Los Angeles band Silversun Pickups have been a mainstay in the alternative rock game for more than a decade. They broke onto the scene when I lived in L.A. ten years ago and became an immediate fixture on rock station KROQ (or “what you listened to while stuck in dirty, viscous traffic before Bluetooth-enabled smartphones with Genius playlists”). Since then, they have evolved into the kind of world-touring band every alt/indie curator should keep on the smartphones we now all have and love. Remember: Nobody can hear you belting out “Well Thought Out Twinkles” from the safety of your car (or “Melatonin” on Rock Band 2 from the safety of your home).
The rockers, plus former drummer Elvira Gonzalez, recently hosted a listening party in New York City for their fourth full-length album, Better Nature, and inquired with me of all people where they should eat the night before. I had an answer — Danny Bowien’s star-studded, pizza oven–equipped Lower East Side haven Mission Chinese. But only if I could come, too; you see, I’m addicted to the Pop Rock–smothered coconut shaved ice.
We broke not bread but the clay sarcophagus that encases Bowien’s famous “beggar’s duck,” and I asked food fiends Chris Guanlao and Joe Lester (drums/breaker of aforementioned clay sarcophagus, and keyboards, respectively) a few extra questions. We had plenty of time — the beer and sake-in-a-can were flowing (the band is, after all, named after a famous local liquor store run) and Bowien’s famed duck takes about an hour to…fire in a duck kiln? As it turns out, questions are much harder to answer when your tongue is numb from Szechuan-tastic kung pao pastrami and guitarist Brian Aubert is rampantly abusing the term “off the record.” Brian, how about another Old Fashioned? “Off the record, yes, please.”
The video for your new single “Nightlight” is awesome — it’s a darker, grittier take on Las Vegas than you pretty much ever see in a music video. How do you really feel about the offerings of Sin City?
Chris: We were all hesitant to shoot in Vegas. We felt the Strip and the normal sights and sounds were pretty overused, but [director] Mark Pellington assured us it wouldn’t be the typical “bright lights and slot machines” and silly excess. It was a side of Vegas rarely seen — the more stark, desolate suburbia.
Joe: I’m cool with Vegas for about 24 hours. It’s kind of fun to go to the older casinos, and there are lots of great restaurants now, but after a while, the air of desperation starts to get to me. I did go to Bouchon on one of our last trips, and that was awesome and totally bizarre. A French bistro on the 30th floor of a Venice-themed casino hotel. Super-random.
All just a really long stone’s throw from home! What’s your current favorite L.A. restaurant?
Joe: It’s not super-new, but one of my favorite restaurants right now is a place in downtown L.A. called Bäco Mercat. The Bäco is a sort of taco/flatbread/kebab hybrid, and they’re filled with all kinds of good stuff. They also have really tasty flatbread pizza things that are always changing based on what’s available. But the really great thing is the vegetables; there’s usually at least ten different kinds on the menu, and they change as well. Also, they have awesome cocktails, which never hurts.
Chris: Eric Park just opened Ohana Poke Co. in Silverlake, and it’s my current favorite. It’s perfect for the hot weather we’ve been having.
You made it into Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec, the menu-less, ticket-only L.A. wonder. What did you think?
Joe: You don’t really order at Trois Mec. You don’t even know what’s on the menu until you get there, and you’ve paid for your ticket in advance, so you just take the leap, and it’s super worth it. It’s a five-course tasting menu. I don’t remember exactly what we had — I meant to take the menu like a proper food nerd, but if I did I’ve since lost it — but I do remember the food being really surprising and also really comforting. We sat at the bar, and the chefs just sort of passed things up to us as they finished plating. It’s not cheap, but it’s a really, really great meal and a rad experience.
Who’s the best cook in the band?
Joe: I don’t know about best, but I may be the most enthusiastic…. I cook a lot when we’re not on tour, and I’m always trying to expand my repertoire, such as it is.
Chris: Joe’s the best cook.
What’s the best food experience you’ve had on tour?
Joe: Getting talked into an insanely expensive vegan tasting menu at Next in Chicago. Our sound engineer is vegetarian and a food nerd, and somehow talked [guitarist] Brian and me into this $250 dinner. I’m an avowed carnivore, but this meal was just…bonkers. The bizarre plating, the bewildering flavor profiles, everything about it was crazy in the best possible way.
A runner-up to that would be touring in Europe during the Christmas market season. Christmas markets are the best. They set them up next to churches in most of the big cities in Northern Europe and sell trinkets, tree ornaments and gifts. But the food…oh, the food. There are vendors selling all kinds of street food and regional specialties. Sausages, potato pancakes, flammkuchen (basically a German tart/pizza mashup), choucroute (French sauerkraut and potato pile covered in pork products). It’s amazing. Plus, you pay a euro for a collectible cup (often boot-shaped) and get it filled with beer, cider or mulled wine. America needs to work on its Christmas market game.
If you could bring one chef in the world, dead or alive, on tour with you, who would it be?
Joe: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I might go with the Canadian chef Chuck Hughes. From his TV show [Chuck’s Day Off], he seems like a fun guy to hang out with. But more importantly, he also runs the backstage catering at the Osheaga festival in Montreal, and it is spectacular. It is constantly changing, super-interesting, and not “festival food” at all. When I went in for lunch, he was pulling an entire lamb off a spit onto the cutting board, and they had a poutine station, oysters and probably 20 different desserts. It puts every other festival to shame, food-wise. It’s next-level. So if he felt like doing that on a daily basis on a bus full of weirdos, I wouldn’t turn him down.
What’s another band you’ve worked with that’s super into food?
Joe: Honestly, most of the folks we know in music take food pretty seriously. We’re surrounded by food and beverage nerds. Manchester Orchestra travels with their own grill, so that’s pretty serious. I think the Grouplove kids are pretty foodie if I remember right.
Any tips for traveling long distances on a tour bus?
Chris: Bring Tupperware! I love leftovers; I live off them. Everyone knows this about me.
Joe: We try to keep the bus stocked with relatively healthy food. Whenever we’re near a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or what have you, we do some shopping. Otherwise you’re eating fast food in truck stops at 4 a.m., and that’s just a bummer. But sometimes it’s the only thing that’ll do the trick. You have to keep your options open. Also, single-serve mac and cheese cups, forever and ever.
Chris: Easy Mac. When nothing is around or open or our rider hasn’t shown up yet, those work well in a pinch.
What’s on your tour rider?
Joe: If I’m being honest, the most important thing on it is whiskey.
What about long days in the studio — what do you keep around to snack on?
Joe: A shocking amount of coffee, but also your standard snacks: nuts, cookies, stuff like that. We did more cooking during the last record. It was fun, but ultimately it was kind of distracting.
You just invented a sandwich called the Better Nature. What’s in it?
Chris: I would imagine it to be a hybrid of a Reuben sandwich and a Philly cheesesteak. Maybe a Reuben with Cheez Whiz, just to piss off Joe. But then it should really be called the Un-Better Nature.
Joe: Let’s go with Chris’s answer. But for the love of all that’s holy, no Cheez Whiz. Provolone.