"Honestly, I don't remember it," says Silversun Pickups keyboardist Joe Lester. "It was like, 'What the fuck just happened?'"
Lester's talking about his band's appearance a couple months back on Late Show with David Letterman. Silversun Pickups also performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and they've done Last Call with Carson Daly three times already. That's what happens when you're one of the biggest new indie rock bands around. "We were way more nervous for Letterman," Lester says. "We all grew up watching Letterman — [our bass player] Nikki [Monninger] has a crush on him. It was like, 'What are we doing?'"
Silversun Pickups' debut full-length Carnavas hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers last year and is currently climbing the Billboard 200. It recalls early Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. On it, gauzy guitars and stargaze keyboards swirl across power pop melodies bolted down by the thwacking backbeats of drummer Christopher Guanlao. Grabbing the listener are the out-front, emotive wails of singer/guitarist Brian Aubert and the cool, vocal calls of bassist Nikki Monninger.
"Lazy Eye" is the album's debut single and the band's first legitimate hit, having recently cracked the Top 20 on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks. It's a wee-small-hours lament about misguided longing. "Waiting for this moment all my life, but it's not quite right," goes the lyric. The impassioned frustration in the voice sells it. The song's irrepressible melody is teased by wide-open atmospherics that enhance rather than intrude. At times, though, spells of moody meandering drag down Carnavas. This Los Angeles-based band has a rock 'n' roll heart, but with an indie rocker's fashion sense.
"It's just sorta that's what we sound like," Lester explains. "We're all into Kraftwerk and weird shit, and then we all like Prince. There's definitely an appreciation for that pop sensibility, but ... it is a balancing act.
"I don't think we're consciously writing pop songs and then dirtying 'em up," he continues. "Everyone in the band writes and brings their own personal influence [to the songs].
"Brian will have some semblance of a verse or chorus and then everyone starts throwing stuff at it or tearing stuff away," he continues. "We try and stay true to the initial vibe of the song and do that justice, but it's not like we're trying to write the perfect pop song."
Lester speaks on his cell phone from a tour stop in Denver. His band is opening for Scottish/Irish mope-rock favorites Snow Patrol at the Fillmore Auditorium. He's at the venue early with drummer Guanlao prepping for the show. It's been a blur of new cities, venues and faces for Silversun Pickups ever since their debut LP dropped last July. The schedule has included opening gigs with acts like Wolfmother and Snow Patrol, peppered with headlining club dates such as the one they have Saturday at the 300-capacity Crowbar in Ybor City, which marks the quartet's first trip to Florida.
"It's definitely different," says Lester after being asked about opening shows for popular major-label acts like Snow Patrol versus club gigs. "With Snow Patrol, we're playing to their crowd, trying to win people over. It's 30 minutes of rocking out, hoping some people who wouldn't have otherwise [been exposed to our music] enjoy it. It's really fun, like a test, there's a different mindset.
"But, personally, I'd rather see bands at smaller places," he continues. "We've been playing little clubs for years, so in a weird way we feel more at home in clubs where we can be as loud as we want and it's a more intimate experience — the crowd's right there with you, there's no barricade and 3-million-dollar sound system.
"But I'm not knocking Snow Patrol or anything," he quickly adds. "It's trippy playing in front of 6,000 people."
Does a musician feel more pressure playing in front of 6,000 people as opposed to 60? "Not really. Playing in a club, you better be right on because people are more apt to walk out or go get a beer," Lester says. "At [big shows] it's sort of an event anyway. The place is so big and bright, you're not able to see past the third or fourth row — can't really tell if the crowd's into it, just hope they'll applaud.
"Playing at smaller places — if you suck, then they'll let you know it. I guess I like clubs just because of that immediate response."
To most, it seems the band burst on the scene right out of the gate. But the foursome actually formed in 2000, spending years playing the L.A. club circuit before inking a deal with Dangerbird Records and releasing the EP Pikul in 2005. "We all worked in the film industry, on commercials and shows as [production assistants]," Lester says. "As a p.a., you're like someone's dog. We all worked for some interesting bosses — I'll leave it at that."
"I better not," Lester says with a laugh.
Now, when they perform on the likes of Letterman and Leno, the band gets to be on the other side of the camera — in front of millions of viewers. Have the musicians had time to reflect on their newfound fame?
"Not really," Lester says. "We've basically been on tour since July. It's in the back of our heads like, 'Wow, things are going good.'
"But we've never sat down and thought about it," he continues. "I don't think we ever thought it would get remotely this big as fast as it did. It's pretty fucking mind-blowing."