by Joe Matera on July 21, 2009
[Note: this is an interview that's currently still available and this archive is meant only to keep the contents and discussions inside preserved and visible online. Please follow the link in the header and read more from the source if you're interested.]
Coming of age in Los Angeles' multicultural, bohemian enclave, Silver Lake, the members of Silversun Pickups learned to overcome their fears through playing in the organic network of clubs and bars that also gave birth to artists the likes of Beck and Elliott Smith. Their full-length debut Carnavas surfaced in 2006 and soon snowballed into an avalanche of critical praise, landing the band on the Billboard charts and helping them gain recognition from nose-turning indie rockers and mainstream pop lovers alike. From that moment on, front man and guitarist Brian Aubert slowly realized that Silversun Pickups' musical landscape was about to change.
After two-plus years of touring behind Carnavas, the band returned home to a different place than they had left. It was a dark time when we got back explains Aubert. We had to water the relationships that we had neglected over those two years, and I think this darkness came out on our new record. With only a short month off the band locked themselves in a rehearsal room to begin work on their next opus. Fast forward to 2009 and album number two finally arrives in the form of Swoon. Burgeoning with rich strings and crunchy guitars it sees the band immersed amidst layered sound scapes. A tapestry of beauty and aggression, it perfectly complements its predecessor and sees the band moving forward musically on all levels. Joe Matera caught up with Brian Aubert to discuss Swoon, fuzz boxes and the band's never ending comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins.
UG Team: Swoon features a lot more musical diversity in its moods and textures than your previous effort. What provided the catalyst for that direction?
Brian Aubert: We knew we were still in love with, and having, a love affair with the sounds that we found we were evolving with especially on Carnavas. We knew we didn't really want to abandon that, though we thought there was more to it than we had done on the previous outing. So we kind of wanted to push it in a different direction this time where it was a little bit more, creepier and more angular. And because we also definitely wanted to get more emotional with it all, that emotional component proved to be the catalyst. We looked at it this way, you can say all these things when you begin recording but once you deep into it, you are kind of along for the ride to see where it can end up. Hopefully we've achieved that and more so than we wanted and maybe even further than what we originally wanted to do.
The theme of the album seems to allude to some sort of a mental breakdown?
Yeah I would say that, but maybe I think more so of a nervous breakdown. But mental will work also.
Was that from personal experience?
No and there is no way I'd know how to even conjure that up. And if I did know, I probably wouldn't do so. It was due to the fact that it was a real heavy time in our lives when we writing the record, especially in our personal lives. And add to that, we had decided amongst ourselves that we also wanted to push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion writing the record. So I think it all kind of stems from those things.
How does the songwriting process work within the framework of Silversun Pickups?
I usually start the ball rolling. I will come in with a loose structure of a song and will have a couple parts that we can weave in and out of. And that way, it also prevents us from jamming on just one thing as we really don't like jamming.
The band doesn't like jamming?
Yeah, we don't like it. I mean, if there was one part that we needed to go over and over again, we would just consider it a dead idea and will leave it. So that is why I come in with a loose blueprint of a song. And then I present it to the band and we will all start nibbling at it. And get it shifting and changing and have them bring in their ideas to add on top of it and where everybody starts to take control of their world. So that is how it generally works.
Swoon sees you again working with producer Dave Cooley.
Yeah and it is because we knew we had another record with him for sure. Our rapport together is great. And while we wanted to spend a little bit more time on this record, we also wanted to do it as quickly as possible without hurting the music. And because we had such a short hand method with Dave, it seemed we just carried on from the last record. We know how to communicate and fight with each as we have got that down really well. In the time that we made our first record Carnavas, to the time we started making Swoon, we had changed as people so we wanted to jump off onto a new sort of area. And we knew also that since he [Dave] was involved with us, he had also been living life for a couple years like us and had changed too. So there were maybe things that he wanted to do to bring to the table as well. It was really nice when we started pre-production with him, as he really started to get into it right away. That was a good sign. It meant that he was ready to not be bowled over and say, okay whatever guys'. He was ready to make us work hard.
Going back to the guitar textures I mentioned earlier, how did you go about envisaging them and bringing them to life?
We had a million pedals at our disposal but we intended to not use them too much. When it came to the distorted tones and stuff like that, we used a method that involved a crazy, broken direct thing, where we just glued a bunch of stuff together, like pedals that cost five bucks just so we could experiment with them. We were just monkey-ing all these things together. But generally the normal distortion we would get came from the amps. A lot things that we like to do to make our sound, sound more interesting, is have a bunch of a bunch of pedals going through different amps. And sometimes that would be tripled or quadrupled with another different kind of amps and pedals which we would double track also with a slightly weird broken guitar.
So what is this slightly weird guitar you speak of?
