Interview: Silversun Pickups

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

There’s a certain wide-eyed joy to Silversun Pickups that belies a band going on fifteen years together.

A quick assessment of our conversation before their set at House of Blues last week would suggest their sunny Californian roots as a reason for their cheeriness, but apocalyptic themes have always weighed heavy on guitarist Brian Aubert and bassist Nicki Monninger’s songs like smog descending on their Los Angeles home base. Conversely, the four piece’s breakthrough came in 2006 with the angst-driven slow burner “Lazy Eye“, but both Aubert and Monninger stress the fun in playing their decade-old hit every night on tour.

If anything, their carefree attitude might be in part because of recent developments: their 2015 album, Better Nature, was their first self-released album after a decade with venerated indie label Dangerbird, representing a new-found self-reliance for the band.. In my conversation with Aubert and Monninger, the duo’s excitement over the Nature songs are so apparent, they make multiple changes to their setlist mid-chat to include new songs. But, of course, it wouldn’t be Silversun Pickups without a healthy dose of angsty meditation and introspection…

Our full conversation with the band is after the jump:

Tim Gagnon: I’m definitely going to talk about your most recent record, Better Nature, in a minute, but I kind of wanted to start us off in the recent past. I thought you provided some interesting framing with your last album, Neck of the Woods, by comparing it to a horror movie.

Brian Aubert: [laughs] Oh yeah… I think I meant [the “horror movie” description] a little more cheekily. I remember saying while we were recording that album that it felt there was something rumbling underneath it all, you know? The other albums were explode-y, but that one was designed to be more geometric and never explode-y. It also felt different because that was the first record we recorded with our producer, Jacknife Lee, in a garage in the middle of the woods. The whole vibe felt creepy, but it wasn’t meant to be a horror movie. But if it was a horror movie, it’d be It Follows. Or Let The Right One In.

TG: [laughs] A more subtle creepiness then, okay. To that point, all of your albums kind of have some cinematic quality to them, so what genre would you place Better Nature in that lineage?

BA: To me, it sounds like a circus. Everything is always a reaction, although not always on purpose, and a reaction on what you did prior. When you’re recording, you’re so focused on an album and your interests are so laser-focused that, after you’ve done it and toured on it, it’s all out of your system and the next album that comes about is a reaction to the one before it. With this one, we really wanted it to sound like a quantum-physical circus or the Wild West.

Nikki Monninger: Yeah, the Wild West. Like a space Western.

BA: But not like Muse. [laughs] Like, in terms of voices, we just wanted things to zoom in and out and have no body to them. Just tearing the ceiling off.

NM: I agree.

BA: Even from the beginning, our producer could feel what we were going for, so we went even stranger. I wish there were b-roll moments of us in our corners of the studio, doing our noises.

[Aubert makes a noise that sounds somewhere between an angry chihuahua and a screeching eagle]

NM: Yep… a lot of vocal experimenting and experimenting with different instrumentation.

TG: On a completely different note though, you described your own record, Better Nature, as being your most “human.”

BA: God, what did I mean by that? I guess the last record was so nostalgic and in the past.

NM: And this one did feel more like the present, like where we were at mentally and lyrically.

BA: I mean, [all of our records] are human really. We don’t write stories, even though they may seem like that sometimes. We either like to be non-specific or so specific, it only means something to me or us collectively.

TG: So then what makes this record so “human” in your eyes?

BA: This record is about inner space. “Help me swallow up your better nature” in the song “Cradle” is about how you try to go into any situation with your best foot forward or as your calmest self, but we often don’t achieve that. This record is a reminder to approach everything on your highest ground. You always feel better when you’re at your calmest.

TG: So “human-ness” is kind of interchangeable with an internal homeostasis, a most calm self?

 Both: Yes!

BA: It’s funny because, in interviews, these [statements] just exist to us and when you have to answer to them, it’s interesting to hear how you do it and how we answer it. It can change a little bit even to us. We almost learn what we were doing when we’re doing interviews because we never had to answer for it before.

TG: This would be where a psychology minor would resurface for sure.

BA: [laughs] Tons of id going into this one! This album’s all id, straight up. The first two records were ego and the third was superego. We’re a shy band that doesn’t want to be all id, but that’s what came out on this record.

TG: I want to focus specifically on a song in the middle of the record, “Tapedeck”, and how it adds a lot of fantastic electronic and prog elements into the album. Was writing that song different than other songs on the record?

NM: We have got to start playing “Tapedeck” soon!

BA: We were literally so close to adding in on this tour; we know how to play it! This happens so often with some songs, but I feel like we’re already moving beyond it because we have so many songs we could play, but it’s one we gotta get in there before it’s too late.

NM: And I enjoyed recording that one. I got to record with an acoustic bass, which is fun because I don’t get to use those a lot in recording, and I also got to experiment with a vibraphone.

BA: When we demoed it, it was a lot of little electronic blips and bloops, but our producer Jacknife happened to get a vibraphone that day. We looked at it and thought about it for “Tapedeck”, but decided, “ah, no, we can’t use it, we’ll fuck it up somehow.” We started working on something else, but we heard Nikki from the other room trying it out.

NM: I had never played one before, so I was curious.

BA: After an hour, she had it and that’s what we used in the song.

TG: I hate to remind you all of passing time, but in a couple days, Carnavas will be ten years old. Has that sunken in at all?

NM: It came out on my birthday!

BA: Oh yeah, the 25th! We talk about this a lot, but we still feel brand new. We don’t feel like a band that’s been around. The only time we feel it is when we play festivals again and we remember who the bands were when we first played or headlined them. It’s usually like, “woah, what happened to them?”

NM: All these bands broke up and had a reunion, but meanwhile, we’re still chugging along. [laughs]

BA: And we don’t know why! Like, we definitely feel lucky now, but we never really have a scene in LA when we starting out. At first, we’d play with a lot of bands that had cowboy hats on. Then, a year or two later, it was the trucker caps followed by the ‘80s hairdos. And some of those were the same people! They’d sell out the club and we’d still open for them!

TG: So your band is the only constant in this equation. 

BA: [laughs] Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know what the hell… like I said, we’re lucky because we meet a lot of bands and so many of them are so nice. It’s very rare we meet a dickhead.

TG: Who are some of the good bands you’ve encountered along the way? We won’t go into the bad ones for your sake…

BA: [laughs] The bands we’ve toured with recently, Joy Wave and Bear Hands from New York… they’re so good. Foals have been around for a while, but they’re great. We were hanging out with Jimmy Eat World…

NM: Aww, they’re so awesome. So nice.

BA: And it’s so funny because people totally freak out when Jim [Adkins, singer of Jimmy Eat World] is in the dressing room. He’s the most normal guy, chilling and talking about his kids, and there are people walking by and gasping at him.

NM: Also, Dave Grohl’s like that.

BA: Grohl goes right away into diffusing his status. I’ve seen him do it with friends of ours; they’ll come in the room and they won’t even have time to realize before they’re having a conversation with him about his daughter’s birthday. Like, already at ease. And anyway, all the bands get together and look at the asshole bands and musicians at the festivals. It’s like, “woah, look at that crazy guy! He’s a rockstar, throwing stuff at the tech!” It’s funny to look at those people and go like, “c’mon, dude.”

TG: And I’m sure they have no idea they’re being observed in that light. Or, even worse, they’re trying to impress you. Tying it all back to Carnavas though, do you think you’ll consider an anniversary tour for the ten year?  

BA: People asked that when Pikul, the EP before Carnavas, was 10 years old. Maybe one day, but not now. We’re too busy touring on our normal world, you know?

NM: Yeah, a song like “Lazy Eye” still feels fresh. Every time we play it, I’m still looking forward to it.

BA: And, like, we don’t listen to our music, so all those old songs are just with us and we just challenge each other during soundtrack by dusting off, like, an old Swoon song we haven’t played in a while. Like, I played “Draining” the other night, which we played maybe twice live. Those old songs sometimes feel so fresh, weirdly enough, so you just try to fit them all together in the pot and the gumbo just keeps getting thicker and stranger… eventually, I’m sure it’s going to become a gray, inedible yogurt and we’ll have to stop cooking.

NM: [laughs] I’m glad you reminded us about Carnavas though. We’re going to have to celebrate now!

BA: Yeah, it’s cool, it’s crazy. [sighs] Wow, ten years…

Better Nature is out now via the band’s New Machine Recordings imprint. Silversun Pickups are touring now nationwide; for dates, head to their Facebook page.