In a lot of ways, I can divide my life into two distinct periods: The time before I listened to the Growlers, and my life after.
Truth be told, I'm a relatively recent convert. Coincidentally enough, I was actually turned on to the band (who headline the North Park Theatre Friday, July 11; the show is sold out) while working on their Sessions segments for a SoundDiego TV episode last year. I distinctly remember cueing up the video footage, pressing play, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The video showed the Costa Mesa-based surf/blues indie pop quintet onstage at the Belly Up (where they headlined last December), rumbling and swaying through their set. The music itself was entrancing and even through the video monitor, I could sense a very palpable energy radiating through the sold-out club. Sure enough, I watched as fan after fan would climb onstage, hurdle the bouncers, grab and stretch for Brooks Nielsen (the group's lead singer), who appeared curiously apathetic to it all -- like he had been a part of this spectacle a million times before.
One woman eventually got through and wrapped her arms around him, mouthing every word to the song in pure ecstasy while she clutched his brown leather jacket. He never missed a beat. By the time the video was over, there was an impenetrable wall of security guards lining the stage -- it was like the Beatles had arrived.
I went home and immediately purchased their entire catalog. How could I have missed them all this time? I, all at once, felt ashamed for not knowing about them -- and relief that I finally did. For example, the band's latest release, last year's "Gilded Pleasures" EP, bounces along with an eclectic mix of vintage psych-country, sunny pop and booze-soaked blues; Nielsen's raspy, Dylan-esque squall floating above and beyond the songs with lyrics about putting a ring on it ("Humdrum Blues"), enjoying youth ("Change in Your Veins") and the inevitable slide into adulthood ("Nobody Owns You"). It sounds sublimely exotic even though it's a mix of everything rock & roll has been built on. (Buy it here.)
In a strange twist of fate, I was lucky enough to talk on the phone with Brooks while he was in a sports bar watching the World Cup (more on that later) -- and I asked him why people seem to freak out over their music, when to propose to a girl and why the term psych rock doesn't really apply to Growlers music at all.
Dustin Lothspeich: You guys are from Costa Mesa. Any particularly fond memories of playing in San Diego?
Brooks Nielsen: Early on, we experimented a little bit with sponsoring the Tower Bar. We got comfortable at the Casbah, and instead of moving around, we just stayed at the same spot. For us, it's a surfer town, so it was cool meeting surfers who were the spitting image of our friends from our surfer town. They were crazy right away.
DL: Well, people seem to go crazy over you guys everywhere! Do you think there’s a particular type?
BN: I think guys are a bit more crazy than the girls. Actually, the guys are a lot more crazy. Once, we were doing one last check over our tour bus before we took off, and we opened the bus door, and there's a guy who stashed himself between our guitar amps and drums -- kinda like a stowaway. We were like, "Whoa, man, you're lucky we didn't drive off -- you would've been locked in here until the morning!" [laughs]
DL: Do you think that’s just part of being in the whole “psych rock” revival that’s going on right now?
BN: Well, there are all these psych festivals everywhere now, right? And I listen and I just get kind of bored. Psychedelic music just sounds unclear and repetitive, and I can't tell what the hell's going on. The last stuff Britney Spears did is more psychedelic than any of this s--- [laughs]! But at the same time, it's a great vibe. We've been going and playing these festivals, and I don't know if everyone's on drugs or just primarily weird, but they've got a great vibe and the bands are cool.
DL: I’ve never thought you guys sounded particularly psychedelic, actually.
BN: I thought the whole thing was that people got it wrong from the beginning. I wanted us to sound like Iggy Pop doing “Passenger,” and Matt [Taylor, guitarist] wanted us to sound like the Grateful Dead, and we didn't know how to sound like what we wanted to. When we started it, we thought it sounded great, and everyone around us went, "Oh, they're a garage band," and we were like, "What the f--- is that? Why, is it because our recordings suck?" And then we got thrown in the psych world and then later it was garage and psychedelic -- it's, like, whatever, those are both cool genres, but we never tried to sound like either one of them.
DL: Well, for what’s worth, I feel like you guys settled into a great groove on “Gilded Pleasures” and I don’t really hear psych in there at all.
BN: When we released "Gilded Pleasures,” we thought, "OK, this one's definitely not psychedelic -- no one's gonna label this one psychedelic,” and we were like, "Yeah, we should call it ‘Not Pysch’!" So we released a version in Europe and called it "Not Psych" with a cheesy psychedelic cover [laughs]. People don't realize that reggae and country are way bigger infIuences on us than psychedelic music. I stopped listening to psychedelic music a long, long time ago. But I still always listen to reggae and country.
DL: To me, “Gilded Pleasures” has a more grownup feel to it – and I’ve read that you’ve said the new album [“Chinese Fountain,” out on Sept. 23] will be “more adult, more polished.” What does that mean?
BN: Well, yeah, we've always been very reluctant to grow up. Being in a band stunted our growth [laughs]. We were able to be kids -- catered, driven around, here's everything you need to party. We're still the same in that respect, but I was just really impressed with how the band performed and played in the studio this time. And I'm getting more comfortable with myself as far as writing, and I'm getting older. I've always had doubts about myself writing as a young guy, 'cause I like old men that write. Some people say, “You can't be a 22-year old Johnny Cash.” You have to live through things to write about them and to have perspective.
DL: Well, I think a lot of people relate to what you write about. “Humdrum Blues,” for example, is something I connected to very personally – being in love with someone and knowing the next steps in life with them are huge. Was that written from your own experience?
BN: Every single song is about me -- or someone very close to me -- and if it's not, I'm probably lying [laughs]. It's not that I don't have imagination or anything, but not so much as other people. I'm usually bouncing off things that are most immediate to me and that one is. Most bands go into part of their career where everything is driven off faith and that's what's powering your gamble of making a band, and a lot of the time, there's a woman right there whoyou're relying on to believe in you and help you out through it -- if that's buying you meals or shackin' you up or just agreeing with you when you're bitching about your bandmate [laughs]. I've had that for almost seven years, so she's in a lot of my songs ‘cause she's always been right there. She's my best friend. I think that's the most important thing about having a chick: If she's not your best friend -- don't put a ring on her.
DL: So you did then?
BN: Yeah [laughs]. At this point, I'm still draggin' her through all this, and it's a lot more than any other girl has to put up with -- and I’m still not in a position to give her what she deserves. But, yeah, I did put a ring on her.
DL: Were there ever times where it got to the point where being in a relationship and a band was just too much?
BN: I wouldn't say it got too bad. Overall, first and foremost, I'm a weirdo [laughs]. And I'm opinionated, and that's kind of what's created our style as a band, but as a lover, it's hard. Especially ‘cause I work very hard, and we tour a lot more than most bands. When we write, we don't go, "Oh, let's write a few songs." I cut myself off from the world and we write 24/7 until the time is done. It's a lot on a girl to date a workaholic weirdo.
DL: All right, I’ll stop asking you about your personal life [laughs].
[All of a sudden, screams fill the phone for at least an entire minute]
BN: [laughs] Sorry, we went down to a sports bar and apparently Argentina just scored. [More screaming] Ay, ay, ay.
DL: You’re an Argentina fan?
BN: I've never cared or liked soccer in my life. But from us traveling the world and hanging out with my chick's family, I’ve started to open my mind a little. I was a Mexico fan ‘cause they have the best fans -- but they lost, so now I'm rooting for Argentina ‘cause they've got some crazy fans, too.
DL: OK, aside from soccer and your girlfriend -- it probably seems like I have no questions about the band – but I do! Did you ever think the band would be where it is now?
BN: I don't know. I never made plans. I never thought about things. People would ask me questions when I was really young like, "Where are you gonna go? What are you gonna do?" And I seriously didn't care. And sometimes it pisses people off. Like, "What do you mean you don't care?" Like I'm ungrateful. But now, I'm still the same way. I don't know what's going on or where we're going, and I'm really comfortable with that. But I do know it took me a while to figure out. I had to ask myself, "Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to be in a band? What am I doing?" Now I'm completely content, and I enjoy it a lot more. Like before, I had to get wasted every time we played, but now I really enjoy every part of it -- every show.
DL: Can we expect to hear a lot of the new material at the show on the 11th?
BN: For the first time, we're not going to be playing the record before it's out. We've always done that, and just for that reason, we just want it -- for once -- to be a surprise.