Home Is Where The Art Is

15 May 2012 | 1:22 pm | Cam Findlay

Silversun Pickups are not necessarily a band you can set your watch to. A free-flying take on touring and recording might frustrate some, but they wouldn’t have it any other way, as bassist Nikki Monninger explains to Cam Findlay.

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Love them or hate them, Silversun Pickups are a hot ticket right now. Just look at the merch page on their website; The 'Limited Edition Ultimate Package' of their upcoming third album, Neck Of The Woods, includes a coloured double-LP set, a 60-page hardcover book of photos taken during the recording session, a 'one of a kind' hipstamatic photo personally photographed and hand-signed by the members of the band, and a lyric personally written by Brian Aubert, Silversun Pickups' guitarist, vocalist and chief songwriter. How'd they go? Well, with a limited edition run it's always hard to tell, but this scribe was upset to miss out after finding out less than a day earlier of its existence. Such is the formula for a band that has risen from a hipster-cool cult following to mainstream popularity in a matter of a few short years.

The Silver Lake, California band have been hard at work since 2009's Swoon – in a manner of speaking. In a move that probably didn't surprise past fans, the band went their separate ways before regrouping to work on a story and theme for their next recording. Aubert found inspiration in Europe, using the geographical isolation and homesickness of a long expedition to flesh out the ideas behind what would eventually become Neck Of The Woods. The process is one familiar to the band: Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist/sound mixer Joe Lester and drummer Christopher Gunlao have always maintained a free-flowing approach to recording and touring that has always lent the group a spirited demeanour.

“I just think that's how we've always been, and maybe how we always will be,” explains Monninger from LA, in a brief respite between rehearsals before the band's longhaul tour of the US and Canada later this year. “It's just what's always worked for us. I know that it doesn't for all bands, that the strict regime of touring, recording, touring, recording works for them. But we really prefer to just let things work themselves out in a natural way.”

It's probably a fitting statement for the process which would eventually lead to Neck Of The Woods. Even the name gives a bit of it away; the band decamped to Topeka Canyon, just outside LA, to work at the studio of the world-renowned Jacknife Lee. The man behind the ambient sounds of U2, R.E.M, The Cars and countless others lent his magic to the creation of the Pickups' latest album. The environment the band found themselves in, as well as Lee's eclectic production style, gave new breathing space to the oft-frustrating period of recording tracks.

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“I think it was such a great experience to go there,” Monninger recalls excitedly. “It's only forty-five minutes from LA, but it seems like a world away. It was kind of like a nice part of nature to visit every day. I felt like that was inspiring. Brian is actually from Topeka Canyon, so for him it was about revisiting his youth and just kind of looking back on his life and having this really retrospective experience.”

Aubert has been unabashedly honest about returning to the town he grew up in, and it has obviously had a profound effect on the way he shaped the lyrical content and the story of the album. “These songs started forming in places that were completely foreign to me, and then ended in the place that I grew up, an environment that could not be more familiar,” Aubert stated in the press material for the new album. “I went through my whole childhood and teenage years in the weeks we were there making the record.” It was that energy – of simultaneously both a positive and negative nature – that influenced Aubert's writing, and eventually the input of the entire band.

“I just felt like, with Neck Of The Woods, we were more open to new ideas, and that's why we went to Topeka in the first place. We worked with Jacknife because he comes from a more electronic background. I definitely think we still sound like us, but I feel like there are elements that we were able to add because of him. We were ready to just go at it from a different angle, but without changing the core of what we do.”

While the combination of Lee and the Pickups makes a lot of sense in terms of musical cohesion, it sets a very different standard to that achieved on Swoon, and even to 2006's Carnavas (home to the track, Lazy Eye, which began the Pickups' following). Swoon endeavoured to build out the classic rock-based guitar sound of previous work with a lush treatment of strings, culminating in a 16-piece orchestra for a lot of the album. With Neck Of The Woods, however, it ended up being a case of going back to the roots.

“Well actually, going into it originally, I think we were thinking that we were going to add more. You know, do that again and develop a big orchestra sound. But by the time we were really into working on the album, we realised that we can achieve the kind of emotions we wanted out of those really basic parts, like keyboard and guitar sounds. We realised that if we added the orchestra again, it would just be too crowded, and we wanted to keep the spaces in between. So it wasn't so much a conscious, deliberate thing. Going into it, we really did want to add all those big sounds again, but as we were getting into it we realised that that would have overshadowed what we were trying to do.”

What this has ended up creating, then, is an intimate sense of space that pervades the album, from first single, Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings), to the typical Silversun rock-out moments and the quaint melodic workouts. Once again, credit goes to Jacknife Lee and the effect of Topeka Canyon, but with an obvious sense of deliberation entering into it.

“I think we've always tried to include that sense of space [on our albums],” Monninger argues. “It's just how we love to write music and listen to things. If you include that space, than it makes the highs higher, which in turn makes it much more dynamic. I think that's what we've always tried to achieve.”

And yes, the good news is that, despite a work ethic that really takes everything as it comes, Silversun Pickups are hoping to return to Australia sooner rather than later.

“We're just getting ready to start playing live again. It's been about a year-and-a-half, so we're really looking forward to getting out there and playing again. And yeah, of course we can't wait to get back to Australia - we love it there. As I said, it's how we've always been, and it's worked so far,” she laughs.