Photos © 2017 by: Roman Sobus
“This album is like its own quantum universe,” says Silversun Pickups singer/guitarist Brian Aubert. “It’s kind of unstable.”
Silversun Pickups’ first new album in more than three years, BETTER NATURE sees the Silverlake, CA-based band partnering once again with producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Two Door Cinema Club, Crystal Castles), with whom they so successfully collaborated on 2012’s visionary NECK OF THE WOODS. Songs like “Friendly Fires” and “Cradle (Better Nature)” were created and crafted in Lee’s Topanga studio, the band building out organically from Aubert’s spare songwriting demos. The result is fluid and freewheeling, “oozy,” in Aubert’s words, with heavily cranked guitars, propulsive rhythms, and seemingly infinite textures.
GRAMMY® Award-winning mix engineer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, Royal Blood) brings maximum sonic power to the proceedings, but at the album’s beating heart is Silversun Pickups’ remarkably intuitive interplay, as ever providing panoramic musical counterpoint to Aubert’s incisive, increasingly self-exploratory lyricism. Richer, warmer, and more evocative than anything in their prior canon, BETTER NATURE is Silversun Pickups’ most human music thus far.
“I’ll tell you something that makes me a little nervous,” Aubert confides. “This record, I like it. Usually I’m like, well, we tried! But this one, it’s weird – we’re all digging on it.”
Silversun Pickups is among the most dynamic and creative rock bands of the modern era, hailed far and wide for their inimitable merging of ethereal melodies and pure sonic force. From the indie rock opening salvo of 2005’s PIKUL EP to 2012’s far-reaching NECK OF THE WOODS, each successive release has seen the Silverlake, CA-based band boldly venture into uncharted terrain, bravely pushing their imagination and ability towards new and surprising summits. BETTER NATURE marks the debut release from Silversun Pickups’ own New Machine Recordings. The label – which takes its name from the PIKUL favorite, “…All The Go Inbetweens” – allows the ever-autonomous band to fully determine its own course without any interference from on high.
“This record is as indie as it gets,” Aubert laughs. “Maybe we’re crazy, but at the end of the day, it’s really not that different than before except we have more control.”
Silversun Pickups’ first decision as label heads was to once again record with producer Jacknife Lee at his nearby Topanga studio, enabling all involved to stay close to home throughout the process.
“People always say, why don’t you guys go make a record out of town somewhere,” Aubert says, “but then when would we ever live here? This is my only chance to hang in Los Angeles. If I’m not here now, when am I ever going to see these people? We learned early on – we didn’t pay attention to our home life and came back from the road to some very broken and tattered universes. We said, right there and then, we have to figure this out, how to do this and still be people. Which is something we eventually did.”
Aubert also notes that first time collaborations are always more tentative and introductory, the second go-around allowing the participants to get looser and more inventive. Having already established a creative relationship with NECK OF THE WOODS, Silversun Pickups and Lee were not only comfortable together, they knew what worked.
“It just moves in a way that’s so quick and easy,” Aubert says. “You have the same discussions and the same battles, but you’re friendly, you’re closer than you were before. You don’t have to explain everything, because they know.”
Aubert began writing new songs upon Silversun Pickups’ return to California after nearly two years on the road. He prepared for the new album by recording a series of extremely stripped down demos with keyboardist Joe Lester in the band’s rehearsal room, mostly wordless, others just hints of melody and sound. Silversun Pickups took those “raw bones” and “used the studio to be creative,” Aubert says, “to be improvisational. To not be too locked down.” With only the barest hint of a blueprint, the band relied on their already in-sync interactivity in order to create something fully attributable to all members.
“There’s a sound that we have that only happens when the four of us get together,” Aubert says. “We can push further and further and further because we know that at the end of the day, that’s not going to change. It’s going to be me and it’s going to be them. There’s a certain thing that’s immovable whether we like it or not.”
Where NECK OF THE WOODS was “purposely nostalgic,” BETTER NATURE was designed as a snapshot of Silversun Pickups smack dab at this particular moment in time.
