On the corner of Silver Lake and Sunset, there’s a big, ugly-ass yellow liquor store in a small, ugly-ass strip mall. Perennially lit by harsh fluorescents, Silversun Liquor is full of hootch, last-minute sundries, frozen burritos, and point-of-sale virility treatments. The guy behind the counter is a crotchety asshole. But, like a big middle finger to the exposed brick and mason-jar tealights of L.A.’s new posh, it’s a bizarrely comforting monument to last generation’s Silver Lake.
It is also, of course, where the neighborhood’s most famous early aughts band, Silversun Pickups, got their name — because, as Wikipedia legend goes, that’s where they got their late night booze.
“It’s funny, when we first started as a band, in 2000, Silver Lake was a much different place back then," says guitarist and lead singer Brian Aubert, speaking by phone. "Now it has become kind of the fanciest place in Los Angeles, which is pretty sad. But the only part of it that still looks dumpy is the Silversun Liquor store, which makes me very proud.”
The band’s sound, like their namesake, seems to have changed little since then. There’s an inescapably unique texture that the four of them — Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Chris Guanlao and keyboard/synth player Joe Lester — make together that works, and over the past decade, that core sonic signature hasn’t really been remodeled.
From the Pickups' debut EP Pikul (2005), through their chart-landing Carnavas (2006) and Swoon (2009), to their ever-so-slightly more atmospheric Neck of the Woods (2012), you’re hearing a lot of different, subtle permutations on the same theme. Some work better than others, but Aubert isn't much bothered by any criticisms of his band's sound. “We’ve always been told what we’re doing wrong, and after 10 years, we kind of giggle: ‘Yeah, tell us more what we’re doing wrong.’”
These days, when every band seems to be looking to surf a wave of buzz or capture that 10-minute zeitgeist, such consistency almost seems like a relic from the last decade, before every blog and zine had its own app and every record store was "boutique." Aubert considers this, then agrees. “We don’t really see ourselves as a band that’s been around for a while — until we think about how massively different the culture is from 2005 and now.”
He continues, "We’re not even interested in doing anything that current, because what’s current changes so fast. And that newness affects people right away. And if you do feel that weird pressure, you’re just killing yourself trying to find that new magic thing.”
So with this week's Better Nature, the band's first album in over three years, there’s not really a new magic thing happening. What is happening, however is a solid, mature collection of 10 Silversun Pickups songs. It won’t blow your mind, and probably won’t make many year-end "best of" lists, but it’s gratifying.
The band members, known for being their own worst critics, actually like what they produced for once. “This record, for some reason, we all just wanted to walk away jovial. Just smile about it,” says Aubert. “We were like, damn, maybe we made a really bad record because we like it!" He laughs. "Oh shit, we like this.”
With more up-front synths, ragier breakdowns, and a less dreamy quality than previous work, Better Nature definitely sounds poppier, but also more like the work of grown-ass adults with different axes to grind than when they first started. “That super-youthful angst gets different as you get older as a band," says Aubert. "Your upset level is the same, but it changes from that sort of youthful angst into these more profound things that you didn’t see before.”
Too many bands that came up in the early aughts have now become their own individual symbols of boring, adult-oriented, festival rock — just the thing to be played in the background at craft beer bars with raw wood for an upscale-casual crowd. But Silversun Pickups aren’t that. They are, instead, among the last of those hard-working neighborhood bands with a unique sound and an inky point of view — the kind once discovered in (really real) dive bars who never wanted to be rock stars.
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Better Nature is the grown-up product of those same kids — the ones who once had soul-crushing day jobs, no trust funds, and who, if they were coming up now, could never afford to live on the block they helped make ripe for gentrification. “That’s part of the Silversun Liquors joke,” Aubert explains. “People thought it was liquor that we were getting there, but we were really getting food. Those burritos were like two meals for two dollars.”
Silversun Pickups' Better Nature is out Sept. 25 on the band's own label, New Machine Recordings. More info at silversunpickups.com. You can catch them live at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sept. 27-30.