Silversun Pickups' Christopher Guanlao on horror music, Carrie Underwood, and "selling out"

Silversun Pickups' Christopher Guanlao on horror music, Carrie Underwood, and "selling out"
Photo by Autumn DeWilde

The Silversun Pickups have found that ever-elusive sweet spot, where radios play their music and real fans still listen to it. The band's third release, Neck Of The Woods, is their best album to date -- and one that stands alone in a category that most music has left behind. On it, a template heavily inspired by fuzzy '90s-era alternative rock adds synths as a sonic element -- not a generic musical cop-out. These songs are alien atmospheres with lead singer Brian Aubert guiding the listener through.

Ahead of the band's show at the State Theatre on Thursday, Gimme Noise caught up with Silversun Pickups drummer Christopher Guanlao to talk about how it feels to get beat by an American Idol compilation on the charts, and grilling with opening act Atlas Genius.

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Silversun Pickups get fuzzy at the State Theatre

Gimme Noise: Neck of the Woods feels a little darker than your previous albums. It's got this brooding energy to it. Was that an intentional change?

Christopher Guanlao: I don't think it's necessarily intentional, but it definitely was spurred on by the fact that we did record the record in Topanga Canyon with Jackknife Lee, and that's where also where Brian grew up as a kid, so I think it spurred up a lot of those memories as a child. That really left a mark on the record and on the lyrics specifically, and there is a little bit of darkness to it. I don't think it was necessarily intentional, but a lot of memories were brought up that weren't really thought of for a long time -- even the title refers to our "neck of the woods," and it kind of has a spooky connotation to it. And we did talk about having the artwork kind of... [pause] We didn't want to go completely horror artwork graphic, but at the same time, we wanted it to have that eerie feeling. [The title] can mean a lot of different things.

GN: Speaking of horror, it's been referred to in some press as the perfect album for a horror film -- what do you think of that?

CG: [Laughs] Yeah, we didn't go out to make a horror album, but I think there are some songs that can definitely lend to that... But there's also a lot of stuff that doesn't have to be a horror film, like a lot of soft stuff in it.

GN: Tell me about the process of making this album, what it was like working with Jackknife Lee. Was it super different from previous methods?

CG: It was really different than anything we've ever really done before. We'd always gone into the studio knowing exactly what we were going to do. [For Neck of the Woods], we'd rehearsed a lot and pretty much knew how the song was going to go, beginning, middle, and end. We'd spent six months in the practice space before we got to the studio, recording demos, and pretty much had everything planned...

Suddenly we were chopping things out, cutting things, putting new things in, and we were all kind of shell-shocked the first week [in the studio]. Like, we just spent all this time working on [the album], and we realized that we kind of needed to do that -- deconstruct it and reconstruct -- and I think we really needed someone like Jackknife to really show that to us. So we kind of threw all of that away, and almost started from scratch. So everyday was new and everything was piece by piece, and I was there from the beginning to the end of the recording process.

GN:Neck of the Woods is definitely a lot more drum-driven than what we've seen in the past, on Swoon and Carnavas.

CG: Yeah. Usually the traditional way of recording a record is you do the drums for the first few weeks, and then you're kind of done. But until the last day of recording, I was still adding drum tracks, so that was cool. I felt really involved, and it wasn't something that we really planned for, but because I was there all the time, whenever they wanted to throw down drums I was there and able to do it and really mess around with it.

It was a lot of "Try it this way," "Try it that way," and capturing it and recording it. Also, this is the first record that we really used percussion--we never really used different noises, and this record it was really like, "What can I hit next?" We added a lot of that -- tons and tons of layers of percussion, and it slowly became a really drum-moving album.

GN:Totally. Drums totally take the lead on "Out Of Breath" and you basically keep the whole tempo to yourself in "Busy Bees."

CG: I call ["Out Of Breath"] the "mini-epic," because it goes everywhere and it really has really nice dynamics to it. "Busy Bee" is a really fun one, too.

GN:Is there a certain song that you love to play?

CG: I really enjoy "Skin Graph," that's probably currently my favorite. The close second one would be "Out Of Breath." I think "Skin Graph" was one of those songs that I just got it right away, and when Brian was talking about it, I just immediately got it. So it's one of the few songs that -- going back to deconstructing all the songs after we spent six months in the rehearsal space -- that was one of the songs that kind of stayed in tact, almost. Slight changes, but not a lot, and we just got that song. I really enjoy playing it.

GN:When you think bout the weird evolution of your musical career -- from the success of Carnavas to the even greater success of Swoon, and now Neck Of The Woods -- I think you guys even topped the ITunes list for a minute there. How does that make you feel?

CG: That was insane. I remember seeing for a second we were above, like, Carrie Underwood. I remember talking to one of my friends, like, "I don't know what world this is!" It's really bizarre. When the band started, we never thought that we would get this recognition. We strived for it, for sure, but there was a moment in our careers when we all agreed: "Let's take this as far as we can take it, and not try to put a feeling to what we're doing."

But at the same time, it's like we never thought that people would be so into it. We just try to work hard and not get too caught up with it all, because we also know that this is a different climate of the record industry than it was 15 or 20 years ago. We're not going to get any advance anytime soon, and we have to work really hard, and we can't take it for granted, so we try not to worry too much about our previous successes.

GN: Paste Magazine wrote a really glowing review of your new album, calling Neck of the Woods the "best mainstream rock album of the year." I feel like "mainstream" can be a really dirty word in the music industry -- what's your take?

CG: Wow. I think it's... I think "selling out" doesn't exist anymore, because it's so much harder to get things done. It's easier in some sense for the unknown person to get their music out there through the internet, but it's really hard for the career band to keep it a career.

We've heard this thing that our management goes around, like "not moving is the new moving forward," referring to like charts and stuff like that. Mainstream... I guess it goes back to, like, what I said about not putting a feeling to what we're doing. I don't really see "mainstream" as a bad word. The bottom line is that we want our music to be out there so people can listen to it, so if it's word of mouth or people that listen to Carrie Underwood -- if they get into our music, that's fine. I'm not going to tell them not to. I can understand how some people could think about "mainstream" as a bad word, but I don't think the Silversun Pickups even think about it as a whole, because I think at the end of the day, we just want people to listen to our music and decide for themselves whether they like it or not.

There's some crap out there -- don't get me wrong. When we got beat [on iTunes], we got beat by, I think, American Idol, Album Eight or something like that. It had, like, greatest hits of American Idol covers and I was like, "Oh, that's lame." But whatever, I think it's good that at least some bands like us can, even just for a day, be up there and challenge those kinds of soulless music. Those are the things that I think bug us. It's nice that you can look at the top ten and see someone like us on there, and mix it up. We need mixture in the mainstream, not just American Idol.

GN: "Mixture in the mainstream" is a really great phrase. I want you to remember that for future interviews, okay? Okay, last question: You're touring with Atlas Genius at the moment, right? I'm just asking, because I interviewed them the other day and they were great.

CG: Yeah... They're really sweet guys, really nice guys, and we seem to get along really well. This is going to be a really fun three months. There was talk of barbecues... They're from Adelaide, Australia, so we expect their barbecue skills to be good, so there will probably be some barbecue-offs.

The Silversun Pickups are playing at the State Theater on September 20 with Atlas Genius and the School Of Seven Bells. 7 p.m. $30.

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