When Silversun Pickups first played live, the band didn't really care if their friends showed up or not. In fact, they'd be happier if they stayed home.
"Sometimes it was nerve-wracking because people didn't know we were in a band and they were, like, "Woah, I'm going to go check you guys out,'" recalls guitarist-singer Brian Aubert. "We're like "Woah, woah, woah, we're just playing.'"
By Aubert's own account, friends of the band wouldn't have missed much. Which is understandable, seeing as how the bassist and drummer were literally learning how to play their instruments on stage. What songs the band had were a bit, shall we say, haphazard. They often bled into each other-not intentionally, but because it was all they knew.
"We just kind of had ideas and stretched them out and were learning things on stage," Aubert says. "[Our drummer] could play the drums, actually, which is kind of the irony of it. She knew about four or five different beats, all at the same tempo."
The problem was, she didn't know when to change beats, so the group had to devise an on-stage signal. Either Aubert or bassist Nikki Monninger would walk over and kick her bass drum, which would signal her to change tempos.
"It worked out fine because we didn't know when that other beat was supposed to happen, either. We were just kind of going with it."
But that was six years ago. The 2006 Silversun Pickups recently played David Letterman and impressed a sold-out crowd at the Belly Up in November. Their new album, Carnavas, is one of the year's most solid rock releases, drawing comparisons (sometimes unflatteringly) to '90s guitar-heavy bands like My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins.
Part of the reason they've improved so much is because Aubert and the original drummer were worse at dating each other than they were playing together. When they broke up in 2003, the air at band practice became a bit too heavy. So Aubert and Monninger brought in a new drummer, Christopher Guanlao, and added keyboardist/effects man Joe Lester.
"That was the real beginning of the band, in a way," Aubert said. "We knew we didn't want another guitar player, and we knew that Joe came to music in a different sort of way. Most importantly, he knew the mechanics and the science of the instruments and soundscapes and things like that. It was perfect."
On a lark, they sent a three-song demo tape to the organizers of the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Hearing a diamond in the extreme rough, CMJ invited the Pickups to play the industry festival. There, they met the owner of Silver Lake rock-dive Spaceland, who invited them to play his club. The offers of good gigs kept coming, but the band members weren't convinced they deserved it.
"I think people thought we were a band more than we did," Aubert says. "Like, we couldn't see ourselves in a band. We didn't think we were good enough."
The Pickups signed with indie label Dangerbird Records, and in 2005 released the six-song Pikul EP. But it wasn't until Carnavas that their skills caught up with their ambition. Recorded with producer Dave Cooley (Queens of the Stone Age, Good Charlotte), their goal was to convey the louder, fuzzy chaos of their live shows. The difference between the two releases was a long jump.
"We kind of want to constantly keep that jump going," says Aubert. "It makes it fun for you when it's hard and difficult and you're stretching, and maybe you fail and maybe you don't fail. It just keeps it fresh and exciting and, I think, keeps music good. Instead of being like a well-oiled machine, it's like you're constantly close to a train wreck.
"That's how we like it."
The growing confidence of the band is probably most apparent in Aubert's vocals. Early on, he was too tentative at the mic.
"I never had a problem with guitar and stuff, but the singing part was, like, "Wow, I'm just too shy,'" he explains. "It must have been so frustrating to see us play back when I wouldn't go to the mic and hardly had any words..... When we did previous recordings, I'd hide my voice with vocal effects and all this crazy crap. I was always cool with the music, but when I laid down the vocal tracks, I was, like, "Oh, I just ruined it.'
"I don't know, you just get over it.... Now you can't take the mic away from me."
Silversun Pickups open for The Shins and Modest Mouse at "94/9's Holiday Hootenanny" at RIMAC Arena on Dec. 9. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. $32.50. 619-220-8497.