Somewhere in Southern California, there is a dark, empty beach, and a bonfire around which no one sits. Unseen specters gather ‘round. Some dance, and lovers nuzzle in the warm glow after a day of surfing. Maybe they listen to “Pet Shop Eyes” by the Growlers.
The band’s reverb-haunted surf rock makes a fitting soundtrack to a ghoulish beach party, a long-abandoned diner where teenage spirits dance on.
Lead singer Brooks Nielsen would have it that way.
“We’ve always had a kind of ghostly vibe,” he says.
The figures in Nielsen’s songs inhabit a similar space as those whose images are conjured by their music. Often, they are the chronicles of the dispossessed, those who have lost their way or forgotten where they belong. “Beach Rats” fondly recalls sun-soaked days on the beach that gave way to a drug habit.
“All day healed by the sun and wrapped up in the ocean’s lip,” Brooks sings in his gravelly, tired voice. “So how do we get so far from the things we love?”
“I just wish we were still young,” he sings before ghastly whispers are foregrounded by echoing and hollow guitars.
The Growlers’ most recent album, Hung at Heart, opens with “Someday,” a rocking tune that plays in the same heartbroken, hauntingly misguided dedication that can be found on Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Lyrics offer a sort of wishful, obsessive quality, with lines such as, “Well, things ain’t so cool right now / Well, I promise they’ll get better / Find any way somehow that’ll make you want to stay forever.”
With all the surf rock vibes of Hung at Heart and Growlers albums past, it’s easy to point to influences such as Dick Dale, Beach Boys or the Surfaris. But with hard-up characters and broken hearts, the album is as much country as it is surfing, which Nielsen says stems from his interest in man’s morality, a subject he says is repeatedly addressed in country music.
For Nielsen, country music is an art of masculinity, but not the kind of masculinity associated with stoicism and reserve, where it’s more manly to say nothing than to share one’s feelings. Rather, he associates it with woodworking or filmmaking, a hands-on emotional experience: From the platitudes of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” to the bluntness of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” men (and women) handle their emotions, articulate them and offer them to listeners.
The Growlers record to tape, a lesser-used method in the days of Pro Tools, but it appeals to Nielsen for its physical quality. The technique adds presence to the band’s sound and incorporates the sort of hands-on masculinity with which Nielsen is concerned. And, as in the music of Johnny Cash, Nielsen seems less concerned with poeticism and more concerned with the telling of emotions. Sometimes they are simple ruminations on escapism, sometimes they are tales of broken relationships. No matter what, though, in the spirit of his country music forebears, he articulates them, handles them and offers them to listeners.
The Growlers play Slowdown in Omaha on Thursday night with Pangea, Gap Dream, and Cosmonauts. In anticipation, Hear Nebraska caught up with Nielsen to talk surfing, staying motivated on long tours and the difficulties of recording with a heroin addict.
Hear Nebraska: You’ve released three full lengths in last five years, right?
Brooks Nielsen: We’ve released three full-lengths, two EPs in the last five years. Compared to what EPs are nowadays, yeah, they’re full-lengths.
HN: Compared to a lot of bands, that seems like a pretty high output. Is that a goal of yours, or is it something that happens naturally?
BN: It’s a lot slower than our goal. We wanted to do two to three records a year. That’s not the way the industry works. You need time for promotion and stuff. Which we understand, but that’s how we started out. We wanted to be in a band, to see if we were actually capable of writing that much so we’d record a record every month then set up a show for it. At the end we were like, “We’re capable of writing, it’s fun.”
HN: Producing the sheer amount of content to fill that many records isn’t a problem for you guys?
BN: Producing that much content can be stressful. This isn’t the type of job where you have a skill and do kind of the same thing over and over again. You come up with new ideas constantly. It’s sort of a problem — we get a deadline and buckle down and come up with something.
HN: How do you stay fresh and motivated, working that much?
BN: I’m a workaholic. I need to be working. If it wasn’t this, it’d be something else I’d be pouring my life into. At this point, we’ve been working for awhile, and I owe it to these guys and I’m not going to quit on them. At the same time, it is a lot of work, but it’s fun work. It’s worth doing work that makes you and everyone else happy.
HN: You guys get a lot of attention for your beach-vibe, but I also pick up on a lot of aspects of country music on your records. What’s your experience with that kind of music?
BN: I listen to a lot of country music. Everything I’m more attracted to is sort of manly stuff. I like film for that reason, it’s really hands-on. People have to have skill in order to do it, not just push a button on a digital camera, put it on your computer. We like to woodwork, build things ourselves. We like to record on tape because we’re working with a guy who has years of experience. Kind of an old-dinosaur in the industry, there’s a lot of skill involved.
Country music is like that to me, too. The men have something to say. Emotional men put a lot of stuff out there. I’ve always been attracted to it for that reason. They talk about morality, things I like to talk about. Most songwriters contradict themselves a lot. I do that, too, but I still like to talk about morality. That’s the aspect of it that has gotten a lot of the guys in the band into country as well.
HN: About morality, what kind of morality is important to you and how does that come across in the songs you write?
BN: I think it’s important for everyone to create their own individual set of values. I can’t speak for everybody, I’m not a practicing Christian or Jew or anything, but Judeo-Christian values is kind of what this country owes a lot to. It’s hard to balance everything when we’re out there — partying and enjoying ourselves and living a life that’s a lot more free than what a lot of people are used to.
HN: How does that translate into the music you make?
