Kelcey Ayer was trying to find a quiet spot in a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, when he wandered into a dark room. “It’s very scary,” he said, “It’s a coat room, there’s no light though. It’s pitch black and I’m wondering if I can still do an interview without getting creeped out.”
Ayer and his bandmates in Local Natives — Taylor Rice, Ryan Hahn and Matt Frazier — were making their way through Europe, and toward Austin for South by Southwest, as part of the beginning of a tour in support of Local Natives’ second album, “Hummingbird.” At the moment they were battling illness in the European winter. “If one guy gets something, you’re (expletive), there’s no escape.”
The group began drawing large crowds after the release of their first album, “Gorilla Manor,” which was coupled with an appearance at SXSW 2009, where they played several buzzed-about shows. “It felt amazing to play in front of anyone,” vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ayer said about band’s breakout moment.
Subsequent stops led to a full house at Stubb’s and another at Austin Music Hall with the National. Now, the band is on something of an endless tour. They are based in California, but a look at their grueling tour schedule reveals that their new home is a bus. It will remain that way until sometime next year.
The crowds originally came out to hear their vocal and percussion-heavy pop, exemplified on “Gorilla Manor” in songs such as “Sun Hands,” an incantation with drums that sound like a galloping horse, or the warm “Airplanes,” which unfolds at the intersection of a college alma mater and a one of the sweeter selections from David Byrne’s catalog.
“We played that album over and over again,” Ayer said. “We were eager to explore expanding our sound palate, that’s kind of why we got a little more interested in synthetic sounds, using some fake drums sounds.”
That shift is evident from the opening notes of “You & I,” the first track on “Hummingbird.” Distant drums and synthesizers cut through a buzz in the distance; the vocals, forward and direct as they are, sound as if they are floating off into space. Another track, the bittersweet “Three Months,” was recorded entirely with a drum sample. At times, the album feels like a distant cousin of Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange.”
Ayer said that part of the change came from the departure of bassist Andy Hamm. Where “Gorilla Manor” was written largely with the entire band in the same room, “Hummingbird” was sculpted more in pieces, with an eye on the recording process.
Working with them on that process was Aaron Dessner of the National. “We wanted to work with someone who was doing it more as a passion project than as his main day job,” Ayer said. “Producer, it’s not (Dessner’s) main gig, and that vibe fit in right away. He understands the band dynamic, he understands when to pry and when to pull away.”
And what of the material that sold so many the first time around? “There a some songs that wouldn’t feel right not playing them, like Airplanes and Sun Hands, but some songs feel better with the new songs than others,” Ayer said.
More from California
Bleached. Los Angeles sisters with a resume that includes Mika Miko blend punk and garage pop. (10 p.m. Thursday at Red 7 Patio and 9:35 p.m. Friday at Hotel Vegas Patio.)
Allah-Las. Another Los Angeles band, this one offering a stoned, psych rock-informed groove. (10 p.m. Wednesday at the North Door and 11 p.m. Thursday at Cedar Street Courtyard.)
Kendrick Lamar. One of the, if not the, highest profile rappers in Austin this week, riding a wave of buzz on the success of his breakthrough album, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City.” (9 p.m. Wednesday at 1100 Warehouse, 12:40 a.m. Friday at Austin Music Hall and 12:30 a.m. Saturday at Viceland.)
Mikal Cronin. Ty Segall collaborator/purveyor of blaring, aggressive psychedelia and more mellow garage rock. (10 p.m. Thursday at the Parish and 8:25 p.m. Friday at Hotel Vegas Patio.)
Local Natives at SXSW
1 a.m. Wednesday at Lustre Pearl and 1 a.m. Thursday at Mohawk outside.