Interview: Silversun Pickups Guitarist Brian Aubert Discusses New Album, 'Neck of the Woods'
Halfway through the first listen of Neck of the Woods, the excellent third effort from Los Angeles alternative rock group Silversun Pickups, it should be clear that the band has moved to a completely different neighborhood.
Those who swooned over the “Lazy Eye” hitmakers’ first two albums may notice that Neck of the Woods’ anthemic moments are more subdued and its lyrics dark and mysterious rather than plain mysterious.
The bouncy guitar hooks and sunny melodies of yore are largely absent on the group’s new record, which was partially inspired by the horror film genre.
It’s all a result of the band not strictly identifying itself or latching onto a singular scene, as frontman Brian Aubert explained in a recent interview with Guitar World.
“We commit our music to certain directions, but it’s just going to sound how we sound together. That’s put us in a spot that’s never made us live or die by a scene, so we’re really lucky and happy about that,” he said, also recalling the music-biz fickleness he and the rest of the quartet -- rounded out by bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist Joe Lester and drummer Chris Guanlao -- witnessed while honing their chops in LA clubs in the early 2000s.
“We were always the band in LA that would open up for the big shit, and then that scene would fade and the next year that band would reform as a whole different band with different haircuts or different hats. We would still open up -- we went from cowboy hats to baseball caps to ‘80s hairdos!”
Not to say that Silversun Pickups have completely abandoned catchy songcraft with Neck of the Woods. The 11-song set, which arrived May 8 via Dangerbird Records, debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of lead single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings),” which has been one of alternative rock radio’s most popular tunes this summer.
“We feel like we do everything in our power to fuck it all up, but we’ve been so lucky,” Aubert joked during the interview, which you can read below. “I don’t know why people like us so much, but I’m grateful.”
GUITAR WORLD: I’ve wondered this ever since I started listening to you: Do the “pickups” in your name refer to guitar pickups?
[Laughs] No, it’s just a reference to the neighborhood where we all live in Los Angeles. At the house Nikki and I lived on near the corner of Silverlake and Sunset, there’s a liquor store there called Silversun that everybody would find themselves meeting at. The “pickup” part -- the band met because we were always there getting stuff for our life.
The other thing is that we thought it sounded a little bit like a gang -- I always liked the idea that when we went to a club, people would go, “Oh, there go the Pickups.” Most people think it was just because we got liquor there, which is definitely true, but we’d go there to get cat food and towels and all that kind of stuff.
When did you start playing guitar?
I want to say I was 7. I started to play piano; it was a time when parents were making their kids play piano even though they had no desire to. I was never into it, but I remember getting a classical guitar and just screwing around on it. I stopped but eventually picked it back up as a teenager. I never really took lessons or anything -- it was just a really beautiful way to zone out in my room.
My parents had this house where I was exactly where they couldn’t hear me, and as soon as I learned how to close air conditioning vents and things like that, I would just go crazy in my room all night long. I’m sure the neighbors really hated it because I bet it sounded awful!
The Silversun Pickups sound harkens back to the distortion-heavy rock from the early ‘90s. What’s your favorite rock album from that period?
I guess the best rock record of the ‘90s would be The Bends from Radiohead, although I think all of their newer albums are better than any of their older stuff. The Bends was kind of like the nail in the rock record of the ‘90s -- like, “This is so good, there’s nowhere else to go.” I heard “Just” on a jukebox recently after not hearing it in a long time, and it was just incredible.
I read that you and Nikki met on a plane to England and bonded over your mutual love of music. How did you two come to form Silversun Pickups years later?
We were roommates in this house that inadvertently became kind of an indie rock crash pad in Silverlake. Touring bands would come play our living room, which was pretty weird. We were in other friends’ bands and everybody was pushing me into starting a band and I never thought I would, but we eventually left those bands and were just screwing around.
In 2000, we made a demo tape -- a literal cassette tape from a boombox in the middle of the floor -- of three barely audible songs and sent it to CMJ with a fake bio. On that tape, you can hear a really early version of “Kissing Families” and a really early version of “Lazy Eye.”
We got into their festival, somehow or another, and we decided, “Well, shit, we should just go and see other bands.” One of the promoters of the clubs in East LA we were haunting knew us and knew we had a band, we met up on the streets of New York and he booked us when we flew home. From that moment on, we were just constantly playing without knowing what we were doing, and we eventually got into the idea of trying to find ourselves through playing.
