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Local Natives On Recording & Releasing Their New EP Amidst COVID-19

Emerging from 2020 with a new EP, ‘Sour Lemon’ was an unexpected release from Local Natives, but an incredibly welcome one.

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Local Natives released their most recent EP, 'Sour Lemon', in October of 2020.

Jonathan Chu*

There’s a good chance that if you were to take a look in the yearly planners of the members of Local Natives, releasing a new EP in 2020 was one of the last things you would have expected to see. With fourth album, Violet Street, appearing in 2019, and a roughly three-year gap between most records so far, fans might not have expected to receive a new body of work until at least 2022. However, this year has been an unexpected one for us all.

With touring on hold, and more time on their hands, Local Natives returned to our ears in September with their new single, “Statues in The Garden (Arras)”. Ostensibly just a standalone track at the time, things were progressing behind the scenes, and October brought with it the song “Lemon”, from the EP Sour Lemon, which was unleashed just a week later.

A collection of songs whose release was likely as unexpected for fans as it was for the band, it was also accompanied by a livestream concert that helped assure the band’s followers that a sense of normalcy was still in the pipeline, just waiting for an opportunity to emerge.

With the new EP out in the world, and the band eager to see the world of music return to its status quo, Local Natives drummer Matthew Frazier spoke to Rolling Stone Australia to provide an insight into how their Sour Lemon EP was made in a year such as this, and what the future current holds.

Firstly, this year has been a little bit different for everyone, so how have Local Natives been managing to deal with everything going on in the world?

Ah 2020, what an insane rollercoaster ride so far. I just glanced at my calendar and I cannot believe it’s now November. Something like eight months ago, we played our last real show. About a month after that we were cancelling our North American tour with Foals. That in itself felt surreal. In the 14+ years we’ve been a band, I don’t think we’ve ever had to cancel a show, let alone an entire tour.

From there, we’ve been adjusting to the new normal of no live music for the foreseeable future and figuring out what that means for us as a band moving into 2021. I know that may sound dire, but I also know we’re determined to keep pushing forward, putting out new music (hopefully soon!) and continue to perform for people to the best of our abilities, even if that means livestreams only for awhile.

The last album that Local Natives released was 2019’s Violet Street. There was some relentless touring afterwards, including a trip to Australia, so how quickly did ideas for new material start to form?

Yeah! That was the first time we had been back to Australia since 2013, I believe. Always a good time and hope we can come back down asap! As for the new material, most of Sour Lemon had actually been sitting around for awhile. Years, to be honest.

Most were songs that didn’t quite make sense for Sunlit Youth or Violet Street, but we felt they had more life in them than just being released as B-sides. Since those seeds already existed, we dove into the studio shortly after getting back from Australia to see them through.

Recording sessions first began in late 2019, but were these tracks always intended to be the basis for an EP? Or were there plans for another album until current events halted plans?

When we started working on these songs, we weren’t really sure what the end result was going to be. [We] thought maybe we’d just have a few standalone singles or on the flip side, maybe an entire new LP. For the last 10 years or so as band, it’s been a similar cycle — Release record, tour record a TON, take a small break, spend the next year or so making another record, repeat.

We love and take a lot of pride in making albums, and don’t think we’ll ever stop doing it, but we also have come to the realisation that only releasing new music every 3-4 years just isn’t how we always want it to work for us. So in an effort to try something new (for us at least) and release music more frequently, we dove into the studio as soon as we could and without definitive expectation.

Once the pandemic hit, did this affect the plans to release this work? Was it always set to arrive now, or had you planned for an earlier release?

Seeing as we had a lot of touring planned for 2020, the pandemic may have actually allowed the EP to come sooner. As I’m sure most have been for the last 8 months, we’ve been adjusting to the disappearance of live music and releasing new material sooner rather than later felt better than just waiting until we could tour again in 2022 😉

Obviously an EP allows music to be released more immediately, and allows for more concentrated collections of your sound and vision to be released. As your first EP, could this be a format we see Local Natives employing more often in the future? Or would it be more of a case-by-case basis?

Definitely a possibility. And definitely a case-by-case basis. As I mentioned before, we love making records, but we also just love putting music out into the world. So if that comes in the form of a standalone single or even an EP between records, we’re all for it.

The first song fans heard from the EP was ‘Statues in The Garden (Arras)’. What were your memories of how this song came to be?

Oh boy. I think that song might be 7 years old? Haha. That’s one of Ryan’s babies, so I’ll let him answer this one:

“I wrote ‘Statues in The Garden’ while on tour way back in 2013, the working title ‘Arras’ coming from the French town we were in at the time. For whatever reason, we were never able to get the arrangement to click as a band back then – I remember on a writing trip in Thailand in 2014 we spent hours jamming that song together – but nonetheless we all recognized the potential of the song.

“Once we decided to book time with Chris Coady, I finally came up with the swirling outro and guitar solo.  I think another thing that really allowed ‘Arras’ to cross the finish line was Matt’s drumming, which took my chopped samples and programmed beats, and breathed life and personality into them. It’s an incredible live performance on his part.” (No, I did not ask Ryan to write nice things about me, I promise!)

Not long after, you released ‘Lemon’ as the second single. What was the recording process for this one like? How did Sharon Van Etten become involved in the process?

Another Ryan Hahn special, so I’ll let him take this one as well:

“This was another song I brought to the table and we knew going into the studio that we wanted it to be a sparse and simple arrangement. About a year and a half before, we’d gotten the chance to meet up with Sharon. We had met years before while working with Aaron Dessner on our 2nd album. She had just moved to our neighborhood in LA and we showed her the song. She wrote that falsetto melody on the outro that day.

We had always hoped to have her sing it as a duet but by the time we finally got around to recording it with Chris, her schedule just wouldn’t allow it. Fortunately the day before we were recording the song I bumped into her on the street in LA and asked her. Thankfully she was able to do it and she came into the studio the next day and just nailed it. We’re huge fans of hers so having her be a part of that song really was a dream come true.”

The music on the EP feels somewhat more luscious and atmospheric than the songs released on Violet Street. Had there been a conscious decision to employ a slight shift in the sound, or was it more of an organic happening?

I think we’ve always tried to avoid being pigeonholed to a particular sound, so there was probably a subconscious effort to shift things slightly. We try to ride the line between pushing boundaries and exploring new soundscapes, but while simultaneously staying true to who were are as band and the sound that has gotten us to this point.

With so much downtime throughout the year, have you been enjoying this time to rest, or have you been eager to get back in the game and work on new material and play live shows?

There’s been a bit of downtime, but we’re definitely eager to continue creating and eventually hit the road again whenever it’s safe to do so. We’ve been working on new material remotely from each other, but it’s proven to be a slow process as we definitely thrive and work faster in a room together.

However, we did successfully pull off a livestream concert last month. We hadn’t played as a band in 8 months, so the catharsis and gratitude for each other was extremely high. We realize this will be the way of things for awhile, so we’re trying to make them more of a regular thing in 2021.

Are there any immediate plans for what’s next for Local Natives? Are there any tentative plans to tour again yet, or is everything still too difficult to tell?

Everything is just too up in the air to be able to plan anything yet. For now, we’ll continue creating and look forward to the day we can hit the road again. We just want everyone to keep safe and know we look forward to seeing you in person on the other side of this thing.

Local Natives’ Sour Lemon EP is out now via Loma Vista Recordings, with a physical vinyl pressing available for pre-order now.