Brian Aubert — lead singer, guitarist and founding member of Silversun Pickups — is a funny guy. Like, stand-up comedian levels of funny. He speaks in staccato, high-energy sentences with images from the band’s newest record Widow’s Weeds peeking out from behind every syllable. And why wouldn’t he be excited. The band has been going strong for over 19 years since their formation in Los Angeles in 2000 and are currently touring behind their latest album with a festival appearance at Kaaboo this weekend.
Our discussion includes my wrong pronunciation of the band’s first EP Pikul — apparently it’s pronounced with a long “I” sound, so it’s not a homynym with pickle. We talk of the insane Carnavas period and how the band tries to stay present-tense. But most of the discussion centers around the band, the songwriting, the gaps between records, the Bob Dylan cover songs and of course Widow’s Weeds, a record which shows progression and growth while retaining the core Silversun Pickups sound.
Silversun Pickups are a rare band, one which understand they’ve “made it” but keep it tongue in cheek enough to not take themselves too seriously. It’s a combination that keeps the band and Aubert grounded. Especially when he rips my indie card away for mispronouncing Pikul and scolds me to go back to the main stage.
mxdwn: The band is playing the Kaboo Festival coming up in Mid-September, can you talk a little about playing that festival and why you chose that festival?
Brian Auber: This is the first time I’ve really heard of this festival to be honest and when we were doing promo, Nikki and I were playing acoustic. When the name of that festival came up, a lot of people were really excited about it, so it seems to be something that means a lot to a lot of people. The problem with these festivals, every time people ask us who do you want to see, we try not to get our hopes up. Because in general, when we come into festivals, we’re quite busy, which is again I guess a nice thing but we’re doing promo, we’re doing interviews, stuff like that. A lot of times we don’t get to see anything or when we do, we just have to wander and just go find something. We don’t plan. One time at Reading Festival, in between songs I said, ‘Can we have a minute so I can listen to Arcade Fire across the way?’ Just give me a minute so I can listen to it during the concert. Duran Duran I’ve been wanting to see and the Bangles, I want to see the Bangles. There’s actually a lot of comics too, like Tig Notaro and Cameron Esposito.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: From a musician’s point of view is it any different playing for a festival crowd versus theater and arena shows?
BA: I think it’s fun. We like it all, to be honest. Especially when you’re in a big long tour when they pop up, because it’s fun to change it up. When you’re playing your own shows, it’s a wider range, really, meaning that you’re playing to, a lot of the people in that room, possibly followed you for quite a long time. You get a chance to dive into all your pockets, in some ways. There’s a lot of areas, sonically, that people want to explore in a way. In a festival, what’s fun is you just assume you’re just up there for your little time and it’s fun to be a part of a circus where you’re one little bit of this whole thing. For that, it’s just fun to get up there and make the biggest noise. We love playing to people that don’t know who we are and probably at our shows, it’s the same thing as there, but it’s just fun to be a blank slate. People are just, I’ve heard of them or I’ve seen them or I don’t know about them or I like them or I don’t like them. I don’t really know. It’s fun to just have no thoughts and there we are. It’s just like whatever’s happening is what our worth is in some ways, and I think that’s really fun. People always say, is it really hard to play to thousands of people? No, thousands of people are easy and the odds are one person likes it. Playing to 15 of your friends at 1:00 in the morning at a club is really difficult.
mxdwn: Silversun Pickups generally release a record every three to four years. Is that a conscious decision or just something that happens?
BA: Yeah, it’s both really. Luckily for us, the creative pump, which is now my new side project name. That’s insane. I love it.
At the end of the day, that’s going to be the most important, because we just don’t believe that they should just come out because. We have to go through something and then get to the point where we’re starting and then finish the thing. Luckily for us, it’s been the same amount of time, almost exactly. It usually takes us pretty much close to one year to burst the thing and then get it to a point where you’re in a room with a producer and moving buttons around. That’s always been about a year, so all the records have sort of come out with that in mind but what changed on this last album was our tour cycle for our last record was longer than expected. It just kept going, it kept going and then there were things that we really wanted to do and the next thing you know, that was almost another year on and off. That’s pretty much why, if you look at the canyon in between the records, this one is four instead of three, but literally that’s how it’s been. As soon as we stop, and we take a minute to just hear ourselves think, then hopefully songs start coming and they usually do after about a month or two being off. That’s what would happen.
Our last record was like that. We kept going, and going, and eventually we knew we had to stop. I always think it’s good to be away. I think it’s, for us, it’s good for us to be away and I think it’s just good to just disappear for a minute. I can’t imagine just constantly pummeling people with stuff and I can’t imagine doing it to ourselves or others. We always hear people saying, you’ve got to go fast, you do this and that. We’re like, no. We’re not interested. If you’re like, ‘I don’t like them anymore ’cause they took a year,’ then that’s fine. I’m sorry. Do your thing.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: I always think it’s funny because in the ’60’s bands were pumping out records every spring and every fall.
