A conversation with Brian Aubert
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Silversun Pickups may not have taken a typical path in nurturing their band, but it sure seems to have been the right path for them. Even before the release of their first full-length, Carnavas (July 25), the band has already built up a reputation as a local favorite in their native Los Angeles, thanks to regular and high-energy shows and residencies around town and an EP (Pikul) that was a little uneven but suggested great things to come. Carnavas has a number of those great things going for it, not the least of which is that it actually manages, in 2006, to feel like a vital and unique alt-rock record - loaded with guitars aplenty (there are some fantastic riffs), pleasant harmonies, riveting percussion, and dense layers that reward repeat listens. Not bad for a band that didn't really have songs, per se, when they played their first CMJ show.
Frontman Brian Aubert doesn't really sound like Billy Corgan, let's be clear about that, but he does have a Corgan-like ability to move between uniquely compelling coo and utterly possessed snarl within the span of a single line. He is a charming and somewhat roguish presence on stage, particularly after a few whiskeys, and the fact that he and his bandmates always look like they're having fun is surely a major contributing factor to how much fun their audiences always seem to have (good songs help, too). Prior to taking some well-earned time off before another tour, Aubert talked to The Red Alert about acupuncture, orphans, his golf game, and the toughest challenge on Carnavas.
Was it a relief to get the record finished? Some of the songs have been kicking around for a while.
Yeah, I’m so glad it’s out and done. It’s more that the creation of the record was a long, really difficult process. We really worked our asses off. One of the reasons it was so hard is that we put the EP out, and we didn’t expect it to do as well as it did, and then we had to go play more shows to support that. That’s great and all, but it’s difficult to play a bunch of shows and come back and start recording, then go out and do a couple days again. This is our first month and a half off in over a year. We should be getting ready to, you know, start learning the record and figuring out how we’re going to play ‘em live, but…we’re not. Because we’re living in L.A. and it’s nice out.
Yeah, it is! So with touring, I know you guys have played pretty extensively out around this part of the country—have you done the big national tour already, too?
Yeah, we played out east and toured around. But when we toured the EP, we didn’t get a chance to get out east as often as we would have liked. We went out there before we had the EP. When the record comes out, we’ll be happy to go all over. We won’t have to record during it… well, you know, we probably do. (laughs) The next album really has to be in our heads already. I bet we’ll be recording and touring at the same time again.
How long ago was your very first show?
It was CMJ in New York in 2000 or 2001. It was a different band, really. Nikki was still there, but it was two other people, and we were just kind of messing around for a few weeks. We didn’t really have songs, but we made a tape and sent it to CMJ just for fun. Then we got in.
Yeah, that’s what we said—“Oh, shit, now what do we do? Let’s just go!” We played in Brooklyn and it was horrible, but we got to go to New York and see a bunch of bands, and that was pretty much the point. We came back to L.A. and got booked at clubs—we were terrible! We didn’t even have songs. We had one instrumental, I wouldn’t go up to sing…it was such a mess. Every thing that bands normally do before they play, we did them on stage. It was trial by fire. We learned to be a band by playing, and songs shaped by getting played. This version of the band happened in 2003. That’s when we started to see it. “Wait a minute…this is awesome!” (laughs) No, no, it wasn’t like that.
But it accelerated the growth process to do all of that right out in the open, in front of audiences?
Yes, I think so. We could still be sitting in the practice space, you know? It just happened and it was great—and scary. There are people that we see that just practice, practice, practice for years and years, and it’s like, “Just go and play, man, seriously. It’s not going to be what you think. You can’t prepare for it. Nothing can be perfect.”
I was at that Dangerbird night at Hotel Café a little back…
Oh ho ho, you were?
Until the very end.
(laughs) Ah, that was something. That was something very special. We were like, “We’ll do this, and we’ll do it acoustic.” Then of course it was free drinks all night and watching our friends play—then it was time for us and I feel like it turned into something really bizarre.
Well, I enjoyed myself. I was there with one of our other writers—he actually reviewed it.
Oh, no. (laughs) “At one point, the singer got up like a jackass and walked into the audience like a lounge singer.” My motive for doing that was that I was playing another guitar because a string broke—of course—and nothing was going right and I couldn’t hear at all, so I thought, “You know what? This song, I’m just going to listen.”
It was quite funny.
Funny is definitely what it was. You can’t take those things so seriously—not just the Hotel Café thing particularly, but everything. You gotta laugh at it. Otherwise, you can get so worked up about a show. Things are going to go wrong and you just roll with the punches. It’s just music. You didn’t sever a nerve in surgery. It’s a fucking show.
I wasn’t at the Elefant show a few weeks later.
Yeah, at the Wiltern.
How did that one go?
It was hard. A week before we went on tour with Elefant, I fell down in a drunken stupor. I’d like to have the story be that I saved some orphan from getting run over by a bus, or a meteor was coming to earth and I deflected it with my back—but, no, I fell. Fell down a hill.