It is this one guitar, which was all over Carnavas and is all over Swoon as well. It is a really bad put together fake hollow bodied guitar, that is all Frankenstein-ed and is terrible, and absolutely a horrible looking guitar. But for some reason, when you use it as a doubling effect, it sounds amazing on the track. And then we'd blend the sounds to make it feel like it was just one thing moving forth in the musical spectrum.
Did you use your Epiphone Sheraton that you are normally associated with?
Yes, I used the Sheraton along with a bunch of others guitar. There was also a Sixties Jazzmaster, a reissued Jaguar that I've had for awhile now, a 60s Epiphone Casino, a Fender Jaguar Baritone, and at one point, even a Gibson Custom Les Paul Baritone. Apparently Gibson only made two of those guitars and I have one! That guitar was amazing but it was also so difficult to play. So when it came to guitars, that was the gist of it. Initially I tried to actually to stay away from my Sheraton because we had used it a lot on Carnavas, and so I wanted to eschew it on this record. But it was one of those things that I eventually kept going back to because it just sounded so grand. I think I play the hollow body Sheraton incorrectly. I don't think people play hollow bodies the way I do, through that amount of effect pedals and stuff. But I really enjoy it especially in the live environment where you can feel it because the air is going through the monitors and the speakers. And you can actually feel the hum of the guitar.
Let's turn to the subject of amps.
I basically used a HiWatt Custom for a lot of the record and a little practice amp that sounded really great; a Fender Champ. I also had a Fender Hot Rod Deville and an old Marshall but the Marshall was kept at a minimum. We sort of experimented with a lot of amp stuff too. And as much as we love building noises and textures and all kinds of crazy stuff, we didn't want the record to be too all over the place. We didn't want every single song to have a billion different sounds. We wanted it to all sound very cohesive.
Listening to your guitar sounds, to me, it comes across as you wanting to make the guitar sound go beyond its guitar capacity.
I love guitar and we're all big fans of guitar but you are correct. I and the rest of the band do like it when the guitar is used as a texture and less as a guitar in itself. We like making the guitar sound like a keyboard a lot of the times. On Carnavas we worked very hard to blend keyboards and guitar and sometimes we didn't know quite what was happening. And on Swoon we did that seven times as crazier to the point where we confused even ourselves. We made it sound unlike a guitar. A big part to that element is a special pedal I have which I'm too afraid to mention and won't ever mention.
Why is that?
I don't know, I just can't do it. All I will reveal is that it is basically something that was around in the Eighties, its a little rack thing that cost next to nothing for me, but I love it. But it is going to remain a secret.
The secret weapon to your tone then?
Yeah you can say that, but I'm sure a million players use it but I'm going to keep it a secret.
You obviously enjoy experimenting with a lot of fuzz pedals?
Yes and they're very important to me. I have this Mid-Fi Electronics Peace Gun Fuzz pedal which is quite an oddball sort of fuzz that by itself doesn't quite do it. But put it in a sound chain in the right way and it sounds really great. The same thing goes for a pedal called a Bass Master which I know Nikki [Monninger, bass] uses a bunch of as well. It is a really bizarre sounding pedal and really brings out the broken guitar sounds more. I also have a Red Llama Fuzz which I use mainly as a straight Fuzz. Most of my distortion pedals are rinky-dink you know. A lot times, people look at distortion pedals that are not in vogue, because either they may have a weird name or because they are associated with something you don't like and are cheap and nasty. Yet those are the types I would actually try out. Just because something is thirty dollars and nobody wants it, doesn't mean they're useless. I'd give it a shot before you knock it down as you could do something really quite interesting with it.
Does it bother you that the band keeps getting compared to the Smashing Pumpkins?
No. We first started getting that tag as we got larger with Carnavas. When we first heard that, we were amazed that anybody thought we actually sounded like a real band. We thought it was crazy. I do think it is cool and if that is what we remind people of, and that is what they hear, then that is right on with me.
Some critics go as far as saying you are trying to be a carbon copy of the Smashing Pumpkins since you also have a female bass player like they do.
That would be a lot of work. (laughs) We always try to make fun of all those comments. Like for example, Christopher [Guanlao, drums] who is Flippino we're always joking that he used to be white and then he made himself Flippino so we could be more like The Smashing Pumpkins, you know the Asian guy. If people say we sound like them then that is totally cool but to take it as far as saying having a girl on bass, then that is pretty ridiculous.
You played a recent show with Metallica at SXSW. Now that would have been a totally different experience for you guys?
Yeah and that was crazy. We got offered the gig and we had to do it. It turned out to be an amazing gig and they were really quite nice. The whole thing was really quite a bizarre experience I can tell you. And it was the first time we had ever played to that many dudes wearing black shirts and all head banging.
And your music isn't really head banging music at the end of the day.
That's right but it was that night! By the end of it they were really into it. And it took us by surprise too. It is one of those fun adventures you have when you're in a band.
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