by Steve Wildsmith on March 11, 2020
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It's an accomplishment that leaves other rockers stunned: The Silversun Pickups have been together for two decades.
Most of the time, drummer Christopher Guanlao doesn't think about it in terms of accomplishment, but it's been on his mind of late, ever since a member of fellow band The New Regime—which opens for Silversun Pickups on Friday at The Mill and Mine in Knoxville—pointed it out.
"He was just asking me some questions and asked, 'How long have you been in the band?'" Guanlao told The Daily Times recently. "When I told him, 'Since the beginning,' he said, 'Wait. Has everybody.' Yeah, I said—we've been together for 20 years. And he was like, 'No way! That never happens!' And I started thinking about how fortunate we really are that we've stuck together this long.
"It doesn't feel like it's been that long—more like 10 years, maybe—but on the other hand, it makes sense, since we have five albums out and one EP. It's just crazy to think about."
The most recent Silversun Pickups album, "Widow's Weeds," was released last June, and in working with producer Butch Vig—a member of the band Garbage and the producer behind Nirvana's landmark "Nevermind" album—the four-piece indie rock ensemble wanted to get back to its roots, Guanlao said. That was a decision stemming from creativity, but in hindsight, he added, there may well have been some nostalgia involved.
"I think maybe subconsciously, yeah—we were aware that we were approaching 20 years as a band, so maybe subconsciously, we wanted to go back a little bit in time," he said. "We definitely wanted to get back to our roots a little bit and make an album that was more like the ones in the beginning of our careers—heavier guitars and things like that. And obviously Butch knows how to do that, because he's proven it time and time again.
"But even though there's way more similarities to our older stuff than our more recent stuff, this album, to me, is so fresh. There's a lot, sonically, that's going on, and that was what Butch was able to do. All of the sounds are very lush, specifically even the strings. We hadn't worked with strings for a few albums, but we wanted that again—that warmth—on the record."
The quartet—Guanlao, bassist Nikki Monninger, guitarist/vocalist Brian Aubert and keyboard player/sampler Joe Lester—got its start playing in various bands around the east side of Los Angeles; Monninger and Aubert were roommates in separate groups, and around 2000, about three years after meeting as part of a study abroad program, they decided to start playing together. Their first gig, by luck and happenstance, was at the College Music Journal's annual showcase in 2000, and for the next four years, they stuck close to L.A.
By the time they signed with Dangerbird Records and released "Carnavas" in 2006, they were drawing comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins, playing distorted, buzzsaw guitar-rock that seemed a throwback to a decade earlier. Two singles from "Carnavas"—"Lazy Eye" and "Well Thought Out Twinkles"—landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart; "Lazy Eye" would get picked up by Chevrolet for one of its national commercials, and by 2009, they released "Swoon," a darker, more intricate album. During that span, they found themselves working with everyone from actor Joaquin Phoenix, who directed the video for "Little Lover's So Polite," to Foo Fighters, for whom Silversun Pickups opened. Other records followed, but "Widow's Weeds," Guanlao said, may be their most emotional album yet.
"We recorded for about a month with Butch, and then he had to take a couple of months off to go tour with Garbage," Guanlao said. "During that two months, that's when Brian decided to get sober, and we were all concerned. There were definite moments when things were on the line. The band got pushed to the backburner, and we were all just focusing on his health and well-being.
"There were a lot of question marks, but once we went back into the studio with Butch, it was so much more clear to us what an emotional record this album was going to be. It's very somber, but then there's a lot of rebirth to it as well. Everything began to make sense and happen for a reason."
With Vig's firm hand steering the ship, the Silversun Pickups imbue "Widow's Weeds" with an urgency that shimmers like a mirage on the desert horizon—the rock 'n' roll promise of redemption beckoning those who seek solace there to come quick across a tumultuous landscape. There are things with teeth in the shadows of these songs, but the manifestation of hope is built on the bonds that have seen this band through two decades.
"Whenever I think about it, I kind of hearken back to us before the band, because we were all really close even then," Guanlao said. "We didn't meet because of the band. The band grew out of our friendship in a lot of ways. There definitely have been trying times, even times we didn't talk to each other, but once we got past that, all the sudden it started to change.
"Once Nikki started having kids and Brian had a kid, all the sudden it all changed, because it made that evolution from band members to family. We really are just like siblings at this point. We still have our disagreements and our little arguments or whatever, but it never goes beyond that, and it's forgotten very quickly. We know where we are and that we're not going anywhere, and I think that helps a lot."
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