Silversun Pickups first caught my ear in 2005, when their Pikul EP was running fresh and naked around the underground indie scene. After hearing the whimsical-whilst-wounded guitar on tracks like Kissing Families and the band’s cold, crushing stillness on Booksmart Devil, I felt special. The Silversun Pickups had become my very own little, glimmering treasure.
After I saw them perform their alt-rock masterpiece, Lazy Eye, live on David Letterman a few years later, I knew the Pickups were no longer only mine. At that moment, they belonged to all of us. And rightly so. With all the black clouds circling overhead, the world deserves a perfect rock band: a polarizing voice, luscious guitar tones, catchy melodies, tasteful compositions and a live show that’ll turn defenders of the old guard into fans of the vanguard.
Read this month’s featured Fireside Chat with Silversun Pickups’ guitarist, vocalist and all around unsolvable front man, Brian Aubert, as he breaks down what it takes to build an empire of fans, release three critically acclaimed albums, and score a Grammy nomination — all while bringing dynamic, kick-you-in-the-guts prog-rock back from the dead in the form of his band’s latest release, Swoon.
His formula is amazingly simple.
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
Charlie Doom: Congrats on the Grammy nomination. What was going through your head when you heard you were nominated?
Brian Aubert: Thank you! It was something we never thought about really. The Grammys, or any awards, were never in our line of sight. It was interesting that we did anything that even created enough of a ripple to get attention. The Grammy nomination was just a lovely gesture, and we really appreciated it.
What is your personal perspective on fame and success as a musician, and where you want to go?
We thought success was the moment before we even made records — when we were just playing live in LA. There was a moment when playing didn’t cost us anything and the band actually funded itself. That was when we said, “Wow, it’s never going to get better than this! We can do this and it doesn’t drain our bank accounts.” That was success for us. I remember one show in particular where we were on stage and it was the first moment where we felt real, like our identity was solid as far as our sound and we were very comfortable with each other. That was great.
How did you reach the point where you identified your unique voice as a band?
You know, it was through trial and error. We all knew each other for a while before we started playing, so it was a very organic process, too. When we first started we didn’t really have songs, but we started getting shows, somehow or another. I’m not sure why, but people had a lot of faith in us. As a result, we were constantly playing in front of people when we probably shouldn’t have been [laughs].
But we kept playing shows, and we started to get more comfortable on stage. We would start trying new things in front of people — that’s how we found our sound. It’s almost the best way to do it, too, because you really have a fire in you when you’re playing live, and if you pay attention to it you can do some amazing things. Someone once told me you can play a song in your bedroom all day and think it’s awesome, but you should have one person come in there and play it for them to see how they react. You might start thinking about the song differently just from their presence in the room and how they react. That aspect of creating something live kind of forced us to focus on things that we probably would’ve been a little lazy about focusing on.
There’s some great footage of you guys playing a live acoustic set on YouTube.
Wow, thanks. You know, those acoustic performances were another trial-by-fire moment for us. With Carnavas, our first record, we had to do a lot of promos and had to figure out how to play our music on acoustics which was totally new to us at that time. But we found our footing and learned not to try replicating everything [on the record]. Instead we learned to boil it down to the fundamentals while still representing the song. That really helped. We’re grateful for that experience because now we love playing acoustic. But again, it was one of those things that we just tried in front of people. Sometimes we’d play a song on acoustic for the first time ever live on the radio – which isn’t a good idea – but it definitely made us get better quickly. [Laughs]
It’s fun to push yourself. That’s the point of it: to feel that you’re always a little out of your reach. The one feeling we never want to have as a band and as individuals is that we’ve reached a plateau. Because when you plateau, you’re comfortable, and almost a little complacent. So we try to keep things difficult and uncomfortable for us all the time.
How do you do that?
By writing songs that are tough for us to wrap our heads around; not just technically, but musically and emotionally. When we’re playing live, it’s the same thing. We try pushing ourselves to the point where we feel that at any second everything could completely unravel.
So you push yourselves creatively by keeping things difficult?
Yeah, that’s just how we do it. We don’t know any other way. At least until Apple invents the Grow app on the iPhone, we’re just going to keep pushing ourselves [laughs]. You always have to be reaching for something. An endless reach. I think that helps push you.
Do you have a stylistic approach when you’re writing a song? For example, the other night I said to myself, “I want to write a song like ‘Heart of Gold.’”
[Laughs] No, it would be too hard! Our writing process is pretty natural. It’s almost out of our hands – it’s just what we sound like when we get together. I mean, we can maneuver inside the songs and push things in certain directions and try to push them further from where they started, but our sound is something that naturally occurs. We’re really happy about that — it’s something we feel really lucky and good about. And that’s why we’re really confident in our identity. It is what it is. We can’t change it. If you came to us and said write Heart of Gold, we’d say “Okay” and then it would be a disaster. [Laughs]
So how do you approach the creative process in the studio?
We discuss things more [in visual terms] than in music terms, especially with Swoon because we had an orchestra with us on several songs. We would talk about moods and reference old film styles rather than musical terminologies. We never think about chords — we try to think about movements within the songs and the way things sound first and foremost. That’s the jumping board for us. Especially on records, the quality of the sound and how it feels is what leads the way. When we were writing Swoon, a lot of the guitar parts I was writing and the movements of the song… I imagined lights. Not like a light show, but we imagined how lights would react to certain arrangements in the song and as a result we built some of the music through those visuals. Musically speaking, we tend to see things more than we hear them. Even with things like blogging and Twitter, we tend not to say much, but we take a lot of photos.
Jimi Hendrix viewed music in a similar way – describing music in a visual sense, with color.
BA: Absolutely. I’d say we’re not unique in that regard. It’s almost like you’re interpreting sound and literally seeing something. We definitely work that way.
I wish I could do that.
Careful what you wish for! [Laughs]
GOOD TUNES, GOOD TONE
You guys have a really good, unique tone that comes across on your recordings and live. That’s missing from a lot of rock music today.
Thank you. Tone is very important to us, especially on records. Once the songs are written and structured, it gets really fun when it comes to [laying down] keys and guitars because at that point it’s time to experiment. At that point I know what I’m going to play on the guitar so it’s all about getting the sound I want. It takes a while. We’ll have a bunch of amps aimed at each other and we’ll blend two or three and do all kinds of things until eventually we find the tone for the song. That tone will shape how I’ll play a part; it almost goes before the action of the part. And if the part I’m playing doesn’t lend itself well to the tone, I’ll shift the part.
Any words of advice for your fans and fellow guitar players?
Don’t compromise on anything and don’t listen to anybody who tells you how to do things or how to get successful because all that’s bullshit. There is no equation to how it works. We’ve seen people who think they’ve figured it out, and it overtakes their mind to the point that the quality of what they do is not there. Just play music, and play music that feels natural and expressive to you.
And pray, pray, pray. A lot of getting what you want has to do with luck, and when luck comes you’ve got to be prepared. And that’s it. All you can do is just be honest to yourself and stay true to what you like. Don’t listen to what anyone else says.
That just changed my life.
[Laughs] It changed mine!
Visit the Silversun Pickups website to see their tour schedule and find out more info about their critically acclaimed latest release, Swoon . You can also check out their music videos on TrueFire TV.
Charlie Doom is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker and musician. He has worked with artists such as Nokie Edwards, Larry Carlton, Johnny Winter, Joe Bonamassa and Slash among many others and is the director of the online guitar education Mecca, TrueFire TV.