a band together to see how the music sounded live. They booked a residency at Austin’s C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. “We only rehearsed twice, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” says Quesada. “But with the first show, we knew it was unique, special—the chemistry and fire were there immediately. And what Eric could do as a frontman was like nothing I’d ever seen.” As word got out, the C-Boy’s shows turned into a local phenomenon (“the hottest party in town,” according to the Austin American-Statesman), with lines around the block despite the fact that the band had only released one song. That strong local support led to Black Pumas being awarded Best New Band at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.
The release of Black Pumas was followed by an incredible breakout year, crowned by the duo’s nomination for Best New Artist at the 2020 Grammys alongside the likes of Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X. The band sold out multiple tours across North America and Europe, thanks to a massive fanbase now known as the Puma Pack. They have brought their incredible live performances to The Ellen Show, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live, CBS This Morning, PBS’s Austin City Limits, Late Night With Seth Meyers, and most recently, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, who premiered their powerful live version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” a song that has a particular resonance for Burton and his nomadic past.
Quesada and Burton both return, over and over, to the almost mystical connection they felt from the beginning. It’s this sense of common purpose, of shared vision, that gives Black Pumas its focus and power—and that points to even more great things ahead.
“It’s so seamless, it’s like we’re musical brothers to some degree,” says Burton. “It feels so easy to meld together that what’s most important for us now is to continue to look for new sounds—to make sure we’re feeding ourselves the knowledge to continue to evolve. Every time we get together, it’s better than the last time.”
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