The Naked and Famous (and unplugged) at Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: The Naked and Famous
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, March 17, 9:30 p.m.
How much: $45/general admission; $80/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
The Naked and Famous are stripping down.
Yes, the New Zealand-bred, Los Angeles-based synth-rock band behind the huge anthemic sounds of hits like “Young Blood” and “Higher” and “Punching in a Dream” — all staples of ski and snowboard playlists everywhere — are leaving the synths and most of the electronic production at home as they make their way back to Aspen.
On a short spring tour that comes to Belly Up Aspen on Saturday and Boulder on Friday, they’re playing reimagined acoustic interpretations of their songs from the past decade in bare-bones and plainly beautiful new versions from the band’s new album, “A Still Heart.”
“It’s almost like a best-of, but not a cheap and nasty best-of,” the band’s producer, guitarist and co-vocalist Thom Powers said recently from Los Angeles. “It’s our most loved songs and fan favorites. It’s almost the live show that we would play as a full band but it’s all acoustic.”
As Powers recalled, the band had a lot of requests to do acoustic versions of songs for radio shows in the “Tiny Desk” mold and for promotional spots back in 2010 and 2011 when their debut album “Passive Me, Aggressive You” was blowing up and making them global pop stars.
“We just said ‘no’ to all of them,” he said.
The band had never played that kind of music and didn’t want to start.
“We’d become successful because of this big, robust, well-produced and anthemic sound,” he said. “So it seemed counterintuitive to go and give a different representation of ourselves as some kind of folk act. It was just completely what we were not about. In hindsight, that may have been a little too precious and maybe we were talking ourselves too seriously. I don’t know.”
Now with three albums under their belts and 10 years together as a band, along with an unimpeachable string of hits and performances on some of the world’s biggest stages — including a headlining slot at Coachella — Powers and co-vocalist Alisa Xayalith felt comfortable tweaking the sound, going unplugged and messing with fan expectations a bit.
They began occasionally playing acoustic versions of a few songs while touring in support of the most recent record, “Simple Forms,” in 2016.
“We were like, ‘Wow, this is cool, let’s do some recording,’” Powers recalled. “So two or three recordings turned into, ‘Well, we have to do a whole album.’”
And that’s what the band has been doing for the past year or so, perfecting these songs in Powers’ home studio and steadily releasing these new versions. The “Stripped” tour also finds the band in a transitional moment. Just last week, they announced founding Naked and Famous members Aaron Short and Jesse Wood were departing the band, leaving Powers, Xayalith and bassist David Beadle to shape its future.
These new versions resulted from a deep creative dive for Powers and Xayalith. They don’t sound like simple “unplugged” covers of well-known synth-pop hits. They sound like entirely new songs.
“I tried to produce them so that they do sound new and fresh,” Powers said. “It sucks when you hear an acoustic version of a track and it’s just a band strumming away. It’s so dull.”
Listening to these stark takes for the first time, fans may need a minute to recognize them. That’s been the goal from the start, Powers said, to truly reimagine a song rather than slapping together a gimmicky cover version.
“If you’re going to do an acoustic version, really rewrite the song,” Powers said. “Find a completely new approach. That’s my idea of what it should be when you do an acoustic version.”
Both Powers and Xayalith are big fans of Bon Iver, Powers said, and were excited to play in the creative sandbox of his indie-folk style.
“We had never seen ourselves being able to do something like that,” he said. “So it feels like a big personal achievement, taking this approach and not hiding behind the big, robust production. It’s satisfying.”
Most musicians begin with the basics of guitar or piano and vocals before building toward the sort of epic sound and heavy electronic production. The Naked and Famous went the other way. Beginning with home-produced recordings in their native New Zealand, the band aimed for a big studio sound from the start. Producing these simple songs offered a unique challenge.
“We had to learn and almost reverse-engineer ourselves, because we started as studio musicians making noises and playing around,” Powers said. “There are bands that grow up being songwriters in a much more traditional and old-fashioned sense and they get in the studio and it’s all a big exploration of finding a sonic template for themselves. Whereas, we found our sonic template first and then learned how to write traditional songs.”
Here in Aspen, and in ski towns across the Mountain West, most fans first heard the Naked and Famous on the soundtrack of Travis Rice’s groundbreaking 2011 snowboarding movie “The Art of Flight.” Two songs, “No Way” and the platinum-bound “Young Blood” were included on the album and immediately became perennials on playlists at ski-town bars, clubs, house parties and in the earbuds of snowboarders.
This vocal snowbound following took the New Zealanders by surprise. They never imagined they’d become the unofficial house band of ski towns across the West.
“We saw it at our live shows and in our fan base,” Powers said. “We started hearing from all these people who were snowboarders all the time. It was cool.”
They’re not hard-core skiers or snowboarders themselves, but they embraced the mountain listeners.
“I think events like that really made us lose our pretense about who our fans ought to be, or where you ought to be discovered or heard,” Powers said. “It made us more open-minded.”
After the “Stripped” tour and tackling the bare-bones acoustic production of “A Still Heart,” though, Powers expects the Naked and Famous to return to its well-honed electro-pop style. But the band will return changed by the “Stripped” experience.
“I think we will get back to what we do, but this whole process will probably be more apparent,” he said. “We’re not going to become an acoustic band. We’re still going to be the big, boisterous Naked and Famous. But I’m sure this will have a long-term effect.”
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