“This all felt very current,” Aubert says. “Very right now. Everything is super-happening. We’ve been doing this awhile now and this time I wanted us to really enjoy the process, to just laugh about it, to really feel…oozy. I just wanted it to come out, without thinking about it. I just wanted to exist.”
Silversun Pickups maintained a similarly Zen approach to the sessions themselves. The band had heretofore rehearsed new songs to perfection before getting near the studio, allaying their own jitters by locking everything into muscle memory before the record button was pushed. This time, that sort of safety net was off the table.
“We never played these songs straight through, all together,” Aubert says, “but it’s even more organic in a way, because we were all creating it together. How these songs come to be is in our hands. We have the bone, how do we put some meat on this thing?”
The sessions were unstructured by design, which isn’t to say the band didn’t apply considerable forethought to the process. Aubert cites influences on the album spanning Sparklehorse to NPR’s much beloved Radiolab, the band’s goal up front to create “a non-existent thing that sounds like it really exists.”
“We wanted it to be big and bombastic,” Aubert says. “We wanted there to be weird moments – Double time! Bar chords! Screaming! Monkey sounds! The guitars were going to be swelling again, there were going to be loud solos. Things needed to be coming at you.”
The band worked fast despite the lack of prep, spending a grand total of 30 days recording the album between October 2014 and the start of the New Year, banging out finished track after finished track in short, sharp sessions.
“It was weird,” Aubert says. “it was as intense to make as all the others, but it was also very focused. I think we’ve learned over the years how much time we waste. Back in the day we didn’t care, but now we’re all like, let’s go in, do five solid hours, and go home. We want to live. We need to do this one thousand percent, but not only this. We don’t want to be completely absorbed by this.”
A vibrantly creative groove was established in which “no one knew who was going to be doing what at any time.” Instruments were set up and ready to go at all times, Aubert even tracked vocals sans headphones, using a multi-directional microphone to “just sing to the room.”
“As tight as the last one was,” Aubert says, “this one needed to be loose.”
BETTER NATURE is indeed Silversun Pickups at their most supple; “Pins and Needles” is all loping riff and kinetic beats while “Friendly Fires” slow jams as much as it slow burns. Co-written and sung by Monninger, “Circadian Rhythms (Let’s Dance)” is audaciously imagined modern pop, “the kind of song we would have tried to steer away from in the past,” Aubert says. “We had to be reminded that that was what we were going for, that we weren’t afraid of anything.”
A number of roads are first taken on BETTER NATURE, the band allowing themselves to tackle tunes that once would have been anathema to the Silversun aesthetic. “Nightlight,” the album’s incandescent first single, is lifted aloft by a sing-along chorus unprecedented in the band’s undoubtedly hook-heavy canon.
“I remember thinking, we should not do this,” Aubert says, “But then I thought, why not? Let’s do it, who cares?”
The band’s openness informed every move, from incorporating elements from Aubert and Lester’s very lo-fi demos to switching out tried and true instrumentation with invention and remarkable spontaneity. Silversun Pickups went with the flow at all turns, letting songs shift and take new shapes as events warranted. Recording “Tapedeck” proved as much “a wild ride” as the relentlessly veering song itself.
“We were working that one and that same day, Jacknife bought a vibraphone,” Aubert says. “We said, Nikki, why don’t you learn to play it? We’ve never done that before. So Nikki goes off for an hour or two and next thing you know, she’s playing the vibraphone. Those are the moments that were never available to us before because of our own closed-in mindset, we would never have taken those opportunities before.”
Harmonious and intimate, high-flying and deeply personal, BETTER NATURE is a revelatory manifestation of a great band entirely in touch with the muse and each other. Silversun Pickups have once again managed the tricky task of being completely contemporary while also full on forward thinking, now as ever, existing more than a few steps ahead of the curve.
“The people who are invested in us generally like the last record we made every time we put out a new one,” Aubert says. “PIKUL was this really low budget EP and then with CARNAVAS, everyone was like, ‘whoa, this is sharp!’ SWOON came out and it was all dreamy so people went ‘well, this is no CARNAVAS.’ And then with NECK OF THE WOODS, it was, ‘this is nothing like SWOON.’ We can’t wait to put this record out so people can tell us how much they liked the last one.”