Since releasing a rhapsodic, fuzz-laden debut, Carnavas, in 2006, the Los Angeles-based Silversun Pickups have assiduously chiseled a name for themselves in modern rock's pantheon. Carnavas's hissing kickback set against lead singer Brian Aubert's bittersweet melodies was immediately embraced in the hip L.A. neighborhood, Silver Lake, that the band calls home.
During the group's softer moments, Aubert's vulnerable, high-pitched delivery draws comparisons to a recently deceased favorite son, Elliot Smith. The band's dynamic third single, "Lazy Eye," garnered attention from mainstream rock radio. In a matter of months, the song hit heavy rotation right alongside the Foo Fighters, Deftones, Evanescence and other more streamlined rock acts.
"We take pride in the fact that we can blend between genres easily," says drummer Christopher Guanlao, severely jet-lagged after returning from Aubert's Italian wedding to musician Tracy Marcellion (front woman for burgeoning L.A. band Twilight Sleep) in early June.
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Times have changed for the distortion-fueled alternative-rock quartet since "Lazy Eye." At the end of '07, the group performed a string of BuzzFest-style hard-rock concerts after wrapping the alternative festival circuit that summer, with heralded performances at Coachella and Reading. Guanlao says the Silversun Pickups intentionally chose varied gigs to avoid getting pigeonholed by audiences.
"We love to test the waters," he says. "We are the type of band that can play alongside someone like the Used or 30 Seconds to Mars one day and Built to Spill or Spoon the next; it all makes sense to us in a weird way."
More recently, the band just wrapped up a two-month repose in Europe after a slew of concerts with British prog-rock behemoth Muse, a group whose spectacular stage theatrics have made it a worldwide draw. Guanlao says his band didn't fret over competing with Muse's brilliant light-show spectacle.
"We knew we had no chance of topping them, so we just had fun, did the best we could and hopefully stole some of their fans," he says, noting that Silversun Pickups didn't suffer from a lack of support during Muse's spring arena tour, including Toyota Center this past March.
With 2009's Swoon debuting at No. 7 on the Billboard charts and the video for "Panic Switch" earning regular radio rotation, Silversun Pickups have made inroads into U.S. mainstream pop culture. But broad appeal still eludes the group in Europe.
"We are simmering over there," says Guanlao. "Of course, we wish we were a little bigger because we enjoy Europe tremendously." Although the group normally plays smaller, 300-capacity venues, Guanlao admits he is always amazed at how rabid the fans are.
"We can play places like Luxembourg or Germany, and everyone will be singing aloud to our songs."
The Pickups' formula of steadfast touring and consistent recordings has surely paid off on our side of the pond. The group received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in late 2009, and though the merits of such a nomination were never in dispute, many questioned the "newness" of a band that was already well established before the 2008-09 nominating year.
"Rules are up for interpretation," says Guanlao, explaining that the nominating committee considers the year that acts break out.
As for the Grammy experience itself, Guanlao describes the night as "weird, but in a good way." The group felt out of its element strolling down the red carpet and conducting interviews with entertainment reporters who had no idea who they were.
"The whole evening was surreal," chuckles the drummer. "I was sitting right behind Carrie Underwood and a few rows back from Lady Gaga and Jamie Foxx."
Despite the Silversun Pickups' rise to prominence in Silver Lake venues such as Spaceland and the Silver Lake Lounge, hobnobbing with celebrities hasn't become the norm.
"Yeah, the celebrities would occasionally come out to our shows," Guanlao says, "but most of the time, we would find out after the fact."
How about rumors that the band hangs out with Joaquin Phoenix?
"'Hang out' is a strong word," Guanlao says. "We became friends when he directed our 'Little Lover's So Polite' video, but we haven't really seen him since his freak-out. Now there is a documentary I want to see."
The group will fess up to a long-standing friendship with Matthew Fox — Aubert and Guanlao are huge Lost fans — but as of this interview, Guanlao had not seen the polarizing final episode.
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More than a year since the group put out Swoon, which leans toward acoustic guitar and strings, many fans wonder when the next record will come out. Bad news there, according to Guanlao; the band has no immediate recording plans. "We are not very good at multitasking," he admits. "When we are on the road, we are too busy gigging and sightseeing to think about our next album."
Guanlao says he'll never tire of playing "Lazy Eye" because of the song's amazing buildup. As to what conclusions can be drawn from the success the Silversun Pickups have attained despite — or as a result of — being on the independent Dangerbird Records, he sees it as a sign that the times are changing.
"Ten to 15 years ago, bands thought a major label was the only way to move records, but it's not like that anymore," the drummer says. "I think big labels can really hinder a band our size, because the focus on money production is too much.
"What's nice about indie labels, although there isn't as much money floating around, the band/label connection is much greater."