Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
They may be nearing their second decade on the scene, but on Widow’s Weeds, the Californian alt-rock crushers in Silversun Pickups wield a sound as youthful as it is punchy.
Words by Sarah Comey.
In their 19 years of sonic pandemonium, the Californian heart-thumpers in Silversun Pickups have refused to mellow out. Their valiant, overdrive-heavy alt-rock has remained persistently vivid and thundering, with frontman Brian Aubert using each song as a new excuse to beat his heart and soul down to a powerful, spirited, impossibly catchy pulp.
Widow’s Weeds is no exception. Coming five years after its predecessor – the shimmery and cerebral Better Nature – the ten-track anthology takes its listener by throat and throws them down a rabbithole of scratchy guitars, opalescent and anomalous, twisting synths. Its thematic seeds were planted in a particularly dark spot of Aubert’s life, the record’s 48 minutes of open-hearted pummeling a reflection of the brutish nihilism that Aubert had to fight off to recognise his inner luminance.
Suitably, the aftermath is an album that’s more rough and rugged than anything Silversun Pickups have released to date. Better Nature saw them indulge in massive, meticulous production techniques, but here the band are stripped to
their bare bones, letting the performances themselves take the spotlight as they batter through the waves of emotion.
As for what led them to approach LP5 with a more organic vibe, Aubert explains, “It’s almost a sort of natural wanderlust. When you’re making an album, you have all these little places you want to explore and these sonic ideas that you want to dive into. But by the time you’ve worked through that and you’ve toured with it for a couple of years, you’ve moved on. And so with the next record, you have a natural urge to move in a different direction – the response you have to your last record is the jumping-off point for what your mind comes up with next.
“Our last album had everything under the sun; we pushed up the production and had all the organic parts removed… It felt like a fever dream in a circus! So the stuff that was coming out of us when we finished that tended to be a lot more organic again; we were putting acoustics in more heavily, and we knew early on that we wanted to put the strings back in – that was a major turning point for the sonic direction we wanted to head in with this record; that kind of led us to where we eventually landed.”
To bring Widow’s Weeds to life, Aubert and co. brought in a veritable demigod of ‘90s and ‘00s alt‑rock: Butch Vig. The four-piece worked closely with Vig to establish a highly collaborative, ‘anything goes’ environment where loud-soft dynamics reigned supreme. The album was recorded in two distinct chapters, too, giving Silversun Pickups time to brew and boil with the songs, giving them the power to take on lives of their own.
“We’d been talking about working with Butch for quite a while,” Aubert says. “I got to do some stuff with his band Garbage a couple of years back, and I saw how he worked; I knew straight away that whatever we were going to come up with, we wouldn’t have to worry too much about the finer details of it because once we got into his hands, and then his brain, he was going to push everything to either its maximum or its minimum. The things that were going to be soft were going to get really soft, and the things that were going to be loud were going to get really loud – to the point where our brains were just exploding in the studio!”
In the past, Silversun Pickups would heavily demo their songs before taking them to the studio, with intention being that they would pull from a wider pool of cuts to concoct the perfect setlist. But in the case of Widow’s Weeds, they started with the opening and closing numbers – the convulsive, synth-inflicted “Neon Wound” and the all-out pummeling “We Are Chameleons” – and pieced the album together, song by song (almost entirely in sequence, to boot) around them. Such abetted them to more intently explore the ebb and flow of the album at large, leading to their shortest, but unequivocally most dynamic body of work.
“The moment we finished writing ‘Chameleons’, we knew it would have to end the album,” Aubert says. “The best way to describe that song is that we just kept pushing everything up until there was nothing left to push. It reminds me of something Jeff Tweedy wrote in his book [Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)], which I’ll never forget: you build up a tree, and you put a bunch of ornaments around it, and then you remove the tree so that all you have left is the ornaments. So the middle of the song – the guitar parts that you wrote the whole song around – they’d be missing, and everything you did over them would be kept on.
“It was so strange that at one point, Butch turned around and said, ‘I don’t know what this is, and I don’t know how we got here or where we’re going… But I love it! And we knew that ‘Chameleons’ had to end the album because we literally didn’t know how to do anything after it. There’s no way you can follow a song like that.”