BN: I’m speaking of guilt a lot of the time, and also what I expect of other people. We’re in a world where we’re meeting a lot of people rapidly, and at the same time, I’m having to make my circle of friends a little tighter. You find out who your true friends are in different circumstances. You weed out the people that are sketchy.
HN: I noticed, as well as guilt on Hung at Heart, there is a disenchantment with certain states of affairs like “Burden of the Captain” about the struggles of leadership, or “Row,” which is about escaping. Are these drawn from your own experience, or where does the inspiration come from?
BN: It’s not specifically me. No one is really safe around me, I can write about everybody. A lot of times people are like, “Is that about me?” or, “Who is that about?”
The reason for that is that 20 years from now, people won’t be with the same girlfriend and it won’t matter, or they will be and they’ll appreciate it. As far as me, it’s just thoughts that I have about wanting to do something bad or something. They’re real problems that I have, being on the road, or being alone.
HN: In the span of Growlers’ existence, how much touring have you done?
BN: We do an above average amount of touring. We started a little late, but we kind of do everything that way. We started a band, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, or what other bands were doing. We didn’t have anyone to talk to and learn anything from. We didn’t know how to play instruments or how to record. We just put things on tape, like figuring out what equipment we could afford to buy.
HN: How has that sort of organic, learn-as-you-go beginning affected your trajectory?
BN: Nothing has ever been planned out. In that case, it’s kind of been slow growth. I think for the Growlers fans getting on now, they’re kind of in love with the old music and hearing stories about old shows. But we’re really not that far off.
There’s still a time when you can show up and be like, “Oh they seem pretty drunk tonight” or, “What the hell are they wearing?” Nothing is planned. We’ll find some shit on the side of the road and someone puts it on and it’s hilarious and we get back on the bus and we’re wearing it that night. As far as business sense of it, sure people ask like, “What are you planning to do for the next record?”
“Well, we plan to go into the studio.” We’re so full of things to do up until then that we don’t really have time to think about it. We’re going to go in and put our all into something and make music people like.
HN: Hung at Heart was released in January. With nine months distance, what do you think about the record? Or do you think about records once they’ve been completed?
BN: Not on my own, but I’m like this in many ways. I don’t go look at reviews of the record or anything. I don’t think anything anyone says is worse than something I could say about it. Looking back on it, it’s really like a live album. It’s on tape. We put it all down. Our engineer helped produce it a little. He’s an amazing guy, but at the time just a complete junkie. It was a lot of work just to keep him up without passing out. “Hey, we got to do this,” “Wake up, what the hell is going on?” There was a lot of work in that sense. We need to be a little more careful about who we record with from now on.
HN: Given that hang-up, are you pleased with the result?
BN: Yeah, I am. I think we were trying to go for a little more clear of a sound even though we wanted to stay on tape. At some point we were like, “OK, we’re not going to get anymore out of this.” We look back, and it’s attached to what we were doing. We were playing hard and we knew it was going to be a long album, a little slower of an album. I also wanted it to be emotional and I think we did both.
HN: There are a lot of references to and metaphors with the sea and the ocean on the record. Where does that come from?
BN: I’m addicted to it, I can’t leave it. If we were based out of Georgia, we’d own a studio. Being over here, it’s much more difficult, it costs a lot to live here. Living in Orange County, it’s a pretty douchey area, but I have to live by the beach. I can’t live in LA where I can’t escape the city.
When I have time, I surf once, twice, three times a day. It’s time for me to be out there and be alone. Surfers don’t talk in the ocean. You’re on the beach and surfers are kind of all together, you know, being shitheads. But when you’re in the water, you’re alone. It’s a selfish sport. It’s also very gratifying and humbling being in the ocean because it could kill you. All these things I’m thankful for. It’s the only thing that keeps me healthy. I’m drinking heavily on the road, I’m smoking a lot when I’m drinking. When I get home from surfing, I’m tired, I feel good.
HN: If you didn’t have that relationship with the sea, what would replace it?
BN: I was really into snowboarding. I learned a lot, when I got to the band I couldn’t afford to be into snowboarding. It’s kind of weird because if I didn’t surf, there are so many parts of the country I would rather live in. Other people, other lifestyles, really pretty places. I’d be more dedicated to music. Surfing gets in the way of us making music.
“Come on, we got to practice, get over here, we have to go over this new material.” “Fuck you, there’s good waves. We’re not practicing.” It’s kind of like the whole thing about surfing, when there are good swells, no one’s working.
HN: You mentioned finding random things on the road and maybe wearing them to a show that night. Does that help you stay fresh when you’re playing shows night after night?
BN: You get to be around a lot of people that take things way too seriously. I can get pretty military. I could probably be in the military because I could totally just work and have a goal. I’m very clean and orderly and I work well with order. Being in a band, surrounded by five guys I’m like, “Do this, do that,” so it’s important when they’re like, “Shut up, dork.”
It helps me relax. It’s okay to realize we’re still having fun with it. You can put on a wig for a night or someone will go up in a dress or a painted face or fake cholo lipstick on, it all keeps things fresh. Don’t take this shit too seriously.
HN: That’s excellent. Is there anything you’d like to add?
BN: Generally, I just want people to come out and have a good time. It’s a chance to live with us for a second. It’s not a chore to us to go out on tour. A lot of bands are like, “This sucks, we have to go through the Midwest, it’s bullshit.” We enjoy every part of it, and meeting the fans. We’re approachable and we’re looking forward to partying with them.
Jacob Zlomke is an editorial intern at Hear Nebraska. He’ll be doo wopping or jitterbugging or whatever it is those kids used to do during the Growlers set on Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com.