“The longevity brings a certain kind of feeling with some people that you don’t have about yourself because you don’t take yourself seriously.”
When people started getting vaccinated, it opened up possibilities that were taken for granted before the COVID-19 pandemic. It became safer to gather, social distancing was more relaxed, and group activities largely resumed.
When lead vocalist and guitarist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist and synth player Joe Lester, and drummer Chris Guanlao from the Los Angeles indie rock act Silversun Pickups got the shot, they went to meet up with legendary producer Butch Vig to make an album.
That album ended up being Physical Thrills, which came out in August and has the quartet pushing post-punk, shoegaze, and dream pop in numerous directions. As part of their tour in support of the new release, Silversun Pickups will perform at House Of Blues on Nov. 2. Australian alternative quartet Eliza & The Delusionals will kick the night off.
I spoke with Aubert ahead of the show about working with Vig for the second time in a row, handling the craziness of 2020 and early 2021 as a parent, thinking of the music within Physical Thrills as an imaginary friend, and performing live with new material.
Physical Thrills is the second album in a row that Silversun Pickups have done with Butch Vig, so what made you want to go back to him to work on the record and what is he like to work with as a producer?
Butch is the best, we love him so much as a person. The thing that makes us the most excited to work with him is that he’s clearly had such an amazing career but you get a little weary of that because it could be somebody who is set in stone in their ways and we’re just plugged into the machine they got figured out. I understand that because he’s done some incredible things but he’s just not that kind of guy, he likes to be just as lost, confused, and excited to search for the recipe as he did back in the day. It’s amazing to have this combination of technical skill from years and years of being able to do this and also this desire to constantly refine these things, that’s what working with him is like. Along with all that, he’s super nice.
It’s cool that he still has that fresh perspective on music even though he’s been in the business for over 30 years. That’s awesome.
Yeah, he would tell these stories and sometimes they’d include monumental people, but when you’re talking to him it humanizes the whole thing and it’s one of a million things that he’s been involved with. You just see the humanity in all of it, if that makes sense.
Musically, the album has a lot to offer with a few tracks incorporating a cinematic vibe, others incorporating loops, and Nikki taking the lead on vocals for a couple songs. Was this the product of you and the rest of the band making an effort to push your sound into various directions and discover new territory or do you consider it to be the product of something else?
I think we naturally have a wanderlust when it comes to making music and every time we’ve made a previous record we got a lot out of our systems. I would say that the only conscious effort with this one, because it was written in my head in pockets of trying to feel comfortable. I was taking care of my family during the pandemic and all of that was so intense, there were these little moments to flesh out something that’s spinning in my head. Over time, which is what we all had during the pandemic, it just collected into a bunch of songs. Like I said, the only thing conscious about it was that I wanted to make sure that, and I don’t think anybody would have really thought this, but I didn’t want it to feel at all like it was a record that we had the time to make.
I didn’t want it to feel that way at all, I wanted it to feel very purposeful, really thought out and not something that was just something to do. With that, we decided to add a lot more elements and a lot of crossover themes so if you’re the kind of person that cares enough to listen to the record completely then it rewards you with a lot of that. It feels like a real complete piece instead of a collection of songs and for me personally it felt important to have that kind of weight as a record.
There’s a lot going on with the music that I really enjoy with a lot of different elements coming into play in the album that I was excited by.
Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say.
You’ve mentioned that the album is somewhere between a collection of songs and being an imaginary friend that you hung out with during the height of COVID-19 during 2020 and the first half of 2021. How would you describe your headspace during this time of isolation where it was just you, your family and the music you were writing?
It’s so funny when I hear that being said back to me, I sound like somebody who’s really on the brink but I think everybody is on the brink. My headspace was we were touring in support of our previous record, we were in the middle of that tour and then everything started coming to this grand halt. We were in New Orleans, New York, and everything stopped, we canceled the rest of the tour and I came home with everything regarding the band at the time being completely out of my head. It was really about making my son feel safe and helping my wife with what she needed to do to reconfigure her world. I just came home and planted myself as the guardian of the house which meant pre-school Zooming with my kid and trying to keep it all moving in a way that I eventually got good at and I think most people eventually got good at finding the consistency within the inconsistent.
It was hard for me to think about being in a band and I was getting asked to do these online charity things for Twitch and things like that, all those streaming things. It was hard for me to accept them because it just felt so silly, it was hard for me to equate any worth to what it is I do for what was happening and what was important. I just didn’t think about it, so when these songs would pop up and I would hear them I would grab my acoustic when there was a half hour and have a bit of a moment. I would just work on them and play with them in a way that was very meditative, very present tense and therefore it made me feel better because I was working on something and my mind was at ease. That’s really where these all came from and they’re also wild and fun to try and not think of them as what they would bring to a band but they would just sort of exist.
