Thursday, September 3, 2009
Brian Aubert and Nikki Monninger sat in the chairs on their air-conditioned trailer, each calmly playing the part of the über cool, slightly detached rockstar until I asked about the artwork on their album covers. At that moment, huge smiles broke out on their faces and they practically jumped out of their seats to tell me about the artist. Brian and Nikki are, respectively, the vocalist/guitarist and the bassist for the Silversun Pickups, the chart-topping indie rock band that rocked Street Scene with their guitar-grinding sound last weekend. The two possess the admirable quality of preferring to brag about the work of others rather than themselves.
“We are so lucky,” Brian exclaims when asked how they found Darren Waterston, the oil and watercolor artist who painted the covers of both of their albums, Carnavas (2006) and Swoon (2009). The band had been struggling with the artwork for their first album when Brian’s girlfriend pointed to an issue of Puta magazine, a now-deceased art mag they had picked up because it featured their friend Mel Kadel. The work of Darren Waterston graced the cover. “Why don’t you use this guy?” Brian’s girlfriend asked. Fast forward a bit and the band ends up receiving a dozen new Waterston paintings. “And out of nowhere, we had like 12 album covers!” says Brian.
The band eventually met Darren at a show in San Francisco, after the release of Carnavas. “Darren comes in to meet us and is COMPLETELY not the guy we think,” Brian explains with a look of amazement. “He’s like, ‘HEEYYYYY!!! What’s goin’ on?!?!?!?’” Brian imitates Darren, throwing his arms in the air like he’d just ran into an old friend. “And he saw Nikki doing merch [that’s selling merchandise, for those of you playing at home –AT] and said, “I’m doing merch!’” Darren then took over, donned a Silversun t-shirt, and began making gobs of money for the band. When it came time to pick a cover for Swoon, Brian says the choice was obvious. The band had the cover of the album hanging on the wall while they were still recording.
As for the actual music on Swoon, “We didn’t want to jump too far off of where Carnavas was,” Brian explains. “We were still really in love with all the sonic atmospheres we were using.” Sonic atmosphere is an apt description. The fuzz of guitar pervades the music of the Silversun Pickups. Sometimes it's thick and in your face, other times it fades off, building to the next storm. But like the air they breathe, it's always there.
The band took time off to write the entire album. Nikki says, “It was so great this time, because we actually set aside some time for recording and not touring… it was nice to just sit down and actually concentrate specifically on new songs and that was it.”
Swoon was also the first time the Silversun Pickups used the music mixing program Garage Band to let each band member go home and work on the songs independently. At first, the band started working on their new songs together in the same room, but they quickly realized that plan would be counterproductive. Brian explains, “Sometimes it’s best to let everybody go on their own and practice separately, rehearse things, and then come to the place with something – versus them standing there and saying ‘make something!’”
Just before Brian and Nikki were rushed out of the comfort of the trailer into the searing heat of the San Diego summer, I threw my one burning, Terry Gross-caliber question at them: “Have you ever played your songs on Rock Band or Guitar Hero?”
“I played it one time on Guitar Hero on a phone,” was Brian’s response. One day, his friend “came in giggling really loud and pointing at me – which is what our friends do, they laugh at us constantly (which is a good thing)… So I picked it up and started, bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing – GAME OVER, you suck! It was impossible. I could not play at all… If you can play that song on Guitar Hero, you can easily play it in real life – it’s SO MUCH EASIER! All these colors are coming at you… here’s a red one, here’s a green one, oh my God a blue’s coming!”
Nikki continues, “Once the fourth color comes in…” She trails off, shaking her head. That fourth color clearly put her in a dark place.