Wonka Vision Magazine cover story (Issue 37)
It was a little over a year ago that Silversun Pickups were playing an early afternoon show on the patio of a restaurant during the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. “Was that the show where they were giving away the energy drink?” asks singer/guitarist Brian Aubert. “That stuff was awful. We tried to mix it with vodka because we all had really bad hangovers from partying with our friends the night before. It tasted even worse when it was mixed with alcohol.”
While the hangovers weren’t apparent to the small but rabid crowd of onlookers, Aubert admits things were a bit frantic during that time period for the band. “I was schizophrenic because we were finishing work on [their latest album] Carnavas while touring to support the Pickul EP. We were literally pulling over to the side of the road near different hotels so we could steal their wireless and get mixes of the new songs we had recorded. It was fucking nuts.”
That was then and this is now, as S.E. Hinton would say. And now Aubert is living high on the hog, as are his band mates, Nikki Monninger (bass), Joe Lester (keyboards), and Christopher Guanolo (drums). Silversun Pickups was hand-selected to open the spring leg of Snow Patrol’s Eyes Open tour by that band’s singer, Gary Lightbody, which means for the first time in their seven-year career, Silversun Pickups are playing venues that hold close to 10,000 people. “I’m doing this interview while sitting in the back of our tour bus,” says Aubert with the same tone of voice as an unemployed factory worker who’s just discovered he’s won the lottery. “This Snow Patrol tour has been so easy, it’s painful.”
But Silversun Pickups wouldn’t be where they are today had it not been for hard work, and Aubert knows while they are living out their rock star fantasies, there is still work to be done. “We’re busier than ever. We’re doing in-stores and radio stuff almost every day, but the fact that we’re in a bus makes it easy,” admits Aubert. “We’re getting drunk with each other, and watching movies, and having parties on the bus—just silly stuff with our friends. Then we close our eyes and when we open them, we’re in the next town.”
While Snow Patrol and Silversun Pickups might not play a similar style of music, Aubert says the audiences are made up of people who are fans of both bands, which means Silversun Pickups rarely face the daunting task of having to play their set to a bored crowd that is just counting down the time for the headlining act to hit the stage.
“Every show has been great. I’ve noticed that during the breakdowns in some of our songs, people cheer,” says Aubert, somewhat stunned at the response they’ve been getting. “I never noticed we had so many of those moments in our songs, because we’re not usually playing to this many people and we don’t notice the cheering during those breakdowns when we’re playing in small clubs.”
The opportunities Silversun Pickups have been afforded since Carnavas was released last July have been well-earned by the band, one of the small handful of acts today that truly deserve—and earned—anything and everything that comes their way.
While major labels are churning out factory-made band after factory-made band, the Silver Lake, California quartet has somehow managed to do things unheard of since the early ’90s when bands like Nirvana proved you don’t have to be signed to a major to capture the attention of kids, radio, and MTV. Silversun Pickups have received mainstream radio airplay, had two videos (“Well Thought Out Twinkles” and “Lazy Eye”) in regular rotation on MTV, and toured with bands ranging from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to Wolfmother, all while signed to Dangerbird Records, a fledgling indie label featuring the likes of La Rocca, Joy Zipper, and All Smiles, the new project featuring ex-Granddaddy member Jim Fairchild.
The temptation to jump to a major label may be shoved in the band’s face on a regular basis, but Aubert doesn’t see any advantage to leaving Dangerbird at this point in time. “What can these other labels offer us that Dangerbird can’t?” he asks. “We’re a little band on a little label that nobody has ever heard of before and we got on MTV. It boggles my mind the way I’m sure it boggles everybody’s mind. It’s got to be very scary for the music industry. Like, ‘How did that band do that? We spent millions on this [other] band and nobody gives a rat’s ass.'”
When bands reach this level of success, doors open. Since December of last year, Silversun Pickups has done the late night talk show circuit, performing “Lazy Eye” on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Last Call with Carson Daly—the latter being at the request of Daly himself, who has called Silversun Pickups his favorite band.
