We look at each other as family, and that’s how the tour is going: enjoying each other’s company and the time we have together.
It’s hard to believe, but Silversun Pickups, the Silverlake, Calif., quartet that formed in 2000 and broke out in 2006, is almost 16 years old—with the original lineup still intact: Brian Aubert (guitar, vocals), Nikki Monninger (bass), Joe Lester (keyboards), and Christopher Guanlao (drums). In today’s desolate, ephemeral world of music, that’s no small feat.
Silversun Pickups’ debut full-length, the gloomy, multilayered pop masterpiece Carnavas, spawned two big singles: “Lazy Eye” and “Melatonin,” and became an alternative rock radio staple. To date, the record has sold 435,000 copies. Again, in a world dominated by bland pop pap and disposable artists of the week, that’s a noteworthy achievement.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Guanlao before the band hopped in the van for a 105.7 The Point show at St. Louis’s Ballpark Village.
Happy late birthday! [Guanlao’s birthday was May 25.]
Oh, thanks, man! Thanks for remembering.
Do all of you still live in Silverlake (Los Angeles)?
Brian and Joe still live there; in fact, Brian lives right above me in the Hills. I still live in Silverlake and love it. It’s a few generations removed from our heyday of closing shows for Autolux, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, etc. We would take any show back then. We never opened; we always closed. We’d take any show and any slot. We cut our teeth there, and all of sudden people were staying to see us. [Laughs] And we got a lot better playing the clubs. A lot of the bands from the early 2000s have moved on and it’s different now.
The first time I went to Spaceland in 1996, I was driving there thinking, “Where am I?” I grew up in Los Feliz and Eagle Rock and Silverlake was still foreign. Silverlake had the first incarnation in the ’90s with Beck, That Dog, and others. I was in my late teens and trying to start my own band. Silverlake, for lack of better word, was sketchy. It’s not sketchy anymore; it has higher-end bars and you can actually walk to places. It feels like a real neighborhood and not living in a big city.
Is Silverlake still creative and a hotbed for music?
It is, but I think it’s a few generations removed now.
How did you build upon your local buzz and get signed?
Actually, we were going to sign with a label and we had a lawyer shopping us around. We didn’t really know a lot, and we weren’t that aggressive. I remember Palm Pictures were supposedly going to sign us and put our demos out [what ended up becoming the Pikul EP], then they wanted our publishing and we were hesitant to give up everything.
Our lawyer said that she had a friend, Dangerbird’s Jeff Castelaz. We basically met with him to get some advice and we had a great dinner. He told us, “Just do it. You have a buzz in the Silverlake scene; take advantage of it.” We sat on it for a night. The very next morning, our lawyer called us and said, “Jeff wants to sign you and offer the same deal, but you get to keep your publishing.” OK, that’s a better deal.
We ended up releasing three records on Dangerbird Records with him, and an EP. Everything happened organically or naturally with this band-touring, getting signed; everything just seems to have come into place. We’re fortunate. Our lawyer was with us a year before we even got signed. I’ve been in a lot of other bands and I know it doesn’t always end up the way.
How have things changed in the music business, from when you were just starting out to now?
Well, record don’t sell anymore. [Laughs] Like you said, it’s other thing that make a band money.
You played the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Are you planning on playing again?
[Laughing] We’re going to be playing for Trump in Cleveland. Fuck that, man. [Laughs] We’re obviously liberals and Democrats. We’ve been having a lot of discussions and we’re just hoping that the dust settles with our party. We need to get together and be united against Trump. We saw that he clinched the Republican nomination today. Anybody but Trump. At the end of the day, both Hillary and Bernie are a lot closer than some people think on most issues.
Do you remember the first time you heard your music on the radio?
The first time we heard ourselves was on KXLU [Loyola Marymount University’s station, Los Angeles] and it was just incredible. We felt like gods. One of my managers knows radio. He used to work at Geffen in radio and he told us about it early on, even Swoon  or even Carnavas , and we were chatting about the difference between radio and the business in the ’90s and 2008. He said, “If you had been around in the ’90s, you’d have been millionaires.” The state of the music industry today is so much about huge artists like Kanye West, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift. For artists in the middle, it’s more blue collar, and it takes a lot of hard work to make money. Licensing is such a shot in the dark. We find ourselves having to rely on that more.
Do you plan your next steps or do you just go with the flow?
We’re really concentrating on touring; that’s kind of our bread and butter and we’re having fun doing that. Once we slow down, we’ll record a new record. We also have a project that I can’t talk about quite yet, and we’re excited about that. It involves a film and we’ll leave it at that. [Laughs] It’s something we love: We’re film buffs. So we’re all eager to jump on it.
Do you still enjoy playing live and touring?
Yeah, I love it. We actually are taking a few days off and we’ll be playing St Louis Saturday [May 28]. Oh, that’s right; you’re in St. Louis. [Laughs]
A lot of bands break up; their labels drop them or they end up really butting heads. We’re lucky; we’ve already gone through a lot of that. We were best friends when we started the band, and then we became more business partners instead of just friends. We still loved it. Something in the last couple of years has changed, and we came out of it and we’re so much closer. Now we look at each other as family, not as business partners—brothers and a sister—and that’s how the tour is going for [new release] Better Nature, enjoying each other’s company and the time we have together. Just look at our Instagram feed: We don’t hide in the hotel or dressing rooms; we love going out and being together. We legitimately like going places together. It’s been 15 years; we didn’t realize that until we started doing press for this new record and everyone start throwing that at us. And we realized, yeah, it has been a few years.
What are your memories of St. Louis?
Is Vintage Vinyl still there and still hanging on? I remember playing that venue that’s right next door, the Duck Room; we played there a few times. We were playing a Christmas radio show and it was so cold and it was snowing. We went out to the van to drive to the hotel and our manager realized he had locked the keys in the van. We were stuck outside, freezing our asses off.
I also remember when we were with Against Me and in the outside area by the St. Louis Arch. Against Me played and had a great set; we were only five songs in when the clouds came in. There was lightening and a huge storm, so we had to get off stage. We’ve had a great time over there; it’s a great city and cool area.
Our [May 28] show is kind of a one-off for the radio station [105.7 The Point], and we’ve had the last four or five days off. We’re flying to play that Point show, then we have another five days off, then we’re coming back to L.A. and doing a West Coast run.
Are you enjoying playing Better Nature? How do you work out your set list?
We’re trying to keep it very catalog friendly. We actually have singles to pull into our set, so we’re kind of lucky. We’ve basically play three or four songs from Better Nature and the rest from Carnavas, Swoon, and even something from Pikul; we have been playing “Kissing Families.” I remember playing KEXP [Seattle public radio] in the early days. They were big early supporters; they played “Kissing Families,” and that helped us. We try to play a nice set and we don’t shy away from our singles. We’ll play “Panic Switch” every time; we know people want us to play it. We’ll play whatever the fans want. | Doug Tull
Silversun Pickups play St. Louis on May 28 at Ballpark Village downtown. Other announced U.S. tour dates follow.
06.04 | Live 105 BFD @ Shoreline Amphitheatre, San Francisco
06.06 | The Showbox, Seattle
06.07 | Crystal Ballroom, Portland
06.08 | McDonald Theatre, Eugene OR
06.17 | BB&T Pavilion, Camden NJ
06.20 | Track 29, Chattanooga TN
06.22 | The Orange Peel, Asheville NC
06.24 | The Ritz, Raleigh NC
07.22 | Panorama Festival, New York
07.29-31 | Osheaga Festival, Montreal