Formed in 2008, shortly after guitarist Thom Powers and keyboardist Alisa Xayalith (who now share lead vocal and songwriting duties) met at music school, The Naked and Famous self-released a pair of EPs before being signed to Universal Records. The cheeky band name, borrowed from a Tricky lyric, hints at the confidence this group of 20-somethings has behind their music — and it’s not unjustified. After debuting at #1 in New Zealand last year, their debut full-length record, “Passive Me, Aggressive You,” was released in the U.S. in March, and it’s no exaggeration to say it is one of the best musical offerings of 2011 so far.
The album is full of deftly crafted electro-pop songs that, while dance-able, often pack quite an emotional punch upon closer listen. Shimmering keyboards and pounding drums propel along first single “Young Blood,” which has all the trappings of a radio-friendly classic. Hard-hitting songs like “All of This” and “Spank” are a nice complement to the sting of more charged anthems like “Eyes” and “Girls Like You.”
Hoping the popularity in their home country will translate overseas, The Naked and Famous are currently in the midst of their first major U.S. tour, sharing a bill with Foals and Freelance Whales. Powers recently chatted with Blast from the road, discussing the band’s influences, their handling of critical backlash from some Aukland naysayers, and the making of “Passive Me, Aggressive You.”
BLAST: Your band name is taken from a Tricky lyric. How did you decide on that?
THOM POWERS: When we were looking to play live and stuff like that was when we sort of had to name the band. We’d been together about a year. I was working in a record store at the time … processing CDs, all the secondhand stuff we traded in. And I was just kind of looking through album booklets at the lyrics. I’d always been a big fan of Tricky and I kind of like the idea of referencing other popular music. I just thought Tricky sort of had a lot to do with (us), not so much musically but the way he approached music. There’s heaps of female vocals on his tracks. It just seemed like all these kind of parallels. But the lyric itself just jumped out at me and I thought that was kind of interesting. It’s a funny name for a band.
BLAST: What role did music play in your life growing up? What was the first band you fell in love with?
TP: For pretty much all of us, we’ve just all been doing it since we were young. For me personally, I was always doing music. Since I was like 10 years old, I thought, I’m going to be in a band when I grow up. I didn’t really give myself any other options. The first band that I absolutely fell in love with and still listen to today is Tool. I got the album “Aenima” when I was a kid, and it’s just always been one of my favorite albums. With an introduction to music like that, I think that’s why we sort of have this idea of why albums are still important and each individual track is a crucial, key part of the record. (Our favorite bands) weren’t just, you know, like single bands. They were body of work bands.
BLAST: Who are your main influences?
TP: We’ve definitely got a lot of overlapping influences, but everyone has their own thing that they love more than someone else. I’d say (a band) that in the last couple of years has been a huge influence to me would be Frightened Rabbit. I’m a huge fan. It’s one of those bands that I still get, like, high school fanboy about. I walk down to the record store on the day of the release of the new album or something. Bjork is a huge influence for myself and Alisa. A lot of ’90s alternative stuff, like Portishead. That’s kind of what we grew up listening to. Most of us, we all kind of grew up with rock backgrounds. Aaron grew up being a huge Chemical Brothers fan. He sort of came from a DJ/house music background. That was his passion. (But) we do keep up quite regularly with current music. We’re always listening to new albums, and a lot of that gets fed into what we’re doing.
BLAST: Name three albums you would take to a desert island.
TP: Because I’ve listened to them for so long and I’m not sick of them, massive attack – “Mezzanine”; Tool, “Aenima”; Nine Inch Nails, “The Downward Spiral.”
BLAST: The album title “Passive Me, Aggressive You” is also a line in the song “All of This.” What does it mean and who came up with it?
TP: It was something that was a completely accidental afterthought. It kind of was a last resort, actually. I wanted to name the album something else, but then I was looking through the lyrics and just saw that, and thought that’s the perfect. In the song itself, it’s very much just about what “All of This” is kind of dealing with. But taken out of context, I think it’s obviously an interesting play on words, but it kind of sums up all the polarities that are on the album. There’s a lot of analog noises and digital noises. There’s the male and female vocals. There’s light songs, there’s dark songs. There’s just all these naturally appearing polarities and these dynamic shifts, and it just totally made sense.
BLAST: So you’re saying there’s an overall theme to the album?
TP: Definitely. When we finished writing … we had a lot of songs written, and a lot of demos. We kind of did a good old-fashioned classic sort of writing and cutting away scenario. I’d like to think that people see us as an album band. That’s very hard though these days, when there’s just so much oversaturation when it comes to music and music culture. You can get everything instantly. You don’t have to pay attention to it. You can listen to it once and move on to something else so quickly. Very much for us, the album is an album and I have real trouble picking a favorite track, because I think that, in order for people to kind of get the band and get what we’re about and understand where we’re coming from musically and emotionally and artistically, you have to listen to every song. There’s overlapping themes and emotional kind of charges. … But I feel like it’s an eclectic record, as far as our ideas of music.
BLAST: What is your songwriting process?
TP: Some songs come entirely from Alisa, and some songs come entirely from me. A lot of them, we meet in the middle somewhere. It’s quite a nice blend of sharing lyrics and songwriting and stuff. Generally, rule of thumb, myself and Alisa come up with a basic idea for a song and I’ll spend some time on the computer turning it into a demo for a band. And then I’ll pass that demo on to Aaron, and he and I will play around with it in the studio on the computers. Then, when we’ve got some solid direction and it feels like we’re excited about it, we’ll … hash it out and work out the practicalities of it in the rehearsal room.
BLAST: “Young Blood” has become a huge success and has the feel of a classic pop song. Can you offer any insight as to whether or not there’s formula to writing a hit song?
TP: It came quite naturally, but now that it’s done so well, I think I’m just going to mimic myself for a few more years. (Laughs). It was a complete accident, to be honest. It was the first song that we entered the studio with for the album. It was this big studio track we’d done and produced ourselves off the album, and it was, like, flawless and perfect. So, it was the most wonderful and exciting start for the record. We felt like it was a special song when we were writing it and we felt like, wow, this might do well on radio. This is brilliant, we’ve got a single. Because that process can always be very depressing when you’re writing an album. You sort of get to the end of it and then you go, ok, which songs are we going to write down as singles? That’s a horrible feeling sometimes, because it becomes this concern that you shouldn’t have to think about. You should just make music and if it’s a single, good. That’s wonderful.
I’m not sure about our ability to kind of churn out pop hits. I think this might be one of those instances — a lot of artists have them — where it’s just one of those magic kind of of the moment occurrences. I feel like every artist maybe gets one shot at having that huge thing, and also I think that has a lot to do with right place, right time. Sometimes a writer can just write something that is very of the now. And then it’s really difficult to do that again. Sometimes those things happen so naturally that you can’t force them, and you might just never get that moment again in your life. But saying that, we haven’t given up all hope. We’re writing for the next record as we speak.
BLAST: As you’re writing, do you feel any pressure for your sophomore album?
TP: (Our creativity) is still flowing, and we’re arrogant and don’t listen to anyone, so
no pressure for us. (Laughs). We’re completely confident. I’m just doing the thing that I did for the first album, which is a process where I’m not doing lots of intense writing. I’m just writing down each little idea and then playing around with noises and coming up with lots of basic small demos. And when we get some time to all settle down … we’ll start getting more serious on them. But there’s this kind of collection process, where the ideas just start building. Which was a big part of the (first) album as well. I was working a day job at a record store and was spending most of my time sneaking off and listening to music and writing down notes about good ideas. It’s a nice process to have, actually.
BLAST: Has your success been a bit of a blessing and a curse in New Zealand?
TP: Oh yes. That’s what (the song) “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing” is about. You take it with a pinch of salt. I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but it’s the same thing with reviews as well. You can only take the good ones as seriously as the bad ones. Perception in general can be so influenced and altered. Back home, it’s funny, a lot of hipsters and idiots wouldn’t consider us an indie band, even though we were at the point of putting (the album) out on our own label. It’s very hard to take any of that sort of criticism seriously. The smarter your outlook on it, often the harsher the backlash. It’s just better to ignore it. Or to write good songs about them. (laughs).
The Naked and Famous play at the Paradise Monday night with Foals and Freelance Whales. For complete tour dates, visit www.thenakedandfamous.com.