New Zealander Thom Powers on what's it like to lead the Naked and Famous in Los Angeles
The Naked and Famous was founded in Auckland, New Zealand in 2008 by Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith when the two were students at the Music and Audio Institute. Taking its name from Tricky's "Tricky Kid," the Naked and Famous isn't exactly what you'd call trip-hop. Rooted in alt rock, the Naked and Famous write richly melodic pop songs with an expansive spirit and uplifting sense of momentum.
The outfit's 2010 debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You, reached number one in the band's homeland, an impressive feat for a record released by the band on its own label, Somewhat Damaged. After some extensive touring in support of the record, the Naked and Famous relocated to Laurel Canyon in California, where it worked on its sophomore album.
In early 2013, the quintet entered Sunset Sound studio to record what would become In Rolling Waves, and this past summer, it went to London to mix the songs with legendary studio engineer Alan Moulder. The end result is an album of surprising depth and rich sonic detail that rewards those who listen closely, while also working as a group of solidly crafted pop songs imbued with a sense of wonder and hopefulness.
We recently spoke with guitarist and co-vocalist Thom Powers about working with Moulder, finding greater opportunities in making a career in music outside of New Zealand and how his passion and ambition in the band has lead it to outdo its previous efforts.
Westword: You wrote the beginnings of the songs for In Rolling Waves at home, did demo recordings in Wales and Australia, and recorded the album we've heard in Laurel Canyon or Hollywood. How do you feel the final recordings benefitted from that process?
Thom Powers: That sounds very scattered, right? It doesn't seem like a plan. I think virtually every band I've ever really got to speak with, or read interviews with, it's very similar in the way that they're trying to make an album or get the band an identity and try to make it a real thing takes a long time. There are very few people in the world that can do one thing from A to B and go, "Right, that's finished." One week you have a bout of inspiration, and you might work on two songs, and might just be lyrics, and the next week, you work on drums and write a few different songs, and it's terrible, and you don't get anything done, and all your ideas are sucking. So the scattered process is pretty natural.
For us, it was just a coincidence that we were in Wales when we had a break and we could afford to do some writing. And that's something that I always push for, as far as us scheduling and how it works. It's one of the elements that keeps us together because we have this almost, a little bit, corny family vibe to the band, where we've been living together for this long and we barely spend any time apart.
Every time it looks like there's going to be a break while we're touring and there's nothing to do, I sort of go, "Well, let's find some empty studio. Let's find a house to go and work in. Let's find a place to be productive." That tends to keep us all on the same page to a certain extent. We don't have to meet back up and start from scratch all the time.
That's definitely helpful. Anyone who's a musician or other creative type knows, as you suggested earlier, it's not some pre-packaged, connect the dots type of process -- it's more spontaneous and organic than that.
Exactly, and I think the reality of becoming a professional musician -- or from my experience, or what I have noticed -- is that your opportunities to be creative and to recreate the kind of behavior that made you want to start a band in the first place becomes more and more sparse because you're always working on something you're already doing.
But when you're an unknown musician, you're just trying to make an album, or you're trying to make a song, or you're trying to get things moving. The passion is there without the end product in mind. In that respect, it makes a lot more sense that every time you think you have a free moment to just go, "I'm going to be writing. Everyone leave me alone, I'm going to this little studio and hang out and do some work." Maybe nothing productive comes out of it, but the process itself is important to stay on top of.
New Zealand has produced some of the most interesting music of all time. Like bands on Flying Nun and so forth. Presumably you were exposed to a lot of that music growing up there. Did any of those older bands have any impact on the kind of music you do?
Yeah! That's totally fantastic that you know about Flying Nun because it's such a hit and miss kind of thing. When you speak to real music journalists that have an extensive knowledge of music history and what comes out of certain places and the scenes that developed and bring up things like Flying Nun they're like, "Yeah, I know Flying Nun!" Then the conversation is exciting. Sometimes you bring it up, and you can tell you're speaking to someone's who's maybe my age and has just gotten into journalism and they're like, "What?..."
Flying Nun is an integral part of being an alternative rock band in New Zealand, and at one point or another, you stumble across it and you figure out what it is. And even if you don't exactly adopt a love for a lot of the music, I think just the legacy that's behind it is something that's quite unavoidable. One of the Flying Nun bands that had a massive influence on us was the Mint Chicks. Do you know The Mint Chicks?
Oh, yeah! That's the band that Ruban Nielsen of Unknown Mortal Orchestra used to be in, right?
Yeah, UMO, and his brother Kody has a band called Opossum. There was a period when we were just starting to make music in 2008. The Mint Chicks had been around for a little while, and then all of a sudden, they were just the coolest band in New Zealand, and they were just all over mainstream TV and pop radio, and it was a really big deal. It made you go, "My god, you can be in an alternative band and it can be successful. You don't just have to be playing in a shitty dive bar every week.
