Indie-rock act is 'saying yes to everything' while prepping new album

Back in August of 2008, Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn and Taylor Rice realized the songs they were writing represented not just a new direction, but an entirely different band from Cavil at Rest, the group the three friends formed in high school in Orange County, California.

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the band they rechristened Local Natives, a harmony-soaked indie-rock act that, over the course of three albums, has managed to remain one of the big-font bands on festival posters. On Friday, Aug. 10, Local Natives will perform at the inaugural Bellwether Music Festival in Waynesville, Ohio, about an hour southwest of Columbus.

In recent months the bandmates have been at work on a follow-up to 2016's Sunlit Youth, which found Local Natives experimenting with synth-pop while still retaining elements of the tribal beats and sun-dappled melodies it debuted on 2009 breakthrough Gorilla Manor. Working with producer Shawn Everett, Local Natives has been writing and collaborating more as a band, which has led the new songs to have more of a live feeling, said co-frontman and keyboardist Kelcey Ayer.

“[Everett] injects so much frenetic, creative energy. … He's kind of this insane person, just coming up with ideas every five seconds,” Ayer said. “We're in this very open mode right now of saying yes to everything first, and then assessing it later. That's led us to some really amazing moments.”

Ayer said one-off summer shows like Bellwether provide the band a much-needed reprieve from tinkering in “the dark studio dungeon,” but coming up with the right set list is a challenge. It can be tough, for instance, knowing whether to incorporate a soft piano ballad like “Colombia” (from 2013 album Hummingbird), which Ayer wrote in the aftermath of his mother's death.

“If you never knew how much, if you never felt all of my love, I pray now you do,” Ayer sings in a heartbroken tenor.

“When it's not your own show, it's so much harder to captivate people at these festivals where there's a million things going on and so many bands playing. [We're bringing] this really small, emotionally fraught song — this delicate thing — into this festival that's a thresher for subtlety,” he said. “But I think a lot of times going quieter is louder. That's why I always wanna play that song at the danciest, heaviest, craziest festival, because [festival-goers] aren't gonna get that at all that weekend, probably. I would say that they would appreciate a quiet moment to feel something. I love doing that, almost antagonistically, like, ‘... It's time to cry. It's time to feel some shit. This happened to me; you're gonna hear about it.'”

Ayer also had the opportunity to get personal with fans recently via his solo project, Jaws of Love, which released its debut album, Tasha Sits Close to the Piano, last fall.

“It was very liberating and freeing,” he said. “Before Jaws of Love it would feel like life and death bringing songs to the band, thinking it was that or nothing. And now, having this outlet, it feels so much more freeing to where I don't have to put that kind of pressure on the songs. Now I know that if something doesn't work for Local Natives and I end up liking it, it can still have a life on its own.”

In the end, though, Ayer's solo endeavor made him appreciate Local Natives even more. “After co-captaining this cruise ship for many years, I got to drive my own tugboat and go wherever I wanted,” he said. “And that was rad, but sometimes I realize how lonely it gets when you're by yourself in a tugboat.”