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By Nate Jackson
The Growlers are one show into a winter West Coast tour, and they've already drawn blood. Singer Brooks Nielsen is speaking via phone as he parks the band bus—you've heard of Ken Kesey's FURTHUR? Meet FURSURE!—somewhere north of Santa Barbara and prepares his after-action-report. Things always go wrong, he says. "The amps get drunk, or the guitars stage dive. But last night, I look over, and [lead guitarist] Matt [Taylor]'s got the biggest chunk of a woman's hair on his guitar—he scalped some chick! She fell into the guitar—had a gash in her face, all this hair hanging off."
So that's life in the woozy warzone, where the Growlers wake up every day, where sleep is just the space between the driving and the screaming, and where Nielsen is at his most ready to talk when he's hung over and exhausted. ("That's when I can rant hardest—I'll shit-talk anybody under the table!") It's been just about five years since these beachy dudes crept out of the place where the surf smashes against the sand and started taping their own mutant music to a karaoke machine with twin mics for that much-coveted stereo effect. Back in 2006, they were just learning to play—having formed pretty much as a dare and named themselves pretty much as a joke—and the vibe then was what you might call "loose." Like their "acid tapes," Nielsen remembers—six unreleased sessions of LSD and rock & roll. "It's actually pretty damn good for us being so out of it!" he says.
Now, however, the Growlers are a different beast. From their start in Long Beach, they knew how to make what Jonathan Richman said he loved most about the Velvet Underground: "Atmosphere." But instead of New York subway-sound cool, the Growlers traded in Memphis-meets-Mombasa guitar rock that married unexpectedly tweaked guitar lines to a spooky backwoods shuffle—the kind of thing guys such as Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley or Hasil Adkins might have made if they'd ever got to visit another continent . . . or planet.
As they reluctantly graduated from that karaoke machine, the band—Nielsen, Taylor, bass guitarist Scott Montoya and drummer Brian Stewart—tightened into something leaner and darker if not meaner, messing with the same outré lost-world vibes of the Cramps and the same swampland feel of Australia's Scientists, two bands separated by thousands of miles but matched perfectly by personality. On their last two full-lengths on LA indie label Everloving, you'll hear the Growlers as a bar band from another dimension, sliding through songs about death and weirdness with the confidence of those who know just where they're going.
What's that line—when the going gets tough, the tough get weird? Well, that's what got them this far. And now that they have a just-recorded-but-not-released new album in the can (or the external hard drive) in the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach's Nashville studio, they're going to get weirder. But not in the way you'd think.
"We've been playing dark stuff so long," says Nielsen. "We kinda picked the happier stuff—the lovers' stuff, the songs we thought were catchy and fun. There's even some borderline hip-hop. Some weird Bill Withers stuff, with Casios to give it that future kind of vibe. There's some funkier stuff, but it's still that same old sense of humor."
What matters most to him—if pressed—is telling stories in his songs, just as Jonathan Richman and Johnny Cash did, ones that are great to sit and get drunk with, Nielsen adds. He'll get the stories from all-night shit-talk sessions with friends and bandmates, and he'll let the hangover or the highs filter them into songs. And this time around, the stories ended up being about the band.
"We're all going through the exact same shit!" he explains. "Being in poverty, dealing with a chick who's like, 'Fuck you guys—you're always gone to go get wasted and party every night.' Just little things like devoting all my time to this and never having time to hang with anyone else."
But even trauma makes a good song. Nielsen laughs about watching the scene in the movie Walk Hard in which Dewey Cox's girlfriend Edith dumps him and he sneers, "'Don't leave me, Edith'—there's a title for a song!'"
"I'm so lame," he says. "I do that, too!"
Really? So as he sits in FURSURE watching the cows waddle by, can we ask—is the guy who wrote "Even Assholes Change" changing a bit himself?
"Totally," says a laughing Nielsen. "I don't even pretend I'm tough anymore—people won't believe me!"
This article appeared in print as "Further? Fursure! For the Growlers, life is a woozy warzone."