On a hot October afternoon inside Growlers keyboardist Kyle Straka's stuffy Costa Mesa apartment, all the band can manage to do is stare at one another and laugh. Rock stars are supposed to come home from tour with normal things–broken guitars, hardcore drug addictions, venereal diseases.
But seriously, scabies?
The previous night, Straka and the band's tour manager came down with a bad case of burrowing skin mites–apparently the result of trying on some less-than-sanitary threads at a San Antonio thrift store. This is unfortunate news to the band's gangly bassist Anthony "Anstonio" Braun Perry, who just realized he used one of Straka's towels to take a shower in the apartment. He gulps heavily as his skin turns pale with dread.
"Dude, I used it on my face," he moans. "Oh, my God, fucking gross!"
His hands slowly cover his wispy mustache, thumbs gripping the curtains of his mussed, long brown hair. Standing in the open doorway, lead singer Brooks Nielsen whips up a plan as he tussles his own oily brown locks.
"You're fine, 'Stonio. Come on–we can't sit in here, or we really will get it."
Nielsen motions for tall, tan drummer Scott Montoya and Perry to hustle downstairs to take refuge in a flotsam-filled garage. It's a safe enough distance from the creepy crawlies in Kyle's apartment. Eventually, guitarist Matt Taylor wanders into the powwow, barefoot and in blue jeans with a white tee, a woman's hoop earring dangling from his left ear.
The garage is awash with surf-bum chic. Glittery sombreros collide with psychedelic paraphernalia and tool boxes on shelves covered by multicolored tagging. Mariachi music from a crappy car stereo echoes through the nearby alley in the blue-collar Mexican neighborhood. Nielsen sighs and takes a long drag from his cigarette.
"It's not anyone's fault but mine, but the concept of time off is completely gone for me," he says as smoke drifts toward the ceiling. "It's gotten a little out of control, but I'm used to it, comes with the territory. I've kind of programmed myself to do this."
Right now, Nielsen seems to be at odds with the slacker surf-punk aesthetic his band have cultivated over the past eight years. But three albums and a few handfuls of EPs later, lack of time in the water for these South County beach rats is a small price to pay for success.
The Growlers' dedication to handmade weirdness is a big part of why they've gotten where they are–in a blur of festivals, tours, album sales, TV appearances and hard-partying fans around the world. It's also why it has taken them so long to get there.
They were never interested in the route of the conventional band. Elements of surf beat, reggae, dub and country provide a backdrop for their cross-dressing freakiness, insane house parties, and lyrics about death and vice. But for the past several years, their DIY-ness has run parallel to Fullerton's garage-pop wunderkinds at Burger Records, both chosen to break big and update the world on the hipness of Orange County music. Their songs capture the forgotten underbelly of our beach cities–golden shores that produced the Hippie Mafia, sordid prostitution rings and world-class barbiturates.
For the past few years, the vibe has culminated in their annual Beach Goth festival, a bacchanal imagined by Growlers fans and sustained by the band's tireless efforts to coordinate the whole damn thing. With help from the Observatory, this year has turned out to be the biggest one yet. Performers range from OC art-punk duo the Garden to pop punkers Joyce Manor and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. Picture a Halloween masquerade party fueled by black lights and acid. Throw in more than three dozen eclectic, crazy acts on three stages and an after-hours "Carney Barney Rave."
"We always gotta up the ante so that we're satisfied," Nielsen says. "And our being satisfied means that everyone else will be. There's a lot of detail that needs to be paid attention to."
Along the way, things they once considered failures have forced the Growlers to toughen up. A few years ago, they scrapped an entire album produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Then their beloved band house burned to the ground. It has been up to them to find the silver lining in all these storms to keep them going. A couple of weeks from now, they'll be hurtling back home from the final leg of their latest tour, and a hometown welcome and another huge Beach Goth fest awaits them. After months of planning and scrambling, all that's left to do is pull it off.
Before they were the Growlers, back in 2006, Nielsen and Taylor were two kids from Dana Point who wanted to start a band to play parties, shotgun beers and get laid. They recruited friend Brian Stewart to play drums and Clark Davison on keys. Nielsen sang; Taylor played guitar. "I couldn't even play guitar when we started," says Taylor.
They are the first to admit they were shitty musicians. Speaking of shit, the term "growler" is a slang word Nielsen and Taylor invented for taking one. As with every other song or album title they've come up with, the name started as a joke and somehow managed to stick.
