Singer Alisa Xayalith strutted out wearing a white chiffon cape, resembling some kind of gypsy spirit as her long, flowing sleeves trailed behind her. Even before the band members took their places the crowd abandoned containing their excitement. Alisa and vocalist-guitarist Thom Powers took a brief moment to exchange a quick glance in preparation and then a slight nod; barely seconds later, they tore into the blaring guitar intro for “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing.” Nine Inch Nails’ influence over the band was undeniable as the reverb of Thom’s wailing guitar grew louder and Alisa began to thrash across the stage. The Naked and Famous conducted themselves as more of a hard-core rock band than their trademark electro-pop sound, a surprisingly welcomed departure from their pristine in-studio sound.
The band continued to play through their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You. Mostly upbeat numbers, “Punching in a Dream” was a sure highlight of the set. Not even completing the first measure of the opening keyboard riff, the crowd immediately recognized the ballad and joined Alisa in unrestrained wails. Singer Alisa engaged the crowd like a seasoned pro and repeatedly thanked the audience for their enthusiastic welcome. With repeated, and nonetheless genuine, thank yous and her innocent face, she charmed the crowd instantly.
For a majority of the concert, vocalist-guitarist Thom Powers stood stalwartly either toiling away on his guitar or delivering his vocals with unshakeable focus. He did, however, offer a few glimpses of vulnerability to the beckoning crowd, in one instance by introducing the song “No Way” as one “about losing someone and letting them go.” He also dedicated the song “Girls Like You” to “all the girls out there” as he stared pensively off into the crowd, as if he were waiting for the girl he was singing about to appear. It was during these raw moments that it felt as if there were no barriers between them and us. Somehow, we knew Thom and we hoped from the bottom of our hearts that his girl would come back.
The on-stage chemistry between Thom and Alisa was noticeably still being developed but still captured the crowd’s interest. During a lengthy synth solo, they began to sway in unison, just barely inches away from each other, eyes locked. As the intensity built and the tension became too palpable to bear, cries from the audience begging Thom to “Do it,” and “Kiss her,” danced through the air. As the solo began to wane, they finally broke eye lock and retreated to their respective spots on stage as the crowd sighed in disappointment. It became near impossible to pull my focus off of Thom and Alisa as they became even more comfortable onstage and entranced the crowd.
As Alisa delivered the chorus of their finale song and hit single “Young Blood,” the crowd jumped in unison and screamed at the top of their lungs, as if they had been transported to the carefree days of childhood. The jovial screams drowned out Alisa’s flawless vocals. The only sound that prevailed was the instantly recognizable bouncy synth riff, with its deafening volume and catchy rhythm.
The DePaulia had the opportunity of talking to founding Naked and Famous members Alisa Xayalith and Aaron Short about their climb to fame and future plans.
Alisa: Well, we first toured with foals for South by Southwest. We went into all these tiny towns all over America and it was a great taste of the country and landscape. But we did go a little stir crazy for a while after being on a tour bus for months and eating truck stop food. We did all these little things to keep ourselves somewhat sane, y’know?
Thom: This time we’ll be on our own tour bus for, as well. It will be a bit nicer this time.
Do you feel that your hometown of Aukland, New Zealand, has influenced your sound at all?
Alisa: Not consciously. It’s isolated and far away, but we still get the same commercial radio as you do in America. I guess the actual music hasn’t directly influenced us, but the do-it-yourself attitude of New Zealand definitely has.
Is there a big music scene back in Auckland?
Alisa: It’s very small, if there is one. There’s only like one or two bands from each genre. There’s only maybe one or two bands from there we could tour with.
What artists inspire you?
Alisa: Definitely the 80s aesthetic. Nine Inch Nails will always be a constant.
Thom: As a band we have a lot of common ground. I come from more of an electronic background. But since we all have different taste we get a lot of different influences. But right now, for me, it’s a lot of LCD Soundsystem, The Kills, Bon Iver…
Did recording a full-length album feel different from recording your EPs?
Thom: Things were much more evolved at that point. The first two EPs were bedroom-based projects. “Young Blood” was actually the very first song we recorded in the studio.
How is your new EP “No Light” different from your previous works?
Thom: it just got re-released here in the U.S. It’s really stripped back production compared to our album.
Alisa: They were the first songs we recorded together. If you listen closely, I’m actually singing a lot differently. The EPs really showed we were starting out for the first time as a band.
You had huge commercial success with your single “Young Blood.” How did it feel to be catapulted to fame?
Thom: It came out in New Zealand in 2010 and went to Number 1 quite quickly. It took 6 months to hit the top 10 in the U.S., so it was a constant climb in the U.S.
Did you know that “Young Blood” would be such a huge hit?
Thom: We knew it would be single but not to such a great extent. We certainly didn’t have expectations from the get-go that it would hit the charts here.
Alisa: We never thought we’d be playing this song all around the world. It’s just crazy.
How do you guys go about writing your songs?
Alisa: It’s a bit of a process. It starts with Thom and I just coming up with lyrics, and then we take the song to a rehearsal room. We just fool around with it and we say, “This could work better,” or, “That would sound good,” until the song is finished. It’s pretty methodical but it works for us.
What’s your most memorable show?
Alisa: We played a show in Australia in Brisbane and we played “Punching in a Dream” and the crowd was singing so loud that they drowned us out. We couldn’t even hear what we were singing. It was like with one of those Beatles stories you hear when they’re screaming so loud you can’t even hear the band. A friend of ours actually recorded the show for us to see, and it was just ridiculous.
Thom: For me, it’s different shows for different reasons, I think. A small memorable show would probably be a show we did in California. It was this tiny little room in L.A., not even 200 people. And we were arms length from all these people.
Alisa: Yeah, and I remember these guys were blowing smoke in Thom’s face when he was trying to sing. [turns to Thom]And you had to ask them to stop smoking, yeah?
Thom: [chuckles]Yeah, that was a bit annoying, but it was a cool vibe.
Now that the band is so successful, what are your goals now as a band?
Thom: Just keep doing what’s happening in the moment. We should finish the tour around April next year. And then we’ll start the process of making the 2nd album. Just carrying the process.
I saw you guys at Lollapalooza. How does a huge crowd at a festival differ from a smaller audience, like at the Metro? Do you change your performance at all to accommodate?
Alisa: Festival shows are like to me it’s almost like survival of the fittest. You have to show everyone what you’ve got. And with the small show you know everyone is there to see you and they know your stuff. So you can be a little more relaxed. But with festivals, you kind of have to prove yourself.
Thom: You can push your limits more since you know they’re into you.
Alisa: As opposed to a festival show.
Tell me the highlight of your career as a band.
Alisa: Opening for Nine-Inch Nails in 2009 in New Zealand. And, uh, getting a photo shoot today. It was absolutely incredible.
Any future plans, like upcoming releases?
Thom: We’re looking at collecting b-sides from the album and remixes by us and other people. We’d like to release those favorites together. We also have an iTunes Live EP coming out from the iTunes Festival in London that’ll be 5 or 6 songs.
There are lots of college bands at DePaul. Any advice?
Alisa: [pauses]Stay focused and keep writing. [laughs]Don’t take advice from musicians; we’re not qualified for anything!
Thom: It’s not just the live shows. It’s also recording and production. It’s not just impressing a huge crowd. You have to think about the album and the production behind it.