BA: I think that basically touring is different. They barely played shows. Be playing probably five cities and then that’s it and then they’re sitting around. That’s what it seems like and if that was the case then maybe it’s different. Really that to me must be the biggest difference. Which must have been wild. So when the people saw that band, very few people in the world that followed, so that the show must have been crazy. Then, as time went on, it became two years, and then three years, because it’s just the world tour of two and a half years of touring and things like that. Which is good, ’cause we love playing shows, so I guess we would have been really sad back then.
mxdwn: You would have been forced to put out records and play zero shows.
BA: Yeah, just constantly be making records. I’d be like, I can’t do this, what are we doing. We live in a vacuum. Who would be listening to this? This is bizarre. I’m going to go online and check it out. No, I can’t, it hasn’t been invented yet. Oh my God, what’s happening. What’s going on with Game of Thrones? Oh my God, we’re 30 years, 40 years away from that.
mxdwn: What was the impetus to record the new record Widow’s Weeds? You talk about having time away, but is it an organic process coming back together? How do you sit down to flesh out a new album?
BA: Yeah, it is organic. Just like I said, it’s very lucky, ’cause it’s like one day we sat around and no songs were coming, then that would be an interesting day. Usually, because of the length of time between records, by the end of touring on a record, you sort of sense the wanderlust in us. You put so much in a record, you really expunge all these noisy interests, I guess. Then after a long while, it’s out of your system, and hopefully at that point there’s something new that interests you or that you want to get to and that’s usually how it starts. We have to be home, because I need to hear myself think and after a little bit of quiet time, since we have a sort of amnesia after a month, after two years of touring and a month off, we kind of look around and go what are we doing today? Then, songs start popping up and you are trying to wrestle with them. Once enough of them start circling my brain, that’s when we contact each other and we get ready to start.
I start showing them to the band and then hopefully at that point that part of your brain, that muscle is getting stronger, and it gets easier and more stuff comes. That’s kind of how stuff happens and when we have enough of it, which we try our best to plan ahead, meaning we have to think about who we want to work with, and all the details. That’s how magic happens my friend.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
mxdwn: You worked with Butch Vig on this record. I know you did vocals on a Garbage track a few years back. How did he come to produce Widow’s Weeds?
BA: Shirley Manson. She is the best. When we were making the record, she got her 23 And Me back, and found out she was 100% Scottish. Apparently it was on Scotland Radio with a segment, listing celebrities that were 100% Scottish and there were only a few. If you look at her you can see it. She’s a Viking, straight up. We knew Butch from around. We became friendly with him and Shirley and Billy. We’ve known them for a while, and are sort of, friends of the neighborhood, friends of friends and he saw me at a taco restaurant, I was eating tacos and he saw me, and he was just like, ‘Hey, you want to sing on this Garbage song?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ I went to his studio and worked with them and had such a blast doing it.
mxdwn: How do you say no to that?
BA: Well, I don’t know why I would. I can imagine being too timid by the whole thing but once you’ve been doing this for a while, we always deal with people at face value, so the person I said yes to was Butch, the nice guy that we know. I was like, yes, of course. I love Shirley and I love them. That sounds fun. I went in there and just loved it. It was just fun. At that time I was thinking a little bit about the future and knowing that we were going to change it up like we try to do every couple of records. I had such a good time and he basically was the person I wanted to work with for the next record. As the songs were coming out in my mind, I just thought yes, I really think he has something to offer and we’re so lucky. Yeah, then when we thought about him, I sent him a text and just said, ‘Do you want to make a record this summer?’ He said, ‘Sure, man.’ That was that. He’s a vet. But he’s the loveliest. He’s Wisconsin to the core. Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Garbage, Against Me, I mean, so much stuff.
mxdwn: Was it intimidating being in a production studio with such a legend?
BA: No, not really. He’s just, like I said, it was the person that we know and why we wanted to work with him. There’s all that stuff he’s done, which is incredible but when you meet this person, there’s just this fire in him and this artistic integrity in him, He’s always searching for something to excite him and move him, and renew and it’s not somebody…We’ve never worked with somebody like the person I’m about to explain but there’s a little bit of a worry that these people have done amazing things and they’re like, ‘Okay, I did it, I know how to do it’ and that didn’t seem to be Butch’s brain.
