Silversun Pickups: finding their place in the sun

Silversun Pickups is a band that’s just made its way into the big leagues and they aren’t taking any of it for granted. 

From arena tours with laser shows to the urinal stalls at the Grammys, newfound success has brought them to some strange places.

Lead singer Brian Aubert  said the band has responded as cautious adventurers, willing to try anything, but also careful about where things might lead.

This approach plus glimmering, singable guitar songs like “Panic Switch” has worked wonders. The latest album, “Swoon,” rose to Number 2 on the Billboard charts and Silversun Pickups has been touring as the opening act for bands like Muse, Foo Fighters and Snow Patrol.

So now the band finds itself at an interesting crossroad. They are coming off the road as an opening act for others and heading back out as the stars of their own show.

Thanks to Aubert’s candor and easygoing demeanor, in the following interview fans are treated to a rare glimpse behind the curtain at the surreal lives of brand-new rockstars.

Q: You are just coming from a soundcheck, right? Why is it that the sound for an opening band is never as good as the sound for the headliner?

A: What we’ve noticed—and not all the time, but a lot of the time—is if you’re on the bigger tours, the opening band is not really allowed to be as loud. Not everybody does it. It has nothing to do with the bands, usually.  I think it’s like an old school thing that people used to do. That’s part of the problem. We haven’t really had that issue and we never do that to anybody. The other thing is, a lot of times the bands don’t get a very long soundcheck. It has to be a little bit quicker. It has to do with the timing, and again, we’ll try to make sure that bands get soundchecks.

Q: Going from being an opening act to a headliner, what’s the difference? Have you noticed changes?

A: We’ve kind of flip-flopped doing “Swoon,” like you would headline for a while, then you go play festivals, then you would open, then you come back and headline, and then you’d be opening arena shows. I actually like that I can go in between all of that because it breaks up the monotony of it. It’s fun to kind of just be the opening band in a big, crazy arena circus, and then start playing theaters and playing longer sets with your own music to people who are clearly aware of you. We like the almost anonymous nature of just being a band that no one has heard of when you’re opening certain shows. It’s really fun when people have no expectations.  Then on the other side of it, it’s really fun to play to the people who have invested themselves in your music, so it’s really different, but we like them both.

Q: With the hits on your latest record, do you feel like you’ve turned a corner?

A: It’s kind of hard for us to see that because we never look at it like that. I mean, we notice things changing, but we’ve never seen a big bang. It’s always just sort of this gradual hill that we keep climbing, and it’s something that we do to ourselves as well. We’re always trying to keep ourselves uncomfortable, like technically when we’re playing or when we’re writing, we just never want it to feel right. We always want it to feel out of our reach because it’s the only way we can feel like we’re growing as a band. We’re so busy all the time that we never get a chance to look back and see what’s happened. Once in a while though, when we have a little time off, we’ll notice.

Q: Do you think that if a band gets too comfortable they lose track of what inspired them?

A: That happens all the time and I think that the biggest problem is not just being comfortable. Ego can really destroy things. If you’re the kind of person that wants to change your whole personality and you start a band and people start treating you different, and you surround yourself with sycophants, you change yourself by being the person that they think you are. Luckily with us, we like who we are and there’s no interest in any of that kind of nonsense. Sure, our lives have been crazier. We’ve been busier more than anything. We just work harder and it’s really rewarding. It would be really hard to get an ego in our band because the other three would just knock you down.

Q: You guys may stay grounded, but what about the people around you? When the hits started happening, did other people start treating you differently?

A: Yeah. It’s funny that you mention that because that does happen and it can be unfortunate. It’s never really your friends, but your friends’ friends. Sometimes acquaintances or people around your neighborhood, and things like that. Yeah, they’ll treat you a little bit like an alien. But it’s understandable because you’ve been gone for a long time and you can’t just pop over to a birthday party and think everything’s going to be fine. You just have a new life, you know? People romanticize and demonize who you are, and I think that usually isn’t a problem. But when it does happen, it’s a shame. But there’s really nothing that you can do about it.

Q: When they romanticize and they start picturing things that aren’t reality, where does that come from? What are they picturing?

A: When people start seeing you on TV, they can just think, “who do you think you are?” or they think it’s really cool, but they think somehow we might feel bigger because of this…you know, an extravagant kind of thing. It’s the reality now.  I understand it.

Q: It’s part of the culture, right? You have backstage passes and there are gatekeepers and all kinds of handlers…

A: I think also being a musician is really interesting and trying to be down to earth can be hard because, if we were plumbers, people wouldn’t want us to act a certain way. But being a musician, I think people expect and want you to go insane…things that are probably damaging for you. People will let those things pass because they think, “Oh, you’re an artist, so you’re eccentric.” In reality, nobody needs that and if somebody is doing that kind of stuff, they need help.

Q: Thinking back to the band’s early days, is your career unfolding like you thought it would?

