Almost a year ago The Growler’s latest record City Club was officially released. On the day of their record release (and the day of their record release show in New York City) I interviewed Brooks Neilsen. Regardless of personal opinions on post-“beach-goth” Growlers, City Club was one of the most exciting album of 2016. It’s also the most divisive album in the Growlers’ discography—before the album was even released fans were complaining of the shift in sound, the move away from “beach goth” and some, mourning a band they felt a stake in after spending the better part of ten years supporting.
City Club however, is not exactly “new” territory for The Growlers. It’s essentially the full realization of whatever seeds they had sown with Chinese Fountain except now there’s more life, more energy, more finesse. With the album filtered through Julian Casablancas production, there’s an assumed perfection and invigoration of synth and keyboard.
And not to belabor the point but as far as the whines of “I don’ know this band” etc that the Internet trolls love to complain about, it’s definitely not a complete abandonment of their initial sound. There are songs that are reminiscent of the death meets surf-rock sound that the Growlers created —”Daisy Chain,” “World Unglued” and “When You Were Made” especially. Still after ten years and three studio albums it shouldn’t be surprising that the Growlers sound a little different.
During our interview I unsuccessfully tried to veil my enthusiasm. Within the course of a mere half hour I found myself losing my train of thought and unable to read my notes. Brooks either didn’t notice (not likely) or was completely unfazed. He has a completely disarming and subdued warmth, charisma and energy that in retrospect shouldn’t have been so surprising.
It’s the same energy that came across later that night during the Growlers’ City Club release show. On stage the Growlers are a vision. It wasn’t what a typical pre-City Club show looked like. For starters they’re now a six-piece band with the addition of a recently-vital keyboard player. The stage felt like something out of an acid drenched fever dream. There was a City Club backdrop, a neon City Club sign, and a keyboard stand draped in a pink glitter lamee. The Growlers’ themselves were in matchy white rockabilly nudie suits that in tandem with the stage looked like the prom band from a Twin Peaks episode.
First of all congratulations on the new record, I listened to it this morning in full. It’s really amazing.
Oh really, that’s great! This is the first time I’m hearing anything like this. You’re the first person to tell me you’ve heard the whole record.
Are there any songs on City Club that have special importance to you, that you really enjoyed recording or that are sentimentally important?
Let’s see… not really [laughs]. This stuff’s hard because it hasn’t sunk in yet. Things are coming into my mind as I’m singing them on stage I’m like woah. I’m finding meaning and remembering what I was thinking about when I wrote it but it’s still really blurry for me.
Yeah it literally just came out so that makes sense. What’s going into the heavy 80’s sounds in City Club and Chinese Fountain?
I think Matt really started listening more and getting deeper into 70’s and 80’s— I don’t know what it is, power pop? But yeah there’s definitely a lot of that. It’s just growing up as writers. When we first started Matt just wanted to play guitar all over the thing. Now we’re thinking more about the layout of the thing and trying to make it more of an experience. We’re sort of picking up on instruments and filling in some gaps with a lot of synthesizer and a lot more keyboard.
In a previous interview you talked about your writing process and how it’s really introspective, personal and based on your real life experiences. Have you ever gotten into trouble with that? Has anyone ever been like “I know this about me?”
Yeah, yeah. I mean I guess not into trouble but I think it’s pretty clear. Sometimes people don’t know it’s about them or they don’t tell me. I guess I’m still getting away with it. But definitely a lot of the time people are like “is that song about me?” “no it’s not man” so they get it wrong sometimes. I think my dad’s done that too “is this song about me asshole” “no dad.” My mother too — she’ll be like “oh I really like that song are you talking about us? that we’re annoying?” “no no you guys are fine.” But there’s also fictional stuff too, people will be like “is it all true?” “no no this one’s fake this one’s real.” It is kind of confusing.
Were you listening to anything specific or did you have any specific rituals anything regarding this album that differentiated it from previous albums?
No I would say it was the same. I wasn’t doing a lot of music listening, I feel like I’ve been like that in the past because I’m afraid that if I listen to something too much I’ll bite it. I was just reading heavily. I’m on the road so much so it’s just nonstop reading. Even when I got home and I went up to make this record. All my down time it was no service, no cell phone, up in Topanga in the hills so it was just reading and drinking, some surfing in-between.
Did you read anything good?
[laughs] yeah I think I went through every John Fonte book possible when I was there. And kind of some other stuff that I usually wouldn’t read, some Crowley. I guess I’ve just been on a streak of reading as many classics as possible because I skipped that. I used to read anything I found. Once I open a book I have to finish so I used to read just a lot of crappy thrift store books. Now that I’m a little more well off I can go out and actually buy books that are worth reading.
This tour and album are really different in terms of production value, what was the thinking going into this versus past albums?
Well the first time we tried to make a record professionally, we didn’t have help we did it all ourselves. Our engineer was just junked up the whole time and that was our first step into it, it was to go and get help in the studio. The guy was just so doped up the whole time he couldn’t do much, it was very difficult. That was Hung At Heart and it was kind of a sloppy process and it’s similar to our own home recordings.
We’ve slowly been trying to step away from that and try to make records like our idols did, with some more time and with a producer. We flirted on that with Chinese Fountain with our ex manager as producer but I think he knew us too well and the guys didn’t really give him enough credit and there wasn’t enough time.
This time we had time on our side, and we really gave it up to Julian to see what he did and it was a totally different process. It was slow and didn’t feel very methodical, it was just bouncing around from song to song. Trying ideas and changing them, the layout of these songs is much more thought through than ever before. I think Julian has a lot of experience with doing this with computers which we don’t. There’s a lot of that, of cutting and pasting and chopping and doing things on a computer. I was like what the hell is happening? And in the moment I wasn’t liking some of it but with the finished result I’m happy and I’ve opened my mind a little more [laughs]. That’s really every record — just giving up more control and I’m enjoying it and getting the results I want.
Did working with such a hands-on producer make the process easier?
I guess… Well no, nothing about it was easy and I think that’s totally fine. I guess they say that’s how great art is made. You know there’s elements of fun but as a whole I wouldn’t say making that record was fun. I was pushing my guys a lot harder, Matt and I pushed each other a lot more. It was a lot of work but I’m happy now.
City Club is a pretty long album, it makes sense that this would happen at Cult Records. A lot of record companies don’t have time, space or the patience to put out albums that long.
The world doesn’t have an attention span any more. We wrote 60-70 songs then got it down to about 20 then right at the buzzer we were still cutting off songs. There are three or four finished songs that didn’t make it on there, I forget what the hell to do with those.
Are you ever haunted by the ghosts of songs that didn’t make it to an album?
Yeah, I guess there’d be some type of format to put it out later if I get creative about it. But it is pretty weird, you hear from a fan like “this is changing” or “that’s that” or whatever their opinion is of the music and I’m like “dude you’ve only heard like 10% of the songs we write, you don’t know what the hell our style is.” Yeah there’s hundreds of songs that have never seen the light of day.
How do you feel about the concept/genre/aesthetic of beach goth at this point?
I get confused by it all the time. I think it made sense at the time? It was Hot Tropics and that record was pretty literal — it was surf songs about death but we’ve grown and it’s a pretty vague term so I don’t care.
There’s something to do with these festivals, they all have funny names and Beach Goth happened to stick. I get to play with it and there’s even people creating their own kind of costumes and styles out of it, I don’t even know what it is now. It’s like a genre of music now, you know?
But everything in this band is just you’re in and you’re out. You’re really excited to be doing it and the next minute you’re like why the hell am I in a band? What the fuck am I doing? Why do I want to go through all this? [laughs] Sometimes it feels very fake and sometimes it feels very natural so it’s just back and forth. We do that with the beach goth thing and with the festival too. I’m like ah next year I want to do this, the next day I’m like I don’t want to throw a festival anymore I’m turning into some kind of crazy business entrepreneur. I fall in and out of love with all this.
Yeah I mean Beach Goth has gotten pretty big, the headliners are huge compared to what they were a few years ago…
Yeah, they’re growing quickly and it’s something that I didn’t think about earlier on I’m like oh I want it to be our festival, bands that we pick and all of that. I can’t do that because it has to grow and I’m trying to make everybody happy and I want different music for everybody. Half the bands on there we’re like oh I wouldn’t listen to that you know? I know someone else is going to be happy to take ecstasy and listen to that thing but…
Yeah the spectrum of artists who are playing is so diverse.
Well we’re working closely with our promoter/talent buyer, we’ve worked with him for years with all of our shows. We made this with him and I really give it up to him because — strengths and weaknesses. A weakness for me is knowing what’s current and what’s popular and that’s his strength he knows it literally by the numbers, by them coming into his clubs and seeing who sells tickets, who doesn’t, who’s a pain the ass, who’s fun, who’s a great performer, who’s not and then he shares with us and we go look and do it and agree with it. We also send him a thousand bands and some of them we get.
Are there any cities that you’re always surprised by?
Yeah there’s a lot of surprising things when we play. I think when we first went to Germany I was surprised, they’re very calm and they don’t express very much emotion so you kind of finish a show and you’re like wow that was awkward. Then you go out there and a monotone voice is telling you that it’s there greatest show they’ve ever seen in their life and it’s like really? Why are you holding it in? Give it up!
Cities are way different before you go out and travel to them—we thought New Orleans is gonna be big, we’ve gotta play New Orleans. Then you go there and you’re like woah it’s very hard for rock and roll and you understand it once you’re there — why would I go see a dinky rock and roll show when I can go watch a beautiful jazz band? It’s always changing. It sure feels good when you leave for a while and come back and the things doubled and tripled, that’s nice.
Do you guys like playing on halloween?
Well in Europe they don’t really do it—we played on Halloween in France once and that was bullshit. They don’t fucking celebrate it and we were in this mountain town and we were like fuck that we’re just gonna try to make halloween costumes in France. We showed up and it was just like what are they doing? It was almost embarrassing but we had fucking fun.
I’m assuming you’re big halloween people then?
Yeah I’m an American I love halloween!
(The Growlers’ has been playing in the background the entire length of the interview) Is it ever weird when you’re, like here, and you can hear your own music playing?
Yeah that shit is very very weird. I can’t get over it. There’s something about making music, I must like the sound of my own voice if I picked being a singer but at the same time I don’t like to hear it. Old records—I’ll never put them on again, I’ll never listen to them again. I’ll never go back and listen to a live show, period. I get upset, I just get anxiety if I start to hear it. Is that us live? Turn that shit off!
We’ve really grown out of our hometown fast and we just decided to leave and go to LA and I’d walk into a restaurant and they’re playing my music. I order food and the guy goes “hey Brooks I love you and here’s a free taco,” I’m like shit [laughs] what’s going on? Which is nice, it’s good to be loved! I don’t know why I get so much anxiety from it.
I think that’s always hard because you’re not even reflecting on it, it’s just forced on you. I heard that one time Steven Tyler heard this song and was so in love with it that he took it back to Aerosmith and was like I love this song we have to cover it and Joe Perry was like this is our song….
Oh my god [laughs], that’s amazing I could definitely see myself doing that.
Do you ever look peak through The Growlers Instagram, Twitter or socials?
No I’ve never had social media, I don’t ever go look at it. I just recently started clicking on the news on my phone that’s the first thing I’ve ever done. Melissa, my wife, calls it my Instagram but yeah—never taken apart of it. I think I’m protecting myself, it seems like an easy hole to get lost in and I don’t need it. I’m very old fashion, I’ve always been an old man. I like newspapers and books, AM radio.
With the Growlers there’s interesting dichotomy where you guys are wildly popular—you have your own music festival and such dedicated fans but you’ve also managed to remain largely underground.
I think it’s fan built, it’s because of the fans and they make that thing big. We never got any press, we don’t get written up in the music magazines, we don’t get features or anything like that and it’s fine. Maybe earlier on we just looked a little too sketchy to be with or to be around. It’s always been kind of this controlled chaos that felt like it could fall apart at any time. So I think everything’s just been built by the fans which is why it’s kind of a lopsided feeling to me.
A lot of bands, they get stuck in the ceiling and you’ve got to do something special to break through it or you’ve just got to have a good relationship with your fans and that will kind of take you through it for the long run. I guess I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I’m just winging it and I’m fine with that.
Well you’ve been together for 10 years which is a long time for a band, especially in our current cultural climate.
That’s the sad thing about these bands, it usually takes them about 10 years to get to any type of success and that’s just such a long time for five assholes to get along together. It’s sad they don’t stick around long enough to reap the rewards, they’ve got to go and start over.
In retrospect how do you feel about the Dan Auerbach produced album?
I take full blame for that really, I didn’t know much about Dan or Dan’s music and we just strictly went along on the fact that he seemed like a really nice guy. I’ve heard his voice and his guitar and was like he’s really incredibly talented we’ll see. We got there, he really didn’t take a lot of direction as far as producing.
It was just like do your thing and that was a problem. When I did my own thing I went too crazy. I try to work every body too hard, record too many songs, there’s too little time and so when I heard the product later and it was taking a while to get things mixed, I got cold feet. I was like you know what this is scaring me, it’s going in a direction I’m too afraid of. It’s too big of a jump since we were always a little DIY warehouse band, I got scared and I pulled out. I feel like if I went and did it again with him I’d be completely confident, we’d make a great record I wasn’t ready at the time.
Lastly, if you could do the soundtrack for any movie or director do you know what it would be?
El Topo would be fun. I don’t know I think I’d like do something that’s completely not our style, make us play something else like Rockers, go and have to make all of the Jamaican music for that [laughs]. That actually sounds like a really fun gig, I’m sure we’ll be doing that real soon.