So that was a monstrous inspiration to us. But I guess, sadly, because they were a New Zealand band a lot of what we wanted to follow as far as a trajectory was very New Zealand-oriented. I guess that's a trap of being a creative person in a very small, creative environment -- you get narrow-sighted, you get tunnel vision.
It's interesting you say that because it happens here, too. Some acts stay a local band, and they're amazing, but similar type of phenomenon.
Yeah, you get stuck in this state, right? We've got a friend's band, who are a California band at the moment; they've got a crowd in California, but they haven't really gone anywhere else in the States. They're called No. They're just starting out, but they're a testament to the idea that you really have to find a way to crack into the wider scale of America.
One of the guys that started No is a New Zealand band, and now it's a full '60s band with another New Zealand guitar player that I grew up with. They were living right around the corner from us in Echo Park this whole year. It was kind of crazy because I grew up up the street from the guitar player. They're kicking off and deciding to do stuff in other parts of the country' but at the moment they've just played lots of shows in California.
Obviously you recorded the album in Laurel Canyon or Hollywood, or at least spent time living there while you recorded it: What was the deciding factor staying there?
Oh, it was just a pretty crazy, arbitrary decision. We ended up traveling a lot, and ended up back in Los Angeles often, and it was always fun when we were there. We were sitting around the table one day, and I was like, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could all just say that we'd lived in Los Angeles at one point in our lives?" Everyone said, "Yeah, alright. Sweet." It just seemed an easy place to acclimatized to because one of our managers spends half of his year in Los Angeles. So there was a safety net of knowing someone who could help us set up. That was a very appealing aspect to it as well.
Laurel Canyon was just where we could find the biggest house that seemed to suit us. It was a happy accident because it was a fantastic, retro palace from the '70s that had not been renovated since. Jesse [Wood] was so excited to show me, and he was taking me around the house, and I was like, "This looks awful." He was so excited because he thought it was amazing. After one week of living there and figuring things out, I thought, "Okay, cool, this place is sweet." Then it really became home. All those press shots we did for the record standing in front of a pool, on a roof and in a doorway? That was at that house.
How long did you live there?
Just over a year.
What did you like about living in Los Angeles compared to living in New Zealand?
It's just a very different culture. New Zealand feels very real to me and Los Angeles felt very surreal at first. Just because it's right next to Hollywood, and Hollywood is like one of the most ridiculous cultural oddities on the planet. It's really strange. It's peculiar. It was fun to be around and to feel very disconnected and very on the outside, sort of feeling like tourists the whole time, even when we were really adjusted to the place. We didn't really spend any time hanging out with Hollywood types or anything like that. We were living close to Studio City doing our own thing and making the life that we wanted to live here.
[We eventually] moved to Echo Park a few months before we started touring [because] that was the place where we really hung out, and that's where our rehearsal studio was. So we were driving there every day a couple of times, and we went to all the bars around there and went to gigs. It was really fun. By the time we were at Studio City, it was very insular. But toward the end, it became very fun and social, and we went out and met people and made friends. I was really happy there, I think.
Are you based out of Los Angeles/Echo Park now, or do you feel like you're going to go back to New Zealnd?
We're definitely not going to return to New Zealand. And I feel bad about saying that because I feel like it might sound like it's insulting to New Zealand. But if you have the opportunity to leave the country as a creative person, you just have to take it and not let go of it. Because if you let go of it it's an opportunity you won't get again.
It's incredibly expensive to leave and just difficult to connect with the rest of the world from New Zealand. We have no intention of letting go of this. I feel like most of the career that we have and the work that we do and all the focus that we have has a lot to do with the American, the U.K. and the European music industries.
Upon first hearing your band, it was not obvious that your band came from New Zealand because your music has none of the sonic fingerprints one associates with the music from that country?
Yeah, thank. That's very flattering for us as well because that was something I was always worried about because there's something about being a New Zealand band that kind of traps you -- that goofy, small-mindedness you get stuck in. I think because we weren't influenced by or connected to our immediate environment, and we had big dreams and ambitions, I think that translated to the music.
Certainly. Your band is more reminiscent of something like M83, which seems to have a more international or even European pop vibe to it.
Totally, sure. We know those people really well know. We got introduced by Morgan Kibby from M83. She has a great band called White Sea, and she did this fantastic remix for us. We put it out on our remixes and B-sides records. From there, we met the rest of the M83 guys, and Anthony [Gonzalez] came to one of our shows, and we went to theirs.
We took them out to dinner in New Zealand to meet them for the first time. They were playing this festival and we had a couple of weeks off and we thought, "Okay, we'll take M83 out to dinner." Somehow the tour manager had forgotten to tell everyone that they were going out to have some food with this other band that were taking them and wanted to go to some seafood restaurant or something.
