Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips tags along to the New Zealand electro-pop band’s soundcheck and chats with keyboard player Aaron Short about their stage set up.
International success seemed to come relatively quickly to New Zealand’s electro-pop outfit The Naked and Famous when they released their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You in 2010. Four years on, the band has built on that initial momentum, released another record, found themselves playing main stages at all the cool festivals and have maintained their status as one of the world’s buzz bands. Strolling in for soundcheck at their Melbourne gig at 170 Russell, the five-piece appear at ease with their world. They’ve put the hard yards in, thought long and intelligently about their live show and over time, have put together a world class rock show. Relaxing on an office couch pre-soundcheck at the venue, the band’s keyboard player Aaron Short reflects on the band’s short but sweet career to date.
“We never quite had the expectations for where we have ended up reaching,” he says. “There was definitely a really strong drive to try to get to a point where we could escape the Australian/New Zealand bubble and see if we could cross over to the UK or the US but at that point, we had no idea that it was going to really take off.”
Apart from the band’s strong sense of song and a formidable live show, another reason for their success has been the syncing of some of their songs with popular TV shows and movies. Surprisingly, a European snowboarding film called The Art of Flake has been particularly kind to the band. “Even though none of us are snow boarders, we all watched that and were so blown away by the amazing soundtrack it had and the scenery, visually it was an amazing watch. That’s probably one of the most common ones we get when we are doing shows, especially in Europe. People always say, ah… Art of Flake … love that movie. The sync world is a pretty powerful thing for us. Financially, it is becoming more and more what bands are surviving on.”
On stage however, is where The Naked and Famous really shine. The band’s live set up has been built from scratch around a philosophy that they don’t use backing tracks. Everything has to be playable in order to retain the flexibility to stretch out a song if they desire or pull back when needed. They aren’t restricted by rigid cues, as is the case with many other live shows.
“This goes right back to when we are writing the music,” explains Aaron. “If there is a sound or something we really like and want to put it into the writing of the track, whether it’s acoustic or electronic, we’ll say, OK it’s going on the track so we have to find a way to play this live. That then resulted in a pretty elaborate live set up with a lot of gear. But we did want to keep things as simple and as consolidated as possible. What you see on stage with us at the moment is no analogue gear, it’s all digital based. Each person has a Novation keyboard (SL MkII) next to them. Jesse has a big acoustic drum kit but also has a whole lot of drum triggers and V drum pads and stuff. All of our stuff is then connecting into a big Ableton Live brain, which we spent about 2 months slowly building and designing and loading all the patches in. Then all of that stuff up on stage gets controlled from the Ableton Push which is what I am running. When we want to play a song, I launch the scene. Everyone’s instrument on stage will change to the new patch, so no one has to change a thing, they just start playing with the right patch already there. Every song is made up of these little individual loops and samples rather than an actual backing track. So everything is completely controllable. You can carry out an instrumental for as long as you want or you can pause in the middle of a song, so we have that ability there.”
The Naked and Famous members are not adverse to using analogue synthesisers, they have done in the past but the digital set up they are currently running suits their needs perfectly. “For us, it is partly a safety and reliability thing,” says Aaron. “Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the sound of a nice piece of analogue gear, whether it’s a pedal or synth or whatever, but when we did all this pre-production for the record, we had all these analogue synths and we found this great piece of software called Auto Sampler. It sends MIDI notes out then records the sounds coming back off the analogue synth. So here I am playing my Novation MIDI controller. You know, if a beer falls on it, it can be replaced in a day but the sounds coming off it are still those original organic raw sounds that we’ve recorded off the analogue synths. We are still getting the right sounds coming off them, and I won’t go into detail, but there’s this there’s this incredible amount of modulation and the parameters to still achieve the same modulation on the patches. But you are not running that risk of something sitting in the sun too long and all of a sudden it doesn’t want to work or it’s going out of tune or whatever it may be. Simplifying but still maintaining the integrity.”
In addition to the Novation SL MkII MIDI keyboards the band use, Aaron also runs the SL MkII Zero USB MIDI Controller. “Essentially all of those controls on the Zero, are also on the Novation keyboards that we’ve got but that one is acting as what I’d call a global effects,” he explains. “On that I have control of everyone’s sounds and loops and drums and synth patches. Whereas on the keyboards, everything on there is assigned to the specific patch that we play, so it changes every time we play a song. With the Zero, it’s more static. It’s a great way to have nice large sized faders and knobs to be able to grab onto.”
With so much keyboard action happening onstage, the band’s roles need to be clearly defined. David the bass player takes on all of the bas synth sounds, while Aaron plays the main synth parts that hold a song together. Alisa and Thom, being the front people, have smaller lead parts to play. In fact, their keyboards are mainly used for vocals. “They use theirs more for the TC Helicon VoiceLive harmonizers that we have,” says Aaron. “There’s a lot of that going on in this big MIDI rack that we have as well. If there’s any harmonies in the track, they’ll be playing those harmonies on the keyboard. We’ll have VoiceLive set up in a way where they are set to a custom scale that will follow their voice. That’s the other use for their keyboards. They are not necessarily playing musical parts, they’re possibly playing their vocals.”
With any band running in a new stage system, it can be a pretty nervous time playing with unfamiliar gear. However the band has been using their system long enough to be able to fully immerse themselves in the performance and not worry so much about hitting the right button at the right time … unless it’s in daylight! “The times where it does get challenging is in daylight at festivals,” says Aaron. “At night time it’s great, everything is lit up and glowing and you can see where everything is and it is second nature. You get right in there, controlling, filtering, whatever it is. During the day, when the sun is shining, particularly on the Ableton Push, you are definitely a lot more on edge because all of a sudden you don’t have things looking back at you. You’ve got to remember, on this big grid of 64 buttons, that this one here is going to launch the drum loop I’m going to start for the verse, so you’re a little bit more on edge. That does bug me sometimes because you do, you just want to let go and immerse yourself in the track but you have to be a little bit more removed, compared to what a guitar player might be doing.”
Aaron Short takes his musical inspiration from many sources but it’s a Canadian band, Caribou which currently excites him. “They’re a four piece band that all stick together in this little pack in the middle of the stage surrounded in their gear,” he says. “They are a band performing on acoustic instruments but with heavy electronic production and manipulation going on and all done in a very live way. No backing tracks and that’s always the thing I go back to. I am most impressed by the electronic bands where you can see they are actually doing something. I feel like more and more now you can go to a gig and think it sounds really cool and then you look up and you realise no one is actually playing it and I think it’s a bit of a let down.”
As The Naked and Famous hit the stage later that night, they launch the show with the acoustic intro of A Stillness, the opening track of their latest album In Rolling Waves. The track builds, gaining impetus and ultimately reveals the full quality and power of the band’s sound and the system which amplifies it. In response, an appreciative, packed crowd roar their approval. “We have worked insanely hard on our live show and I think it’s really paid off for us,” summarises Aaron proudly. “We have never had a downer moment or a negative show. Everyone has always been so happy with how powerful our live show is. It is satisfying for us and it’s the payoff for putting so much work in than what others may do. We’ve gone the extra distance. We did actually put up a live film on YouTube called One Temporary Escape. It was the very end of our Passive Me, Aggressive You tour. We were at the height of it and we’d made this amazing live show … let’s capture it we thought, and keep this … this memory.”