It’s been a New Zealand-themed few days in Dublin when State sits down with Aaron Short and Alisa Xayalith, two-fifths of the Naked and Famous, in their Olympia dressing room. It’s clear we’re not the first person to bring this fact to their attention. “We know everything about that rugby match and we weren’t even there”, laughs Short, with Xayalith agreeing: “Everyone keeps talking to us about it!” They may be tired of hearing about Ireland’s collective heartbreak at the hands of their fellow countrymen, but it certainly doesn’t show – this is a group clearly at ease with themselves, and charming to boot.
The Auckland natives have been rather busy of late, releasing their much anticipated second album In Rolling Waves back in September and quickly setting off a European tour. State sat down with pair ahead of their first Dublin gig in over two-and-a-half years to discuss song-writing, Spotify and getting a track onto the Breaking Bad soundtrack.
So what is it like being back on tour?
Aaron Short: It’s really just beginning; we’re slowly sinking back into it again. It’s been a year off the road for us.
Alisa Xayalith: The first tour in America this year was strange because everybody had been stationary for a year, like Aaron said, and everyone just had to take a while to get our bearings, like “Ah, how do we do this again? This is so strange…” But it’s good.
Congratulations on the new album. Several reviews have mentioned that it seems a lot darker, perhaps more emotional than the first. How has your style of song-writing developed in the time between the two records?
AX: I think, for sure, this album’s a lot moodier. It has an emotional journey to it. I just feel like writing music generally comes from a pretty lonely place and usually you’re alone when you do it. We’re not the kind of band that sits in a room together and jams together, so I guess, after touring for a long time and coming off the road, sitting down and finding some kind of solidarity in this house that we were living in … maybe a little bit of that loneliness seeped into the writing of this record.
But with regard to differences, there are a lot. I mean, we’ve grown so much as players and as writers. We took everything we learned from the first creative process and applied it to In Rolling Waves. We built songs on top of what we had learned.
You were also writing and recording in an entirely different location this time – a different continent as it were. How do you think living in LA influenced the creative process during the making of this album, if at all?
AS: Our time in LA was quite non-LA, if you want to look at it that way. Where we were set up we had a house in quite a secluded area, so it was a real escape for us while the music was being written.
Like, it was all still there – if you wanted to drive into Hollywood and see all the madness you could. It was fun to do it every now and again but we certainly didn’t make the decision “Oh, let’s go and write an album in LA because we want to be in Hollywood” or anything like that.
AX: I think the whole time we were there we always felt alien and on the outside, but I think the environment doesn’t affect the song-writing that much.
I don’t like the idea of the imagination, and being creative, to be limited directly to your environment. I think music comes from your head and from your imagination – I mean, the first album [Passive Me, Aggressive You] doesn’t sound like the shitty basement flat that we wrote the songs in. [Laughs]
You also had some help from Justin Meldel-Johnsen (M83, Nine Inch Nails, Beck) in producing two of the tracks (‘I Kill Giants’, ‘The Mess’) What was it like working with an external producer for the first time?
AS: It was a really interesting experience for us. Up until this point we’ve never even considered the idea of a producer, because we’ve been so protective and territorial over every single aspect of the music. Inviting this new brain and this extra opinion was quite a fantastic, foreign thing to us.
But it was a lot of fun, and it felt like such a natural thing as well. There was no moment that we thought “This is a bit weird, I don’t know what’s going on”. I think even Justin found it a really unique producing experience as it wasn’t the typical “do this, do that” situation. There was still a lot of co-producing going on, and so much conversation prior to doing the tracks.
We kind of worked out that that’s where we gained the most out of having him as a producer in there, the opinions and stuff that he was bringing in were fantastic.
Your music is often used in television and film soundtracks, what is it like to have one of your songs played on a programme or in a film? Has the novelty worn off yet?
AX: It’s funny because I just got a message from my sister the other day about this. She was watching Vampire Diaries and when ‘Grow Old’ came on, she was just completely proud and just couldn’t stop smiling. So that aspect of it is really cool, when you hear things like that from your family.
I feel like sync-licensing in films and TV shows has become the new currency. It’s something a lot of bands do to generate income, to support their tours, to keep doing what they’re doing.
AS: We’ve had such great exposure from some of them as well. Even doing this European tour over the past couple of weeks, the number of people that have come up to us and mention this movie called The Art of Flight, it’s a snowboarding movie, but even if you’re not into that, the scenery and everything it has is incredible. It had an amazing soundtrack that went with it, and we were fortunate enough to get two songs on that one. It just shows how it provides exposure to a new group of people.
AS: It’s the same as how people listen to the radio. Watching TV shows and films is a new way of discovering new music and that’s just become more and more prevalent these days. We were lucky enough to get a song on Breaking Bad – one of our favourite shows. And when things like that happen, it’s just like getting your song on the radio.
Speaking of new ways of discovering music, what is your opinion, as musicians, of streaming sites like Spotify?
AX: I don’t know about that Spotify.
AS: It’s a tough world to … even now I’m confused, hearing so many different sides to the story.
AX: It’s so convoluted and you never know which side to take. The industry is constantly changing, and it’s so multi-faceted and so confusing, you never know which opinion is the right one. I’ve heard some pretty interesting statistics about how they pay their artists. But personally, I just buy albums and listen to them.
Even in the time since your last album, social media has grown so much. How do you feel about fans photographing and filming concerts and sharing that content online?
AS: I think there are two sides to it. Most of the time the photos aren’t great quality – they’re not going to blow anyone away or anything, but they do also hold so much social interaction. All the online engagement you get with it – simply by posting a photo on Instagram, suddenly you’ve got all these people talking about this concert or whatever’s going on.
But the filming side of it is something we’ve always been frustrated with. You do a search on YouTube for a live version of a song and you’ve got a thousand really terribly filmed, distorted-audio copies of a track.
To combat that we ended up doing our own a little live film at the end of our last tour (One Temporary Escape), which we put up online for free. It was all properly done – we got a camera crew in, nice audio recording. We put that up online purely to combat a bit of the bad footage that was on there and say “Look, here’s a really nice representation of what you’d see if you went to our live show”.
AX: It’s such a fine line. Some people can be so impressionable when they watch live clips from YouTube and they get completely the wrong idea of how a band sounds live. It’s just really crappy because you’d hope that those people would be able to discern that it’s a shitty phone recording and that it’s not what you’d hear if you were actually there.
As a band that is one half electronic, you are sometimes referred to as belonging to the genre of synthpop. What do you think of electronic music being labelled in this way so often?
AX: I think [labeling the music] says more about the people than the band. I think it’s easy for people to do that – it helps them to understand. People want to put things into a box to understand. Even I find it difficult to put us into a genre. We’re like a multi-genre band, in some ways. But we are a rock band, you come and see a show, you’ll see that we’re a rock band.
In Rolling Waves is out now.