With Grammy nomination, Silversun Pickups shift into overdrive

The Silversun Pickups are the local indie embodiment of the famous quote from the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Bands should be so lucky to experience such crushing defeats: The heroes of the Silver Lake scene, the fiery but focused Silversun Pickups are competing against acts including MGMT, the Ting Tings, the Zac Brown Band and R&B mistress Keri Hilson for the best new artist prize at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, set to take place next Sunday in L.A.
It’s recognition that’s been a long time coming. Since the early aughts, local prognosticators have been attempting to divine, largely unsuccessfully, which of the bands toiling in the Silver Lake/Echo Park circuit were most likely to achieve mainstream success. The Pickups were never the sure bet -- they didn’t even release any music until the EP “Pikul” in 2005.
But over the course of two full-length albums, they’ve eclipsed other groups to become the most successful indie band in L.A., energizing crowds with stormy rock that often breaks into relief just when the suspense is at its most dizzying high. The quartet has won fans on the basis of that dramatic sound, which slowly gained widespread exposure after 2006, when the song “Lazy Eye” began popping up in television commercials and on radio.

Released last year, the Silversun Pickups’ second album, “Swoon,” landed at No. 7 on the U.S. pop charts, with its first single, “Panic Switch,” topping Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in July -- it’s currently at No. 13 on the tally. Accordingly, the band has long since graduated from playing in front of Spaceland’s sparkly curtain to bigger stages, including that of Indio’s mammoth Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last year, where they performed just ahead of headliner Paul McCartney (though on a smaller stage).

Over the last decade, the musicians have taken to heart the sentiment expressed by Beckett so long ago: Don’t get rattled by success or failure, just keep trying. Or, to put it in the words of guitarist and lead vocalist Brian Aubert, “We learn a lot by failing in front of people.”

Inauspicious beginning

Strip away the rising rock star status and Silversun Pickups are simply a gang of slouchy-jeaned hipsters who like to buy records, drink beer and watch their friends’ bands, like Twilight Sleep, which features Aubert’s fiancée Tracy Marcellino on lead vocals, or Dangerbird Records label mates Sea Wolf.

All four members, including bassist Nikki Monninger (who co-founded the band circa 2000 with then-roommate Aubert), keyboardist Joe Lester and drummer Christopher Guanlao, grew up in Southern California, and they all have deep connections to the Silver Lake area. The liquor store that sits at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Parkman Avenue partly inspired their name.

Their easygoing chemistry is apparent, as they trade affectionate stories about Jack Kennedy, a former member of an earlier incarnation of the band and a solo artist who goes by only his last name. Even their recollection of important moments in band history, such as the time in 2003, two years before “Pikul,” when they played with the late Elliott Smith, Silver Lake’s beautiful sad prince, and the alluring Rilo Kiley, is remembered with a certain casual fondness.

“We walked off the stage feeling really confident and comfortable,” Aubert, 35, said recently over brunch at Local, a neighborhood restaurant owned by friends of the distortion rockers. “We knew this was something we wanted to do all the time.”

After that performance, Aubert was too wired to sleep, so he and his buddy Todd Clifford of the now defunct record store Sea Level in Echo Park, watched a marathon of “Freaks and Geeks.” “I got sucked in,” Aubert shrugged.

No matter how loose he might seem in the moment, Aubert always seems to have a current of intensity running beneath. While he is unquestionably the leader of the band -- he’s the songwriter and its most expressive member, often running his hands through his dark hair or staring directly with his blue eyes -- Monninger’s dry wit sets the tone for the conversation.

“Our first bio included a picture of our cat Cauliflower because we didn’t have any songs yet,” laughed Monninger, 35, folding her hands in front of her in one of her playfully demure gestures. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but people kept offering shows, so we kept playing them.”

Lester, 33, and Guanlao, 34, aren’t as talkative in an interview setting, but their enthusiasm is still obvious, especially for performing live. Lester, who speaks in measured tones, noted how the stage can broaden any song’s scope, physically drawing more from the players, while the long-haired Guanlao, with an excited gleam in his eye, talked about how “Swoon” expanded the band’s comfort zone: “It was all about finding a song that did something new.”

Aubert elaborated, saying the band was aiming for “more romance but not necessarily in a nice way.”

Retro, with teeth

The Silversun Pickups did manage to find something romantic and new with the collection. But they’re also unapologetically retro, simultaneously recalling and updating the delicate cacophonies favored by My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins and Blonde Redhead.

Harkening back to the last time the music industry had some semblance of order has caused some critics to discount them, but for other listeners, that sound stokes the fires of distortion-pedal nostalgia.

Dave Cooley, who produced both of the group’s full-length albums, notes that while the band made an unabashedly “back to the ‘90s record” with its 2006 debut, “Carnavas,” the musicians sought to execute every sound with a new twist.

“It’s about immersive texture,” he said, “and making the arrangements as propulsive and dynamic as possible.”

Cooley’s been instrumental in helping the band find and maintain its gauzy but serrated edge, which is underpinned by Guanlao’s drumming -- Cooley describes it as “crazy algebra,” the fitting counterpart to Aubert’s pressurized, nerves-exposed guitar work. But he and the Pickups did disagree about the direction that the single “Lazy Eye” should take. Cooley wanted a tighter structure, but the band insisted that the song retain its explosive sprawl, hinged on the classically bittersweet lyric, “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life / but it’s not quite right.”

“It nearly dissolved into band mutiny,” Monninger said with a wry smile.

True to the spirit of its title, “Lazy Eye” had a slow ascent. After some attention-grabbing spots, including Guitar Hero World Tour and a remix in a commercial for Chevrolet Malibu, it gained traction, peaking at No. 5 on the Alternative Songs chart in 2007. As of last week, it’s been downloaded more than 500,000 times.

Part of the Silversun Pickups’ formula seems to be the slow burn. “You can stare into those songs for a while and notice new things,” Cooley said.

Dangerbird Records co-owner Jeff Castelaz, who signed the Silversuns in 2005, also points out an “elegance that’s creeping into their music.”

“These guys are always going to be chased -- by rock stations, by kids just discovering them,” Castelaz said. “And the thing is, no matter what the music industry may look like, they’ll be just fine because they’re real. They would be doing this no matter what.”

The band is tight-lipped about the future, revealing only that Aubert has discussed a few album ideas with Cooley over some beers. “It will be about certain linchpins,” Cooley said, “and how we can mess with them.”

The fuzz-laden crew is set to embark on a 23-city North American tour starting at the end of February.But first, there’s the Grammy Awards. When the subject comes up of the surprise nomination, the band members collectively shift in their seats, blinking in the sunlight. They’ll be attending; Aubert recently bought Marcellinoa dress for the big occasion.

“We never thought we were on the Grammy radar,” Monninger said.

“It’s cool to be noticed,” Lester said.

But the band is counting on failure, even though it’ll be in the framework of ever-evolving success.

“It can’t possibly happen,” Aubert said of a win, “but they can’t take away our nomination.”