The Naked and Famous, Fully Clothed
New Zealand’s rising alt rock band is more serious than their name suggests. They play tonight at the Pabst.
Following the worldwide success of their effervescent, radio-friendly 2010 debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You, New Zealand’s alt-rock band The Naked and Famous decamped to Los Angeles to record their follow up, last year’s somewhat moodier and more somber In Rolling Waves. Dial reporter Stuart Reid caught up with with the band’s lead vocalist, songwriter and keyboard player Alisa Xayalith en route to Milwaukee for tonight’s show at the Pabst, and found her surprisingly honest about her experiences with the band.
How are you holding up to this relentless touring schedule?
Everyone’s doing pretty good. I feel like everyone’s pretty seasoned. It’s the way we live now. It would be weirder when we don’t tour.
Do you do any writing on the road or even working on new arrangements?
It’s just too busy for that. There’s always little pockets where you write bits and pieces. I think it’s important for us to keep being creative no matter how small the output.
Do you have a preference for festival shows versus your headline shows?
Definitely headline shows. A lot of the time festival shows feel like a huge competition. You’re constantly trying to win people over. But if you’re doing headline shows, the people are very excited about coming to hear their favorite songs played live. And it’s more intimate. We don’t play huge rooms. I feel more fortified because I feel more connected to the audience.
Oh absolutely. And festivals are fun because you end up meeting a lot of different bands and there’s a bit of a community that happens backstage which can be really cool.
What are some of the pluses and minuses about living in the States versus New Zealand?
The pluses … we live in east L.A. and there’s a great community of musicians that live there. There’s a lot of kiwi musicians that live where we live. Minuses… I love being home in New Zealand. I grew up on the beach and it is not as accessible in L.A. as in New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve properly had a good living experience on my own. Before we were on tour, we were in a big house together in L.A. which was hidden away in Laurel Canyon and we were working so I barely got to do or see anything. But this time when we finish touring In Rolling Waves I’m gonna be getting off the road and really exploring things on my own. The beach not being accessible is a big thing to me as I’ve just gotten into surfing.
In Rolling Waves strikes me as more somber than the first album, a little heavier in terms of some of the themes. Do people react differently compared to the poppier stuff on the first album?
When I look at the audiences we play to, there are so many different types of people, so many varied age ranges. I’d like to think fans who loved Passive Me, Aggressive You grew with us and loved In Rolling Waves. It is definitely a more serious album. It has really quiet moments. I feel like after playing tracks from In Rolling Waves on this tour that people are really thoughtful and pay attention to all the nuances. Sometimes it can be challenging playing to an all-ages crowd when they want to hear the poppy-hit stuff. We were kids when we wrote that first album. A lot of people have said the second album is mature and more graduated and I should hope so, I’m in my late 20’s.
Tell me how some of your remix projects come together.
Maybe 90 percent of those remixes on the remixes and rarities record are just our friends. We like taking tracks apart and standing them on their head and making it into a completely different track. Thom [guitarist and songwriter] is really incredible at pulling things apart and changing a song into something unpredictable. We can have fun and do things we wouldn’t necessarily do in Naked and Famous songs. It’s cathartic and it’s fun to work with other people as well. At the moment, we’re doing a remix for The 1975 and they’re doing one for us and that’s going to be really fun when it’s finished.
Having heard some of the backstory of “I Kill Giants” [a song from the current album about the death of Alisa’s mother when Alisa was seven years old] I would imagine you’ve gotten a lot of letters and emails from fans talking about their own experiences.
I have. It’s a strange thing to know you can have that effect on people. “I Kill Giants” is probably the most open thing I have done in songwriting. The way people have reacted has been incredible; a lot of fans have shared their stories with me. They have a strong feeling of, you know, “I wasn’t the only one who has experienced something like that” and they don’t feel alone. I’m always in awe of people’s reactions, especially to subject matter that is quite bleak and filled with sadness. It’s been an amazing journey with that song. It’s about the helplessness you feel when you can’t change something and the chorus line is “Why couldn’t we save you?” When you’re a child you just don’t understand, “Why did this person have to leave” and it’s really sad and there’s no real resolve. Often when we are playing that song to these big audiences I just look up to the sky and I wonder in this romantic fantasy of mine… if she’s watching or would she be proud and then I get myself into an emotional mess. It still hits home to me. I’m glad that Thom really pushed me to finish it.
It’s gotta be tricky to have that be one of the songs that gets the focus when it’s intensely personal.
Yes. I think I learned something, that it’s OK to be vulnerable and it’s OK to be unflinchingly honest in songwriting. I hadn’t really let myself be so open like that.
What did [uber-producer] Alan Moulder [who has worked on records by Curve, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, White Lies and dozens more] add to the process on In Rolling Waves?
That was a total dream. He was on our dream list. We were lucky because Jim Chancellor, who is the head of Fiction Records, is good friends with him. So he put the word out. We were like “Oh, man, I really hope he likes these demos.” We sent him a couple of demos and he was interested straightaway. I mean, I grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins and [Yeah Yeah Yeah’s] Fever to Tell and the first Killers album he mixed. He’s just done so many things that all of us love, Nine Inch Nails, he’s worked with Trent Reznor. Aaron and Thom are huge, huge Nine Inch Nails fans. So, working with him was incredible.
He was really collaborative with Thom and Aaron and doing all those secrets that he did. We were there every day. We would spend the day with him listening to what he was doing. He said he was glad because often bands just hand over the sessions, say hello, and then leave for the day and come back to hear what he had done. But with us, we were all quite hands-on and he really appreciated it actually. He was so accommodating to all suggestions. I thought he was going to be quite scary to work with because he had worked with Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor I’m like “Oh my god, I wonder what this guy going to be like” but he’s a total sweetheart, an absolute English gentleman.
You mentioned Smashing Pumpkins. The great quote from [Pumpkins original bassist] D’Arcy was that while she liked being in the band she “never made friends with the name.” Have you “made friends” with being in a band called The Naked and Famous?
[After a long pause, laughs] No….. No, I don’t think so. That name is so funny, isn’t it? The name was pulled from a Tricky lyric and it’s become more of a subconscious ethos in our brains I guess that reminds us that being in a band is not about either of those things and the day that it becomes about those things we should stop making music. I definitely don’t think I’m friends with the name!
The Naked And Famous – Young Blood
The Naked And Famous – I Kill Giants