“Lazy Eye” has been a fan favorite for quite a while and was actually one of the first songs Silversun Pickups ever wrote, according to Aubert. A longer, slower, more instrumental version of the song can be found on early demos that have circulated since Silversun Pickups started making waves in the music world. The song has become, for new fans, an introduction to the band, just as “Kissing Families” served the same role on the Pikul EP, which was released in 2005.
“In L.A., ‘Lazy Eye’ became our adopted theme song. ‘Kissing Families’ was most people’s first song with us and now it’s ‘Lazy Eye,’ but at a much bigger level,” says Aubert. “It’s nice that it’s that song because it happened organically. We were swimming in the universe where there was no such thing as a single. We just had a record made up of a bunch of songs. Every single song was getting played on all these different specialty stations; they just played whatever they wanted. Then this major radio station in San Francisco played ‘Lazy Eye’ and that’s how it caught on.”
Caught on it has, and for good reason. It’s the perfect representation of the band’s sound and follows their template of starting songs with a somewhat casual and subdued tone before exploding in a climax of wailing, fuzzy guitars and Aubert’s passionate screaming. People who are discovering the band because of this song will not be disappointed in the other tracks that make up Carnavas, as they all share a similar style and approach.
Well known and respected indie rock radio stations KEXP and WOXY were early supporters of the band, giving tracks from Pikul spins before most of the world had discovered them. Aubert says these two stations are “responsible for this nonsense” the band is now shoulder-deep in. He’s also not shy about giving credit to the influential blog nation for writing about Silversun Pickups in the band’s early days and spreading the word. By the time South by Southwest rolled around in 2006, Silversun Pickups were one of the most highly anticipated acts to perform.
“The Internet is amazing,” says Aubert. “I think it’s like the people’s press. If people want to write about us, that’s so awesome. I’m not just saying that because they are nice to us, some of them aren’t nice to us, but who cares? People can express whatever they want.”
Writers, whether amateur bloggers or well-paid scribes for some of the world’s largest music magazines, tend to compare Silversun Pickup to Smashing Pumpkins because of Aubert’s vocal style, and My Bloody Valentine because of the band’s exploration of the shoe-gazing sound. While many bands might shy away from those comparisons, Aubert embraces them.
“I really liked [My Bloody Valentine] at one point,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about the Smashing Pumpkins recently. It’s nice to be compared to someone that so many people like. I think a ton of people are surprised and want us to get angry or shocked when we get compared to Smashing Pumpkins. People compare shit to things all the time and if that’s us, right on, I can live with it.”
The comparison to Smashing Pumpkins doesn’t stop with the band’s sound, however. Compare photographs of the two bands and you’ll discover a gender and ethnicity similarity as well. If that wasn’t enough, the bands also share the same initials—SP.
“Dude, I know,” says Aubert about something that has probably been pointed out to him 318 times. “We used to also get compared to Sonic Youth because of Nikki. The initials… yeah, they are the same, but you’d think that if we set out to rip off a band, we wouldn’t be that obvious.”
The current lineup of Silversun Pickups came together because all the members were friends and hung out in the same scene. Aubert started the band with Monninger and his now-ex-girlfriend, Elvira. Monninger had played with Guanolo in the band the drummer fronted, Crooner, and when Elvira left, he was a natural to step behind the kit and assume the role as Silversun Pickups’ drummer. Lester (ex-Pine Marten) joined the band around the same time as Guanolo, and had previously played in Earlimart alongside Aubert who filled in for that band whenever he was needed.
“The band became a legitimate thing where we really liked it and it was at the front of our minds instead of something we just did. It became what we do. Through that, lineups change because certain people take things differently and certain levels of playing had to come up,” says Aubert. “So we grabbed Joe and Christopher and, once we got them, we became more serious. Joe is a mad scientist. We didn’t need another guitar player and we didn’t need a keyboard player either, so he was just perfect for us. There are a lot of layers and we just got the right person who is not going to noodle over everything but who is going to spackle a lot. Joe does a lot more than people think he’s doing, but he makes it look like he’s not doing anything.”
