Five years ago, The Naked and Famous was sneaking into their music school studio to record bits and pieces of their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You. Since then, the alternative pop band has found international acclaim. This month, the five-piece group — Alisa Xayalith, Thom Powers, Aaron Short, David Beadle and Jesse Wood — is kicking off their tour at Austin City Limits Music Festival to promote their latest album, Simple Forms. The Daily Texan spoke with Powers to discuss the band’s upcoming release and their evolving sound.
The Daily Texan: Your last album, In Rolling Waves, had a notably darker feel than your debut. What direction did you explore on Simple Forms?
Thom Powers: I think [this album’s] about as dark as In Rolling Waves and as in-your-face as Passive Me, Aggressive You. It might strike people as pop-y, but it’s the most lyrically dark album we’ve ever put out. This album is the most vocal record we’ve ever done. I was inspired by pop songs and how they’re structured so there are fewer instrumental moments, but I think that also caters to the heavy emotional content on this album. But we’re just doing the same thing we’ve always done, which is trying to come up with songs that mean something we think is heartfelt.
DT: You’ve moved away from the sounds that made Passive Me so popular. Do you ever feel torn between wanting to explore your own musical interests and wanting to please the fans who supported you?
TP: We end up swaying back and forth. It’s really hard to describe the right thing to do in that circumstance because you’ve established an identity, and by abandoning that it could seem like you’re abandoning your fans. I think it can be a bit self-important to say, “I’m just doing this for myself.” When you have an audience, at the very least, you could put yourself in their shoes and consider them. You don’t have to pander or cater to them, but I think it’s worthwhile.
DT: What was the biggest challenge you faced with In Rolling Waves?
TP: Alisa and I split up toward the end of the second album. It was incredibly difficult. We’re not trying to hide it, we’re working things out. At first it seemed like it was over, but this is something we spent nearly a decade investing our lives into. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a song as big as “Young Blood” or be in a band this successful. It would be foolish to throw it all away.
DT: As you’ve all changed and grown with the band, how has it affected your sound?
TP: When we first got the band together, a song could begin anywhere. With a drum beat, a guitar riff, one vocal line — there’s no rule. That’s how a lot of kids start writing songs: by stumbling into it. Everything I’ve done is self-taught and half-learned, but I didn’t really understand what songwriting was until In Rolling Waves. My understanding of music really shifted and changed.
DT: Do you remember the first album you ever bought? Do you find those older influences still seeping into your sound today?
TP: It was Tool’s Aenima. I was 10 years old, and one of my best friends and I committed ourselves to the project of figuring out the lyrics. I wish I still had our personal lyric sheets.
[Those older songs] kind of pop up in strange ways. I think when we began, we were very influenced and consumed with a small pocket of alternative music culture — TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The Mint Chicks. We weren’t trying to emulate them but looked up to them. Now, I think we’ve grown out of that. We’ve become our own thing. But the funny thing is, for me, as a producer, … sometimes [it’s] just one song or one element of a song that changes how I want to approach the band and it might end up being an old, guilty pleasure listen.
DT: What’s song are you most looking forward to performing?
TP: There’s a song called “Falling” and it’s toward the end of the album. It was the first song that really clicked. It’s not a big anthemic single by any means, but it’s a lead vocal for me and I only have one lead vocal on the first album. I’m a pretty average singer so having a little lead moment is fun for me. I felt really proud of that.
DT: What’s been your biggest regret as a musician, and what advice do you have for upcoming musicians?
TP: I definitely regret not staying in school. [Leaving] was a combination of naivety, hastiness, stupidity and youth. Sometimes being in a moderately successful group, you get asked about advice and mine is always never to take advice from former musicians. The best thing I could say is constantly changing and presuming you never know enough.