Last summer I had a chance to talk to Silversun Pickups lead singer Brian Aubert as the band rolled through the area on tour. Aubert was at an interesting crossroad.
Glimmering guitar songs like “Panic Switch” helped his album “Swoon” rise to Number 2 on the Billboard charts. He had just finished a tour as the opening act for Muse and was about to head back out as the star of his own show.
From arena tours with laser shows to the urinal stalls at the Grammys, newfound success brought his band to some strange places.
Aubert’s candor was refreshing for a rising star. Seeing the Grammy Awards reminded me of the behind the scenes look at the surreal lives of rockstars Aubert provided in the following interview.
(Remember, when Aubert talked about the Grammys, he was referring to last year’s show.)
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: 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: 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: Do you think bands like U2 get weighed down by the monstrous sets and all of the money that goes into their productions?
A: 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. 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.
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, 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.