Los Angeles’s Silversun Pickups have never been anyone’s idea of careerists, which might explain why singer-guitarist Brian Aubert isn’t necessarily impressed by the accolades his decade-old band is receiving today. The Silver Lake–based quartet’s sophomore full-length, Swoon, has led to invites to all of the U.S. mega-festivals worth mentioning, Hot List status in Rolling Stone, and general frothing at the mouth on the blogosphere. Despite that, Aubert perversely seems to take greatest delight in what most musicians would perceive as backhanded compliments.
“Some kid came up to me after a show one time, and he said, ”˜You play the guitar like a drummer,’ ” the frontman says with a laugh, on the line from his home in Los Angeles’s hippest hipster neighbourhood. “He was like, ”˜You’re all percussive,’ which I thought was really great. Another time, I read in some guitar magazine—one of those ones where they get into tablatures and stuff—where the writer was like, ”˜You know, I really like this band, but they are just too damn dreamy for me.’ I thought that was a great quote. If there’s anything that we’ve ever wanted to do, it’s be exactly that kind of band: dreamy.”
Mission totally accomplished on Swoon, which takes the basic template of Silversun Pickups’ 2006 breakthrough, Carnavas, and then ups the ante with new touches like wide-screen string sweeps and Spiritualized horn swells. Check out when Aubert puts down the guitar, unleashes the orchestra, and shoots for symphonic splendour on “Catch and Release”. And marvel at the way the Pickups seem just as comfortable referencing golden-era techno (the skittish “Panic Switch”) as they do Badlands goth-country (“Draining”).
“Dreamy” works as a catch-all description for Swoon tracks like the distortion-savaged “Growing Old Is Getting Old”, but the album marks a major progression for Aubert and his bandmates—Nikki Monninger (bass), Christopher Guanlao (drums), and Joe Lester (keyboards)—each of whom couldn’t pick up a Carnavas review without seeing the name Smashing Pumpkins in the first two sentences.
“Funnily enough, that probably helped us,” Aubert says philosophically. “The reality is, people—and even I do this—sometimes need to put things in boxes to understand things that are a bit weird. If we were the new Smashing Pumpkins, I think some people said, ”˜Just like the Smashing Pumpkins? I should check them out.’ ”
Besides the fact that it doesn’t sound like Siamese Dream II, what Aubert might be proudest of is the fact that Swoon came together more organically than he could have ever, well, dreamed.
“Not just sonically but emotionally, there have been places that we’ve wanted to go while we’ve been playing the past couple of years,” he says. “We weren’t there on our previous material. It was only as we played more and more that we realized there were things that we wanted to accomplish but hadn’t. That was the starting point for Swoon.”
As if to clarify, Aubert continues: “As much as you can sort of plan to make a record in a certain kind of way, what eventually happens, if you are honest, is that things will unfold in a way that’s out of your control. A record ends up being a snapshot of who you are at that moment. You tap into something in the room with everyone that you are playing with, and then there’s nothing to do but ride with it. You can choose the design, but you don’t know what the colours are going to be until it all happens.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that Silversun Pickups have never been the kind of band that’s big on mapping out a plan for world domination. Laughing, Aubert admits that, for the first half-decade of its existence, the group was doomed to minor-player status on the Silver Lake scene. The Pickups either opened shows when no one was in the club yet, or ended up playing at 1 a.m. on weeknights, when the room had long since cleared out. But looking back, he considers himself fortunate that things didn’t happen overnight.
“Despite what the media says, there’s no one real scene in Silver Lake—it’s more like all these different scenes,” Aubert argues. “For example, there’s like a style-based scene, where you watch a band get popular for a little bit. Then their following starts to die off, so the members will change their hats and their hairdos, start a new band, and that band will start to get popular.
“We watched things go from cowboy hats to trucker hats to Gang of Four T-shirts,” he continues. “And as these bands came and went, funnily enough, we would always be the ones opening. We realized that, if you don’t try to make a big deal of yourself, you will get to stay around.”
Not only that, but eventually you’ll no longer have to hear that you sound just like the Smashing Pumpkins.
Silversun Pickups play the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (August 18).