I eventually did throw it down to the rest of the band to see what we could do with these songs. That’s where my headspace was at, pretty much.
I totally get that, there was a lot to deal with during the pandemic and I can only imagine what being a parent added on top of that.
Well, I think it’s so fascinating too because being a parent, especially at my son’s age, I got to fall asleep accomplished even though it was very hard and insanely difficult sometimes. I didn’t feel like a kite flying in a hurricane like most people did, I felt busy. I felt tired at night when I went to bed, I didn’t just watch Netflix. A piece of me was grateful and now as time has gone on there’s some moments where I feel lucky that we were able to make it out. One thing I did notice was that people put so much pressure on themselves to think that they had to write a novel or come out with the grandest piece of art they’ve ever made and I thought, Why are you putting pressure on yourself? Just get through the day. I didn’t go in thinking I had to come out of this thing with some sort of product because I would have set myself up for disappointment during a time that was full of dread.
This year marks 20 years since the current lineup of Silversun Pickups solidified itself with you, Nikki, Chris, and Joe back in 2002. Since that time, how do you feel the band evolved both artistically and with managing yourselves as a musical entity?
We’ve always been pretty good about the latter. When we’ve rumbled with each other it’s never been too large and we’ve figured out ourselves personally with each other even before we were a band. I feel that we’ve gotten good at juggling our personalities within the band very well, especially now since we’ve been around so long. It’s wild to think that because we’re so busy with our heads in the ground and when it’s this big long thing you don’t really think too much about how long you’ve been doing it but once in a while you can feel it. You can notice how people respond to you because there’s some people out there who’ll be at a festival or something and some young band will come up to us and talk to us with a kind of reverence we’re a little shocked at.
Then you realize that we’ve been a band for nearly this kid’s whole life, it’s different than how it was back when we started which gives us a minute to wrap our minds around. The longevity brings a certain kind of feeling with some people that you don’t have about yourself because you don’t take yourself seriously. This is a weird thing to say, but you don’t want to diss a person’s favorite band because we joke about ourselves a lot and when we meet people who hold us in such reverence due to being around so long we feel like we can’t diss their band even though it’s us. I think it’s hard for us to take compliments and that stuff, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Artistically, we’ve always felt at any moment this thing can come crumbling out of our hands. It never feels comfortable and so that’s the only way we feel like we must be growing because we don’t feel like we’ve plateaued in our comfort levels when we’re performing. Every time we come out with a new record we feel that it’s hard but I think it’s the only way that we feel like we’re growing, it’s too hard to objectively listen to it all and decide that but it feels that way because it feels just as hard as it did back in the day.
It’s probably good to have the consistency of that feeling in how it can forge new creativity and new things.
Yeah, you’re always a little lost, right? When you’re a little lost, I think that when you’re pushing towards something.
I totally agree. How has it been performing live with the new material so far and can fans expect anything different from Silversun Pickups when it comes to the live set up this time around or can they expect a similar approach to live performances of the past?
I will say, what I’ve noticed about playing music now while adding this new batch of songs into the set is that the response to this record, at least from the people at our shows, has been really insane. It’s amazing to see how much of the record these people at our shows have devoured already, they’re almost ahead of us with what they want to hear. They’ll request this or that one and we haven’t even gotten to playing it live yet. With having a bunch of new songs it always makes the old ones feel fresher because when you bounce around in a way through almost 20 years of material there’s a lot of dynamic room that comes with what our heads were at throughout that time. Literally adding the music from the new record into our live shows feels so much more grand than it has ever before, especially with the weaving in and out of things.
It’s so much more whole and that’s the only way I can describe it. When we get off stage it feels like we went through a lot. When you’re playing your own show, you’re playing to a lot of different kinds of people. You’re playing to some people who are casually into you and some people who’ve been listening to you forever, so you have to do deep dives into your material because some people want to hear that and they’ve seen every tour you’ve done. For the casuals, they only want to hear the singles so you have to dive into those too while maintaining a balance of keeping it all going.
When we’re playing a festival, we just get up there and crank it out. We just get up there and go for it, but with our shows it’s really something where we’ve been playing for so long and when people show up to see us it makes us realize how lucky we are to still do this.
Silversun Pickups at House of Blues Boston
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.