Party of One: Kelcey Ayer on Local Natives and Jaws of Love.

In this new Talkhouse series about going solo, the frontman and pianist advises "scrupulous honesty."

On the way to our therapist, I told my wife that I needed to write an article on balancing Jaws of Love., my new solo project, and Local Natives, the band I’ve sung and played keyboards in for almost half my life. Her immediate response was, “But you haven’t had to do that yet…” This was technically true—I haven’t started touring the project, or even done any promo. Any recording I did for Jaws of Love. was snuck in during breaks from touring and other band work, and the only time I took away from Local Natives was when I mixed Tasha Sits Close to the Piano, Jaws of Love.’s first album, for nine days last January.

But the idea that I hadn’t had to balance the two projects also wasn’t true. A lot of working on Jaws of Love. has been an emotional balancing act. I’ve been in Local Natives in some form or another for 13 years. (We started in 2008, but before that, were called Mystery Puddle [which was, of course, not the real name, which is too embarrassing to say here—uhhhh, fuck that].) That’s over three US presidential terms. That would be one-third of your life, if your name was Jesus and your dad expected A LOT from you. That’s the time it takes for a baby to be able to speak at its own bat mitzvah. It’s a considerable amount of time, is what I’m saying, so making new music without these guys who feel like family has been pretty strange, even if I haven’t had to take huge chunks of time away from them to do it. So far, I’ve been lucky not to rock the boat too much in that department. I never had to have a dramatic sit-down with the band to say, “Guys, I think we should spend some time apart…” or, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

The Jaws of Love. project started in June of last year. One of the guys in the band had a wedding to attend, which snowballed into some free time for all of us. I’d been thinking about all these songs that either didn’t make the cut for Local Natives, or were never intended for it, for a long time. I decided to book three days at Electro-Vox Studios here in LA, where LN recorded some of our third record, Sunlit Youth, which we had just finished a few months prior. Little did I know that Vox’s head engineer, Michael Harris, and I would form a magical bond that resulted in three of the most productive days of my life.

I’d produced the songs in my head before going into Vox, but, for me, that rarely ever matches what ends up coming through the speakers. I love artist/producers like James Blake or Kevin Parker who can just think of something, then bring it to life all on their own. They act as pure conduits of their creativity, with nothing lost by the process of needing someone else’s help. I have definitely always needed the help, but from the second I started working with Michael, I realized he wasn’t just “help.” He was the missing link between my brain and the speakers. I’d mention a bass tone I was dreaming up, he’d pick out a vintage synth I’d never heard of, we’d fuck with it for 10 minutes, and I’d be like, “That’s it!” On it went, exactly like that, for three days straight. Listening back on the fourth day (tfw biblical undertones happening?), I knew the bell could not be un-rung. I’d always wanted to make my own record, and now that I had unwittingly started, I wasn’t going to stop.

At the same time, LN had just finished our third record and were about to start a year-long tour. It wasn’t like I could wait until the end of the record cycle (making an album plus touring the album). Ideally, at the end of a record cycle, you can fuck off and work on something else. But, for 13 years, Local Natives have never fucked off. Ever. So I figured it didn’t matter when, just how.

Time wasn’t on my side, so I moved fast. I only booked days at Vox on days off between tours: three in June, three in August, and two in December. The time between sessions afforded me to meticulously plan every second of each in advance. The studio days were when the serious tracking happened, but I did a lot of tweaking while LN was on tour. With laptops now, you basically have a mobile studio, so I recorded in airplanes, hotel rooms, venues—I even recorded this beautiful pump organ that I found backstage at The National Theater in Richmond, Virginia. (If you don’t know what a pump organ is, listen to “Motion Picture Soundtrack” by Radiohead…so good, right? It’s also in Punch Drunk Love, the best thing Adam Sandler ever did besides Funny People [both highly recommended].) Being obsessed with Portishead’s Third, I decided to work solely through an analog board once mixing began. That forces you to commit to a mix each day, and thus is oddly faster than a computer (props to Cian Riordan for killing it, btw).

Until that point, the other guys knew I was working on music, but were not aware of any greater aspirations I had for it. My thinking was, Why talk about it and shake things up before it’s absolutely necessary? No need to fill their heads with fears of me going MIA. Mixing was the first time I asked the band to give me actual time away from LN work, but that’s basically akin to asking for personal time, which we’d done in the past for one-off things, like vacations or family events. But by May, I’d found a label, and it was time to plot the record rollout—the opposite of a one-time thing. The roll-out of a record takes countless hours of brainstorming and meetings to strategize meticulously how and when you can get and do interviews, record store appearances, album signings, radio sessions, late-night TV shows, getting your dog to go on stage with you and not freak the fuck out (that one is more specific to me), and above all, play live in front of people. It takes a lot of time. Time I did not have. Time that would be needed to be taken away from Local Natives. From my friends. It was then I realized we, as a band, actually had to sit down and…talk about it.

I knew LN wanted to make record #4 immediately after touring died down, so I’d spent months shooting a mental horror movie called The Talk. What will they say when I ask for time away? How much time do I actually need? What’s fair? How will they feel? Should I put my foot down and demand six months of solid JOL. time? What would Kanye do? Don’t do that. How will LN be affected? Am I going to get punched? Am I going to punch everyone? Am I going to be on the news? Why do I have a girl’s name? Why do I care about that in the gender-political climate of 2017? Walk it back, Kelc, walk it back. Am I selling myself short by not asking for more time for this? Can I do what feels right to me without damaging our relationships? What feels right to me?

It’s not that balancing the band and Jaws of Love. is actually hard, but it just takes such a toll on your mental state. Your mind makes movies, but rarely do you see them—instead, you see the documentary versions. We all met at our manager’s house to have our weekly meeting, and towards the end, I calmly just brought it up. I told them I wanted to put my own record out, ideally between LN records, so I thought the fall was the best time, and I’d need a couple weeks here or there throughout the rest of the year to promote it. Everyone was honest and civil and expressed their concerns, the greatest of which being me not fully investing myself in the making of the next record, and from a timing sense, holding it up. It went around for a bit and got a little emotional, because it’s just the only life we’ve ever known. When you’ve had one dream for so long, other dreams will always feel threatening. Jaws of Love. is a risk—that is clear. But, in the end, we agreed we had everyone’s best interests at heart, and landed on a September JOL. release, with small JOL. tours in between LN’s writing time. Not that dramatic.

The movies you make in your head rarely see the light of day, but sometimes it’s so thrilling—or terrifying—that it can consume you. I imagined winning Grammys for songs they didn’t like while they cursed my name, the ultimate prideful revenge, filling the evil parts of my soul like a slot machine filling up with dirty coins. Or falling flat on my face and being panned as a sad-sack loser who can’t write, making me want to can the project altogether and stare at a MIB mind eraser pen. The movie they saw in their heads was probably of me heading for the hills, screaming, “Sayonara, suckers!” (apparently, in their movie, I’ve just stolen money from them, and they are the Muppets). The difference in how things actually play out when we’re upfront with one another is why talking things out has always helped us stick together. At therapy with my wife, the therapist mentioned scrupulous honesty, meaning diligently and frequently expressing as many of your thoughts to your partner to ensure you both are in a relatively constant state of understanding each other. Since a band is a marriage of sorts, it seems like good enough advice for Jaws of Love. and Local Natives, too.

Kelcey Ayer is the creative force behind Jaws of Love. and the vocalist and pianist for Local Natives. The first Jaws of Love. album is the forthcoming Tasha Sits Close to the Piano.