It sounds like a component of Link Wray's guitar, a product any rockabilly god would be proud to endorse. But Silversun Pickups has nothing to do with fuzz tones or billy of any sort. The name adopted by the L.A. quartet comes from a local liquor store, and the sound comes from a melting pot of styles and eras.
Some hear echoes of grunge in the music, perhaps from the frayed-around-the-edges feel and as a result of the from-a--whisper-to a-scream tactics that pop up frequently. But there's more garage than grunge, courtesy of the hard-rocking rhythm section and singer/guitarist Brian Aubert's raspy vocals. The rough edges come and go. And for one brief moment in most of the songs, you hear a glimmer of shimmery pop. Just as you're thinking, "Ah God, no -- not another fluttery troupe of pop tarts," they come out flailing like hardcore rockers, with whipsaw guitar and feral howls any bluesman would be proud to claim.
But even though there's all that in the music, it sounds like none of it. One minute it's as sweet and delicate as cotton candy. Then they toss in a box of boulders, whip it up with a chain saw, chop it up into splinters and chew on it until there's nothing left but a bloody pulp.
"Lazy Eye" is the vehicle that got the band to Billboard's Top 100. Punky, garage/grunge-flavored, it got the band comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, with some critics hearing elements of The Smashing Pumpkins as well. But the Billboard appearance won't be a one-way ride. This band isn't some scruffy little conclave of van-riding hopefuls searching for an elusive musical dream. They've found it, in a big way.
Signed to Indie label Dangerbird in '05, the band went from being unknowns to headlining tours around the world in less than two years in the company of OK Go, Snow Patrol and Wolfmother.
When they sent in a demo applying for a spot at CMJ Music Marathon in New York, the Pickups were just a bunch of friends from L.A. who knew each other from various local bands and started playing together for laughs. Lead singer Brian Auger's roommate Nikki Monninger wanted to learn how to play bass, and Aubert's former girlfriend wanted to make noise on drums.
During one practice session, Monninger turned on a tape recorder and sent the result to CMJ along with an unusual bio. "It was about her cat named Cauliflower," recalls current drummer Christopher Guanlao in an e-mail interview from a tour stop in Belgium. "How he would cuddle with her at night and how he would bring back presents like a dead mouse or lizard. I think she put somewhere on the cat bio that Silversun Pickups was a band, and the rest is history."
After playing the CMJ show in New York, offers started coming in and Aubert, whose fledgling outfit was so loose he had to run over and kick the kick drum to get the drummer to change beats, realized he had to get a real band together. Keeping bassist Monninger, recruiting Guanlao on drums and friend Joe Lester on keys, the Pickups started to become a unit, practicing their craft onstage.
The first release, '05s Pikul, was a live EP. But the band now feels that effort was not a true representation of what they sound like in person, capturing that sound on their latest, '06s Carnavas. "The funny thing is there was really nothing about Carnavas that was live," Guanlao says. "We built that record one sound at a time, but in the end, it has a little bit of a live vibe to it."
Still, he says, nothing they've captured on tape yet beats the band live. "We push the sound a little more, stay more ahead of the beat, keep the urgency and be a little more unpredictable than the album."
That unpredictability has critics scrambling to come up with a label for the band's sound. Space-rock, post-grunge and punk have all been tried on for size, but none seem to fit. Guanlao says they found inspiration growing up with all those genres and still love that music today. "We didn't set out to make that kind of record, but if people equate it or that time period, it's fine with us," the drummer says diplomatically.
But by now, things have reached the point where the band is being recognized for things other than their sound. The band is in talks with Gibson about a trademark line of Silversun guitar pickups. "I think the release date for the Silversun pickups (hand-wound by a member of the band) will be out in Guitar Centers and Sam Ash's around the world in August 2078," Guanlao says.
Despite all the attention, success has not inflated the band members egos -- yet. They're still a bit overwhelmed when required to do an encore. "In L.A., we were always a support act," Guanlao explains. "So to headline a show is great, but we're not used to it. So when we do headlining gigs, and the crowd is enjoying it and they want an encore, it's a tiny bit surprising rather than something expected."
They'd better get used to it. Although Guanlao says he longs for the day when all kids around the world are putting Silversun pickups into their guitars for $129.98 plus tax, he's discovering a down side to all the attention. When asked about his hopes for the future, Guanlao had only one wish. "Time off," he says. "I have a new apartment that I've had for four months that I've actually only been in for a total of three weeks."
The Silversun Pickups will play Amos' Southend on December 4 for the Not So Acoustic Christmas with Flyleaf and Madina Lake. Tickets are $20 in advance and $23 on the day of the show. Doors open at 7 p.m.