Monday, October 18, 2010

An interview with The Growlers

One second after The Growlers’ vocalist Brooks Nielson told me he is “a classic hoarder,” he rattled off a list of stuff he hoards. He spoke too quickly for me keep up, though, so my notes read “old furniture, old machines, piano, surfboards,” which is about a tenth of what he said.

“We’re always digging in dumpsters, so after every tour we come back with a bunch of stuff,” he explained. “We live in a warehouse and every inch is covered.”

We got to talking about this because I wanted to know more about the Costa Mesa, California, band’s sound. They call it “beach goth,” which, to my ears, is as accurate a categorization as you’re going to find. It’s got the Ventures’ twang and driving beat mixed with ghostly vocals and lyrics about death and graves and pale-skinned creepy concerns. They might want to consider adding “cowboy” in there somewhere, because there’s a little “Ghost Riders in the Sky” stirred in. And “low-fi,” too, because their new album, Hot Tropics, has the gritty tinniness of records recorded decades ago for next to no money, the kind you might find while dumpster diving. It’s a sound they get by recording on equipment from the 70s and 80s. The kind of equipment you might find in a dumpster.

“The lack of quality in our equipment adds to our sound,” Nielson says. “With certain bands, when you take away the old gear, they’re not as interesting. It’s the same with us. If you put us in clear digital, it’s not as good. I like it more ghetto. It kind of fills up the sound. It’s not empty. There’s weird scratchy noise in the background.”

Their equipment is always breaking down and that adds to the complexity of their sound, Nielson says. For example, when they made their first album, Greatest Hits, the 4-track they were using broke down midway through. They switched to an older, crappier machine while it was being fixed. When the original, better machine came back from the shop, Nielson says, “It was like, ‘Shit. We shouldn’t have fixed it.’ It was definitely a little different sounding.

“But I didn’t care,” he adds. “I don’t put too much thought into that stuff. If we record on a cell phone or on tape, personally, I don’t care. It’s not that important. Because when does it end?”

When I asked him to name some of the equipment they use, he had to ask their bass player and technology guy, Scott Montoya. Lately it’s been an Ampex MM 1100 8-track and an Otari MNR-100 24-track, Montoya said.

“It’s from like the 80s,” Nielson added, a little irritated at having been bothered with such details. “And of course crappy mikes and crappy homemade cables.”

He hates it when they play larger venues with good sound systems, especially the way the drums sound when they’re all miked up. It feels unnatural to him. He wants The Growlers’ music to sound the way it does when they’re playing in their warehouse, where they live in together. They’re housemates, Nielson explains, “so we don’t have to track each other down. It’s our own little world within a world where we can make music and party.”

By this point, ten minutes or so into our conversation, Nielson was getting restless.

“This band talks about music too much,” he said. “I just want to make the song, record it, and move on.

“We’re just making music. This is a weird, stupid business and we’re trying to figure it out so we can one day not be broke.”

--Joe Miller

No comments: