New Zealand alt-rock outfit The Naked and Famous decided to lay down a few ground rules before even setting foot inside a studio for their new album, In Rolling Waves.
"We wanted to make something that was different and more dynamic than our first record, which was quite dense in production and really loud," says frontwoman Alisa Xayalith, who started the band with guitarist and co-vocalist Thom Powers while the two were attending college in Auckland five years ago.
"The ethos was that we had to have enough hands to play live everything that you hear on this record. That set an artistic restriction so that we never went overboard with the production or layering, like we did on our last album."
While The Naked and Famous have won eight major music awards back in New Zealand, they're a lot less famous here in the States, apart from a handful of TV placements.
Expect that to change soon. In the wake of recording and touring their 2010 full-length debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You, the band has relocated to Los Angeles. Once settled in, they set about recording their sophomore effort, and are now venturing out on a headlining tour in support of the new album.
Released last month on Motown/Universal, In Rolling Waves opens with echo-chambered acoustic guitar, then Xayalith's sweet, marshmallowy voice, then a Far-Eastern keyboard filigree undulating over clackety percussion.
The next track, "Hearts Like Ours," marches in on an ominous military synthesizer drone, but soon builds into an operatic, storm-the-ramparts crescendo.
"I actually feel like, on this record, I really have come into my own quite a bit," says Xayalith, who cites "Golden Girl," one of the album's dreamier numbers, as an example of a process that's becoming more natural.
"I was in the middle of working out melodies and choruses for the album, and I sat down in my room with a little Dictaphone and an electric guitar. I was just strumming away and humming away at these lines that were just coming out. And Thom came bounding down the hall and knocked on my door, going, 'Alisa! What are you playing? Play it again!' And I said, 'Uhh... it's nothing. I'm just mucking around.' But he was adamant that we turn it into something."
The Zen-like "A Stillness" was basically a pep talk to herself, says the singer, "a reminder that I do need space, and I do need to find calm whenever I can. I was searching for peace amongst the chaos in my head."
"Hearts Like Ours" — an obvious single — was fueled by the anxiety Xayalith felt after last year's relocation. In true Monkees style, the five musicians all moved in together, sharing a spooky Laurel Canyon mansion that felt like something out of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."
Initially feeling out of her element, Xayalith soon acclimated. The former vegetarian began eating at California's famed In-N-Out Burger, going for nature walks, even jogging.
Best of all, she says, are all the non-human canyon denizens she's encountered.
"I've never seen a skunk in my entire life, and I saw one the other day!" enthuses Xayalith. "And a deer! There was a deer just standing in the middle of the road one evening! There are so many cool creatures here that we just don't have in New Zealand."