With the release of their 2009 album Swoon, Los Angeles alt-rock quartet Silversun Pickups hit the big time. They headlined festivals, landed on the Billboard charts and soon kids around the globe were air guitar-ing to their songs in video games like Guitar Hero.
Now the band are preparing to release their third album, Neck of the Woods (out May 8), so we called up frontman Brian Aubert to chat. Below, he dishes on the personal and at times philosophical approach to the new LP, how he totally sucks at playing his own songs on Guitar Hero and why the title Neck of the Woods reminds him of Matthew Broderick.
You said the new album sounds like a horror movie. Can you elaborate?
It’s funny because people immediately panicked and thought I was talking about, like, Saw. Like it’s some slasher flick with chainsaws and blood. No, but there is an icy and threatening sound. There’s a spooky undertone. It travels through the whole album. It’s kind of scary. There’s a weird ‘coming to get you’ feeling.
But is that new? Songs like “Panic Switch” have that, too…
Every one of our albums is just all the things that we already are, but 1,000 times more. Like, if you are not into us now, you’re definitely not going to like the next album. “Panic Switch” started from anxiety. But this album isn’t as anxious. It’s almost more sympathetic in a way. Part of it’s almost more … Rom-Com! [Lyrically] it reminds you of a Rom-Com [laughs].
Well, I haven’t seen a Rom–Com in a while. Can When Harry Met Sally be a genre?
It’s going to be huge!
So… it’s Rom-Com and a horror flick? I’d like to see that movie, actually. Love and blood!
[Laughs] Before this record we had the view point that the band was angst-y. A little more like, “I’m hurt and here is how I feel right now.” That’s not quite where we are now lyrically. Before we started writing this record I got into a ton of conversations about where people came from and their stories from childhood. I traveled in Europe without the band to these towns that look like Rivendell [from Lord of the Rings].
Tell me more…
I took a month off and I was in the Lake District in Italy, Budapest and a lot of places that I have never been. It was just a month of exploring and what happened is that my brain shut down all the noise. I had time to breath. I noticed how similar everything is. Every place is really the same. People are the same. My family is Hawaiian and there is that movie The Descendants and there is a great line in the beginning of the movie where [George Clooney’s character] talks about how everybody sees Hawaii as paradise. So he’s like, “Well, there is cancer and there is traffic. Paradise can go fuck itself.” It’s true. There are normal things going on. There are happy things going on; there are sad things going on. And when you get to the heart of it, it’s really no different than where you or I grew up. I just became fascinated with the building blocks of what made everybody who they are, and the alarming similarities that everybody shares. And that spawned this record.
You recorded with Jacknife Lee in Topanga Canyon, CA, near where you grew up. I imagine that contributed to that sentiment…
Recording there was a total coincidence. Snow Patrol, good friends of ours, worked with Jacknife, so we met him. He’s a scientist. But it felt like an honest place to go. So all of a sudden I am in this spot that I haven’t been in a long time, but where I lived my whole life as a kid. All these feelings started flooding back. I was looking back in the past and trying to wrangle certain things I haven’t thought about in a while. Going back there after all these years and just sitting there for 10 weeks. It was a little scary.
Sounds like it could be a painful, but ultimately freeing process…
Oh yeah. I thought the last record [Swoon] would be the most painful one. On the last album, when there were all these emotions it was nice to expel them [in song]. With [Neck of the Woods] there was all this reflecting and looking back at things I haven’t looked at in forever.
Being around my old house; there is a whole new group of people in there. I can see all the new toys in the yard. The whole neighborhood is a reboot and there is just no place I can get back to. There is this safe feeling that I felt that I forgot about, and there is no way to get back to it. The big one was that there are people that are long gone, but that are still in my mind. There was a lot wishing I could have conversations with people that are gone. But that just can’t happen. And a lot of weird things started happening there…
A bunch of people with clean automobile records got into car wrecks. In a two week span there was three car wrecks. Two were me. I was driving back to Silver Lake, where we live, which is about 40 minutes from the Canyon. There was this truck on the freeway and its straps broke loose and these wooden pallets fell off. I didn’t get hit that bad; other people in front of me got hit pretty bad. That was scary. Then about two weeks later, I was driving alone in the Canyon and there was rain and leaves and brush all over the road. I slipped and hit a tree at night. I was pretty shaken at that point. Then somebody who worked with us on the album flipped over driving home. There is a song on the record called “Busy Bees” that explains all those moments. All that transferred into intensity in the studio.
Do you see yourself as a different person before and after this album?
I don’t, but you thought I did. The thing that surprised me is how much of that stuff [from childhood] is still there, and I didn’t realize it. That’s what alarmed me the most. I realized I carried that my whole life. I am not as different as I thought. Now after the album is done, I do feel happy that I went through it. But at the time it was really tough. I learned a lot about my self.
Did you ever feel like you’re giving away too much?
I feel nervous when I get too personal about things. Luckily I can run all my lyrics by my bass player Nikki [Monninger] and she is like, “Don’t worry, no one will understand what the hell you are saying.” She’s like, “I don’t even know what you’re saying.“ I want to write songs that are more general and all consuming, open for people to fill in their details. I want to speak about it in ways that people who have gone through these things will understand. You can guide them. But it is always more interesting to let people fill in their own details.
Do you have a favorite song on the new record?
Right now it’s “Dots and Dashes.” It’s one of the more natural songs. With this record we decided to write these songs the way they are coming out, and not punch it up or add sounds. It took a while to wrap our mind around. “Dots and Dashes” is one of those songs that we never would have come up with before. Its simplicity and grace are new. It was the toughest one to write lyrics for. I was saving this one because I knew it was going to be intense.
You simplified the songs?
Yeah. And we had a really hard time breaking these mental rules, but we knew on this album we wanted to break all the mental rules. Then that became a rule, so we wanted to break that [laughs]. So “Dots and Dashes” was really one of those songs that formed during recording. “Bloody Mary” was one as well. But “Dots and Dashes” is one of the ones where I really sit down and am like, “Wow that was something.”
Why name the album Neck of the Woods?
Neck of the Woods was something we were going to call it from the beginning. But we weren’t sure. It does sound like a weird movie. A spooky movie in the ‘80s staring Matthew Broderick. There is something sexual about it that’s slightly off putting. It's something about being on the fringe and never getting in. Neck of the woods is like… you’re not there. You’re close. You can look. But you’re not in there.
The last album Swoon was huge for Silversun Pickups. Was there a moment where you guys were like, “Wow we have arrived”?
No. There are little things, like, when you realize you are in a different atmosphere, or how people relate to or talk about you and your band. But your head is always in the sand. We are always consumed with what it is we are doing at the moment. Obviously, we realize we’re playing bigger shows and sometimes we pop our bubble and are like, “Wow, how did this happen”? We have a weird amnesia, too. When we tour for two years, we’ll come home for three days and be like, “We are losers and we don’t do anything” [laughs]. Whatever happens, happens, and we are okay with it, as long as we know we worked really hard on the album.
Have you heard somebody playing your songs on Rock Band or Guitar Hero?
I remember we were in a bar in Denmark and one of our songs came on, and we didn’t know it was us! I have a friend that works at a club in L.A. called Satellite. She ran up to me and was like, “Oh my god, guess what I have on my phone?” I’m like, “I have no idea. Porn?” She had “Lazy Eye” on Guitar Hero. I played it and all of these colors started flying out of nowhere. I’m like, “There’s no colors!” And it was way harder than playing the actual song on an actual guitar. I don’t think I even got to the vocal before I failed.