I paid for it. A muscle in my back got severely damaged, and it was pulling on the sciatic nerve. Now, I had never heard of the sciatic nerve, I never knew I had one. In fact, I don’t know what it does and I’m all for getting it removed, because when you know it’s there, it’s the most painful thing I’ve ever felt in my life. I couldn’t walk for days. I didn’t know what to do. My girlfriend was like, “You have to go to this guy, he’s really great, this acupuncturer/chiropractor.” I’d never done that before. I went to him and he stuck needles in me and I thought it was a little silly, but the next day I could walk. It still hurt really, really bad—and I immediately went on tour.
We had a show in San Diego, then we had the Wiltern show. I was lying down in the backstage floor and then went to play. It hurt really bad. We were at the Wiltern and the crowd was great and all that stuff, but it still hurt so bad that it was hard for me to get into it. Then the keyboards went fizzy, Christopher had drum stuff going on, we were having huge technical problems—and it made me really happy. (laughs) You get to connect with the audience a little. You kind of get to let them in on it. When shit goes wrong, it’s kind of fun, especially when I was in that much pain.
The moral of the story is that you’re swearing off booze forever?
The moral of the story is if there’s an orphan about to get run over by a truck, it’s bound to happen. You can’t change the world.
(laughs) Are you guys writing material collaboratively?
Sometimes it’s collaborative from the ground up, but most of the times I have the kernel ready to go. It’s not “Hey, here’s a riff, everybody, let’s jam on it,” because I don’t really like jamming. So I come up with some semblance of a song and they attack it and change it completely. They do stuff that’s just amazing.
Were there any songs on the new record that were harder than others?
Yeah. Some songs were really, really easy. Some songs we had kicking around for a while, but we altered them for the record. I think the only one that is truly old school is “Lazy Eye” – we didn’t do much to that. That one is sort of a standard of ours and we were saving it for the record and we didn’t really change it. Then there were some new songs that we wrote, like “Waste It On,” which came out really fast. It’s such a complicated little thing, it’s really syncopated and was a different sort of area for us, but it came so fast.
The song that really, really hurt was “Little Lover’s So Polite.” That song we’ve had kicking around for a while. It’s one of our original songs; at that point, it was this eight-minute, crazy, crazy long thing. We didn’t know what to do with it. We put it on the back burner, then we got rid of it, then it came back, then we got rid of it again. Then when we were recording, we thought, let’s just try “Little Lover.” We didn’t have much studio time and we were working on it and trying to change it—at the last possible minute, we wrote this thing for Nikki to sing, got a little more aggressive with the drums. We just weren’t sure. Christopher was doing the drums for it and he said, “I’m not sure where I am.”
When we were recording Nikki’s bass, during the session, we changed these off little pieces that she had to do immediately. We pieced it together. After a week of working on other stuff, I put the guitars on it. When it came back to us with drums, guitars and bass we were like, “Whoa! This is crazy!” It was the most chopped-up song we’ve ever done. When we turned the record in to the label, that was their favorite song.
I really like that tune, too. You guys are going to be hesitant to ever scrap a song now.
Yeah, it’s funny how un-organically that song came together. Now we have to learn it. We’ve never played it live like that—ever. That’s the one song that we haven’t played live.
You guys are part of two distinct groups here in L.A.—you’ve got The Ship, and then you’ve got the Dangerbird team. Both seem to foster a real affection and enthusiasm.
Absolutely. The Ship thing—we were just friends for so long, it was kind of an accidental collective. There was never a mission statement. We’re just friends and we play in each other’s bands—not as much anymore because everyone is off doing their stuff. And when we signed with Dangerbird, it was fantastic. There were other labels, and we were going to sign and do these things and we just felt really gross and wrong about it. Dangerbird really loves their bands, and they leave you alone, but they’re people you want to hang out with. For us, the only way to make us happy is to make sure that the people around us are friends. I feel like we’ve been pretty lucky.
I think that’s important out here. From bands that I’ve interviewed in L.A., I’d say it’s about 50/50 between bands that feel like they’ve really found their niche and bands that feel either like black sheep or that they’re just adrift.
Yeah, definitely. We’re from Los Angeles, so we never moved here to make our dreams happen. That sets us apart. It’s funny, too, because it’s not a niche in a sound way—all the bands that we know are so different. When we play Ship nights, it couldn’t be any more different, so that’s great because it’s not a scene or style. We’re not linked because we’re all third-generation ska bands.
That translates to the stage, too, and I think the audience enjoys that—the relationship between you guys and La Rocca, for instance.
Oh, yeah, La Rocca is awesome. When we do Dangerbird nights, it’s so fun. There’s a lot of pretty heavy partying. Those guys are fucking great, man.
Who can handle the booze better?
La…Rocca. They’re Irish, man. They handle that shit. I mean, I’ve seen them plastered off of their arses. In fact, we have a very L.A. thing that we’re going to do. When we’re not touring, we’re going to go golfing. It’s just an excuse to be outside. So we’ll be drinking and golfing all day, and I can’t wait for that. Because I want to hit balls at La Rocca so bad. (laughs)
Silversun Pickups - Live - August 10, 2005
Silversun Pickups / La Rocca - Live - May 16, 2006
More by this writer:
La Rocca - The Truth
Neurosis - Given to the Rising
Local H - 12 Angry Months
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend