The Best-Named Band

The Naked and Famous know you want to make a joke about their name, but they don’t resent you for it. Even if you’re not familiar with the band, you’re certainly familiar with their songs “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream,” from their first album Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010), which has been remixed, and placed in films (Pitch Perfect) TV shows (Gossip Girl) and commercials (for Canon cameras).

Last month, the New Zealand-formed band released its second album, In Rolling Waves, and the first single from that album, “Hearts Like Ours,” is bound to be the next “Young Blood.” We caught up with singer and guitar player Thom Powers, who called us from an empty parking lot somewhere in Mississippi to talk about the new album, songwriting, and getting most of his wardrobe thrown out.

KAYLA TANENBAUM: I saw that you guys were on Craig Ferguson the other day. How was that?

THOM POWERS: It was awesome. It was really good, which is a rarity because TV performances usually suck. [laughs] I had a really good time, and I didn’t feel too stupid afterwards.

TANENBAUM: Well, that’s good. When he introduced you, he called you “the best-named band in the music business.” Do you get that a lot, people commenting about your name?

POWERS: All the time. Everyone makes the really terrible joke when they first meet us. “Which one’s naked and which one’s famous?” We’re just used to smiling: Yeah, thank you.

TANENBAUM: Who do you think the second-best-named band in the music business is, if you guys are the first?

POWERS: We were looking though really band names the other day and I think the one that I might have found the funniest—it might be too offensive to tell you. You just scroll lists of black metal bands with really intense names. There’s a band called Anal Cunts, do you know them?

TANENBAUM: No, but that’s wonderful. That’s the name I had planned for my band.

POWERS: That was the other one. I used to sell records. I worked at a record store. I remember one kid came into the store one time and asked—just walked right up to me: “Hey, bro, you got any Anal Cunts?” [laughs] I was in hysterics.

TANENBAUM: What did you say?

POWERS: “Yeah, we do. Down the middle, in ‘A.'” This is the start of your interview! This is really vulgar. I apologize.

TANENBAUM: It’s great. So you guys have a couple of shows coming up here, do you think there’s something unique about a New York crowd?

POWERS: There’s something very unique and different about all crowds from major cities, just because they are intense places to live, so I think they have a personality. New York is almost a country in itself—it’s so different from everything. I feel like in the same way, California is almost disconnected from a lot of America. Not disconnected, but just its own thing.

TANENBAUM: What do you think makes a really good live performance?

POWERS: I think it varies depending on your perspective as an audience member. For me, I love going and seeing a band do this perfect, flawless representation of the music that they’ve created. That takes so much concentration and so much focus. At the same time, I like to be surprised in a live environment as well, but within reason. I don’t necessarily think that the element of rock-‘n’-roll that some people get confused about is a good live show. Sometimes people go to live shows and it will be chaotic and there are people jumping on people, and the singer throws something at the audience. I understand the energy, but I do feel like it’s very tiresome. That’s been done for decades now. Punk rock’s over.

TANENBAUM: Punk rock’s over. I’m going to lead with that.

POWERS: [laughs] It’s not over, I just feel that stuff can be very clichéd and very corny, those rock-‘n’-roll antics. I prefer to see a show with genuine passion behind someone showcasing their music.

TANENBAUM: And what about things like what you wear?

POWERS: For us, we like to put a bit of effort into the way we look because I think the opposite of the spectrum, that sort of grunge, anti-image, that’s a little lame and meaningless now because it’s a bit pretentious. The whole non-materialistic side of musicians trying to put down: “It’s not about this, not about that.” Well, if it’s not, get off your record label, fire your managers, and go live in a cabin, buddy. [laughs]

TANENBAUM: Have you ever been told that you cannot wear something to a concert?

POWERS: Yeah, every once in a while. Generally at least. Alisa [Xaylith, keyboard] used to be like, “Umm, what are you doing with that?” When I first meant Alisa, she threw out a whole bunch of my clothes. It was a good idea, because I was just atrocious at the time.

TANENBAUM:  I read that after your first album you guys toured a ridiculous number of cities. How long were you on tour?

POWERS: The first tour? It was over 200 shows in two years or something ridiculous like that. This tour we’ve only booked up as far as early next year. We haven’t had to grab every single opportunity as it’s come along. We can be a bit more discerning about what we do and don’t do. 

TANENBAUM: When you play certain songs live, do you change them up from concert to concert? Do you ever experiment in that way?

POWERS: A little bit, but only in a very subtle way, because at the moment I have this romantic idea—we spent a good year and a half recording and finishing off in Rolling Waves, and then we put it out there, and someone buys it and loves it. They can come see it live. I think sometimes when artists go, “I’m a little bored of playing this song, so I’m going to change it up,” it’s like, Man, you’re taking the piss out of your fans. You’re taking them for granted.” How many of your fans would love the opportunity to hear their favorite song live? How many of those fans at your show have never seen you live? I think also it’s a little bit pipe-dreamy to hear that don’t want to hear their favorite songs. Sometimes an artist is like, “It’s so boring. I can’t do the same thing every night.” Well, mate, you can go back to fucking flipping burgers if you like. [laughs]

TANENBAUM: It’s great that you don’t have that resentment about super popular songs, like “Young Blood.” Do you still play that at concerts?

POWERS: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think we will not be playing that until we are way too old to sing it and it’s kind of embarrassing. [laughs] Then we’ll stop playing it. I’m too grateful to be where I am to not want to be playing that.

TANENBAUM: I have a question about In Rolling Waves as a whole. How would you say that your sound has evolved? And how would you say you’ve retained something to your sound?

POWERS: I got really wound up about the idea of continuity when we started, and when we were making the “Hearts like Ours” video I was told, “I don’t know if you have to worry so much about the continuity because the same people are making it.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re kind of right.”  I think that’s something that I realized that about what we do as well. We try and sing in different tunes and use different kinds of voices for certain songs, and slightly different melodic context as well. You know how some bands feel like they’re writing the same song again and again? We try and avoid that so that we really are writing something musically a little different, but it does end up feeling like The Naked and Famous. I think the continuity came naturally, but at the same time, we were definitely quite aware that we didn’t want to abandon anything. We wanted to make an album based on everything we learned doing Passive Me, Aggressive You. We didn’t want to turn our backs on it at all because I’m still proud of it. I’m still grateful for all the fans we collected on that first record.

TANENBAUM: A lot people group your music with bands like fun. and MGMT. Would you consider yourself part of a musical movement in a way?

POWERS: We get asked that a lot. It’s a hard thing to explain because on the one hand I feel very grateful because it’s really awesome to be involved in popular culture, to be a part of that is amazing. On the other hand, when we first started it was a little frustrating because maybe people heard only “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream” and sort of threw us in that synth-pop thing. We have lots of songs that are a little more alternative rock. I think about all of the music I grew up listening to like Massive Attack, Björk, and Radiohead. I don’t even know how you describe someone like Bjork. She’s a pop artist? That sounds ridiculous because you would say more Katy Perry is a pop artist, but Björk has absolutely nothing to do with Katy Perry.

TANENBAUM: You brought up the video for “Hearts like Ours.” It’s such a striking video. Could you tell me a little more about the concept?

POWERS: I wish I could, too. [laughs] Honestly with those guys, with Special Problems, we always trusted them. It naturally occurred, Cam starting shooting this idea that related to the way that the “Young Blood” video works, these youthful micro-narratives. “Hearts like Ours” has that as well, but it’s not particularly youthful. It’s creepy and kind of twisted, sort of sad as well. It’s more about what the visual representations say about the music, rather than this A-to-B linear narrative. The idea with the video was not so you could watch the video with the music off and figure out what was going on.