The Naked and Famous: Making waves

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

image captionThe Naked and Famous (L-R): Jesse Wood, Aaron Short Alisa Xyalith, Thom Powers, David Beadle

Alternative rock band The Naked and Famous discuss moving to LA to record their dark and brooding second album, In Rolling Waves

You might know New Zealand's The Naked And Famous for their neon-coloured pop anthem Young Blood.

Released in 2011, the song was promoted heavily by Channel 4 in trails for its teen drama Skins - the refrain "we're only young and naive still" proving a perfect partner for scenes of house parties and heavy petting.

It prompted the band to license more tracks to TV shows and video games, earning them the dubious title "the most ubiquitous band whose name you don't know".

But plenty of viewers were inspired to seek out their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You.

It sold 500,000 copies worldwide, and the band spent two years on the road - playing more than 250 shows in 24 countries to 600,000 fans.

Most sane people would be sick at the sight of each other by that point. Not The Naked And Famous.

"We'd been living in this tour bubble for such a long time it seemed strange to split up," says singer Alisa Xayalith.

"So we moved into this big house together. It felt like a stationary tour bus."


Relocating from Auckland to LA, the band are essentially living as a modern-day Monkees (except they write their own songs).

When we speak, they're somewhat groggy. Thom Powers, the yin to Xayalith's yang, celebrated his 26th birthday the night before.

"We were just hanging out at home," he says, croakily. "We had a pot luck dinner. And I wanted a specific cake from a diner, so I just went and got an entire pecan pie.

"Proper American. Not bad, right?"

The group "arbitrarily" decided to base themselves in LA , although it forms a convenient mid-way point between their hometown and their London-based record label.

image captionAlisa Xayalith and Thom Powers beside what they call the "porn star pool" outside their house in LA

Initially, however, the five-piece found life in the US "very strange" and dislocating.

"Bands get thrown into the middle of Hollywood when they come here because that's where some of the venues are," says Powers.

"It's fun - but it's also awful. Tacky, touristy, no soul. It feels like a rotten theme park."

Eventually they moved out of central LA, first to Laurel Canyon, then to the picturesque Echo Park, where the band buckled down to record their second album, In Rolling Waves.

Basic tracks and demos had been captured on tour, but there was lots more work to be done.

"The process of making music for us is so scattered, some songs can take a couple of years," says Powers.

"It sounds extravagant but sometimes you hit a brick wall and you need to leave a song alone for eight months.

"One day, you listen to it again and think, 'That's good - that's actually done.'"


The album opens with the band's most ambitious track to date.

A Stillness rips through a dozen genres in four minutes, grabbing acoustic guitars from Mumford and Sons and rave sirens from The Prodigy, before building a pulsing wall of terrifying white noise.

Piecing it all together "was a big process" says Xayalith, whose cotton-soft vocals form the song's emotional centrepiece.

"Especially because there's acoustic guitars in that song. We recorded them so many times - getting the sound right was paramount."

Powers says the song's complexity was its "big appeal".

"It's really hard to feel like you're surprising people as a musician now. So it was inspiring to finish off - rather than spending hours trying to get it right."

The ear-destroying climax to A Stillness is a tribute to Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails, who have made feral sound collages an art form.

The influence continues across the album, says Powers. "It's a more alternative rock record," he says, comparing it to the band's debut.

"It's darker, there are a lot more more guitars."

Crucially, the band played everything together in rehearsal rooms before committing the music to tape.

image captionA pre hair-dye Xayalith on the band's mammoth world tour, in 2011.

"Everything has to be playable live," insists Xayalith.

To achieve that, the band are surrounded by technology - banks of synthesizers, harmonisers, sample pads and laptops adorn the stage.

But that doesn't stop Xayalith - who, with her electric white hairstyle, resembles the X-Men character Storm - from pulling off some audacious stunts.

"There was a festival we did a couple of years ago and the stage was a bit slippery," she laughs.

"I slipped over - BUT I ended up turning it into a backwards roll. I styled it out!

"The guys were so impressed. After the show they were like, 'Alisa we had no idea you were into that kind of thing!'"

For the next tour, she suggests, "I'll have to perfect some somersaults. I'll cartwheel across the crowd instead of crowd surfing."

The band go back on the road next week. Powers says he's already started living out of a suitcase "to see if I've packed too many pairs of trousers".

Xayalith, meanwhile, is "excited" about spending time in airport boarding lounges, because she needs an excuse to finish reading Haruki Murakami's three-volume novel, 1Q84.

A self-confessed bookworm with a penchant for graphic novels, she named one of her latest songs after the I Kill Giants series, in which a young girl has to confront a terrible tragedy at home.

It transpires the song is about Xayalith's mother, who died when she was seven years old.

It was "the saddest of days", she sings over a haunting electric drone. "Why couldn't we save you?"

"Lyric writing comes from a very visceral place," the 26-year-old says.

image captionThe band took their name from a song by Bristolian hip-hop artist Tricky

"Everything stems from personal experiences, then I build a world around the seed I've put down on paper."

Singing about her mother was hard but therapeutic, she has said in previous interviews. "Writing it helped me deal with everything."

She has received a lot of support from her family back in Auckland. Her uncle, who runs a local restaurant, has even sent over recipes to keep the band in good shape in their shared accommodation.

But the New Zealand press hasn't always been so kind - accusing The Naked And Famous of forgetting their roots after their international success.

"There's this thing called tall poppy syndrome," sighs Xayalith.

"Whenever there is a band that becomes quite successful, New Zealanders have a way of downplaying that. Instead of celebrating it, they'd cut you down to size."

"So there's that kind of bitterness there. But, on the other hand, there are people who are tremendously supportive of us.

"It's not like we feel really awful to go home every time, so it's the least of our worries."

In Rolling Waves is out now on Fiction records. The Naked and Famous tour the UK in November / December.

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