In the decade or so since Pandora’s proliferation, modern rock radio has been dealt its fair share of blows. It’s also become one of the toughest — and strangest — markets for young bands to crack. Of course, with every trend there is an exception, which is where L.A.’s Silversun Pickups come in. Since exploding on the general consciousness in 2006 with their hit single “Lazy Eye,” the quartet (made up of frontman/guitarist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Chris Guanlao, and keyboardist Joe Lester) has helped make an argument for the well-being of modern rock radio and given the world a solid reason to not switch the dial.
And it’s no wonder. The band crafts tight-knit, frenetic, and slightly cerebral alt rock that’s been likened to The Smashing Pumpkins more times than it’s even worth mentioning. Unlike the Pumpkins, though, the Pickups’ shtick is light on the theatrics and welcomingly approachable. Just take their name, which derives from late-night beer runs to Silverlake’s Silversun Liquor. Or their songs, which carry titles like “Growing Old Is Getting Old.” For six years and three albums, they’ve stayed true to their indie-label roots — even after hitting the Billboard Top 10. And their new release, this month’s Neck of the Woods, loosely revolves around a theme of wanting to belong.
Like its predecessors, Neck of the Woods is filled with searing guitars, tense drum fills, and propulsively groovy bass lines, but it also captures the band at its strongest to date. Gone are the shoegazey tunes of their sophomore effort, replaced by tighter, more layered jams and at least one explosive anthem (see lead single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”). The album also finds Aubert at his most vocally comfortable and lyrically candid. In short, it sounds like a band that’s growing up.
This Friday, Silversun Pickups return to S.B. to, fittingly enough, headline KJEE’s annual Summer Round-Up at the Santa Barbara Bowl alongside Garbage, The Naked and Famous, GROUPLOVE, and Gardens & Villa. Recently, I chatted with Monninger about the new album, new challenges, and her old home in Santa Barbara.
Congrats on the record. How was the recording process this time out? It was great. We recorded the whole thing in our producer Jacknife Lee’s house in Topanga Canyon. He converted his garage into a studio, so we’d record during the day and then go have dinner with his family, and then we would go back in for another few hours. That was every day for two or three months. It felt like we were going somewhere else, somewhere far away. Even though technically Topanga Canyon is only 45 minutes out[side of L.A.], it feels like a whole other world out there. Especially where [Lee] lived, it was so lush and green and foresty; it felt like we were on vacation. I mean, we were working, but it was really serene and beautiful. We were really lucky to record in that situation.
How did you guys settle on calling the album Neck of the Woods? It started coming out toward the end. We recorded really close to the house where Brian grew up. We were only a mile or two from it, so I think coming back there sort of made him feel like he was going back to his roots. We were also going through album art at the time, and that picture by Todd Hido really stood out to us and really represented what the whole album is about. Parts of it seem ominous, yet parts of it are welcoming; you get a sense of voyeurism. There are a lot of different ideas that come to mind when I look at it.
How would you compare this record to the last two Silversun albums? I think Brian’s vocals were captured really well on this album. The way Jacknife recorded them was really natural: He didn’t use headphones; he just played back the music, and Brian sang over everything, almost like he was singing it live. We also didn’t do any preproduction for this album; we just kind of dove right into it. I was somewhat resistant, just because I’m used to thinking about what I’m going to record and taking time with it. Jacknife was much more spontaneous. In fact, at one point he took my notes and threw them on the ground. [Laughs.] I wasn’t used to it, but I ended up liking doing it that way in the end.
You guys are playing up here as part of KJEE’s big summer kickoff fest. Anything you’re especially excited about? Yeah! I actually lived in Santa Barbara for a little while. I was just there for a semester at Santa Barbara City College. In fact, it was right after that that I went on an exchange program to Cambridge, and that’s where I met Brian. But I lived in Isla Vista in a house on Sabado Tarde with, like, 10 other girls. It was a fun time. So I’m looking forward to coming back and revisiting friends there. And playing with Garbage; they’re amazing people.
Silversun Pickups play KJEE’s Summer Round-Up at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday, June 1, at 4 p.m. with Garbage, The Naked and Famous, GROUPLOVE, and Gardens & Villa. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit www.sbbowl.com for tickets and info.