When Silversun Pickups' latest album, Swoon, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200, few were more surprised than frontman Brian Aubert. True, the group climbed a couple of charts with 2007's "Lazy Eye" single, but he figured that would be about it when it came to commercial success.
Instead, the Los Angeles band's second full-length album yielded two massive alt-rock singles, "Panic Switch" and "The Royal We," elevating them from clubs to concert halls in the process. Plus, an opening night performance at Red Rocks' 2008 Monolith Festival proved the Grammy-nominated band can deliver darkly infectious pop anthems with edge-of-the-seat intensity.
In the interview below, Aubert talks about schizophrenic tendencies, record industry escapades, and the redemptive power of a 16-piece orchestra.
Indy: A decade ago, an indie artist who got a Best New Artist Grammy nomination — which probably didn't even happen back then — would have been cornered by a bunch of major labels waving record contracts. To what degree did that happen to you, and were you ever tempted?
BA: You know, they've been swimming around for a while, I think since our Pikul EP started dong pretty well. And no, not really.
Indy: For all the obvious reasons?
BA: I just can't see what they would do that would make our lives better. I can see what they could do to make our lives worse. It's not in the cards for us. We're on a label that's just two or three people, you know? And personally, I think because we are on Dangerbird, that's the only reason why you and I are talking right now. If we were on a major, they would have just thrown a song out and said, "It doesn't work. Next."
We used to love going out to dinner with major labels because, you know, we wanted free food. And we loved hearing what people would tell us. You know, they'd say, "You got something. It's a little weird, but I think we can work on it." And we're just, like, waiting for the appetizers.
Indy: But you probably had friends from the Silver Lake [neighborhood] scene who went though that whole thing, right?
BA: Yeah, we had friends who got major-label deals and didn't even get their first record released. One guy was painting his A&R guy's house. Really ridiculous. He was waiting for his record to come out for five years.
Indy: That's a lot of painting.
BA: I know. It was crazy. And of course when it finally came out, then it was gone. And the label was like, "Oh well." When we signed with Dangerbird, everyone told us we made the biggest mistake of our lives. And now everyone's trying to figure out how to get on that label.
Indy: To tell the truth, when I heard your first album, I thought you guys were a little more lightweight than when I ended up seeing you live and hearing the new record.
BA: I think the difficulty with Carnavas was that the songs were written in all kinds of different eras in our lives. But Swoon was a completely blank slate. Writing a complete record like this was really freeing, because you knew you could do a song that was crazy and schizophrenic, and then another song where you get really mellow and creepy.
Indy: Speaking of which, I don't know how to break this to you, Brian, but there isn't one happy song on the album. Is everything all right?
BA: Everything is all right now. But you know, as far as emotions, we don't like to go too far, including when we get optimistic. Maybe happy is the wrong word, but there are two songs on the album that have a very optimistic feel. But no, when we were writing that, it was not OK. [Laughs.]
Indy: What was wrong?
BA: Well, you go on tour for two years and you come back, and everything in your life has also gone on for two years. And it's really dealing with that, not just certain relationships that have come and gone, but you know, family members that maybe have passed away and all kinds of things that were just really intense.
And so with Swoon, things just got pretty dark on certain levels. But near the end of it, there were some things that really ended up surviving — in fact surviving better than ever — and some things didn't. And that's just the way it has to be. And being able to have an outlet like writing a record, and putting that stuff in there, was really cathartic.
Swoon has been out a little over a year now, and when I listen to some of the songs, I totally understand them. And pieces of me relate to it, but I'm not there, you know? That's not who I am now. And I think that makes me more joyous than anything, because I think I'd be sad to have had that experience, to write these songs, and to still not learn anything from it.
Indy: So was that really a 16-piece orchestra on the album?
BA: Yes, it was. I'm telling you, if you're ever feeling down, or you're feeling vengeful or anything, I think you should have a 16-piece orchestra with you that day. I think that was the greatest day ever for us.
Indy: I kind of hate to ask this, but exactly how many times have you been compared to the Smashing Pumpkins over the last eight years?
BA: Um, it only happened recently, when things started to go bigger. I'm not quite sure. The first time we heard it, we were kind of amazed that anybody thought we sounded like a real band: "Yeah, really? Aren't they like a big rock band?" But because of the comparisons, it turned me back on to their older records. And I'm really glad it did, because there's some songs on those records that just sound insane.
Indy: One last question. I read in your bio — and this requires some quoting on my part — that Swoon is a "schizophrenic taxi ride to the dark side," inspired by Silver Lake's "fashionistas lined up at taco trucks after hours; moonlight bike rides and holdups at knifepoint." Is that all true?
BA: Um, sure. Where was that?
Indy: It's the first paragraph of your bio.
Indy: I don't know that I want to take a schizophrenic taxi ride to the dark side. Do you?
BA: Hey, no one wants to. We did it for you.