Frontman Brian Aubert shares about the band’s journey, including its indie-L.A. roots, the cathartic making of Swoon, nervous breakdowns, writing No. 1 single “Panic Switch,” and the yin/yang of recording and touring.
Are you excited for the Gibson show coming up?
Yeah, we’re really excited. Every time somebody brings it up and says Gibson, we kind of always forget because we’re so used to calling it the Universal Amphitheater. I’m always thinking it’s some other place, but yeah, we’re very, very excited.
Will that be the biggest headline show you’ve done so far?
I’m not sure, we’ll see [laughs]. I guess it depends on how many people show up.
I know when you were first starting out you did the whole L.A. scene for a number of years. What was that like?
We’re from Los Angeles. We didn’t move there for one reason or another. We were all raised there. I don’t know how it is in any other place, but the area in Los Angeles where we birthed our band, which is the eastern part of Los Angeles with Silver Lake and all that stuff, was really instrumental in us forming the band.
Basically, there’s all these clubs out there that would have bands in the more indier world, or left of center universe, play. A lot of the people live there as well, a lot of those bands. We started going to shows, and a lot of our friends had bands. It became this universe where playing music was actually tangible. It took the myth away.
We would be hanging out with someone that you really love, and to you they seemed normal [laughs]. Normal like you are, I guess, in clothes. They make beautiful music. It’s one of those situations where we’re surrounded with a bunch of our friends who were making records that we would listen to at home. It gave us confidence to really start playing music.
Now it’s such a massive place. There’s so many centers everywhere. Every place has got a scene. You can get culture shock from going from one area to the other more than going to here from Montreal because it’s just so vast and so different. I think because there’s such a massive culture in Los Angeles that when there’s counter culture they really stick together. It really helped us.
Another thing that really helped, too, is that a lot of the clubs we started hanging out with a lot of musicians who lived there and would frequent these clubs and play them. Everybody in that area of town who was not in a band were just fans of seeing new music.
We would start playing shows at these clubs, where people would just come to see new things. It wasn’t some pay to play sort of thing, where you had to bring an audience in. There were always audiences there. People sort of treated their clubs like bars. They would show up and check out new music. It was a pretty great experience. We thought that was the norm until we started going to other places, realizing how lucky we really are.
When you were doing the club thing did you have to take on jobs too, or were you able to get by just doing that?
Oh yeah, we were definitely all working at places and different things in an L.A. way, which is funny because in L.A. you can get by. At the time, rent was really cheap then, but everybody had odd jobs here and there.
I think the moment we thought our band was successful was the time where we didn’t have to put any money into it. We weren’t making any money from it, but it didn’t cost us anything to do. You know what I mean? The shows would just bleed into the band. That, I think, was the time we thought we had made it. We were so happy.
So the last record was a pretty big success, but then your new record debuted in the top 10 and you ended up with a No. 1 single. Did that come as a pretty big shock to you?
Yes, everything has been a shock us. Even gradually growing in a way is mindboggling to us, and really amazing. With everything that happened with the last record, we just thought, “Wow. That’s incredible.”
Once we started writing the new one, we sort of left all that behind and forgot about that a little bit. Clearly, we knew there were going to be more people listening to this one than maybe when the first one came out, but we had no idea it was going to grow further. When it came out, it’s funny because we pretty much had blinders on. We were in dark rooms staring at each other for a year making this thing.
Right when it was finished, literally the second it was finished, mastered and everything, KROQ picked up “Panic Switch” and started playing it right away. So right after it was done, we were going around to radio and everything. That was a shock to us because we forgot almost that you’re making something that comes out [laughs].
We were totally just with each other all the time creating this thing. Then all of a sudden it’s out, and you’re listening to it and commenting on it. You’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. Wait!” That was a pretty big shock. Then when it came out, and the response that it’s gotten and everything that’s happened, it is a massive shock. We feel really lucky and humbled.
I understand that “Panic Switch” was one of the last songs you did and was almost like an afterthought of putting on the record.
It wasn’t really an afterthought. It was more like we had 16 songs at that time. For us, when we record or we go into the studio, we have to really put in our muscle memory on the songs. We have to know every little bit of it before we go into the studio. We want to be able to play these things in a rough fundamental way live. That’s what we’re used to. That’s what we like. So by the time we get into the studio, we know how the thing goes and we can spend time on little subtle moments and things.
So we were working our asses off with these 16 songs, and changing them around and doing all that stuff. Everybody knew how to play them all. We would change it. We would change that one. We would move that one around. It got to a point where we were all pretty fried. Everybody could look into everybody’s eyes, and it was just red [laughs]. It looked really pale.