A: No, not at all. I think at the time we were just hoping that we would play and be able to keep playing, and we never in a million years thought that we’d be on the radio or any of this sort of thing. We just thought it was going to be awesome to feel comfortable in our identity and be able to play to whoever. The sort of stuff that happened just wasn’t even in our radar. I don’t mean to say that as part of some fake modesty, but it’s a thing that we didn’t really pay attention to much.  A lot of the sounds that we liked were never on the radio. We never thought about it like that, so it’s kind of incredible.  We just kind of got lucky.

Q: Is there somebody that you modeled your career after?

A: No, not really. We’re the strange band on the station. We really like that and we like the slow build and we want to be around for a long time. The best way to do it is just be under the current and just keep moving around. Clearly when we look back at bands like Radiohead and Wilco, we think that’s amazing, or Tom Waits—every record he has made outsells the other one. That’s incredible. Those kinds of people, that’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be some huge thing that gets attached to a scene where you live and die by that moment.

Q: Do you think like bands like U2 get weighed down by the monstrous sets and all of the money that goes into their productions?

A: There’s a piece me that thinks that there’s something almost Vegas-y about the whole thing and I think, “Wow, you know what would be incredible for U2 to do? Really stripped down—just hearing them play with  hardly any lights, in smaller places. That would be insane. But, I understand it. They’ve been around for so long. I think it’s quite a burden for them to try to top themselves all the time. There’s a piece of me that thinks it’s a little silly.

Q: I would think give it about 10 years and then they’ll start doing the unplugged thing.

A: I wouldn’t even want to see them unplugged. I would like to see them with their amps in full volume, but without laser beams. I feel like they get discredited by that kind of hoopla. But just because they’ve got all those lights does not mean that they can’t play. It’s interesting though, the theatrics and insanity is something quite rare in bands nowadays. It was interesting with the Muse tour because they’re really under that U2 wing. It’s clearly something that they’re after, and they do an amazing job of it. They put so much work into their productions. We watched a lot of it almost every night and we were just in awe of it because it was just so spectacular and so moody. But the thing is, those guys in Muse, they can play their asses off. These guys sing. They don’t have backing tracks. They are a real band. It’s really amazing because usually people get hidden by that stuff. But when you see a band that doesn’t need any of that and then they have that, then it’s pretty incredible and quite rare nowadays.

Q: You’ve had a taste of the big time. Your songs are in video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero and you were nominated for a Grammy. What has surprised you the most from what you’ve seen so far?

A: The Grammys was definitely insane just as far as the nomination. One of the things I’m really proud of is everybody in the band is really willing to take chances. We will do things that seem uncomfortable and strange. It’s like, “Oh, that doesn’t seem right, but we should try it.” Before you say no to things you should try it first. That keeps you excited. The Grammys, we thought, “We’ve got to go to this thing.” So then you go and you realize it’s just kind of weird. It’s basically like a really dolled up sporting event because you walk out onto a red carpet, and then it’s publicists yelling at each other for an hour, and you’re being scrambled. You’re talking to a bunch of people who don’t really know what the hell is going on. Then you walk into the Staples Center and it’s just like a bunch of people having to buy their hot dogs and cokes.  There’s no bar whatsoever, so everybody has flasks. The show is like five hours long and everyone is just dying to leave. It’s always fun when you go to the Grammys or something weird like that. You go, “This is really no different than a lot of other goofy parties.” It just looks different.

Q: Was there any little moment at the Grammys that stood out for you?

A: Well, I actually heard that there were some funny bathroom stories. I didn’t make it to the bathroom, but my girlfriend said, “Oh, I just peed next to…” I can’t remember who it was. We thought it was really cool when Lady Gaga would sit down because we were right behind her a couple of rows back and she had this massive hat on. You could just see people complaining because they couldn’t see the stage. We, on the other hand, thought it was amazing because at least someone is doing something different.

Q: Does the music business get in your way? Do the bigger tours and all of the money behind them make it easier or harder to play music now compared to when you were starting out back in LA?

A: It’s way easier now because we don’t have lift our amps anymore. It’s physically easier now to play. There is a lot of stuff…Our crew and our label and our manager, but it’s pretty contained. Sometimes when you go and do these big tours and you look around and you’re like, “damn, that’s a lot of people. This is insane.” But at the end of the day, that’s just stuff that gets you from A to B.

Q: With all of the touring you are doing, are you finding time to write new stuff? What’s the band focusing on right now?

A: We’re still having a love affair with “Swoon.” We’re still swimming in those waters and there’s still more touring to do.  I think we’re going to be touring to the end of the year, really, and for us, that is exciting and fun. We’re really loving being a live band. It’s one of the best things.  It’s where we feel the most comfortable. The road isn’t really some place that makes us want to make music.  It’s almost too noisy.  It’s almost too crazy and the absence of normality where you can’t really hear your head…We need to go home and get our feet on our soil and kind of sink in and where we can start hearing ourselves. That’s the time when we move on from our last record and start working on another one. That’s just the way we are. We’re not quite ready to write that record about cocaine on the road. We’re not the Eagles just yet, but maybe one day we will be.

About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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