Keyboardist Joe Lester talks about the new direction Silversun Pickups took on Neck of the Woods, its psychological underpinnings, writing longer songs, and why there’s no bonus to being on a major label anymore.
How are you doing today?
Not too bad, but I seem to be getting a head cold. That usually happens whenever we do a bunch of shows in a row and then get time off. Rather than being able to relax, I tend to get fucking sick.
I caught the show Friday night in Santa Ana, which was pretty rad. It must feel pretty good to be playing shows again.
Yeah, for sure. That was definitely a good one. We had a couple before that. There had been one opening for our friends Cage the Elephant secretly in L.A. It’s definitely exciting to be playing shows again. We were a little nervous, because the first couple you’re still trying to work the kinks out, but I feel that Santa Ana show things went pretty well. It was fun. It was a really good crowd.
You guys played a lot of the new material at that show, which sounded a little louder than it is on the record. How did you like playing the new stuff?
It’s fun. Some of these songs changed so much from when we wrote them, from when we demoed them out, to how they ended up on the record. We never actually played them live before they were recorded. They were recorded in bits and pieces. It was fun to deconstruct them and build them back up again as a playable live song. It’s an interesting exercise. Stressful on some levels for me, but it was fun.
This new record you took in a little different direction than your first two, which was pretty cool. What went into the process of making and recording this one?
It started out as sort of the same. Brian would come in with an idea for a verse or a chorus, or maybe a verse and chorus, and we all would pitch in, take this part, put them back together, and come up with a workable demo version of the song we could play. We decided we wanted to work with somebody different this time, just to see what it was like. We’ve ever only made records with Dave Cooley, the guy who made the last two.
So we ended up talking to a bunch of different people and decided that Jacknife Lee, the guy we ended up doing it with, had an interesting take on the process of making records. It was significantly different than the way we’ve ever done it before, so that was cool. He encouraged us not to overly practice any of the stuff, just come in with the ideas. Don’t practice them to the point where in your head that’s how the song goes. He wanted everything to be open.
So we went into there and every song turned into a discussion, which was kind of fun. It was like, “Well, does it have to go like this? Does it have to do this?” We ended up fighting for why a song needs to be exactly the way it is. He’d be like, “Oh, you know what? The bridge would be better as the verse.” There were a couple songs that were deconstructed completely and built back up in a completely different way. It was really more free flowing, as far as the compositions of the song, than previous records have been, which was really nice.
It’s always nice to have an outside influence. I know a lot of bands who are really into it and don’t want anybody else, like this is our stuff, no one else can be involved. We actually really like working with producers because we can spend six months in our rehearsal space banging our heads against each other and not have any perspective left on what anything sounds like. It’s nice to have that other person be like “That’s awesome” or “I don’t understand why it needs to do that.” In the process of explaining why you did something, you rethink it and become objective again about it. It was definitely a good experience. It was different.
One thing about the record is it seems to have more layers and textures to it than your other work, which I’m sure was quite fun for you to play around with. How did you add your own spin to things?
The old records had a lot of layers, but they were almost all guitars. This time around I think everybody consciously wanted it to be more recognizable to some extent to what it was. It wasn’t everything smeared together into one big noise. You can hear all the different parts. All of Brian’s guitar lines are much more specific. I’m trying to think of a better word. You can hear exactly what he’s playing and it’s not just a wash of reverb.
For me, it was fun. Jacknife, before he ever became a producer, made electronic music. Some if it is really amazing. Being in the studio with a guy like that and watching the way he does stuff was really fun. Brian and I in the past have usually worked together in trying to make these smeary noises, like I was saying before, so we were trying to be more specific about stuff and actually use sequencers or vintage synths. Coming up with real specific lines, as opposed to just droney stuff, was really eye opening. His work process is fun.
Do you keep track of a library of weird sounds and effects you have or do you just freeball everything?
There’s certain things we tend to go back to, like guitar pedal settings or keyboard patches, that are always on everything on some level, but then a lot of it’s just like, “Fuck it. Let’s just see what happens.” We’ll plug into every pedal in the studio, turn them all on, and see what it sounds like and just make noise.
There’s definitely still an aspect of that, which is fun. If we were just using the same shit over and over again, it’d get really boring. We’d get sick and tired of everything, but there’s definitely certain stuff that we tend to go back to.
One of the things Brian was comparing the album to was a horror film, which I thought was an interesting comparison. Is that how you kind of view the album as well?
