What do you do after your band's first two albums sell a million copies combined? What do you do for Act III? There's pressure and expectation. And a quandary: Over-evolve, and you alienate your fan base. Don't evolve enough, and people (critics) will say you just sound the same. It's here that we find LA band Silversun Pickups, whose first two albums, Carnavas and Swoon, sold more than a million copies. For their Act III, Neck of the Woods, the band headed 30 miles northwest of their Silver Lake home to Jacknife Lee's studio in Topanga Canyon. Lee is deft and experienced in appropriately evolving established bands—his production credits include U2, Weezer, R.E.M., Bloc Party, and the Cars. Silversun's alternative, radio-ready garage rock is more ominous and dramatic on Neck of the Woods, shifting toward more electronic and synth-based sounds. Drummer Chris Guanlao spoke from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank prior to their taping for Conan O'Brien's Conan.
What song are you playing for the show? Who decides which one?
The management and the record label usually decide. Right now, they're pushing "The Pit" as a single, so we're playing that one. We don't really have that much choice [laughs]. We do voice our opinion, but a lot of the time we're like, "Whatever you think is best." We don't mind radio edits, either; they can do whatever they want with the radio edit as long as we have the album track on the record. Live, we'll usually do the album version, but for shows like this, we'll do the radio version.
Live, you do the Allman Brothers' 45-minute "Mountain Jam."
We should. Maybe for our Seattle show.
Conan's like seven feet two.
He's tall. I'm not tall. When I stand next to him, he's like three times my size. This is our third time on Conan, the first since he's been on TBS. We're big fans.
Who is the guest on the show? Is it Octomom? Or Frodo Baggins/Elijah Wood?
I don't know [laughs and checks schedule]. It is... Dax Shepard from Punk'd, I think. And I believe he has a movie coming out, Hit and Run. I feel like his press agent now.
They could at least have Frodo Baggins on there for you guys, shit.
I know. When we were on Jimmy Fallon, Harrison Ford was the guest. We were so stoked about it, just to be in the same room with him. But he'd taped his interview a week earlier, so we didn't even get to see him. We did do Jimmy Kimmel with Johnny Depp, and that was cool. We saw him from a distance, but they kept him pretty closed off.
Whose TV show has the best greenroom?
Jimmy Kimmel's. There's a wine bar and hors d'oeuvres; they invite a lot people, so you feel like it's a club.
Do you guys get crazy with the rider?
We're pretty tame, to be honest. We have reduced-fat cheeses on there. By the end of the day, the cheeses are gone. One weird thing I request is alkaline water [laughs]. It's supposed to be better—the molecules are smaller, so it's supposedly good for your blood. It's not very easy to find, but when they actually have it for us, I drink that shit up.
Do you interact much with the house band when y'all tape for shows like that? Those dudes are always the most amazing and fluid musicians.
They're like real musicians. And usually they're really friendly. There's a camaraderie, I guess—if they see gear they're into, they'll ask you about it. Even Paul Shaffer was nice. You would think he and his band would be so jaded and over it, and yet they were so nice. I mean, I'm from LA; I tried to play it cool when I met him, but inside I was geeking out.
You're from LA. You probably have brunch with Anthony Kiedis all the time.
I have yet to have brunch with Anthony [laughs]. He's on a better side of LA.
Did you meet the Roots when you played Jimmy Fallon?
Yes. They're insanely good. Questlove is incredible. That was the most nerve-racking performance. That studio is pretty cramped, so when you play, the Roots are right on top of you—literally right next to you, staring at you, six feet away. When you perform, they don't leave their instruments. It messed with my head [laughs]. I was thinking, "Oh my God, I'm not worthy. They know I'm a horrible drummer." Every year for the Grammys, the Roots host a party where they invite people to come jam with them. They asked us to do it, but we had to decline. Not because we didn't want to do it, but because we're not musicians like they are—we would have made fools out of ourselves! I hope they didn't think anything of it; it was purely because we were afraid.
Why is your producer Jacknife Lee a "Jacknife"?
That's a good question. I've never asked him. His real first name is Garrett, and he introduced himself as Garrett. I just call him Jacknife, though, which he responds to. He's produced some awesome records over the years, so he deserves an awesome nickname. He signs e-mails as Jacknife.
How long did Neck of the Woods take to record? Did you all live at Jacknife's studio while you recorded?
No, we commuted. We took about eight weeks to do the album, which was the fastest we've ever recorded an album. Our other records were anywhere from three to six months, so it was nice to not have it linger. I think it's the way Jacknife produces. He's got it dialed in, knows specifically what sounds to get and doesn't waste time. My drums were set up the entire eight weeks. I'd be there, and he'd say, "We need something for this part," so I'd go in and throw something down. Then we'd move on. We looked at drums as textures, which was different.
What's the most takes you did for a song? Is Jacknife a 90-take producer?
No, not at all. Dave Cooley, who did our first two records, was more traditional that way. With Cooley, we did drum tracks first, and I would do 10 or 15 takes of a song. With Jacknife, he would say, "Go in there and try something." So I'd go in and do it. Then he'd say, "Try something else. Maybe a fill in the middle." So I'd do that. And then he'd be like, "Cool, thanks." For the first few weeks, I didn't think he was getting anything [laughs]. I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out, but he got it all together. It was hard to conceptualize a song—we'd do verses and choruses separately, or sometimes we'd go back to a song weeks later and do the chorus. We really had to trust Jacknife and his vision of where he wanted to take the songs. The first week, we had a lot of head scratching and butting of heads. But once we learned each other, and the trust was there, it went smoothly.
How did the first single, "Bloody Mary," come together?
It's funny, the finished version of that song is so different than the original. That song was supposed to be on our previous album Swoon, but it never made it past the practice space. We had around 16 or 17 songs, but for budget reasons, we didn't have time to do all of them in the studio. We forgot about it for almost a year until we got together to write for Neck of the Woods and Brian [Aubert] brought it up. When we showed it to Jacknife, he cut out the fat and changed it completely. He pushed me to change the drumbeat, and I'm glad he did. It's more dancey now. And that's something that we hadn't really explored.
So is it Bloody Mary, the ghost in the mirror? Or Bloody Mary, the delicious alcoholic brunch drink with tomato juice?
It's the ghost. A lot of people think it's the drink. It's misleading, because we love Bloody Marys, the brunch drink, especially at airports.
Except when you guys say "Bloody Mary" three times in front of the mirror, instead of seeing a bloody girl, a drink pops into your hand. Your record label should come out with a Silversun Pickups Bloody Mary Mix. Hello, genius marketing idea.
They did! Dangerbird did that as a promo, which we thought was cool. I haven't actually tried it. Hopefully it's as good as the Trader Joe's one.
Good luck on Conan today. Don't drink too much alkaline water. Are you just caked in makeup right now? Don't glisten on HD, whatever you do.
I'm sure they'll powder us. Hopefully I don't glisten too much.