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Silversun Pickups head to Upstate Concert Hall

Silversun Pickups head to Upstate Concert Hall

Joe Lester, the band’s keyboardist, talks about “Widow’s Weeds,” touring and the music business
Silversun Pickups head to Upstate Concert Hall
Silversun Pickups
Photographer: claire marie vogel

The shoegazey Silversun Pickups are back, both in terms of new music and in terms of local shows.  

“Widow’s Weeds,” which came out earlier this year, is the band’s first album in four years. Produced by Butch Vig, it layers the band’s unique vocals and blurred instrumental parts with more organic string-influenced sounds. 

The alt-rock band formed in California in the early 2000s, at a time when the music industry was going through a seachange. Band members Brian Aubert, Niki Monninger, Christopher Guanlao and Joe Lester have recorded five albums and several EPs since then. 

Before the band heads to Upstate Concert Hall on Saturday, Lester, the band’s keyboardist, took a few minutes to talk with the Gazette about “Widow’s Weeds,” touring and the music business.

Q: How did you get into music in the first place? Were your parents particularly musical?
A: Neither of my parents are musically [inclined], but they both like music a lot. When I was 16 I bought a sh**ty electric guitar and taught myself how to play. I came back to it when I was in college and I actually started out as a bass player in a couple of bands. Then, Christopher, the drummer, and I joined the Silversun about a year after the initial version of the band started. They asked me if I wanted to play keyboard and I, with the caveat that I didn't really know how to play keyboard, accepted. I just sort of figured it out along the way. 

Q: What year did you join them?
A: I think they started around 2000 and Chris and I joined them around either 2002 or 2003. It's been a long, long time. 

Q: How do you feel like the band's sound has changed over the years?
A: I think that there is a sort of not definable [sound] that's swirled around with us whenever the four of us have played together. But we've certainly explored a lot and I think we go through what might be interesting or appealing to us depending on the songs we're writing and where our heads are at. The early records had some acoustic guitars and smeary sound effects. Then we got more interested in electronics. I think, with this record, we kind of wanted to refocus on acoustic instruments and pianos and strings, more organic elements. It was mainly a function of how the songs we wrote were progressing for the vibe of the record. 

Q: Who would you say is the band’s main songwriter or is it more of a collaborative effort?
A: Brian [Aubert] is almost always the one who has the genesis of the idea, definitely for this record. The way it usually works is he'll come in with an idea for an idea for a vibe, a part. He'll play it for us and talk about it and we'll make a demo. Then, those are what we would send to Butch Vig, who is producing the record. He'd have a listen and we'd all get together and talk about how we [could] build on the foundation. But it almost always starts with Brian having a loop or a melody in his head and we build on top of that. 


Q: What were some of the challenges in putting this record together?
A: The initial challenge is always just the question of "Do we have anything we want to say?" We had several songs that had been ideas for a long time that we couldn't figure out where to put them but we knew there was something there. Once we started writing, we figured it out pretty quickly. It was a very smooth process. Working with Butch, who has made, I don't know, a thousand records, was really fun because he's such a calming influence. It just made it much easier for all of us to focus on what we were doing. All his suggestions and ideas for tweaking [songs] were virtually right. He has very good taste and it made the whole thing run pretty smoothly. I think we were pretty confident with how the songs were in our head so it was just a matter of trying to execute it.

Q: What were some of your favorite songs to record? 
A: "Don't Know Yet" was a real fun one and a piano heavy song. Basically all the songs that have strings on them was really fun. We hired two guys that Butch has used before. In the past, for "Swoon," our second record, we actually hired a full 16-piece string section to record it. That was amazing. But this time, we brought [two players in]. they would record take after take and change little things. They'd move their chairs to make it sound like they were in different places. They would change bows or change the bridge on their instruments and layer and layer the strings. Just watching that process was cool. 

Q: How long have you been on tour with "Widow's Weeds"?
A: Not too long. We've staggered the shows we've been doing partly because people have kids so we have to organize schedules for school breaks and stuff like that. We've done a few shows on the west coast as warm-ups and we've done a few radio festivals. 

Q: What has been your favorite part of touring over the years?
A: The fact that you get to travel all over the place is something we all feel very lucky about. Everybody in the band really likes the experience of traveling and seeing new things and meeting new people. We'll always be thankful for [that]. In my head, there's two sides to being a musician, sitting in the studio, recording and writing and then there's going on tour. They sort of balance each other out because if you're spending all this time hunched over and mixing songs, eventually you start to go a little stir crazy. Touring is the natural reaction to that. It's like a sine wave.

Q: Do you have any advice for young musicians today?
A: When we came together and decided we wanted to try and make a go of it [as] a touring band, it was right at the tipping point where the music industry just turned on its head, with the rise of streaming. Now, it's such a different animal. In some ways it's a total mess because the streaming services made deals that helped out major labels that didn't really help any of the artists on those labels. But at the same time, it made it much easier for people who are just starting out to get their music in front of [others]. So there is  a benefit. The days of major labels being the gatekeepers of music that anybody would know about or hear are all gone. The fact that you can buy essentially professional studio software for your laptop for $300 is a game changer as well. You can make a record in your bedroom and have it on Spotify with much less trouble than in the old days of trying to convince a label that you're worth their time, you can just skip that whole f**king thing, which I think is really inspiring. So I guess, my advice would be if you've got songs, record them and put them on the internet. 


Silversun Pickups

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sat. 
WHERE: Upstate Concert Hall
TICKETS: $30 in advance, $33 day of
MORE INFO: upstateconcerthall.com

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