So a couple of the band members knew, but the rest of them didn't. So they just arrive at this restaurant and sit down at a table full of fuckin' strangers. Morgan and us and Anthony were getting to know each other. Then we were talking to Jordan [Lawlor], the bass player, and he said, "Oh, so what do you do?" We said, "We're in a band." He's like, "Oh, really? What band?" We replied, "The Naked and Famous." He responded, "What?! What?!" So everyone at the table was like, "They just sat down to dinner with a bunch of randoms and were just completely happy to do it."
In Rolling Waves was mixed by one of the greatest engineers to have produced music in the last few decades, Alan Moulder. What do you feel he brought out well in other records you like by other people and perhaps what he brought out or enhanced on your own record?
I think the wonderful thing about working with him is that he was very true and respectful to the recordings that we had done and the production we had done. There were certain aspects, about which I said, "Let's leave that out and go and see what Alan has and see what he likes to use to make that noise and we'll go with his preference." So we left a couple of avenues open in particular vocal reverbs and a couple of compression and EQ things, delays. So when we got there, I was like, "Look, I want this to sound like this. What's your preferred plug-in? How do you want to do that?" And we just kind of took it from there.
He was very respectful of the direction that we wanted to pursue, which was quite true to all the sounds that were there. The way the drum kit sounds, and whatnot, is the way that we recorded them. Often, now, with how engineering works, you record it one way and you turn it into something completely different. So it was very focused, and there was a direction for everything. It was cool, though, because he was so lovely and accommodating and easy to work with.
The fun thing was that it was quite rare for bands to hang around in the studio all the time. Often bands would come along, hear the mix and bugger off again. We were turning up every day like it was work. There at ten or eleven and leaving at nine or ten in the evening. That was a really fun aspect of that, and I think he really enjoyed it as well. He felt like it was invigorating for him.
So he doesn't do much changing or post-production in the mixing?
Do you know what? I think he can do either. He's worked with people like Trent Reznor where there's so much processing, and they take noises and make them completely different. He's also worked with people like Dave Grohl, who was adamant that there was going to be no drum replacement or drum sampling on the record. It was an entirely live album and mixed on an analog disc.
He's just a whatever guy. He wants to work on stuff the way people want to work on things. He was incredibly open-minded, as well. I thought I was going to feel really inferior and kind of stupid sitting in the back and watching this guy work. But he just made me think, "There's a feller mixing a record."
And you've done plenty of production and engineering work yourself, so you weren't really out of your element.
Yeah, totally. That was inspiring, as well, because it was a confidence booster. He definitely did not overshadow anyone's confidence or make anyone feel stupid. The experience of working with him filled me with confidence and I felt good having worked with him.
Are there particular records that he produced that you admire?
Oh yeah. I grew up listening to Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and A Perfect Circle and all the Nine Inch Nails records. When Alisa [Xayalith] and I first met we started listening to a lot of bands together. You know, he did Blonde Redhead's 23, and that's amazing. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Fever To Tell, as well. It was a special, hero moment for me, really.
Listening to your new record earlier, something striking about your production can be heard especially well in the song "We Are Leaving." There's a really interesting electronic texture and melody in the background, like you're listening to in 3D instead of just something you'd normally hear on the radio. There's a lot of sonic depth to be found on that album.
Wow, thank you. That means a lot. Passive Me, Aggressive You was all about just accomplishing and album and vision and creating an aural, aesthetic feel. It was an accumulative experience putting together and finishing that record. We were kind of working DIY. There was a little bit of experience, and we were very ambitious going from bedroom recordings, DIY, to working in a big studio.
Having done all that and having mixed that with Billy Bush, who engineered everything on In Rolling Waves, and after having toured for two years and understanding how these songs fit together live and listening to a whole bunch of new records, I felt at the end of everything that I was very ambitious, and I wanted to take a step forward on everything that we'd achieved. I think that just comes naturally, you know, with any profession. I'm sure with journalism, as well, every time you write a piece, you let it go, and you critique it, and think, "I'm going to do something better next time or feel more confident."
I feel like anyone who has any desire or passion always wants to outdo themselves, which is healthy, I think. And I think people are sometimes wary of the topic, but I think there is a certain element of a competitive nature in being a creative person where we're trying to one-up each other. But not in a malicious way -- in like an absorbing way where you take in what you hear and learn and you try to take a step forward with it. To me that's what In Rolling Waves is.
Yeah, you hear something or get exposed to a bit of creative work and get inspired by it and want to do something good and even great yourself rather than a direct competion.
Exactly, it's like accumulating this body of knowledge and interest in your head to fuel your own output.