It’s funny, he was talking about that the other day. He was like, “I think I worded that wrong when I said it.” It’s more like a psychological thing. Where we recorded the record is literally 15 blocks from where he grew up. It was kind of a mindfuck for him the whole time because on the way home from recording at 1 o’clock in the morning he’d drive through his old neighborhood and totally trip out.
Here he was 15 to 20 years later, so a lot of the lyrics reflect that weird sense of half-remembered childhood stuff. Where does that fit now? Yeah, he grew up there, but he’s basically a stranger. It may as well be fucking England. He’s not from there anymore, so there’s that weird psychological disconnect. What am I doing here now? Who am I now that I’m technically not from here anymore? It’s not necessarily a horror film so much as a weird psychological head-trip.
On the last record I remember he had a lot of anxiety writing and working out the lyrics. Was it more relaxed for you guys this time?
The making of the record, the music, was more relaxed just because of the setting. Jacknife’s studio is great. It’s basically just the garage in his house, which he rebuilt into a studio. It’s out in Topanga Canyon, which is nice. There’s windows and you can walk outside, so it’s not like the usual fucking dark cave setting that most studios are. At least for Brian with the lyrics, I think it was definitely still, not traumatic, but it was stressful on some level.
The lyrics always come last. He knew in his head what he wanted to write about on some level, but wasn’t really sure on what approach to take. The fact that we were in Topanga threw that into relief, like a way to approach how he was feeling about being the person he is, the things that made him the person he is and the things that make us who we are. Past events can solidify parts of your personality. Whether you like them or not, you’re stuck with them. He was just trying to wrap his head around that. Being up there kind of helped, but in another way it also made it more personally painful.
We live in the age of three, three-and-a-half minute pop songs, but you like to let things breathe a lot more than that. I think this album ended up being your longest album, running time wise, as well. Can you talk about that and how you extend things?
It’s funny. We know our songs tend to be kind of long, but I guess we always think they’re shorter than they are. We’ll be doing something and they’ll be like, “You’ll have to edit that if you want to put it on the radio. That song’s almost six minutes long.” We’re like, “Fuck! I thought we wrote a shorter one this time.”
I don’t know. When I think about it, these super short pop songs, I don’t know how they fucking do it. Three-and-a-half minutes is a commercial. I guess that’s what they are, but that just seems so short. Without any outside nudging, from a producer or whatever, our songs would probably be a lot longer than they are [laughs]. We’d have a three-song record.
Are you a fan of bands that make longer songs, something like Tool or something like that?
Oh, yeah. We’re all big Can and Neu! fans, ‘70s Krautrock that just finds a weird groove and sticks to it for a while. That kind of stuff, for sure. Nikki’s favorite bass player is the bass player from Can. Old Kraftwerk stuff that just goes on for 10 minutes. Some of my favorite LCD Soundsystem songs go on for seven-and-a-half, eight minutes long. I don’t have any problem with it. If you find a groove and it works, or a sound, I’m down to listen to it until the end.
The cool thing about the proliferation of music on the Internet is it doesn’t have to be three-and-a-half minutes. Yeah, there’s still a place for radio, and lots of people still listen to the radio, but just as many people will listen to your stuff on the Internet. There’s no constraints on how long or how short the songs can be. It’s nice that way. I’m down to listen to weird long stuff.
One of the things I’ve always thought about Silversun is your secret weapon seems to be Christopher’s drumming, and he had another great performance on this record. How does that come into play when you’re making these songs?
For a long time as we developed, it wasn’t necessarily conscious. I mean, it was conscious on some level, but Nikki and Chris both haven’t necessarily been about a classic, in the pocket kind of rock groove. We’re more interested in bands that did more weird or interesting geometric patterns that repeated themselves. It was almost more metronomic, not necessarily time signatures, but strange patterns and not necessarily kick drum-hat, kick drum-hat, whatever. We’ve always played to that as a strength.
It doesn’t have to be a four on the floor beat. It’s more fun when they’re serpentine, and his and Nikki’s stuff wraps around itself, and Brian and I move around on top of it and add flourishes. That’s what keeps things moving. As it’s gone on, it’s gotten more and more honed. We’ve gotten better at finding strange off grooves that we’ll play against, or with or whatever.
Taking it back to Swoon for a second, there’s always those dreaded sophomore slump fears any time you come out with a second record, and you definitely were able to leap over that. Was it a relief to some extent to have that record be such a success?
Yeah, I guess so. You definitely think about it on some level. I remember Brian saying, “We don’t ever have to make another record.” We weren’t going to put one out for the sake of putting one out. The world doesn’t need another record from us. We shouldn’t do it unless we’re happy with it. That record took a while to make, but the songs that are on it are the best songs we could come up with at that point. We were all happy with those songs.
