When an indie-rock band winds up on the fast track to fame, its members often find themselves unprepared to deal with the demands.
Not Silversun Pickups.
Throughout the course of a sixteen-year career, the band has evolved and grown at its own pace. Singer Brian Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger first met back in 1997 as they were on their way to an exchange program in Cambridge, England. They struck up a friendship and quickly started going to concerts together after they returned to LA, becoming roommates.
"We were going to shows all the time," says Monninger via phone from Los Angeles. "It was Modest Mouse and Built to Spill and Wilco and Sonic Youth. They were playing all the time in LA. We would go to shows all the time, especially when we lived in Silver Lake and we had so many friends in bands. It was a very supportive scene of going to see your friends play."
Though they played in separate bands at the time, they soon realized they had so much in common that it made sense for them to play together.
"He was in a different band, and I was in a different band, and we talked about joining the same band," says Monninger. "It really just started in our kitchen."
Silversun Pickups' full-length debut, 2006's Carnavas, sold respectably well as four of its singles made their way onto Billboard's Modern Rock chart. The band had another solid hit with 2008's Swoon, an album that delivered the haunting "Panic Switch," a song that showcased Aubert's androgynous vocals and the band's dream-pop sound. Bigger and better tours followed.
Last year, the group returned with Better Nature, an album that shows a willingness to tweak a formula that's worked well to this date. Produced by Jacknife Lee (U2, Two Door Cinema Club, Crystal Castles), with whom the group collaborated for 2012's Neck of the Woods, and mixed by Grammy award-winning engineer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails, Royal Blood), the album broadens the band's sound.
"I think we were all in a good spot where we were open to trying things and experimenting with new instruments," Monninger says when asked about the songwriting process. "I play a vibraphone on there, and I play a piano part too. Usually, that's all [keyboardist] Joe [Lester's] parts. It was a great collaboration between us. We recorded at Jacknife's home, where we also recorded Neck of the Woods.
"It was fun to go to recording every day," she adds. "His house is at the top of Topanga Canyon in a remote area. It was interesting recording this time, because we didn't record all the way through. We did a couple of weeks there and here — it was all within a few months' period. We would have a week or two off. It helped to have everything sink in to see if we wanted to make changes. I think that helped us."
A plodding number that features a heavy bass riff and shimmering guitars, "Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)" features a duet between Aubert and Monninger, who rarely sings. Monninger says she wrote the song about a friend who passed away.
"From the beginning of the album, the guys wanted me to sing," she says. "I'm hesitant. In general, I'm not that outgoing. It was originally going to be something that I just sang alone. We then thought it would be nice to do a duet together. It's about a friend of ours who passed away last year. It was an homage to him. That inspired me to break through my fears."
With its fluttering electronic blips and beeps and soft vocals, "Friendly Fires" has all the poignancy of a Smashing Pumpkins ballad.
"It's a nice breath on the album," says Monninger. "When we put things together, we always think of how well the songs play together. Brian sings the vocals, so it's hard for me to respond to what it's about. The thing about that one is that it's so minimal, but at the same time includes a lot. It's a great song to just let Brian's vocals speak for themselves."
The album sequencing was very intentional, and the ascendant album closer, "The Wild Kind," works as a good way to bring the disc to a conclusion. Monninger says the group labors over these details to make sure the material works as a whole.
"It's very important to us that the songs blend well," she says. "We want to make an actual album. It's fine with us if you want to buy singles. To us, it's meant to be listened to all the way through in order. It's well thought-out and that's what we would hope. We have carefully thought about the album order and how things fit together. It's all very important to us. When we listen to albums that we like, it seems like they're set up with that in mind."
Monninger admits the group, which just formed its own record label to release Better Nature, has exceeded her expectations.
"We never thought up a life plan," she says, "but so far everything is working out, so we're going with it."