How Silversun Pickups became contemporary alt rock royalty

In a haze of fuzz, drums and androgynous snarls, SILVERSUN PICKUPS evolved into one of the hottest commodities in contemporary alternative rock – so much so that they are still able to keep a phrase like “alternative rock” relevant. Fresh from the release of their fourth album, DAVID JAMES YOUNG put the band’s frontman, Brian Aubert, in the line of questioning – or at least attempted to.

Sometimes, the gift of gab can come naturally. There are those out there – especially in the entertainment industry – that can spin the perfect story with little more than a single prod. Give an inch, they’ll take a mile – or centimetre and kilometre, respectively, if we’re adhering to the metric system. Just recently, film director and podcaster Kevin Smith was in town for some live shows. At one supposed “Q & A,” Smith was asked all but one question and proceeded to talk for the entire allocated time – and he only half-answered the question in the first place.

It’s difficult to guess as to whether Brian Aubert is naturally like this, but he is able to freely talk for nearly half an hour before he is forcibly taken off the line by the conferencing centre. Asking questions almost feel like they’re interrupting his flow – diverting him from his one true path, if you will. He’s taking the call from Los Angeles, fresh from a run of promo appearances on various radio stations across the country alongside bassist/vocalist Nikki Moninger. “We’re goin’ through a bad drought here – bad,” he reports. “I wanted to see if I could sneak all the water I was seeing in all these other places around the country back to LA.” He’s excitable, constantly cracking jokes and ready to talk – in-depth – about the creation of Better Nature, the band’s fourth LP and one that is sure to divide audiences in the same way of its predecessor, Neck of the Woods. Once again teaming with producer Jacknife Lee, it’s an assured and sharp record that embraces the poppier leanings of the band’s work while simultaneously scratching below the surface to reveal a darker side. Aubert talked shop on its creation, his relationship with the big-time producer and introducing the element of science into the band.

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Before we even get to the music of Better Nature, the distribution of it is very new. This is the first album you have released through New Machine Recordings, your own label; as well as the first album you’ve made that was supported by a Pledgemusic campaign. Talk us through those changes within the SSPU camp…

We were on a very small label here [Dangerbird]. We’ve always worked with independents. The thing that happened to us is just dumb luck – people would ask for advice from us in order to get to the position that we are at, and we have no idea how to respond. We got here by dumb luck. We’re a weird band and have always had a limited team of people around us that work on this band with us. We’d rather be working on a label that no-one’s ever heard of than be just another face on a big major label roster… that doesn’t sit with us at all. We just don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Every label left us alone when we were breaking, thinking “Oh, they’re not worth bothering with, they won’t make it”… and then we got on the radio! Which is even weirder! I have no clue why to this day. As we kind of went on, things changed and Dangerbird had things that they wanted to do and so did we. I think we realised when we were making this album that we wanted to shake things up. We figured that if we signed with someone else at this stage, what could they offer us? What could we offer them? All we’d ever do is make them miserable, and we’d never do a thing they wanted us to do. We don’t play well with others. [laughs] We’re more comfortable with our immediate team who do all of the behind-the-scenes stuff than we are with any outsiders. That’s what sparked the motion to just put it out ourselves.

It makes sense – there’s a lot of momentum behind being an independent act, and a lot of reward.

Of course. Really, though, that’s kind of the long-winded version of the whole thing. I think that if I tell stories of what happens, we come across a lot more cutting-edge and exciting. It’s a lot cooler than what actually happened, which is basically me going into the studio and saying to everyone “Why don’t we do it ourselves?” and the rest of them going “…okay.” That’s honestly it! It’s so funny… living in Los Angeles, there’s all these so-called industry professionals and executives and stuff like that. They’ll always be the first to tell you that something you’re doing is wrong. “You’re fucking up.” “You’re making a mistake.” I gotta tell you… I love it. Every time one of these sort of people say that you’re not doing something the right way, it actually gets me pretty excited. It’s been a year since we started New Machine and went on this new path, and nobody has told us that we’ve fucked up yet. I’m kind of nervous now! I’m going to start walking around LA now that the record’s out and wait to get told how much I’ve fucked up. I need the validation!

