Brian Aubert (guitar, vocals) * Nikki Monninger (bass)
Joe Lester (keyboards) * Christopher Guanlao (drums)
Silversun Pickups have always considered their sonic density a source of pride: The Los Angeles band‚Äôs four studio full-lengths‚Äîincluding their 2006 gold-selling debut, Carnavas, which spawned the hits ‚ÄúLazy Eye‚Äù and ‚ÄúWell Thought Out Twinkles‚Äù‚Äîreveal additional sonic gifts with each subsequent spin.
Their fifth album, Widow‚Äôs Weeds, also caters to an adventurous, patient group of listeners. Strident acoustic strumming tussles with raging electric riffs, as urgent, precise beats and moody electronic pulses percolate underneath. The band members‚Äîwhich, in addition to Aubert, include bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Christopher Guanlao and keyboardist Joe Lester‚Äîwere also in agreement with the album‚Äôs starting point (the urgent synth-rocker ‚ÄúNeon Wound‚Äù) and closer (the aggressive, throttling ‚ÄúWe Are Chameleons‚Äù). The band admitted that everything in between, including how the rest of Widow‚Äôs Weeds was sequenced and how the album unfolded, often surprised the band.
‚ÄúWe didn‚Äôt know exactly which emotional level the lyrics were going to start at,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúI was like, ‚ÄòAre they going to be angry, with these crazy times?‚Äô Everything seems so polarized and bizarre and scary. All of these things affect you. And then as they were coming out, it was like, ‚ÄòNo, they sound like they‚Äôre kind of mourning.‚Äô I couldn‚Äôt quite put them all together.‚Äù
To make sense of these ideas, Silversun Pickups enlisted a long-time friend: producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth). Incredibly enough, this was the first time the band had worked with Vig, even though the idea of collaborating had been floated for years. The timing didn‚Äôt feel right until now, Aubert says. ‚ÄúWith the ideas that were popping around in my head, it felt like, ‚ÄòGod, this would be awesome; I think it‚Äôs time. If Butch is interested in doing this at all, let‚Äôs just call him.’‚Äù
Vig and mixer Billy Bush helped Silversun Pickups craft a confident, extroverted album in which every instrument is clearly audible in the mix. Pulsing, Cure-like keyboards hold their own against slashing riffs on ‚ÄúNeon Wound‚Äù; antique-sounding violin and cello enhance fragile acoustic strumming on ‚ÄúStraw Man‚Äù; and the spring-loaded, glammy ‚ÄúIt Doesn‚Äôt Matter Why‚Äù boasts pogoing beats and needling pizzicato plucks. The album‚Äôs more restrained moments also maintain this crispness. ‚ÄúSimpatico‚Äù is ‚Äúthe closest we‚Äôll get to a James Bond song,‚Äù says Aubert, who immersed himself in movie scores as the album was coalescing. Widow‚Äôs Weeds strikes a perfect balance between provocative noise and distortion, and lush, introspective pop tranquility.
The band members also decided not to go overboard layering on instruments and sounds, which contributed to the album‚Äôs clearer approach. ‚ÄúWe made a conscious effort to rein in the electronic stuff a little bit, and have more pianos and organs,‚Äù Lester says. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs still synthy stuff on there for sure. But we have strings again, which we hadn‚Äôt done for a couple of records. And there‚Äôs a lot less sequenced electronics. It was like, ‚ÄòLet‚Äôs strip the palette a little bit, and see what happens.‚Äô And that goes back to the directness of things.‚Äù
Vig‚Äôs versatility and songwriting background helped the band shape other songs‚Äîincluding and especially ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt Know Yet,‚Äù on which glitchy, taut electronic textures segue into explosive choruses drive by brusque drums and noisy guitars. ‚ÄúIt has moments of intimacy, but then it really comes alive and big-sounding,‚Äù Guanlao says of the song. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs all Butch. We would have probably gone a totally different direction if it wasn‚Äôt for him hearing that this once-intimate, mellow song can be really boastful and rocking.‚Äù
In the end, recording with Vig surpassed the band members‚Äô already-high expectations. ‚ÄúHe really listens to each band member, and he puts a great value on each individual, and what they can add to the music,‚Äù Monninger says. ‚ÄúIt was very collaborative with him. He‚Äôs such an easygoing person, and he put everybody at ease.‚Äù That camaraderie translated into a studio environment that involved intense and serious hard work unfolding in a jovial, even lighthearted, manner. ‚ÄúWe had a really fun time recording this album,‚Äù Guanlao says. ‚ÄúHe really did get the best out of us. We didn‚Äôt want it to end.‚Äù
Despite the halcyon studio time, the band members were wrestling with challenges in their personal lives. The album had to be done in two separate blocks of time, since Vig had Garbage tour plans already on the calendar, which left Silversun Pickups with a break between sessions. During that gap in time, Lester‚Äôs father passed away. Aubert, meanwhile, found himself in an extremely dark place, for reasons he couldn‚Äôt immediately explain.
