Success on their own terms
Sometimes doing it all wrong is the best way to get it right. In 2000, a group of musically inclined friends submitted a tape to CMJ just for fun—and landed several live gigs before they’d even written complete songs. The Silversun Pickups—guitarist-singer Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Christopher Guanlao and keyboardist Joe Lester—spent the following years carving their own path to success. They honed their live performance skills through trial by fire, simultaneously working out song ideas. They recorded their acclaimed debut album in fits and starts, barely finding time to hit the studio between gigs. Now, after years on the road, the Silversun Pickups have returned to the relative calm of the studio to record their highly anticipated sophomore release. M-Audio caught up with the foursome to discuss their songwriting philosophy, life on tour and the gear they use to make it happen.
Substance Over Singles
The Los Angeles-based band has managed to stay slightly outside the mainstream, even as their single “Lazy Eye” climbed the charts in 2007. While the group felt an affinity for the tune, its runaway success caught them by surprise—perhaps because they prize emotional resonance over commercial viability. “We’re kind of separated from that whole cookie-cutter, single-making machine,” says frontman Aubert. “There’s a safety to being left of center where we’re kind of allowed to do anything we want. We’ve never thought about radio or TV. We just wanna be honest to ourselves and worthy of our listeners—they deserve it.”
“We’ve always tried to make music that we connected with as a band,” explains Monninger. “We connect with certain sounds and moods, and fortunately people have gravitated towards that.”
Going the Distance
In addition to relating with their melodies and lyrics, fans around the world are captivated by the band’s dynamic live act. From the Wiltern and the Fillmore to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Silversun Pickups pour themselves into every show. After countless performances across multiple continents, the band has come to appreciate gear that goes the distance with them.
“I’ve used the Axiom 61 controller from the beginning of the touring cycle for Carnavas,” says Lester. “I use it as the main controller keyboard for a Roland Fantom XR synthesizer/sampler brain. I really like its flexibility and sturdiness. I also like the ability to map the various controllers and pads to the functions I want, and then save that as a preset. Basically, I’ve mapped the pads to trigger samples for each song, and the knobs and faders to specific effects parameters.
“I’ve never had an Axiom break down on the road, and the fact that you can save your presets on a laptop with the Enigma librarian is extra handy,” he continues. When we bought another Axiom to take to Europe with the rest of our backline, I just plugged it into my laptop and dumped all my presets in, piece of cake. We were up and running in two minutes.”
Songwriting and the Studio
Ideas for the new album started percolating while the Silversun Pickups were still on the road. When they returned to the studio, the band added a technological twist to enhance their songwriting process. “I usually start the whole mess with a song idea,” explains Aubert. “I’ll bring in a rough structure and we go from there. Lately, I’ve been recording simple demos of the songs with my M-Audio stuff. Then I bring them into the rehearsal space and let the rest of the band sit with them for a bit.”
“The M-Audio gear has come in handy in the writing process of the new record,” agrees Lester. “We’ve been using the Fast Track Ultra interface and a couple Solaris microphones. They’ve been really eye-opening and empowering tools. In the past we’ve not been a particularly ‘techy’ band, but with the M-Audio gear, we’ve been amazed at how quickly and painlessly we can get our ideas onto a laptop and give ourselves a reference track to take home and ponder. It’s also great for bringing ideas into a rehearsal. We just plug the outputs of the Fast Track Ultra into the PA and listen back (and play along) with something someone has brought in. The gear has really changed and improved our process of writing songs in a very fundamental way.”
Still in the planning stages, the new album promises to deliver a tremendous range of evocative tones and feelings. “So far, it seems to be a bit more emotive,” says Aubert. “Definitely louder. Definitely quieter. At this moment, it sounds like a nervous breakdown, which I like. We’ve been incorporating strings into our songs for the first time. It was a conscious decision to remove all warm/organic sounds for Carnavas, but for this one, we’re putting them back in… and then some.”
Whether or not you can unravel Aubert’s enigmatic description, one thing’s certain—we’re just beginning to see all that the Silversun Pickups can do. With a rock-solid work ethic and willingness to put it all on the line, the band provides a new role model for up-and-coming musicians.
“There’s no book written that tells you what to do or how to do things,” says Guanlao. “Well, I guess there are books that tell you those things, but they’re all BS. There’s no one way to do anything. We just got out there, played music, worked hard and made sure we had fun.”
“We’ve done everything a band shouldn’t do and it seems to have worked out for us,” concludes Monninger. “The most important thing is getting started. There are so many great bands that live and die in people’s imaginations.”
Check out silversunpickups.com for details on the new release and upcoming tour dates.