Interviews

Interview: Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous

Interview: Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous

When The Naked and Famous released their first single “Young Blood” in 2010, it debuted at number one on their native New Zealand chart. It didn’t take long for the song, along with three others, to permeate airwaves on the other side of the world, too. The band—comprised of Alisa Xayalith (vocals, keyboard), Thom Powers (vocals, guitar), Aaron Short (keyboards), David Beadle (bass) and Jesse Wood (drums)—toured for nearly two years straight, released a second album titled In Rolling Waves in 2013, and now they have officially returned with their third, Simple Forms, a stripped-down yet ripened evolution of their atmospheric, electronic-pop sound. PRØHBTD spoke to Powers about misconceptions, perfectionism and the perfect song. 

Do you have a favorite place in particular where you’ve performed?

We all love touring Germany. Germany is quite a country to tour. It's not that it's particularly anything. It's just our experience of being there has been one that summons surprise, and we have a very big German audience.

I read your band name came from a Tricky song. Is that true?

Yeah, correct. It's from the Tricky song “Tricky Kid.” It’s also a little documentary, like a DVD documentary, that came out I think in the late ʼ90s called Naked and Famous. I thought it just resonated. It looked great written down, and I liked the sentiment. You know, the irony behind it…. I thought the irony behind it was relatively fair, but you know what? Six years later, it astounds me how people don't realize it’s an ironic statement and not a literal one.

What do they think then?

You'd be surprised. The majority of people don't realize there's humor in there. I like to think that perhaps anyone who understands the humor in it or the silliness that now six years later is even more apt to understand it.

Do you feel like the reference is even more relevant today as the cultural landscape has changed?

Yes, accidentally so. I would agree, yeah. It's a strange time that we live in.

Coming out with the third album, what are the biggest changes you've noticed as far as what's going on and what's popular in music?

The culture I feel most connected to has changed significantly since the early days of looking through band names. I was still working at the record store when Alisa and I were writing the first EPs for the Naked and Famous. We were dirt broke, having just dropped out of university. Aspirations of getting into the Top 10 on the local college radio station were about as grand of dreams as we had at that time. Since then, it feels like so much has happened, and the culture I'm part of just couldn't be more different, especially navigating it and being a working artist now. It can be sort of tiring sometimes. The one thing that's never changed is the public misconception about everything.

What do people think? What's the delusion?

It's just funny. I remember being a teenager and seeing artists complain about piracy and people downloading things. Was it Lars from Metallica? Shitting on Napster, and then all these fans going back at them. People cowering from that kind of, Iguess, entitlement. That kind of entitlement to free stuff seems to be commonplace, like nobody wants to challenge it anymore. You see artists saying, "I don't mind if anyone just steals my music for free," which is a plainly stupid thing to be saying. I think what they're really saying is, “If I complain about people stealing my music, I'm outdated and old, so I'm just going to roll with the punches and say what's more important is that people come to the shows.” Which is one way of saying, “This is another way that I can get paid to do what I do so I'm not totally stuck.”

There are no musicians wandering around just doing it for the sake of human good. No one out there is going around every day selflessly putting themselves into the world totally just to do good. Nothing changed in one way. The language has changed, but the same kind of hypocritical or logical inconsistencies about the way we perceive things are there from both sides, the artist and the consumer. That sounds like a really negative look on the whole thing. Despite all that, I feel very privileged and lucky to be doing what I'm doing, and even more privileged that anyone still cares. That's the other part of the difference in culture now. I guess I was on the cusp of this change, but my generation was the MySpace generation. That was a new thing when I was a teenager, you know? The speed with which we're contending is sometimes impossible to have perspective on, let alone keep up with.

It's like our concept of time is shifting, too, as attention spans shorten. It makes it especially hard for a band to have longevity. What do you think keeps a band together in the long run?

That's a good question. To be honest, I think just having the mindset of considering to go long run, even that tends to be a rare thing. I've met a lot of musicians or artists and the idea of the long run isn't really something they've considered, so I don't think there's a good, easy, quick solution to that. If you're thinking about it, the likelihood of having a long run is higher. Perseverance and determination: That's a big part of it. A lot of that might have to do with my anxious personality and not wanting to fail in life.

Are you a perfectionist?

Definitely, I'm that kind of person—the perfectionist, the control freak. For me, it's just not failing, not letting it go, not just giving into, I don't know, hysteria or things I see people giving into all the time. Bad moods, apathy, laziness, lack of perseverance and determination: I don't think those qualities are valuable for anyone anywhere. It would be harder for me to justify giving up than it would be to consider all the reasons to keep the band alive and keep going. I think as that kind of person in a group, the sooner you can fit who you are in your role, the more you can do with it.

Band dynamic is so important. When you find that perfect group, it's like you don't want to mess with it.

There's a romantic component bands will always talk about. They'll romanticize how it works and again, it's mostly a load of rubbish when people are talking about stuff like that. A band is like a business, marriage or friendship. It's compromise and arguments. I don't mean arguments in the negative sense, but constructive arguments, you know? No one should presume walking into any of those situations that everyone gets a say all the time. That's not how a company works. It's not like the person at the front desk can tell the CEO they would prefer to have things differently. Often there's a reason why that hierarchy exists, and bands are no different. But it's one of those romance delusions that never seems to disappear: the idea of the band as this kind of three musketeers.

What's most different about your new album from the previous two?

It's the most vocal album, vocally oriented. The songs really work with just an accompaniment. You can sit down with a piano and play them and just sing them. There aren't long instrumental sections. Our songs have always been pretty to the point. I was inspired by a lot of pop. Not necessarily inspired in the way that I was a huge fan but fascinated with and wanted to steal from pop music, and I mean radio pop. It’s very vocally oriented music. Music that almost is boring without the voice. The accompaniment is almost an afterthought for some of these songs, and the way they have been put together was genuinely fascinating to me and something that I had not explored before.

It must change the way you perform as well.

Yeah, for sure. It's strange because early on putting a song together meant sitting down at the computer and playing with sounds, textures, drum beats and loops, guitar noises and ceilings. This album is about your classic idea of a pop song, which you should be able to sit down with just a guitar and a voice to sing it out. At some point you have to do that, and then figure out whether it flows naturally and whether the song makes sense at a bare minimum. That definitely ended up influencing how the songs came together, and oddly enough, Alisa and I have been doing lots of acoustic performances lately, and that's something we've never done before.

We started doing stuff like that, but then we found the sound that worked for the Naked and Famous. We found this avenue of artistic identity. We didn't want to go play acoustic because it was just so far removed from what we were, what we thought was us, what we thought was unique. Now after enough time it feels really good to go back.

That's like coming full circle. Do you have a perfect pop song?

I've got perfect in my songs in my opinion, or just ones that I'll never let go of. Songs that are timeless and that I love, like Björk “Joga.” That's a song I feel like I infinitely want to reference. Or Massive Attack “Teardrop” or Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” or TV on the Radio “Staring at the Sun.” They're songs that I feel meant so much to me that I can pinpoint these songs as reasons I love music. You know, reasons to keep going, but I wouldn't say “perfect pop song.” I would just say perfect song.

Main image from N&F's Facebook page. Powers image: Facebook

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