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In 2010, Auckland, New Zealand’s Thom Powers, Alisa Xayalith, Aaron Short, David Beadle, and Jesse Wood arrived at the forefront of the international indie pop scene with the sweltering The Naked and Famous debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You. Riding on the feverish heights reached by singles like Young Blood, Punching In A Dream and Girls Like You the album thrust the band into the limelight and onto the airwaves.
Touring incessantly, the band settled permanently in Los Angeles to create the follow-up, 2013’s In Rolling Waves. The sophomore effort cast a darker shadow over their sound, straying from the synch-heavy formula that had ripped up radio charts yet patiently showcasing their unique skill, talent, and scope as artists.
TNAF set off to tour In Rolling Waves but after just a few months on the road, there were storm clouds on the horizon. Alisa and Thom’s relationship was the foundation of the band. As they said, “We started writing songs for The Naked and Famous the moment we got together at age 18.” Eight years later, their relationship was in turmoil and soon so was the band.
“It was awful,” says David. “People were unraveling pretty fast. The shows were tight but no-one was in a good space. People were trying to get off the bus, dragging their suitcase down the road in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere! When the tour bus finally stopped, everyone made for the exit and didn’t look back.”
The tour ended, Thom and Alisa separated, and TNAF became a group in ambiguous and painful hiatus. For the next year they barely saw one other. Los Angeles is a big enough place to get lost in.
“We weren’t talking about whether we’d broken up the band because we were so broken as individuals,” says Aaron.
Every band has its leader and source creator. It’s no secret that Thom Powers drives this band.
“I have a constant fear of failure,” he says. “My childhood dream was to be a musician and I’m not about to take this for granted. I feel lucky to have fans. I wake up and feel like any moment that I’m not working is time wasted.”
So in early 2015, it was no real surprise to find a batch of new demos from Thom’s Echo Park home studio in the band dropbox and a first TNAF meet-up in many months was convened.
“The best thing you can learn as a producer and a writer is to stop being precious. To get a grip, to let go and to learn how to embrace other people’s opinions,” says Thom. “We all came to this place with a little more maturity and it felt – tentatively – like we had a new path to follow.”
It was eventually agreed that working on a new album would become a regular Monday through Friday gig, the proper turning point coming in August of 2015 when they secured a small studio in Downtown LA to work in.
Assistance on the album came from only a handful of individuals. Sombear (Brad Hale) has worked on other projects with Thom and contributes production to Higher and My Energy. Carlos de la Garza engineered and Ken Andrews (Paramore) mixed the record. Thom still produces with input only from the other band members.
“We’ve ended up with a bright and very vocal album,” explains Thom. “TNAF has always naturally straddled the line between pop and alternative. Like most acts today though, when we talk about pop we’re only referring to production, arrangement or mixing. The lyrical content comes from a personal place.”
“There’s pain and passion behind this art,” says Alisa, picking up this theme. “Pop techniques are all about maximum impact. And it’s not like this is an album of bangers but it’s the most immediate thing we’ve ever done.”
Thom reveals the album title came from a lyric in the first song that was finished. Within the song Falling, it’s a contradictory statement he says – “We’re made in simple forms.”
“Being a functioning human means living in a constant state of delusion about the simplicity and order of the world. I like summing up the album in this way. There is no singular message. No unity of emotion. The irony also being that an album is a brutally curated collection of ideas.”
And true to the complex and contradictory nature of being in a band, it is not a name they could all agree on. “Simple forms reminds me of the DMV,” says Jesse. “But I get what Thom’s saying.”
Being a band that can fight with and for each other is not so unusual but that doesn’t mean it is not a triumph to produce a record like Simple Forms at this point in TNAF’s career.
“We’re still incredibly self-sufficient,” says Alisa. “We’re lucky to have this. We’re lucky to still have one another.”