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Bootlegged Beginnings

How a bad recording by fans finally got Silversun Pickups in the studio



If you traveled back in time to 2002 and told Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert that in 10 years his band would be releasing its third studio album, he wouldn't believe you. Though the band was performing at that time, putting out a CD never crossed the members' minds.

"We weren't interested in recording or having T-shirts or any of that nonsense. We just wanted to be a decent band," says Aubert via phone from his Los Angeles home. "We'd go out to dinner with major labels, but we were never interested, and they were never interested either, because we were just too weird for them; we just came for the free dinner."A lot has changed for them in the past decade. Now, with the release of their third studio album, Neck of the Woods, which came out earlier this year, the band has maintained its status as a unique and sophisticated group with a distinctive sound. That's no easy task in today's world of copycat bands. Aubert can tell the band's status has changed by the kinds of questions journalists have asked him.

"At the beginning, [interviewers] are like 'OK, here's your little song, what do you want to say? OK bye,'" he says. "Then the third record comes into the scene, and you can definitely tell that people just treat you differently because whether they like you or not, you're around, and they respect that."

But even after releasing three studio albums, touring internationally and performing at huge music festivals such as Lollapalooza and Coachella, Silversun Pickups still can't help but feel blown away by how big a deal the band has become. Aubert mentions that he was watching people build a giant stage for them in Chicago a month ago for their current tour and thought "What the fuck? This is all because we're playing here?"

Silversun Pickups started in 2002 in Los Angeles, but the band had formed earlier as a casual project. At the time, Aubert's girlfriend was playing drums, and bassist Nikki Monninger's boyfriend was playing guitar. It all started when they performed for the first time at a music festival in New York City; they ran into a friend who owned some clubs in L.A. The friend invited them to play at one of his L.A. clubs, and the band started performing there, first two to three times a month, then once a week.

In 2002, Christopher Guanlao became the drummer, and Joe Lester became the keyboardist. That's when things got more serious. They started to headline little shows more often and played the same bill with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith to a crowd of about 1,600 people. After that show, Aubert and the others realized that the band's advancement was a real possibility. It wasn't until 2005 that they realized that it was time to start recording. The epiphany came when they saw people passing around a bootleg recording of a live show.

"It was so bad; it was the worst bootleg ever," says Aubert. "And we thought, 'If people are listening to this, maybe it's time to start recording.'"

They went to their friend's studio to record songs such as "Kissing Families" and "All the Go In-betweens." Soon after the resulting EP Pikul was released, they began to work on their full-length album, Carnavas, which would be released a year later. And because several college radio stations were giving their current music airplay, Silversun Pickups were touring a lot more. That year consisted of spending a couple of weeks writing and recording, and then a couple of weeks on the road performing their completed songs, which Aubert describes as "a schizophrenic experience" because of the different moods between Pikul and the still-developing Carnavas.

"Pikul was warm and woody, kind of lo-fi," he says. "Carnavas was going to be shiny and metallic."

A couple years after that, Silversun would proceed to release their second album, Swoon, which would get the band a lot more airplay with popular songs like "Panic Switch," which reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, "Substitution," and "The Royal We." That momentum built up to the release of Neck of the Woods earlier this year. With exactly two years in between each album, they managed to stay consistent with their releases, yet take a lot of deliberation in doing so. Aubert explains that the symmetry in release dates was never intentional.

"We don't really think of a timetable because we never set a release date," he says. "If we're done with the record, we're done with it; that's when it'll come out. If it's one year, two years, five years, I don't care. A shitty record that comes out early or a better record that comes out later — we're more interested in [the latter]."

Though Neck of the Woods took the shortest amount of time to write and record (a 10-week period), the band also needed to take some downtime before beginning to work on the album.

"It almost felt like one big blob from Pikul all the way to the end of the Swoon tour, there was never a moment where we weren't being Silversun," he says. "And we could tell we needed to step away — we took a couple of months to get inspired and came together a lot fresher."

Silversun Pickups isn't afraid of making each album sound different than the last. "If you like Carnavas and the way that sounds, then that record's for you," Aubert says. "Swoon will be a little different; Neck of the Woods will be a little different." The band feels very lucky to be in a spot where its fans embrace its approach, whatever it might be.

Aubert says Neck of the Woods reminds him of "the playfulness that Pikul had." Aubert describes the sound of the new album as "emptier, more angular" and having "a lot of negative space and not [being] a full-frontal frequency assault." Songs like "Here We Are" and "Busy Bees" meet this description, but the album also contains its fair share of loud, active tracks such as "Out of Breath" and "Skin Graph."

The band also wanted more focus on the drums and bass. "Early on, I knew [this album] was going to be the Chris and Nikki show," Aubert says.

The bass lines certainly take the reins in songs like "Dots and Dashes," "Simmer," and "Mean Spirits," and Guanlao's drum lines are a force to be reckoned with. Although Silversun Pickups strives for each release to be different than the others, Aubert believes it's important to have all of their songs, both current and previous, connected.

"With Pikul, you'll hear elements where Carnavas will go; with Carnavas, you'll hear elements where Swoon is about to go; and in Swoon, when you listen to 'Growing Old is Getting Old' or 'Panic Switch,' you'll hear things that are going to dominate Neck of the Woods."

Aubert also sees a lyrical connection between the Neck of the Woods songs and the band's back catalogue. "I'll often refer back to old songs and certain phrases," he says, citing a link between the band's recent single "Bloody Mary" and Carnavas' "Common Reactor." He adds that a reference from Swoon's "Growing Old is Getting Old" makes its way into Neck of the Woods' "Out of Breath." "It's an interesting way to bring something from the past into something completely new."

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