At the time of the band's formation, Nielsen worked with his father cleaning fountains. Taylor was a straight-edge kid who worked in an art gallery. They practiced a sad mishmash of Grateful Dead and '70s punk covers in a utility warehouse owned by Nielsen's dad. By their early 20s, they'd moved around a bit, adding and subtracting members as they shuffled between Dana Point, San Clemente, Long Beach and Westminster. Living together throughout these moving stints ensured they would have no excuse to not play music together.
"We used to take a bunch of acid and sit in a room in our studio in Westminster and hang out and get closer as friends and record everything," Stewart says. "Sometimes, it worked; sometimes, it didn't."
Decades of sun-baked beach living resulted in a Doors-y surf-rock sound–burbling reverb and shiny Ray Manzarek-style keys. The foursome played shows dressed as a pack of thrift-store hobos to crowds of swaying, South County kids.
"We were just kinda being jocks in the beginning," Taylor says. "We wanted to party and play and see what happened. And from having success with it, we realized we could go somewhere cool with our style."
But their reputation in OC didn't really start until they moved to Costa Mesa. Drawn in by the music and surfing scenes at the time, the band befriended popular dudes such as pro surfer Alex Knost. Their beach-kid swagger and dirtball antics made them favorites in a hard-partying clique including Knost's band Japanese Motors, My Pet Saddle and Dahga Bloom (formerly Living Suns).
"They were always crazy," Dahga Bloom keyboardist Lucas Drake says. One night, the band pulled up drunk to a Teutonic karaoke bar in their dilapidated ice-cream truck, their communal band ride at the time. Sitting at the bar, Nielsen whipped out his junk and started pissing in a beer glass and setting it on the bar top.
The old German guy who ran the place wasn't pleased. "He throws the beer right in Brook's face," Drake recalls. "The band were laughing, and the old man is like, 'Get the fuck outta here! Pissing in my bar, you fucking scum punk!'"
While the privilege of playing OC's top venues was something most bands fought over, the Growlers were more interested in playing DIY house parties at their infamous warehouse on 16th and Superior in Costa Mesa. It was a giant bohemian monstrosity full of people living commune-style. "Eventually, there were so many people living there and so many people there every day, we got kicked out," Montoya says.
Their shows got so big that nearby clubs called the cops on them to shut their parties down, only to turn around and offer them slots at their venues. Avalon Bar's late owner and legendary punker Mike Conley took an instant shine to the Growlers and offered them a residency. A few insanely packed shows there earned them a step up to sold-out weekend slots at Detroit Bar across the street.
By 2008, the band were working on their first recording, Greatest Hits (also known as the Greatest sHits). It was basically a 25-track demo of songs, random sounds, odds and ends that former Weekly music editor Dave Segal once described as "an archival clearinghouse of ideas." They hired future bassist/drummer Scott Montoya along with one of his friends to record them. They ended up clashing with Montoya's buddy over the sound recordings, trashing them and asking Montoya to rerecord them.
When their keyboardist suddenly left the band, the Growlers recruited Montoya as a bassist to fill in the sound. Over the next few years, their childish attempts to capture the warm, woozy tunes on 2-inch tape became their stock-in-trade. In eight months, they recorded eight lo-fi releases known as The Couples EPs, each one hand-pressed with Taylor's original cover art and distributed at shows. The stress caused Nielsen to suffer from shingles, but audiences loved them. Nielsen's voice, wise and weathered beyond his years, found its stride on songs such as "Sea Lion Goth Blues"–hypnotic, sorrowful and comforting all at once.
The band did (and still do) give Nielsen shit for writing so many songs about death. But those dark lyrics helped to coin the next joke term that started to follow them around: Beach Goth. After they were done laughing at it, it actually did seem to fit.
"It was an obvious thing; we were making beach songs about death or dark things," Nielsen says.
But in another sense, the phrase is an easy, dumb way to explain the fact these weren't the typical breed of surfer jocks they'd always been surrounded by. The band was their best attempt to express themselves and just be different. It wasn't anything they expected the world to see.
"I don't know what it looks like from the outside . . . Dogtown or something," Nielsen says. "To me, it just feels natural. I can't deny that Beach Goth really is something that defines the Growlers."
Montoya has his own explanation for why the band like the term Beach Goth. "Those are the two hottest types of chicks," he says.
