by Kevin Bronson on September 25, 2015
[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.]
* There isn't any.
Silversun Pickups' fourth album "Better Nature" comes out today. It's the first the Silver Lake quartet is self-releasing, having completed its run with Dangerbird Records in early 2014 by releasing a singles collection, and the second SSPU album made with producer Jacknife Lee (he gets writing credits on this one).
Not surprisingly, "Better Nature" sounds like a Silversun Pickups record: spacey, '90s-derived alt-rock that speaks to long-running anxiety attacks and the sneaking suspicion that the apocalypse might arrive with the next boutique coffeehouse to land in their old neighborhood. The album sounds more electronic (but isn't, more on that later), is full of SSPU's characteristic loud/soft dynamic, atmopherics and fuzzy lyrics and—predictably for a band going on 15 years old—feels less like a cry for attention than the quartet's early this-is-gonna-hurt-a-little-bit shoegazing. Even viewed outside of SSPU's catalog (and beyond obvious efforts to make them radio-friendly), songs like "Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)," "Latchkey Kids," "Friendly Fires" and "Ragamuffin" are their own reward.
If Silversun's sonic milieu hasn't changed drastically, neither have the personnel. They remain: singer-guitarist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist Joe Lester and drummer Christopher Guanlao. Three of them are married now, two of them are parents, but they remain the same affable foursome you could approach at the back bar at Spaceland in 2003 after they played a sloppier-than-hell set to tell them how it great it was.
And if you knew them back then, interviewing them now—at least in a quasi-journalistic manner—is damned near impossible. Because everything quasi-journalistic feels like an inside joke. I caught up with all four Pickups for a too-brief chat before a studio taping they did for KCRW. The rigors of having done a few weeks of press to promote the album were apparent; they were eager to go off on tangents and keep our conversation as casual as possible. (It got even more hilarious at the KCRW taping, because an obviously caffeinated Aubert absolutely steamrolled interviewer Jason Bentley, the station's music director, and turned it into high comedy. I hope they don't edit it all out when it airs on "Morning Become Eclectic" on Oct. 6.)
So, trying to note the mock drama, mock amazement and mock investigative manner, and forgiving the tangents, and imagining that Aubert is talking really, really fast...
Hey, guys. Good to see you.
Nikki Monninger: We're here to interview you.
We're not gonna do that. Besides, this is your time.
Brian Aubert: Our interview with you would be better. But if you say this, "So how did you guys start? Where did you guys meet? Where did the name come from? What do think of the Silver Lake scene?," it would work. I would love it if you interviewed us in the most clichéd way...[to Monninger] "So, you're the girl in the band—crazy, right?"
Yes, a girl bass player, wow.
Nikki Monninger: Not everyone had a girl bass player until we left Silver Lake. I guess it wasn't as common there.
Brian Aubert: A girl in the band at all was baffling to everybody...We just played the Observatory recently, and it reminded me of one of our first big shows with Autolux and Secret Machines. When we walked in, they told us we weren't allowed to bring our girlfriend backstage. That was Nikki. While Carla [Autolux drummer Carla Azar] was up there on the drums already ripping shit up. First of all, it was insane that you couldn't bring your girlfriend backstage. Then, the hubris of it all.
Nikki Monninger: And when we played at Guitar Center recently they gave everybody a wristband...but they told me, "You have to be in the band to get a wristband."
They said that?
Brian Aubert: It's amazing...We want Nikki to have her own interview show where she interviews bands and every question is like, "What's it like to be a boy in a band?"
Female-fronted bands are taking over L.A. right now. There are so many good ones.
Brian Aubert: That's good, because that thing that Jenny Lewis shared about Coachella—the poster with everybody deleted except the women—was scary. Because a lot of the great music I'm listening to right now, starting with people like Courtney Barnett, is from women.
L.A. is strong with female voices right now.
Brian Aubert: Well, a lot of people still think that our band has a female lead singer. [Cracks up] Actually, that doesn't happen as much now, but in a way I miss it.
[Interviewer pauses to shuffle notebook...]
Brian Aubert: Anyway, you wrote down questions...[Riffing in a nostalgic voice] Well, we started in 2000...
Nikki Monninger: A "Couple of Couples" (referring to the myth of their early name)
Brian Aubert: That "Couple of Couples" thing (it's on their Wiki page) has come up a lot lately, and somehow it's become fact. And that was never a fact.
Christopher Guanlao: When we did a podcast recently I got asked that.
Brian Aubert: So you have questions?
Random ones. Like, what is the deal with the press photos with the paint? Have you decided to settle all band disputes with a game of paintball?
Brian Aubert: That was actually Joe's wife, the photographer Rebekkah Drake.
Joe Lester: She had this idea that she pitched to us of this colorful, slightly apocalyptic thing and it sounded like fun. So we went up to this place called Inyokern north of Mojave where some friends of hers have an art studio with a junkyard nearby in the desert. Another friend of hers actually painted all the jumpsuits. [One image ended up being used on the album cover.]
I was hoping it was the result of an epic paintball battle.
Brian Aubert: Basically, she heard the record for a long time and pulled out these things that were thematic from the album, like the obsession with the drought and everybody's indifference to it. And so imagine that it's happening and you're just a bunch of assholes who don't care and you have a party anyway. Denying the apocalypse...But it was weird because we never had anybody make a real, serious presentation to us like that, and it turned out to be Joe's wife. [Laughing] It was strange in the room.