‚ÄúWe started making this album about mourning, and it‚Äôs like, ‚ÄòWhat are you mourning? Are you really mourning politics and stuff like that? Or what is happening?‚Äô I didn‚Äôt realize that I was finding myself in this space where I completely tried to take on everything myself. I couldn‚Äôt ask for help; I couldn‚Äôt let anybody in. That led me to start drinking in a different way, that I never did before.‚Äù
As a result, Aubert‚Äîwho was already feeling ‚Äúemotionally closed off,‚Äù as he puts it‚Äîfell into a deep depression. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt know how to get out of it,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúFinally, I was just like, something big has to happen.‚Äù His solution was getting treatment and getting sober during the gap between recording sessions‚Äîa decision that immediately improved his mental health and creative outlook.
Unsurprisingly, Aubert also had a much different perspective on his Widow‚Äôs Weeds lyrics post-treatment, and understood more what messages he was trying to convey with the album. ‚ÄúThe record does have a mourning vibe, but it‚Äôs not sad,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs change. It‚Äôs growing up, and moving on and letting go of things. And it‚Äôs okay to be sad about those things, and mourn them. It‚Äôs actually healthy to do so, and take the time to do it. At the end of the day, it‚Äôs going to be much better and much more fulfilling when you get through it.‚Äù
‚ÄúWhen I got sober, and took a little time to myself to move as a human, we came back at the record again,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúThen it was like, now we‚Äôre back into the record, and writing again. It was wild. Things are really changing, and I‚Äôm starting to emotionally connect to things, and starting to take care of myself. I‚Äôm starting to ask for help.‚Äù
Aubert‚Äôs bandmates also saw an immediate change in him as they reconvened to finish Widow‚Äôs Weeds. Guanlao noticed that the vocalist was opening up to him and the rest of the band more, and allowing himself to be more vulnerable, while Monninger observed increased clarity. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm really proud of him for coming through all this. He focused so much on the album and put so much of his heart into it‚Äîas we all did, but especially coming out of all that, he needed something to really focus on.‚Äù Lester also saw big, positive differences in his bandmate. ‚ÄúIt was like, ‚Äòokay, this has actually been really good; he‚Äôs gotten stuff that has probably been bothering him for a long time sorted out.‚Äô‚Äù
In a nod to Aubert‚Äôs healthier mindset‚Äîand in a big change from past working environments‚Äîthe members of Silversun Pickups welcomed friends and family into the studio as they were recording. ‚ÄúThis was the first album where we were open,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúNot just with Butch, but with people around us. We played stuff for people. We never used to before. We‚Äôd play a little mixing and things like that. We were too shy.‚Äù Creating this kind of social, nurturing atmosphere added levity and accountability, and kept everyone in the band grounded. ‚ÄúDoing this in front of people is so much more enlightening, and really helps you focus on things,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúWe were exposed. I see how that can be scary to people, but for us we really thrived on that.‚Äù
Widow‚Äôs Weeds ends up being about rebirth and renewal, facing darker elements of the soul (or society) head-on, and choosing to either engage‚Äîor leave them behind. This shift toward blunt candor wasn‚Äôt lost on Lester. ‚ÄúI feel Brian‚Äôs lyrics have gotten more direct over the last couple of records. He‚Äôs much more open and less coy about what he‚Äôs singing about. There‚Äôs less trying to put Vaseline on the lens.‚Äù
Over the years, Silversun Pickups have racked up 210 million worldwide streams and 10 Top 20 hits on Billboard‚Äòs Alternative Songs chart, led by 2009‚Äôs ferocious chart-topper ‚ÄúPanic Switch.‚Äù Nearly 20 years after the band formed, it‚Äôs not lost on Monninger that they‚Äôre one of the few groups they‚Äôve grown up with who have sustained a career. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know many bands that have lasted that long,‚Äù she says. ‚ÄúBut we started as friends first, and we care about each other‚Äîyou know, this is our second family. We really believe in what we‚Äôre doing. We‚Äôre going to take it as far as we can.‚Äù
For Aubert, moving forward involves staying connected to his own self (and remembering to prioritize self-care) and being attuned to creative impulses when they arise. If that means going outside of his comfort zone, so be it. ‚ÄúThis album feels the most naked out of all of them,‚Äù Aubert says. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs scary at first. But that goes into my whole headspace. That goes into how things went down. It was like, ‚ÄòHey man, you were so unaware of the things you needed, and so closed off. Just do it. Stop hiding. It was crushing you. Don‚Äôt be afraid.‚Äô