The better nature of Silversun Pickups

By David Cotner

There once was a kind of sound that washed over the alternative/modern rock/indie (circle one or more) landscape. It was a sound so total in the embrace of its enigmatic aura that it was less a wall of sound than it was a temple to sound, built not out of brick or stone but seemingly endless distorted guitars. Slowly, gradually, the bands that pioneered that sound — Lush, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Loop —faded away. They came back, of course, but by that point, time and fashion had largely reduced their options to festivals and reunion tours. Consequently, the distilled sense of that enigmatic aura was transferred, via the mystery of the pop organism, to the breathing and shivering guitar avalanche of Silversun Pickups. The cover art for their latest album, Better Nature, offers up a Hipgnosis-level image of surreal grace: that of a buttoned-down mind whose head dissolves into sunlit cascades of escaping vapor.

Silversun Pickups are nothing if not good at honing a double-edged sword.

The band — guitarist/singer Brian Aubert, bassist/singer Nikki Monninger, drummer Chris Guanlao and sound manipulator Joe Lester — released Better Nature on their own label New Machine Records after a challenging and fruitful Pledgemusic campaign. Its big single, “Nightlight,” continues in the fine tradition of noddable, danceable, fuzzed-out favorites like “Lazy Eye,” “Panic Switch” and “The Pit,” the effects of which are a bit like walking through a dense fog with your pants off. Speaking of excitement and exposure, Monninger recently discussed the effects of the last 15 years, both on herself and the band, during an early morning telephone call from Pittsburgh.

As for how she thinks she’s changed as a person over the past 15 years, Monninger laughs, “I’m a mother now. I have twin 3-year-olds. I feel like I can focus more now that I’m just playing music. I focus more because there’s less time for me to focus, so I feel like I can get a lot more accomplished. I’m more deliberate with what I’m doing.”

The time that’s passed between then and now helped make her a better, and more adventuresome, musician. On Better Nature, that adventure extended to her learning the vibraphone. “Our producer, Jacknife Lee, just brought a vibraphone in because he had found a good deal on one,” she explains. “It was nice to be totally open to trying things, and I also recorded acoustic bass on this album on a song called “Tapedeck,” and that’s where the vibraphone is as well.” It was a process of openness that clashed with her usual structured way of working. “When we’re recording, I like to write everything down and do my homework and study and get ready for recording. And the way that Jacknife records is, he wants you to be spontaneous and in the moment. I think he pushed me because he knew I was resistant in general to that — I appreciate that he pushed me harder than I would’ve pushed myself.”

In a word, what’s Silversun Pickups all about? “One word…” she muses. “I want to say ‘chaotic,’ but I want to have a calm word. There’s a chaotic part, and then a fuzzy warm part. I don’t know how to put that all in one word.” That sounds more like a polar bear than a band but she’s insistent. “In a lot of our songs, they start out warm-and-fuzzy and then they reach a chaotic high point and get back to the warm-and-fuzzy at the end.”

If she could tell her old self from the year 2000 something, what would that be? At this she is contemplative. “My 2000 self wouldn’t believe we’re still doing this today,” she breathes in relief, adding, “I guess I’d just tell myself to hang in there. I’d always have a day job, and I’d do this in my spare time because I loved it. At this point, I can put under employment, “musician” – I don’t think I ever did because I was thinking that I had a day job, and that I’m a musician in my spare time. It’s pretty amazing that we can actually call ourselves musicians, and this is what we do.”

Silversun Pickups appear Wednesday, April 20 at 7 p.m. at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St. For more information call 653-0721 or go to