“If it gets on radio, great. If not, we don’t care”

This marks the second album you’ve worked on with Jacknife Lee, who also produced the three songs released between each record – ‘Let It Decay’, ‘Working Title’ and ‘Cannibal’. How do you feel the relationship has developed between the band and him?

It all grew at different rates for each member of the band. Nikki [Moninger, bass/vocals] was fairly reluctant about some of his methods at first. He can be quite opinionated, and that doesn’t always sit right with her. That was only a problem at the start of [last album, 2012’s] Neck of the Woods. We have a much better understanding now. We only have four albums and an EP, but in my limited experience I’ve found that working with someone a second time can be really worthwhile. It’s so much easier to get in there and just go for it – the awkward introductory phase is out of the picture completely. There are things that don’t even need to be said anymore. When we were making Neck of the Woods, Jacknife and I would have to have day-long dialogues over what one of us meant or how one of us does something. With Better Nature, I could just give Jacknife a certain look and he would understand exactly. We both get it.

As a band, there’s always have places that you want to go next. There’s always a sonic universe that you’re interested in. You put your heart into one until it doesn’t do it anymore. I feel that your producer feels the same way. We’re the wacky band to Jacknife – we’re the band he gets to do the cool shit with! The stuff he wants to do. He gets to let his freak flag fly, y’know? He sees that we believe in what it is that we’re doing. We don’t give a fuck. If it gets on radio, great. If not, we don’t care. We’d be doing it anyway.

There have been three-year gaps between every Silversun record, meaning there is a lot of build-up, momentum and expectations around each release. Does that get to you at all?

We actually get very excited, but we also get really timid. I really like it when the record is just out and there’s no hubbub. Of course, we’re so grateful that there is hubbub – there are people pointing at the record, staring at it, talking about it. It’s not lost on us. At the same time, we really like that period where it just exists. I guess what I’m trying to say is… [pauses] Imagine, like, when one of your friends comes over and they play you something. They make you stop what you’re doing and listen to it. That’s very tough – you’ll be sitting there thinking that you don’t even want to listen to it. That’s how we feel about this moment. We’re the sort of band that wants to put our record on in the background. We don’t even want you to know it’s out! [laughs] Our music is better if someone pricks their ears to it while it’s playing somewhere and they’re like “What is this?” If we’re getting played at a restaurant and somebody hears it and is like, “That’s kinda good!,” that’s all the validation we need.

The other thing is that, usually by the time the record comes out, we’re so ingrained in another part of the universe. We’re just getting over the fact that we’re playing live again. We’ve rehearsed a lot, we’ve got new gear, we’ve done the promo stuff. We’re in this euphoria about the moving parts in our live show. When a record comes out, we almost forget that it’s happening. We’ll see a post online and it’s all like “Happy release day!” and we just go “Oh yeah, that was happening!”

Was your approach to writing this album any different to how it’s come about previously? Do certain things need to be in place in order for you to be able to compose and create?

We always knew that we were going to work with Jacknife again, so when it came to doing my original demos for the record, I did them in a way that I thought would be appropriate to him. I loaded them up with all of these little extra bits on top, because I knew he’d click and latch onto a certain thing – a keyboard line, a harmony, whatever. And he did! We know a lot of bands that don’t like other people interfering with how they create, and I get that. I think we were that band for a really long time. I think there’s an art to it. If you’re a certain type, and it works for you, that’s amazing. For us, though, we like including other people if it means they’re helping to build it up – and Jacknife has really become one of those people to us. After those demos, we talked through a few different things in them; and he helped make sure that we stayed the course when we were in the studio properly recording the album.

