Although Silversun Pickups' drummer Christopher Guanlao looks back fondly on the days when his band was considered "local" in Los Angeles, the outfit's quick ascension to popularity suggests that that period was relatively short-lived.
The Silver Lake-based quartet, which comprises guitarist and vocalist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger and keyboardist Joe Lester, released a lauded but relatively ignored EP in 2005, Pikul, before quickly gaining popularity in 2007 with the album Carnavas. The latter quickly catapulted the band to modern-rock radio off the strength of the songs "Lazy Eye" and "Well Thought Out Twinkles."
In the interim, the group released three albums, was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 and started a label, New Machine Recordings, which released the band's most recent album, Better Nature, in 2015.
We caught up with Guanlao and asked him about his band's impressive career, his unique drumming style and how the Pickups keep things fresh and exciting after fifteen years.
Westword: You recently toured South America. How was that?
It was great! We did Estéreo Picnic in Bogotá, Colombia, Rio de Janeiro with Cage the Elephant, and then did Lollapalooza shows in São Paulo, Chile and Rio de Janeiro.
Was that your first time in South America?
Yeah! We've been a band for fifteen years, and it’s better late than never [laughs]!
On social media, we were getting a lot of interest, so we knew that we had a fan base there; it was just too costly to go on our own. When Lollapalooza gave us the opportunity to go there, it made it worth our while. It was great; we had a blast.
Is that still an important part of music for you, seeing new places?
Absolutely! That’s what keeps us sane on the road, being tourists. We’re very good at getting our of hotel rooms and seeing and doing different things, even if we’ve been there before.
In [Santiago], we had about two hours before we had lobby call [for us] to go to the festival, and we got in late the night before. Even though we were tired, we decided we were gonna go check the city, so we did, and it was nice. We knew we could sleep later, so we knew we had to soak in as much as we could. We do that a lot. That keeps us in the traveling spirit.
Your latest album, 2015’s Better Nature, has a lot of electronic samples. As an “analog” drummer, what are the challenges in fitting in with that type of sound?
Our producer, Jacknife Lee, pushes for a lot of drum machines and processed samples and things like that. It's hard for an analog or human drummer. It’s basically competing against the computer, and it’s a losing battle [laughs]!
In the studio, we messed around with different fills and beats, so that eases the pain of feeling like you may be losing your job to a computer.
I have to keep in mind that once I’m out of the studio and I have to play the songs live, then that’s all me. I incorporate samples and have a Roland sample pad that I play live, but I’m playing them; I’m hitting them. I also have triggers that I put around my drum kit so I can get away from the sample pads, and it feels more organic that way.
Working with big-name producers and subscribing to a set of “industry standards” are a result of the success of your band and the level you're at. How do you work within the confines of what the industry expects while still maintaining you musicianship and your artistry as a band?
That’s a great question. We’ve gotten to the point where it could seem like we’re phoning it in; we’re certainly not, though!
In the studio, all four of us — from day one to the last day of the recording, we’re all there. What’s cool about this process is that we all have to be present and focused on what’s going on. This strengthens our relationship as a band and keeps us involved. After fifteen years as a band, you’d think we’d know each other’s idiosyncrasies, but having this type of process allowed us to grow and become a better band. I think it comes out when we finish a song and then we realize, shit, we have to learn how to play this song live.
Your ascension as a band seems pretty quick. In your opinion, is that accurate?
I think so. It was very organic in the timeline of the band. We were always going up a step or two and growing with everything we did. We were always moving forward to the next challenge. One thing we’ve always prided ourselves on was that we always wanted to make sure we weren't too comfortable. We made sure we were always challenging ourselves. We didn’t want to be stale. We always wanted to try something different and really think about challenging ourselves. It seems like we've been doing that for most of our career.
You have a unique setup as a drummer. Why do you put your crash cymbal up so high?
[Laughs.] That’s awesome! Early on, I would make up shit and tell people I liked to isolate the sound, or I’d say, I like to get a big windup, but honestly it's all just shits and giggles. It’s a little dramatic and fun to watch, and people still ask me about it. Now I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s easier for me. When we played David Letterman, he came over after we played and said, “Every time that drummer hits that crash, someone should win a prize!”