So there were no band disputes involved. I'm disappointed. You guys have been a band going on 15 years. The average length of a marriage in the United States is 8 years.
Brian Aubert: I will say we don't ever feel like a band that's been around 15 years. We feel like a new band.
Joe Lester: It seems to only come up in interviews.
Brian Aubert: We've been doing a lot of promo for "Better Nature," and you will meet somebody who looks like a grown-ass man, and they have scar on their face and they look like they've gone through a divorce or two, and they go, "Hey, I loved you in junior high." [Laughter all around] And that fucking blows my mind.
Brian Aubert: Another thing that happened—I tweeted something at Courtney Barnett after her show at the Roxy. It was a great show and I was emotional because my wife went into labor three hours later. And she responded back, "Thanks legends." And I went, "Whaaaat?!?" I don't see it like that. I was like, "No, we're the same."
Hey, you've already put out a greatest-hits record, so that means you're a legacy band...
Brian Aubert: Wellllll... All that means is we changed labels.
Joe Lester: If you start to look at the history of greatest-hits records, you realize that about every single one was made because a band changed labels and had a contractual obligation. Besides, with iTunes and Spotify and streaming, people can just make their own greatest hits now.
So the apparent lack of band drama doesn't make for very juicy press clippings...
Brian Aubert: Here's the secret to a band being a long time: If you treat your band like everyone is un-firable—no one is firable—it works. If there's no way for that to happen, you never have that discussion.
Nikki Monninger: [Laughing] We're all contractually un-firable...[Mimicking being agreeable] Sure, you want me to play it that way? You want me to sing it that way? Fine. OK.
Brian Aubert: It comes down to this: Your band is your band. Other people who try to fix all the little things in their universe and be in control of everything lose sight of the big picture. If you do that, somebody becomes an enemy. We saw that early back when we were on tour, before we even started recording. But for us, it's like, [with mock grandiosity] Here we are...
Sounds like a lyric...
Brian Aubert: [Laughing] But not a very original one.
So basically you have no lineup changes, no side projects, zero Twitter wars, zero social media embarrassments...What in the heck is going on?
Nikki Monninger: [Merrily] We're just having a good time.
Brian Aubert: Actually, I think the secret is, we don't use social media. [Laughing] I mean, we do it, but that's the 2 minutes we look at it. We'll do quick things and send them out in the world, to share. Other than that, we're not really on it.
Do you feel like you're missing anything, not being more active?
Brian Aubert: Everyone else says we are. But I always feel most comfortable when people tell us we're doing something wrong.
Nikki Monninger: We've been doing things wrong for 15 years. It took us five years to put out a split 7-inch.
Brian Aubert: And then we finally put out "Pikul," and I remember it being so exciting to put on the poster "In Stores and on iTunes." I did tweet that poster when you reminded me of the "Pikul" (10-year) anniversary, and we had some kids answer back about the poster: "On iTunes! Wow, old-school, dude."
Nikki Monninger: It was a big deal to be on iTunes back then.
I have one minute and seven more questions...
Brian Aubert: [Caffeinated] Go, go, go, go...
You've been quoted as saying "Better Nature" exists "in its own quantum universe." In that universe, what laws of physics still apply?
Brian Aubert: A little gravity. But not so much that there's a floor. The kind of gravity where something floats by and sucks you toward it a little bit...On this record, there are sonic things that just come in and out. There was a tightness to the last record we really loved, but when Joe and I demoed the new songs, we wanted it to feel more free. And even in the demo process, it was quite fun, and the record turned out that way.
Did Jacknife Lee push it in that direction?
Brian Aubert: He heard the demos and talked to us beforehand and realized what we wanted to do. When you demo you have lot of hubris and you think can can do whatever you want. When you record you start to get chickenshit. Jacknife was there to slap us in the face and say, "Tough shit, we're doing this because you wanted to." You know, you might be nervous about a song because there's a tricky call-and-response, or there's this other song that's a pretty little thing, and before we wouldn't do it because we had our own Silversun Rules. He was there to make sure we did it.
Do I detect more electronics on the record overall?
Nikki Monninger: I think there's a little less on this one. It feels warmer, but not because of that. It might be because of how Brian's guitar sounds, which was done organically.
Brian Aubert: There's one song "Ragamuffin" where we went that way. But we treated every song on the album like it had to stand on its own. And it's weird that a song about nature is the most digital-sounding song on the record.
I think I had a dream where Christopher instead of hitting his really high crash, the midi pad was up there...
Nikki Monninger: [Laughing] We should do that.
Brian Aubert: We were a band that existed in the days of Grandaddy and Earlimart, who would do weird electronic things like that but do them live. And we'd try to do it like that—live with samples—except it would sound shitty because we were so loud. At the end of the day, though, there's only so much sonic vocabulary you can use. Our songs are gonna sound like Silversun songs, I'm gonna sound the way I sound, and there are certain elements of our band that are immovable. And if you like it, that's great, and if you don't there's nothing we can do about it because there's a core that's not going to change. But we can dance around it as much as we can.
Never worry too much about the old "pushing into sonic new territory," right?
Brian Aubert: We always joke that we hear about how good our last record was when we make a new one. So my message is, "You're really gonna like ‘Better Nature' when we come out with another record.'"
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