When you’re first starting to write and lay down those first demos, you’ve got a lot of hubris. You’ve got bravado. When it comes down to recording, you can get chicken-shit about those big decisions you made when you were first writing the song. You start to question everything that you’ve brought to the songs: “This is too weird! This is too soft! What are we doing?” You wanna start laying down rules and start adhering to a grid. Jacknife was there to slap me in the face and say “That’s not where we’re headed.” We needed that. Especially on this intense arsehole of a record. I love Neck of the Woods – I love its angular nature and its weird insecurity. This record, however, is something new. It’s something different.

All member of the band are credited with the songwriting, and everyone brings different aspects of the sound to the band. One aspect that’s always been interesting, however, is your sonic relationship with Joe Lester, the band’s keyboardist, sound manipulator and sampler. Often, your guitar playing will use so much treatment and pedal work that it will sound like a synthesizer; whereas Joe will often play keys or synths that are so distorted and fuzzy that they can sound like guitar. How has that sound developed over the course of the band?

I think it started originally as a way to make our sound bigger. I remember, at the time, me and Nikki were in the process of getting new members of the band – we had just recruited Christopher [Guanlao, drums], and we were looking at replacing our friend [Jack] Kennedy, who was our second guitarist. We were thinking about it a lot. “Do we need another guitar player?” No, we don’t. “Do we need a keyboard player?” No, we don’t. “What do we need here?” That was the big question. Joe, meanwhile, was playing in another local band that we really loved. He was actually playing bass in this band, Pine Marten. Two of the members of that band were on tour with another band, The Radar Brothers; who themselves were on tour with The Breeders at the time. Joe was just at home, working. He was a scientist. That’s when I realised what we needed – we needed a scientist! I didn’t need another guitar player wanking over anything I was doing, I didn’t need someone tinkling piano lines under anything I was doing. We needed someone who could shift the ground underneath every song. That was Joe.

In the beginning, I would give him samples of my guitar, and he’d tinker around with them and come up with ways to kind of push them into the song. When we played live, it meant that I didn’t have to keep playing rhythm the whole time. Slowly, that turned into more creative and more crazy stuff. This record goes in line more with the first two – on Neck of the Woods, I wanted to hone in specifically on rhythms. There’s a lot of drum-and-bass interplay on that record. It’s a lot more angular. That changed again with this record.

“When we started out everyone thought I was a girl”

It’s a lot more focused on entire compositions. There are things that hook you in, but they’re part of a bigger picture.

I’m not really interested in coming up with a specific part and spotlighting it. I never wanted people to hear our songs and just focus specifically on one part they thought was clever or creative – or even what that part is doing. We’re much more excited by the blend that comes with the finished product. We love it when you literally cannot figure out what the fuck we’re doing. That has always been part of this band – even when we first started out. People forget this, but when we started out everyone thought I was a girl. Like, everyone. I thought that was super exciting! We’d walk out on stage, everyone would see Nikki and think that’s where the voice was coming from… and then they’d see me with my fucked-up hair and my beard and people’s heads would explode.

It’s been nearly three years since the band was last in Australia – albeit only partially, with Nikki sidelined due to her pregnancy. When can we expect a full return from you guys?

Next year, definitely. Y’know, every time we’ve come out to Australia, we’ve been attached to something. The first time we came out was opening for Snow Patrol, the second time was opening for Birds of Tokyo and the third time was playing that festival [Harvest]. I think what we really want to do this time is come out without an attachment. The shows that we got to play as a part of all of those things was really, really fun; but we always had more fun when we got to play our own shows. Just imagining a whole tour of that is really exciting to us. Last time, even though Nikki wasn’t there, was so cool. We got to play with The Dandy Warhols, which was aweome. Zia [McCabe] is like a mother hen – she took care of everyone on that tour and that festival. We love her so much…[pauses] Y’know what? As soon as this interview’s done, I’m gonna give her a call and say what’s up. I haven’t spoken to her in so long.

Silversun Pickups’ Better Nature is out now through New Machine Recordings/ADA.