Silversun Pickups Record Daytrotter Session at SXSW: A Glimpse from Inside the Studio
For bands at South by Southwest, there's a lot of waiting involved. Yes, there's hustling, and unloading and reloading the van, and dealing with sound dudes on short notice when everybody's feeling a little grumpy and running on four hours of half-sleep, which makes the world look crazy. But then you get to the place you're supposed to be,in this instance a little makeshift recording studio outside of Austin, and once there, you wait. And wait. And not only that, you wait for Peter, Bjorn and John, who are inside the studio recording their Daytrotter session.
Daytrotter, you might know, is the great MP3 site based out of Rock Island, Illinois, one of the Quad Cities that sits on the Illinois/Iowa border on either side of the Mississippi. Over the past three years the site has become a sort of Peel Sessions of the Midwest. Founded by Sean Moeller in his recording studio, the producer and engineer started inviting touring bands coming to and from Chicago and St. Louis to swing by and record a few songs. The idea snowballed, and a session in Rock Island soon became a coveted line on a rising band's resume.
This year Daytrotter set up a studio on the outskirts of town to record bands and then offer the songs as downloads on the site. As proof of its current stature, the list of artists recording this week includes The Hold Steady, Richard Swift, Tricky, Avett Brothers, J Tillman of Fleet Foxes, the Strange Boys, and Daniel Johnston.
I was invited along with Silversun Pickups to record theirs. The band is planning on playing a few songs from their eagerly anticipated Swoon, two years in the making after the critical and commercial success of 2006's Carnavas. The band's also been on a performing hiatus, waiting to debut the live version of those songs, thick with guitarist/singer/songwriter Brian Aubert's symphonically-distorted guitar texture; today's date with Daytrotter will be only the second time they will have performed some of them live. This will be recorded, then unleashed on the world, so they're understandably a tad nervous.
The Daytrotter studio is at the back end of a gravel yard with a few picnic tables, a firepit and an endless supply of really nice wine. From the outside, the room looks more like a shack than a studio, which makes this whole scene take on the feel of a southern pre-WWII blues set up than the HQ of a 21st century online music hub. Inside, Peter, Bjorn and John, who I woke up with yesterday morning, are recording their session, and they're taking longer than expected to lay down their new songs. So we're all just sitting around shooting the shit and getting antsy. Surely Aubert's thinking about the songs he's getting ready to play, or he's thinking about their gig tonight at Stubb's for Guitar Hero -- the same show that Metallica's playing later in the night.
Eventually PBJ finishes, loads out their equipment,the Pickups set up theirs and do a soundcheck. With a sound so thick with overtones and controlled feedback, Aubert's concerned with getting his sound right, and it doesn't help that the pedal set-up that he'll be taking on the road is still being worked on back in LA. This makeshift one makes amazing sounds, but it's not the exact ones he's spent the last three years perfecting.
So anyway, I end up in a little corner of the studio with a few other people. The board is in another room, and Aubert and bassist/singer Nikki Monninger's vocals are being sent directly into the two's headphones, so I only hear the three new Silversun Pickups songs as instrumentals, which is a fascinating exercise and highly recommended for judging the quality and inspiration of Aubert's song structures -- and for hearing what a four-piece band can do in a little room with huge sound. Keyboardist Joe Lester at one point created this absolutely freaky sound from whatever gear he was using, this wash of noise that punctuated Aubert's wall of sound and Monniger's rolling but precise basslines. Drummer Christopher Guanlao was pure and tight, with big-ass cymbal crashes that perfect aligned and ultra-charged.
Later Aubert will acknowledge that the particular performance was as nervewracking a gig as he's ever done -- and he's done a lot of shows in his time. But it makes sense; the Silversun Pickups have been working on this stuff for a long time, and a lot of people are really looking forward to what they have come up with. To roll into Austin on the eve of Swoon's release (April 14, to be exact) and a day before playing at Stubb's with Metallica is to face a certain amount of pressure.
It's a wonderful problem to have, though, ultimately. There are 2,000 bands in Austin right now who would kill to be in Silversun's situation. But that only makes the moment feel more crystal clear, and powerful, and, yes, nerve-wracking.