It’s funny how it all worked out. We were always the band in LA that would open up for the big shit, and then that scene would fade and the next year that band would reform as a whole different band with different haircuts or different hats. We would still open up -- we went from cowboy hats to baseball caps to ‘80s hairdos!
We just got lucky that this is how it sounds when we get together -- we don’t really control it. We commit our music to certain directions, but it’s just going to sound how we sound together. That’s put us in a spot that’s never made us live or die by a scene, so we’re really lucky and happy about that.
Were you surprised by the immediate success of Carnavas [the band’s 2006 debut, which spawned “Lazy Eye”]?
Well, yeah! [Laughs] We were surprised by everything and we’re still surprised. When we made Swoon, which is our second record, we thought, “Well, that will have been a weird time. Our band got played on the radio for some reason and we should be grateful for it and move on.”
Then Swoon was even bigger than that, so we thought, “OK, well for sure with this record, that was the end of that. Now, hopefully there will still be people that hang around and we’ll just travel around and play for them and make records for them.” Now that all this craziness is happening, we still don’t know why. We feel like we do everything in our power to fuck it all up, but we’ve been so lucky. I don’t know why people like us so much, but I’m grateful.
How did the band choose Jackknife Lee (R.E.M., Snow Patrol) to produce Neck of the Woods?
The way we were making this album was different than what we did before. On Swoon, I think we thought we were pushing ourselves. We’re always trying to push ourselves, but we didn’t know how - there’s no “Grow” app. Now we realize that with Swoon, there were a lot of weird songs coming out, and for us to understand them, we were putting certain safeties on there -- little sonic things that we thought would push it down into more of a Silversun world, or what we thought was a Silversun world. With this record, we decided not to do that at all and just let the songs exist and just keep going with them, try to ride those instead of pulling them down to a level you get.
We knew that it was time for different battles. I think we’re the first band in existence to ask their old producer [Dave Cooley] for his blessing. We called him up and were like, “I’m sorry!” We did a lot of great things together and I still think we can do great things together. We met Jackknife through our friends and we knew the way he worked and he knew that we weren’t really interested in making a radio record. That’s never in our thoughts -- we just go in and make a record. He’s an absolute genius.
What kind of guitar did you use on the new album?
All kinds, really. I think my Sheraton’s still in there. The weirdest thing I used was something that I was really opposed to at first -- I think it’s called a man-guitar or something like that -- it’s a mandolin/guitar thing that Jackknife got off eBay. I was like, “I’m not using this,” and then I used it and I was like, “I’ll use it on everything!” It made these swirling, alarm-y noises that you can hear on songs like “Make Believe” and “The Pit.” I also used my Jaguar, my ’65 Firebird and Jackknife’s old Jag. I think we kept a log for a while, but just decided to give up.
What’s your favorite Neck of the Woods song to play on the guitar?
“Mean Spirits” is a really shreddy one. It’s guttural and fun. It came off so easy and I thought, “I guess I could be right.” Jackknife was like, “You’ve got to learn that everything you think is good doesn’t have to be painful.” “Make Believe” is real guitar-rific -- there’s definitely a solo in that where after I was done playing it, I was like, “Whoa, I definitely know that I’m being Bends-ian there,” but I was like, “Fuck it, who cares?”
Where did the name of the new record come from?
The outlook of the album was fringy and outside-looking-in -- you’re near the spot you want to be at so bad but you’re not quite there. If you’re in the neck of the woods, you’re close, but you’re not there. I was surprised that there weren’t any Neck of the Woods albums out. Then I looked up Swoon and there were like 30. [Laughs] We’re surprised at the people that think we made it up - that’s the biggest shock, that somebody wouldn’t know what that term meant. What are parents teaching their kids?
On that same note, what’s a Carnavas? The Internet seems to be stumped.
Carnavas is actually the last name of my grandparents in Hawaii. It’s a Greek name. When my great-grandmother came to the US, they changed the first letter from a K to a C. The name, with my grandparents, will pass on and I thought two things -- one, I knew it was a pretentious word that no one would understand, and two, it was a way for me to keep that name alive.
One of my favorite things that ever happened is when my Hawaiian cousins and uncles and everyone gathered at my grandparents’ house to watch David Letterman say the word “Carnavas.” I’ll tell ya, grandkids scored some points that day!
Silversun Pickups' new album, Neck of the Woods, was released May 8 through Dangerbird Records. Buy it on iTunes.