We were definitely happy that people liked it. I don’t know if we were overly necessarily concerned with the sophomore slump. We’re still on some level surprised that anybody would want to buy our stuff. If anybody bought it, we would have been appreciative. I’m really happy with that record and glad other people seem to dig it.
You guys have always seemed to be an underdog, this little indie band from L.A. with a style that was more popular 15 or 20 years ago than it is necessarily now. But you keep having success with every record and single that it’s almost to the point where people have come to expect things from you now. What is that like for you at this stage?
I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t know what anybody’s expecting from us [laughs]. From our perspective, we just want to keep moving forward and not make the same record. As long as we can be proud of what we’ve made, we’ll put it out. That’s all we aim for. We definitely don’t want to put a record out for the sake of putting a record out. That would just be pointless. If you can’t even get behind it, why would you expect anybody else to get behind it?
As far as expectations, I don’t know. Shit, I didn’t know we had any too hard and fast expectations because you might be disappointed on some level. I don’t even know what they would be. That’s a funny question. We’ve always been our own toughest critics, so hopefully if it passes muster with us other people will dig it.
Also for this record you stayed on Dangerbird Records, which I thought was the right call, but you got pursued by some larger labels as well. What was that like to go through?
We’re under contract with Dangerbird. This record was going to come out on their label, but we kept hearing that other labels could talk to us. Well, not really us, technically that’s illegal, but our lawyer or manager would mention that they’d be interested in signing us or putting out a new record or whatever.
With the way the fucking record industry is right now, there’s no bonus to being on a major. They’re getting smaller and smaller and less well equipped to do anything anyway. We have some friends on major labels and just heard horror stories. Records the bands finished and someone political decided they didn’t like it and then it got shelved. Then the band was in limbo for years because they wouldn’t give it back to them or put it out. All that kind of fucking nonsense.
With Dangerbird, there’s like eight people that work there. It’s six blocks from my house, so if there’s a problem I can just walk down and talk to them about it. I can’t really imagine a better situation for wanting to put out a record and then go about doing it. Why the fuck would we go with a major label? Our record isn’t going to sell 800,000 copies in the first week, and we’d just get buried by whatever the next crappy pop band is.
We have everything we need from a small label. It’s not like there’s these crazy deals you hear about, like R.E.M. getting $90 million for 16 records or something ridiculous. They don’t even do that anymore, so we couldn’t even be assholes and take a bunch of money. That’s not even there, so what do they have to offer?
On your last tour, you closed it out with that awesome show at the Greek, and now you’re back to playing smaller venues and some festivals. What size shows are you going to be doing this year? Do you have a preference, or do you like playing a mixture of stuff?
Right now for the summer, it’s definitely a mixture. We’re doing festivals, and they’ll be some one-offs in between the festivals. Starting in September through December, it’ll probably be wall-to-wall touring, a proper tour. Some of that could be earlier, too. We’re not sure yet and still booking all that stuff out. Festivals are always fun because it’s just a big fucking circus. It’s not on you necessarily to do anything above and beyond. You just come in, play your 40 minutes, and then fuck off and see other bands, which is always nice.
I’m not really sure how big the shows will be. I imagine they’ll probably be in theaters, which is for the most part what we did for the last record. I’m not even really sure what the sizes are. They just tell me where to go and I go [laughs]. That last tour we finally got to bring a lighting person out and stuff like that, and that was really nice. It’s cool because it’s a good size, there’s a decent amount of people, but you can bring some lights and stuff to make it a proper show for everybody.
We used to be really into playing really small clubs where people were right on top of you because it just felt more sweaty and intimate. I think we’re getting better at conveying that on a slightly bigger scale. It used to be that a 2,000-person venue felt big and cavernous, but I think we’ve gotten better at making it not feel that way, which is cool. It’s nice to be able to play for that many people at one show.
You guys took Against Me! out on your last tour back in 2010, and Tom coming out as a transgender was one of the huge stories this week. What did you take away from that? Knowing him pretty well, did that surprise you at all?
Yeah, I think all of us were really surprised. Tom’s one of the sweetest people I know. We all support him 100 percent. That’s got to be a really tough decision to make. We know his wife and his bandmates really well, and I’m sure it’s going to be a tough road. If that’s what he needs to feel fulfilled, then God bless him.
I hope it works out for him, I really do. We were all pretty blown away, I guess because they’re such a masculine band. It was sort of out of left field. Yeah, I don’t know. He’s a lovely person and I hope he finds some happiness.