“The last record was a learning process. There were definitely some growing pains.”
At the turn of the decade, Silversun Pickups found themselves at a crossroads, just two albums into what was still a fledgling career. Their 2007 debut, Carnavas, plays like a modern classic; inventive, effects-heavy guitar work, complex grooves and frontman Brian Aubert’s hugely distinctive vocals come together to create a swirling behemoth of a record, drenched in atmosphere throughout. They’d taken the raw pop sensibilities of their Pikul EP and melded them with epic soundscapes in a manner that roared ambition, and a couple of years later, they’d plough further down that road with Swoon, on which the guitars were thunderous, the melodies infectious and the sheer sense of scale beginning to nudge them towards arena-readiness. In that respect, they were a rarity; a young band who seemed on the cusp of the big leagues without anything in the way of creative compromise or industry machinations placing them there. It just seemed as if that would be the appropriate environment for songs that made a sense of genuine grandeur their calling card; little wonder, then, that the likes of Muse, Placebo and Snow Patrol were so quick to sign them up to support on extensive tours - you suspect they recognised Pickups’ potential with no small degree of envy at how organically they seemed to have crafted a sound so suited to these stages.
Not everybody was on board, though. Swoon’s unapologetic extravagance split the critics, and the reviews that weren’t entirely favourable tended to contain plenty of snark, most of which was extraneous; the fact that Carnavas cut ‘Lazy Eye’ brought the band to a wider audience via Guitar Hero seemed to crop up a lot, as did extensive comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins that ranged from the valid (the densely-layered guitar sound) to the ludicrous (the fact that both bands share the same initials, or that neither could boast a bass player with a Y chromosome.) Within the band’s own quarters, there was a sense of wanting to capitalise upon the momentum they’d built up, and also a growing discomfort at the idea of playing it safe and re-treading the same ground.
Esteemed producer Jacknife Lee was drafted in to man the boards, and the band set about making subtle shifts in creative course for what would become Neck of the Woods, their third full-length, in 2012. The prominence of the guitar - for so long the beating heart of the Pickups sound - was pared back, with a more electronic palette incorporated as part of a significantly-widened approach to instrumentation. Aubert and drummer Chris Guanlao, in particular, began to experiment in the vocal booth and behind the kit respectively, and the former produced his most introspective, considered lyrics to date. The resulting record again divided critical opinion and, to a lesser extent, that of their fanbase, but they’d made the statement they wanted to, and the album charted at number six in their native U.S.
The three years since have seen them navigate choppier waters than that level of success might have you expect. Touring Neck of the Woods didn’t go entirely to plan; first, bassist Nikki Monninger’s maternity leave meant she needed replacing for large swathes of the campaign (The Happy Hollows’ Sarah Negahdari did the honours) and second, they played barely any shows outside of North America, bypassing the UK and Europe entirely after extensive campaigns there for Carnavas and Swoon. The expiry of the group’s contract with longtime label Dangerbird seems to have played a part in that, and that in itself provided them with another hurdle to jump.
“Ultimately, I think we always knew we were going to change labels,” says Guanlao from his home in Los Angeles. “We had to start thinking about the specifics of how we were going to move forwards; did we want to sign with another label, or would it be better to start our own, and take ownership of that side of things? We weighed everything up, and decided that, when it came down to it, there was nothing an established record company could give us that we couldn’t do for ourselves.” Accordingly, LP number four, Better Nature, was released on Pickups’ own New Machine Recordings in September, funded in part by a Pledgemusic campaign. Lee again took on production duties and the record comes over, in a lot of ways, like a more refined Neck of the Woods; the relaxed approach to the guitar and experimental bent are retained, but possibly the sharpest set of melodies they’ve yet produced force their way through their trademark fog of sonic layers. “We felt like there was some unfinished business with Jacknife after last time,” says Guanlao, “and there was a feeling that it had taken us a whole record to get used to him and his style of working. Making Neck of the Woods was a real learning curve, because he was so different to the other producers we’d worked with, and it took us a while to get our heads around that. There was a confidence this time, an excitement that came from knowing we’d be able to fire through these ideas without the constant need to refer to the Jacknife dictionary.”
There’s clearly a sense of unpredictability to Lee’s methods that appeals to their ingrained sense of wanderlust; Guanlao paints him as a bit of a maverick. “You’d never know what was going to happen day to day, which was exciting and terrifying in equal measure,” he laughs. “Sometimes, the thinking behind his decisions wouldn’t really manifest themselves until later on. I remember, at one point, he produced some bongos out of thin air and asked me to play along to ‘The Wild Kind’, which seemed a strange choice for that song. And they actually ended up on the track, and it just fits. I was like, “that’s what was in your brain!”