He loves modern stuff and he’s always moving with times and just so interested,and wanted to be confused and all these sort of things. We love that about him. The legacy stuff that you’re talking about, did show itself when we started working with him, because you just saw what experience actually is, because of how lightning fast and what knowledge he had. Studio dynamics and how to get things that we didn’t know yet or how to conjure up and he just knew how to play so quick. Being a part of that, you couldn’t deny that. I’m in his living room and I’m looking over at the wall and I go, okay, I see why all those records are there and I see why those awards are there. This kind of experience you just can’t have. It’s undeniable. And Billy Bush, his right hand man at Sing Sing. His attention to detail, like I said, his desire to be confused and excited by something. It’s just mind blowing to be honest. It was amazing to be a part of and at those moments, you would know ‘Wow, that’s right.’ This guy’s done a lot of stuff. Whatever fire, and whatever work ethic and fire he had then, he has it now. It’s pretty wild.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: The new record sounds like Silversun Pickups, but you can hear the growth from the previous album.
BA: We just try to do our best. It’s hard because you’re in your own skin and so the only way to feel like you’re growing is to always feel uncomfortable in some ways. That’s how we are all the time, so it literally, it always feels like the first day, every time we play a show or every time we do something, it always feels the same, because it’s just completely out of our hands sometimes. At any moment this thing’s going to come crashing down. Who gave us these tools? We don’t know how to do it. Just by feeling that way, this constant state of being uncomfortable, is the only thing that maybe makes us think that okay, hopefully that means we’re pushing ourselves. If we were plateauing and we felt ‘Oh we got this,’ that would feel very boring. Listen, at the end of the day, we are always sort of, if you love that record and you love everything about Swoon, let’s say, our second record and that’s the one you like, you have it. There it is, and enjoy it. We’re not going to do that again. There’s a through line in all of it, because there’s a sound that’s going to happen when the four of us play that we can’t move that core, because that’s how it happens. But, we can try and dance as far away from it as we can, knowing that there’s still going to be an anchor, another through line through it all.
mxdwn: The band formed in 2000 in Los Angeles, released the Pikul EP in 2005 and then Carnavas in 2006. After that the band blew up, what was the energy like within the band during that time?
BA: We’re so present tense, that we didn’t really notice. We just knew that we were busy. We just kept, what’s the next thing? It just kept going, and kept going. Sort of like if you, I would make this analogy. If you gain a lot of weight and you don’t know and your friend hasn’t seen you in two years and goes, ‘Wow, look at you. You’re fat.’ You go, when? I don’t know this. Our head is down. We didn’t quite know. We weren’t that unaware, but it was just that we were very busy. The biggest change, we felt, was the EP beforehand, Pikul. We were going to put that out and then make the record and have it come out real soon but there were some stations in the states that started playing Carnavas and our EP tour grew. It started to grow. At that moment, from there on out, which basically pushed our Carnavas recordings around into different sections, so it came out a year later. By the time it did come out, we were still playing and so it just morphed into that. Then, that just kept going,and kept going and kept going and then we were getting, playing crazy things like opening up in arenas. Then you can’t think about that too much, ’cause then David Letterman calls. Our whole thought was just well, ‘We should do all this before people figure out they’ve got the wrong band. Let’s keep going. By the time they’ll notice, we’ll be gone.’
It just kept going and kept going and kept going and like I said, until now. It’s kind of remarkable. I will say, ’cause like I said, we always put ourselves in uncomfortable positions and we always feel new but it is apparent to us that there are some people out there that will respond to us a lot differently now, because it’s very different for some people, to have a band that just came out and they like their new sound, versus a band that maybe they’ve known half their life. We’re starting to see that and we don’t take ourselves very seriously, so it’s an interesting thing for us to respect that in a way. People we talk to now. Just some of the dialogue we’re having with people now, it’s wild because when they’re talking to you, you just don’t feel that way about yourself. Nikki and I have had a lot of talks about it. This is a very interesting position, ’cause we really want to respect what we mean to some people. While we don’t sit there and think about that ourselves but definitely want to respect that because that is really trippy. It’s a really trippy feeling, to have moved on in that way, if that makes sense. Again, ’cause I don’t want to be all flippant, like ‘Oh whatever, it’s cool,’ and it’s some band they’ve liked since they were six. It’s almost like water and air and rocks and earth. It just is. It exists. It’s something different.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: There are always songs and albums that when people listen to them they immediately find themselves in a comfort zone, back to when they first heard it and they have an emotional experience and connection to the music.