While the last year has seen the band skyrocket up the charts, Aubert says nobody in the band has made enough money to retire quite yet. “We’re doing okay,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about us.” But, despite the fame and relative fortune that has befallen Silversun Pickups since 2005, the members remain humble and true to their roots, spending any downtime they have between recording and touring back in Silver Lake, and hanging with their friends, many of whom have their own bands. Although those bands haven’t reached the level of Silversun Pickups, very little jealousy can be found among the scene.
Rachel Stolte of the Eenie Meenie Records band Great Northern is a longtime friend of the band on both a personal and professional level. Aubert and Lester lent their talents to Great Northern when that band first started in order to help the band secure some shows and play while they were still trying to find members.
“With the success of the Silversuns, it’s an exciting time in music,” says Stolte. “It gives hope to other indie bands like us. It creates a possibility for music that is similar to come to the surface and also find success. They are helping to give a name to Silver Lake—a good name—because their music is great.”
Aubert returns the compliment, calling Great Northern one of the most exciting bands to come out of the Silver Lake scene in recent memory. He also name-checks Sea Wolf (Aubert and Lester appeared in a Sea Wolf video) and Twilight Sleep. “It’s just really annoying how good the Twilight Sleep’s shows are,” says Aubert, before mentioning that Twilight Sleep’s Tracy Marcellino is his significant other.
“I actually met Brian through my bass player and it was in a completely non-musical situation,” says Marcellino. “When I went to their first show I was thinking, ‘Please don’t suck,’ because I really wanted to love them. When I heard them play, I was so excited because they were great and I knew I would probably be seeing them a lot.”
With everything going in the right direction for the band, Aubert wonders whether or not Silversun Pickups have reached their highest point, or if there is more in store for them this year as they continue to tour based on the strength of the “Lazy Eye” single.
“We’re not anywhere near as successful as Nirvana, not even close, and it’s just nuts for us,” says Aubert. “I can’t even imagine being Nirvana and exploding the way they did. We still feel like we’re the people that somehow got invited to prom, even though we’re the ugly kids who are spiking the punch. We have a pretty interesting life and we’re just a teeny band. I can’t imagine what happens to Thom Yorke when he walks down the street. I can’t imagine it getting further along than this for us. I feel like this has got to be the end for us; we’ve hit the peak. It either goes down from here or stays this way.”
Chances are this flame isn’t about to burn out any time soon though, and the flame will surely intensify over the course of 2007 and beyond. Silversun Pickups currently plan to finish up the Snow Patrol tour, then perform at some festivals in the US this summer. After that it’ll be a trip over to Europe, where Carnavas just got released, and then back to the US for a series of headlining dates in the late summer or early fall.
As if that’s not going to keep the band busy enough, Aubert says he’s getting ready to start demo-ing new material on the bus while he’s got the opportunity to. “In my head right now, part of the record will be some of the craziest stuff we’ve ever done, and some of the stuff will be total pop songs,” says Aubert about the direction he’s hoping to take Silversun Pickups’ music on the follow-up to Carnavas.
Whatever the new material sounds like, it’s sure to strike a chord in music fans seeking new and exciting music. There is something about Silversun Pickups’ music we can all relate to. As somewhat of an outsider, Marcellino may just know what that certain something is.
“I really love artists that create their own world and you get to experience it when you listen to the record. There may be familiarities, but the only way to have that exact feeling is to listen to the record. You can’t get enough and you keep going back. It’s hard to exactly nail it or put it into words, but I can try,” says Marcellino. “I think Silversun has that world you want to be in. Carnavas is like a beautiful, haunting apocalypse that you’re invited to be part of, and it actually seems joyful once you’re there.”