The roots of Better Nature’s sound, as Guanlao tells it, can be found on ‘Cannibal’, the new song the band recorded in 2013 to accompany last year’s The Singles Collection; “it bridges Neck of the Woods and this new album - you can hear the sounds shifting.” The idea of a band barely a decade old putting out a greatest hits is, in this case, not as daft as it sounds - Pikul and Carnavas, on their own, boast more killer cuts than the entire catalogues of bands more established than Pickups - but the opportunity for reflection that it provided also threw up the possibility that they might be tempted to go back to what they knew.
“We didn’t have to deal with that, really,” Guanlao says of treading the fine line between pride in their work and flat-out self-satisfaction. “I mean, timewise, I think The Singles Collection was far enough removed from the making of Better Nature that there was never really any chance of one bleeding into the other, but we’re not geared up to think that way, either. We’ve always had a mantra about keeping our heads in the present; it wasn’t our idea to put out a compilation like that, and I don’t think we ever would’ve done it ourselves. We made the best of it, and we were pleased with it, but looking back at those songs kind of gave us the sense we’d moved past them. We’re more confident with experimentation now, and we’re more open to different ideas than we used to be.” One of the most consistent traits on Pickups records, though, is a sense of cohesion that fosters real atmosphere; the tracks on Carnavas and Swoon, especially, seem to melt in and out of each other in terms of texture and feel, and the same is in evidence on Better Nature. Guanlao notes that, unlike with Neck of the Woods, no two tracks were cut at the same time for this album - they’d only move onto a new song when the last one was in the can, in accordance with Aubert’s rigid songwriting style. “It’s like a little quirk of the way Brian works. He tends to write songs in order, because he’s very conscious of how their placement is going to affect the overall vibe of the record. He wants to kind of draw the listener in and then ground them within the album, so we worked on five or six songs in succession and then mixed and matched the rest.”
There are other benefits to that approach, too. “This time, especially, we started out with ‘Cradle’, the first song on the album, and as obvious as it sounds, Brian said something like, “let’s not make anything worse than this!” That’s pretty much verbatim, and as much as it was kind of a joke, it helps set you up for the rest of the record. You set the bar, you set your standards high, and then you do everything you can to keep hitting that creative mark. “Are we topping ‘Cradle’? No? Then let’s go back and change this, or let’s throw that part out.” We really pushed ourselves, I think.”
As ever with Pickups records, Better Nature is arranged in complex fashion, with their trademark layering present and correct throughout; when Guanlao talks about his drum tracks for the album, there’s a little bit of angst at the fact that he made them into such a construction job, never really sitting behind the kit for a full song and instead piecing together kick, hi-hat, snare and so on bit-by-bit - after all, as he puts it, “drummers are kind of endangered these days, and there’s always that fear in the back of your mind that you might be about to be replaced by programs and machines.” The process of bringing their songs to the stage is usually a challenging one, and when the band booked four small hometown shows at which they could finally debut the new material, they plumped for an unusual venue - the Masonic Lodge at L.A.’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
“It probably sounds a little bit morbid on the face of it,” laughs Guanlao, “but actually, as much as I love being a little bit dark at times, that’s one of the best groups of shows we’ve ever played. It’s a really beautiful place, and the room is really intimate; it seemed a weirdly fitting place to launch the record. There’s a crazy atmosphere about the place that’s hard to put your finger on. I remember the second night we played there, Brian and I were carpooling on the way up, and as we came through the gates, I said, “doesn’t it feel so serene coming through these gates, right in the middle of the city?” And Brian was like, “I was thinking the exact same thing!” Ten minutes later, we’re hanging out backstage, talking to the house manager, and she said that same thing, too. Everybody picked up on that weird energy about the place. Those were four strangely positive nights in kind of a dark place. We didn’t want it to end.”
Touring in earnest for Better Nature won’t begin until 2016, but Guanlao and his bandmates already have designs on righting the wrongs of their Neck of the Woods campaign; only a handful of dates in Mexico and Australia took them outside of North America that time around. “One of the big priorities when we were starting our own label was making a conscious effort to say, “look, we’re going to take this outside of America this time.” Honestly, we were probably kind of spoiled on the first couple of records in terms of what we managed to do overseas. we played in the UK a lot, and did a lot of European stuff, too, and I think maybe we just assumed that it was going to happen again last time; eventually, it got to the point where we were going to the label and to management, like, “are we actually going to take this around the world?” It ended up being beyond our control. Specifically, not getting to the UK was pretty devastating to us, because things were going so well there. The venues we’d been playing for Swoon, they weren’t huge, but they were packed out. We felt like all the work we’d done there was for nothing, and we’re going to have to re-establish ourselves now, which is fine - whatever we have to do to play shows, you know? We’ve got some ground to make up, but that’s cool. We’re looking forward to it.”
Better Nature is available now via New Machine Recordings.