The dawn of the 21st century’s third decade is here, and that means that the Silversun Pickups are now celebrating 20 years together as a sonic force to be reckoned with. Just as the alt-rock grunge era of the 1990s seemed to be winding down, the Los Angeles-based quartet formed and soon went on to revive the genre with their generational smash hit “Lazy Eye” in 2006.
With a sound that seemed to follow in the footsteps of the Smashing Pumpkins (intensely fuzzy guitars, furious drumming, rocking female bassist), it was only a matter of time until the Silversun Pickups recorded an album with famed alt-rock producer Butch Vig (who helmed Pumpkins classic Siamase Dream). And so it was as Vig came on board to produce the band’s sixth album Widow’s Weeds in 2019.
“He’s the best,” guitarist Brian Aubert told Billboard.com. “He’s such a lovely human being. We always knew it was gonna be great. We knew that sonically he’s amazing.” Silversun Pickups fans likewise know that the band is going to be sonically amazing in concert, generating dynamic soundscapes in a league few others play in.
In a wide-ranging interview at the group’s old stomping ground in LA’s Silverlake area, the band spoke of everything from their early days rocking a Monday residency at the Spaceland club to how Aubert concluded that he had to get sober during the recording of the new album. Whatever personal tensions were going on seem to have aided the music as the group has delivered another winner with the wide-ranging sonic power that remains the Silversun Pickups’ trademark.
The tour trail brings the band back to Fox Theater in uptown Oakland here on this Saturday night of 8 February, and there’s an eager audience ready to get their grunge on. There are all too few genuine grungy alt-rock bands left these days, and so the Silversun Pickups perform a noble service for the rock ‘n’ roll community by helping to keep this special sonic art form alive.
Aubert has described the new album’s opener “Neon Wound” as a key track in the album’s artistic development, and it makes for a strong opener here with keyboardist Joe Lester’s synths setting a tone before the drums and bass come crashing in. “Hello, my friend, it’s nice to see you again,” Aubert sings to welcome the audience. Bassist Nikki Monninger always brings an endearingly down-to-earth enthusiasm to the stage, but she looks like a genuine rock star here with silver sparkle heels and sparkle necklace augmenting her stylish black dress. Aubert’s fuzzy guitar melodies blend well with Lester’s synths while drummer Christopher Guanlao pounds out a heavy beat to give the set a strong launch.
“It Doesn’t Matter Why” is another strong rocker from the new album with a rich sound that goes well beyond standard indie rock as the Silversun Pickups keep the torch burning for that late 20th-century alternative rock. Lester dials up a string section sound that adds a different dynamic, yet the band is still conjuring an energetic sound here over an infectious beat.
The band takes the show back to their early years with “Little Lover’s So Polite” from their 2006 breakthrough album Carnavas and alt-rock smash “Panic Room” from 2009’s Swoon. It’s a gloriously grungy combo as the quartet rocks out on songs that now resonate as classics. The killer groove and tight guitar harmonics of “Panic Room” electrify the theater as the energy surges in compelling fashion.
The set shifts into a wider sonic space with the new “Freakazoid”, a mid-tempo tune with spacier guitar over a crisp bassline and precision percussion. When Aubert sings, “I believe you’re trying to keep us all from dying”, it kind of feels like a tip of the cap to all the passionate activists working for the better world promised by the political revolution and its Green New Deal to address the climate crisis. The band delivers another gem from Widow’s Weeds on “Don’t Know Yet”. Fans asked to snap along if they can on the low key intro before the song cranks up with psychedelic guitar melodies and Aubert’s soul-searching vocal asking a friend if they’re “screaming from the other side”.
The energy surges again on “Dots and Dashes”, a mesmerizing track from 2012’s Neck of the Woods album featuring layered psychedelic guitar melodies over an infectious groove that keeps the Fox rocking. The band continues crushing it on “Mean Spirits”, another tune from the same album where Guanlao rocks one of his tightest beats. Meanwhile, Lester uses a fuzzy synth to match the melody of Monninger’s heavy groove before the song explodes when Aubert adds some smoldering old school grunge riffage.
The set moves into a strong homestretch as the band takes it back to the beginning with “Kissing Families” from their 2005 indie debut Pikul. The song has a heavy beat but with soothing melodies that create a blissful sonic wave, augmented by Aubert and Monninger harmonizing like angels before Aubert cranks up the angst and amplification for a big climax. “Nightlight” from 2015’s Better Nature album conjures an LA noir vibe of sorts as Aubert sings of playing a game with the lights out.
The Silversun Pickups sensationally close the set with “Growing Old Is Getting Old”. A key song from the Swoon album, the quartet utilizes a slow build to climb to a soaring peak when Guanlao’s drums come crashing in as the tempo picks up. Aubert throws down some of his best guitar playing of the night here with scintillating rhythm harmonics as the Fox explodes once more.
The new “Straw Man” opens the encore sequence with a somber guitar melody that sounds a bit like Metallica’s “Fade to Black” before shifting into a more psychedelic direction. The band then closes out the evening with a double-shot of gloriously full tilt grunge power on “Well Thought Out Twinkles” and “Lazy Eye” from Carnavas. There’s something about these electrifying tunes (among others) that gives them a resonance on par with those grunge classics from the early-to-mid-1990s, and that’s where the Silversun Pickups have earned sonic feathers in their caps that few other 21st century bands can match. There’s a life-affirming power here in the way this sound rocks the soul, and the Silversun Pickups have delivered the sonic medicine here in Oakland tonight.