So I just told everybody, “We have 16 songs. We’re good. Let’s just stop here.” Then everybody had a big sigh of relief, like, “Oh, thank goodness. Now we’ll just work on these songs and that’ll be it.” Then that night when I went home, the record was really starting to show itself to me. Meaning we were so deep in it now that you can really feel the shape of the record, the tone of the record, what’s missing and what could be done.
There’s a whole thing to these songs, like a nervous breakdown. I’m not sure why. It’s something I got from it at the time, and I still get from it, actually. It was just something that represented some sort of nervous breakdown to me. I thought that if I’m getting that from it right now, then I think there should be something on the record that probably shoots that point more than any of the other songs do. So, I started writing “Panic Switch.”
Also that night, there’s a song called “Surrounded” that ended up on the album. So I looked at this and went, “Fuck. How am I going to bring these to the guys [laughs]? They’re going to be so pissed off [laughs]. I already promised. Everybody’s so happy.”
So the next day I went into the rehearsal space early and started playing them, so that way when they walk in hopefully they’ll catch on and go, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” And that’s what happened. I started playing “Panic Switch,” and everybody came in and was listening to it. Christopher, our drummer, sat down at the drums and just started playing it, playing pretty much what he played. It came so naturally.
The song went through a lot of different versions. It used to be really long and strange. We always sort of do that. We always start these songs that are massive and creepy weird with no verses, like, oh, that’s how we want it. And then we eventually go, “No…”
So yeah, it wasn’t really an afterthought. It’s funny because near the ending of your run with the record you’re writing, just before you have no more metaphors left and before you’re really cast out, there’s this little moment where you really pay attention to what you’re thinking. The latter stuff you’ve put into the album is probably the most critical to it because you’re so ingrained in it now, so that was funny. That became the single, and it’s amazing.
You’re on the small independent label Dangerbird Records and you’ve been able to have a ton of success with that. You’ve been able to have success with both the indie and mainstream, getting kind of the best of both worlds. What has that been like to experience?
It’s been great. I don’t know what would have happened to us if we didn’t sign to Dangerbird. We were pretty wary of labels. We’d seen a lot of disasters go wrong with friends. We never thought we were really a major label band.
We knew this guy, Jeff, who owns the label, for a little while as a guy in the neighborhood. We heard he was starting this label, and we were like, “We like you. Let’s go for it.” It’s interesting the way they run. They don’t get involved in messing with how you sound or anything. They have a lot of trust. Also, the thing that’s really great with them is that they think about our band and music in a long-term sort of way.
If we came in on a major label, let’s say, and this isn’t necessarily true but this is the horror story you think of. You come out with a song. The label throws the song out there and doesn’t really know what to make of it, or whatever. They’re like, “OK, that’s that. It didn’t really work, so see you later.”
Dangerbird has no interest in that. It’s almost like an old school way of doing things. It’s like, “No, no, no. You build it.” They proved themselves because Carnavas did pretty well at the beginning, but it really took off about seven to eight months in. It’s just one of those things. If you throw something out there and no one knows who it is, of course no one’s going to hear it. But if you let it sink in, and let people decide and go out there and play, it just might have a chance. Luckily, with us it did.
Is that something you want to continue to do in the future, to stay indie?
I’d like to, yeah. As long as we can, I would. Dangerbird is a small little label, and there’s only a couple people who work there, but they’ve proven that they can hold us.
The title Swoon comes from the first song on the record, “There’s No Secrets This Year.” What about that line struck you to name the album after that?
Well, funny enough one of the first things that happened when we went into the rehearsal space to start writing Swoon is that we wrote Swoon on the white dry erase board, just knowing this is what the album’s going to be called [laughs]. We had the title immediately before we had the song.
That little Swoon interlude thing, between “Secrets” and “Royal We,” came after as a way to link. We knew we were having orchestra in the record, and we had an idea of how the record was going to be laid out. “Secrets” was going to be first, and “Royal We” was going to be second.
We felt it was too drastic and strange for “Royal We” to begin with strings right away. We wanted something to bring you into certain aspects of the record right after “Secrets,” and then have the strings creep in before they start taking over “Royal We.” That’s where the Swoon interlude came from. That little part is almost a little summary of what’s going to happen.
Why we named it Swoon? I think at the time we were feeling kind of romantic, and melancholy and very moody. It’s very emotional at that time of how we were. There’s something about the word swoon [laughs]. We like words and things that are evocative of different things, and people can view in different ways.
Some people listen to it with Swoon and they think of, like, oh, a little high school girl swooning over her boyfriend. So it’s a romantic thing, but for us it sounded horrible. Usually you swoon because it’s something you don’t have and you really want. It causes the lack of blood flow to your brain, so you collapse [laughs]. So, of course, we always find the sad part of it.
I remember we were actually talking about swooning and stuff, and we were all making jokes. We were like, “Man, that’s horrible. That’s the worst. What if you swoon and your face hits the curb? What if you fell on glass [laughs]?”
How do you usually come up with the lyrics? Do you tend to pull a lot from your own life, or just write poetically and what have you?
It’s pretty much directly my own life. There’s a general theme of the song. The song has a meaning. It’s not so specific from my life that I’m the only person who can go through it. No, usually you’re going through things that most people go through, so it’s something that everybody generally goes through.
But to describe the meaning, I use really minute details of my life, which you’d only be able to know if I told you [laughs]. What happens with that is that since there’s a mood and there’s something you can understand in there, the details are so small that it makes it seem a little less abstract. That’s how I like to do things.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m too timid to write fundamentally. I always like it when certain songwriters can write real fundamental. I think it’s amazing because that’s such an amazing art. That’s something I can’t do. I’m not quite there.
I also like people who are very poetic, like Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, so that’s sort of how that comes. Because of using small details to color a song, sometimes people will think, like, “Oh, man. That sounds like drugs or something.” It’s like, “No. There’s no drugs in there. It’s just shit that happens [laughs].”
Swoon has been out for about six months now. Has your view of it changed since you first recorded and released it?
That’s actually a great question because one of the things I’m very happy about is when we play the songs live, or on the off chance we hear the record or something like that, one of my favorite things is that I really understand it. I really feel all those things, but I’m not in that same place. When I listen to it, it’s definitely a snapshot of my life from February to October of 2008. There’s a lot of different things going on. A lot of insane self-reflection that was pretty awful and amazing overall.
With that, through the record, it really helped me out. It was very therapeutic and cathartic. I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, is that it actually was therapeutic and cathartic. So when I listen to it, I go, “Wow. I’m fucked up [laughs].” I’m happy that I don’t listen to it and go, “Yeah! Fuck yeah! Fuck ‘em [laughs].” I’m happy that it actually impacts me and helped me out of a lot of things.
Over the summer you played MTV Unplugged, and I was really impressed by that performance. Is that something you enjoy doing and would like to do more of in the future?
Yeah, I think so. We do love doing it. It’s fun because it shines light on certain aspects of the record you probably don’t shine on in the big show, where things are really crazy loud. Breaking it down acoustic, especially Unplugged when we had the string quartet come and our friend, Will, who’s in the band Darker My Love and did the arranging of the strings on Swoon. We had him come to New York and rearrange strings for songs that didn’t have strings.
We were playing around with that piece of the album. It’s fun to dive in there sometimes. I think the back and forth is what I really like doing. As something to incorporate later, I think so. We’ve never really gone too far acoustic on recording things like that. It’s definitely something eye opening for a little bit of the shape for the next record.
Your sound is reminiscent of some of the ‘90s music that was going on. Is that something you were influenced by when you were growing up?
I think we like so much different music, and there’s definitely a lot of great ‘90s bands that we do love. I don’t know if it solely influenced. We still love big guitar sounds, and I think that’s one thing that probably puts people’s thoughts on the ‘90s. The guitars were probably happening more then.
I mean, yeah, there’s some great ‘90s bands out there, definitely, that we love. There’s also great modern bands, and great ‘60s bands. We just love so much stuff that it’s almost hard to think about what actually influences us musically because you almost don’t even think that way. There’s too much that you love to start thinking about that.
Luckily, we don’t have any calculated movements, or anything like that. Everything we do is just sort of what happens and is what it sounds like when the four of us get together. There’s actually safety in just letting that be.
I remember when we first started, everybody thought, like, “Wow, that sounds too much like Blonde Redhead, or that sounds too much like so and so.” We just kind of went, “We have to stop doing this [laughs]. We got to stop thinking about this because we like so much stuff that everything’s going to remind us of certain things. We have to let that head go and just let this happen.”
So looking ahead, what do you think the next step will be for you guys?
I don’t know. We’re pretty much touring now till probably through 2010. That’s pretty much where our eyes are focused right now.
Is constant touring something you really enjoy?
Yeah, we love touring. We’ve always loved being a live band. We were a live band in Los Angeles for years before we started recording. It’s something that we love to do. If we didn’t love to do it then I’m not sure why we’d be going this. There’s something about the live show that we get off on and always have. It’s really fantastic.
Playing music is an interesting experience because just when you’ve probably had a little too much of it, just when it’s run its course, the whole thing changes, and you’re now quiet and getting creative by making an album. It’s a whole different universe, and you get really involved in that. Then just when you begin to want to tear your head off, it flips around again and you’re out on tour playing shows. I think that yin/yang of those two things really balances out the psyche.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press