BA: It’s interesting as a musician. For us, at least, because we love and feel such fans of music and have been our whole lives, the fact that we’re doing that too, is a separation for us. We will never think, ever, no matter what, ever, ever, ever think that what we’re doing is the same. It’s just like we are such fans of that stuff and what we’re doing, it just seems like ‘Oh, but that’s what we’re doing.’ That’s not music. It can’t be, because it’s us. We will never equate that, if that makes sense. It’s almost like we separate those things and I do see artists like that, but it’s just like, trying to get up there and demand to be heard and demand that respect and I applaud them. That’s incredible but I can never imagine wearing that skin. It would honestly be like, wow. I would never be like the guy, which we had friends, we used to have friends back in the day that would stop our party just so they could play their new demo. I’d always go, wow. I was a little bit jealous. I was like, we could use a little of that. We would be the people, if we stayed at the bar we’d probably go outside but now we don’t even hear it. Now we don’t even hear it. If something plays at a place, it’s just blank air. We just think it’s in our heads. We always know if we’re out and about, we can be at some little greasy spoon somewhere in Chattanooga and then we’ll hear ourselves. Usually that means, oh someone in here knows us, ’cause they just selected it. Play them.
mxdwn: Silversun Pickups covered the Bob Dylan track “Not Dark Yet” from his Time Out of Mind record for Amnesty International Chimes of Freedom. There were so many artists on that record, how did you guys get selected to be on that record and why that song?
BA: We said yes. Then I knew pretty quickly, they’re like, what do you want to play? I remember talking to the band, especially Nikki, my bass player, who is much more knowledgeable about Bob Dylan. We all are clearly, but she knows a lot more. At one point she was deep, deep diving for a year. I looked at her and I said, ‘This is your choice. What song would you like to do? Give us some options.’ I already knew she would but I was like, ‘Just keep in mind, there are certain songs that clearly will be taken off the table.’ They’re also an era that pretty much everyone’s going to want to represent. I thought, why don’t we try and not represent that and not do that, in a way to represent a larger volume and we just thought that was important. Also, freed us up a little bit to not feel like, why on earth would we be covering this, when that song exists so wonderfully. In some ways, we knew we might be introducing it to people. Nikki gave us a couple and that was one of them. We just thought ‘Oh, this is so good.’
It was fun. Nikki was always so good at that. She would really deep dive into modern Dylan. She would make tapes and stuff for people that were Bob Dylan fans, CDs or tapes or mixed playlists that were songs these people have never heard. She was really good at poking holes in the idea that there was a heyday and clearly I understand that there is in some ways there was. It was also a way to not be so daunted by the history of the song and just be daunted by the history of the man, which was also daunting. We cleared the song part out, but the voice, how do you approach a Bob Dylan song, without trying to sound like a copy of Dylan? I think there’s a lot of mimicry of certain cadences and stuff like that. I had to think about it a remap the song in a way that led to a different kind of singing, which of course is your instinct just to do, and he had so many words. It’s like, I am not going to take out a word, I just need to get the words to fit in where it sounds natural for me to do it and not mimicking. I remember that being tough, but I feel like it ends up working out and we’re really proud of that song.
Like I said earlier, when you’re making it and you’re excited about it, you’re like, this is cool and then next week you’re doing something else and it disappears and you forget about it. It is very meditative being in a band. It’s very present tense and if you’re lucky like we are, you’re busy a lot and so therefore there’s something that you have in your hand at the moment that all your attention on, so you don’t really sit there in a rocking chair. Let it all pass by. Look at that, look at that. Remember that song? Yeah, it was two weeks ago. What?
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: Besides the Kaaboo Festival what is next for the band?
BA: There’s festivals, a lot of festivals and a lot of radio stuff and some promo for this year, so we’ll be on and off tour the rest of the month and then in the winter, there’ll probably be a big chunk of radio shows and stuff like that. Then next year, in the beginning of the year, we will hunker down on what the full blown tour is going to look like. Next year will be all about pretty much doing the actual touring for the album. We’re starting to put that together now, and that’s going to be fun, because we’re looking forward to it. The start and stops are fun, but they’re a little psychotic. Once you get going and you’re in it, it’s a much easier thing for your brain, because you’re accessing it a lot and that’s where you’re at. That’s what we’ll be doing, so we’ll pretty much be touring for quite a while and we haven’t even started. It’s so funny. We have done a bunch of shows, but it’s funny we still haven’t started to tour yet.
mxdwn: Does it ever get easier, or do you get less anxious, when you go out and play for thousands of people every night?
BA: No, because the show is everything to us. We love playing. Even if we’re not even remembering how that feels five minutes beforehand. Once we get up there and like I said, we’re such a present tense band, that when we get up there, we look around and we go, okay, this is where we are. This is what we’re doing and here we go and for a little over 90 minutes this thing’s happening right now and then once it’s done, tomorrow will not be the same, so it’s like this moment that we really get lost in. All the stuff in between all that can get a little strange, but we’ve been doing it for so long and we’ve all gotten quite good at knowing how to handle it.
It’s funny, because people always ask us about backstage and things going wild and all this stuff. I always say, it’s never the band. It’s always everybody else and the reason is, ’cause that’s the night. This is the night and here they come and they go nuts and they go wild and they are backstage and they lose it and they go crazy and then they wake up and they go back to their same, while we’re back. We had a friend call me and went, I can’t believe you’re doing this today, too. I’m like, we’re not doing it like you did. But, somebody else will.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna