“Nobody’s forcing us to do this. We choose to work this hard.”
Armed with a new album, Chinese Fountain, Southern Calfornian quintet, The Growlers, hit The Bakery this Saturday, January 17, and the Dunsborough Tavern on Sunday, January 18, with support from Aborted Tortoise. AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.
The Growlers’ music has never paralleled the guttural hostility implied by their band name.
Starting with their 2009 debut LP, Are You In Or Are You Out?, the Californian quintet have focused on an intoxicating brand of surf-pop – psychedelic both in mood and sonic haze. The LA-based outfit dropped their third LP, Chinese Fountain,in September, which makes a distinct departure from their earlier material. There’s no shortage of melodious surf-pop guitar lines or chooglin’ rhythms, and vocalist Brooks Nielsen continues to hold court with effortless akimbo. But sonically-speaking, Chinese Fountain is a rather pristine affair.
“Before this album home recording was all we could afford,” says Nielsen. “We were doing it ourselves and learning through it. Then it was like, ‘Oh, we want to make a real record in a studio’. We attempted it and it didn’t really work out. It did feel like it was too early to do it, but by now it was like, ‘We deserve to be in a studio just like anybody else, with a real hardworking engineer’. I’m glad we finally did it.”
Inarguably, The Growlers’ songwriting panache warrants this upgrade in fidelity. That said, the band’s home-brewed edge has always been a major aspect of their appeal. On account of this, applying the more polished production is a risky move, but it hasn’t backfired.
“Any kind of fear we had of whether the fans would like it… it was just like, ‘Who gives a fuck? We’re doing this for us, mainly’,” Nielsen says. “The record went over completely fine. People liked it, our fans are still there, and they’re at the shows singing the songs, no matter how clear they sound when they listen to them.”
Although The Growlers’ previous releases have been decidedly scrappy, the gritty production’s never been an ailment. Even so, the band’s entrance into the hi-fi bracket is more than welcome, as it allows disco groovers Dull Boy and Chinese Fountain to accomplish slick seduction and ensures the sentimental reggae ditty, Going Gets Tuff, doesn’t go unnoticed.
Along with the crisp and ballsier instrumentation, Chinese Fountain spotlights Nielsen’s vocals like never before. Taking heed of the added focus this would draw, Nielsen thought carefully about how to optimise his vocal abilities.
“I never knew what I was doing and I think that every recording I sing too much,” he says. “On Chinese Fountain I really calmed myself down and I sing a lot less. I got comfortable with singing again and now the recording is clear enough that you can actually hear me.
“I felt a little weird about it,” he adds. “But everything I listen to, all the records I love, that was the standard. I think it was weird for the band, it’s like, ‘God damn, Brooks is so loud’. The engineer and the producer convinced us for it to be, for the first time, me in front. And now I’m completely cool with it.”
While Chinese Fountain is largely an easygoing listen, the band’s leisurely demeanour is offset by the weight of Nielsen’s lyrics. The record sees him address themes of loneliness, achievement anxiety, contemporary hustle and mortality. And it’s no mere pantomime.
“It’s really just blended into one – my personal life and the band,” he says. “Being an entertainer, I’ve really sacrificed myself to everybody… so I just kind of open up. Mainly the way I live is I’m introverted and quiet and I don’t talk about my emotions or my problems or any of that. I tend to keep it all in and that’s the way it would stay, but through music I end up letting it out. This is my avenue to express it and that’s how it is.”
Less than a year prior to Chinese Fountain, The Growlers dropped the nine-track EP, Gilded Pleasures, which followed the early-2013 release of their second full-length, Hung At Heart. This rate of productivity is nothing new for the band, who’ve consistently dished out singles and EPs ever since day one. On top of this, The Growlers have long been hardy travellers, building a grassroots following in several parts of the globe.
Add to this pile of responsibilities the band’s own yearly festival, Beach Goth – the 2014 installment of which featured the likes of Foxygen, DIIV and The Drums – and it’s a wonder they haven’t run themselves dry. In spite of this, Nielsen sees no tempting alternative.
“Nobody’s forcing us to do this. We choose to work this hard,” he says “I could be lazier, but I wouldn’t be happy. I enjoy making myself exhausted; I get bored if I’m not doing something I really enjoy. I don’t really like watching movies for that reason. I respect them and I like them, but sitting on the couch for two-and-a-half-hours, I feel like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I should be doing something’. I guess I got it from my parents. They always woke up early and worked until dark every single day and that’s just how I learned to be. I also picked something that I enjoy doing. I still call this work, and sometimes it shouldn’t even be called work. I enjoy it and I’m learning to enjoy it more and more.
“I’m not exhausted from just this,” he adds. “I also party too hard.”