The rumble of skateboard wheels echoes in the darkness in an underground concrete drainage tunnel in Laguna Canyon. At the mouth of it, the Growlers sit in a cluster, armed with cold 40s of Brass Monkey. Their catcalls to friend and fellow skater Bradley Coleman ricochet loudly as he carves toward them, up and down the sides of the tunnel. The rumbles get louder until he gets high enough to wallride over them, '80s Tony Hawk style. Coleman is wearing a cheap skeleton costume; his long red hair whips behind him. A photographer flashes just in time to get the shot.
"Ohhhhhhh!" everyone yells.
The band brought a cute female model with them. She is dressed as a chola: glossy lips, high-waisted slacks and an open flannel shirt with only a black bra underneath. As dusk creeps in, the band are getting drunk, playing grab ass and scribbling pervy slogans and stoner murals near the tunnel with neon sidewalk chalk. They're in an old skate spot Nielsen used to frequent, a grimy street scene pitted in the center of plush South County, an area stacked with wealth.
Their exposure to vatos and good-time gangsters was something they picked up when they briefly lived in Long Beach in 2004. There, they hooked up with old Dana Point pal Warren Thomas, who moved there to play with his band the Grand Elegance. At the time, Thomas lived in a blue, four-story Victorian madhouse called the Booby Trap on Long Beach Boulevard and Seventh Street. He wasted no time taking the Growlers under his drunken wing.
"Long Beach was an exciting place at that time," Thomas says. "It was still dirty; it still had that grime, it was risky, lively in a dangerous and artistic way."
His band's mix of Johnny Cash country and swaying, psychedelic rock struck a chord with the Growlers who adopted that style into their surfy sound.
Years later, after the Growlers moved back to OC and attracted enough attention to be approached by LA's Everloving Records, they released Are You In or Out?, a lo-fi mixtape of their best songs packaged as an album. Songs such as "Beach Rats," "Salt on a Slug" and "One Million Lovers" were soon crowd favorites during the band's extensive cross-country tours.
They even had some famous fans. Actor Bill Murray garnered the Growlers a little extra press by making head-bobbing cameo appearances at a number of their shows. And there was the Black Keys' front man Dan Auerbach's offer in 2010 to record with the band, whose lineup at that point included Kyle Straka on keys, Pat Palomo on bass and Montoya on drums. While flattering, the union with Auerbach at his vintage Easy Eye recording studio in Tennessee was short-lived.
"We brought in too much material, I got cold feet, and I didn't like the direction it was going in," Nielsen says. "We were just so used to being in the garage."
After several months and much anticipation for their "breakout album," Hung at Heart, the Growlers parted ways with Auerbach and redid the album themselves with eccentric Costa Mesa legend Mike McHugh. The process taught the band that sometimes they had to accept outside help.
"Letting go of the responsibility and some of the stuff that I really like doing is kinda bittersweet," says Montoya. "It's like, 'Okay, you can have it, but take care of it.'"
Before their two-day drive to Canada, the band are barreling toward the desert in a 2006 white Ford shuttle bus. The first stop is at a spot called Frank's Place in Fresno, with fellow headliners the Garden. The seats in the bus have been gutted and replaced with jerry-rigged bunk beds; red lounge cushions with an anchored table and two chairs sit behind the driver seat. Band members are strewn throughout the back while their tour manager and photographer Taylor Bonin, a tall, lanky blond surfer, takes the wheel.
Their former ride–a giant school bus with "California Church Teen Choir" spray-painted on the side–sits parked near Straka's apartment. They don't take that one on the road anymore, since it attracts too much attention from fans who want to party inside, take pictures and stow away. One guy even snuck in and fell asleep; the band drove with him in the back and didn't notice until three states later.
Also on the bus is Growlers' longtime friend Alex Mars. Few might recognize the short bleached-blond dude without his make-up on. For the past several months, he has been rolling with the band dressed as a drag queen, known as DMTina. It's not exactly a conventional gig for a straight, out-of-work actor. But that didn't stop him from taking the call when Nielsen asked him if he wanted to go on tour.
"I just showed up, put on my game face, and got drunk and had fun," Mars says. "It's been a really lucky experience, I think," adding that he's hooked up with more girls as a drag queen than he ever has in his entire life.
The title of the Growlers' new album and the basis of their current tour, Chinese Fountain, flirts with the idea of luck in the music business. And in a way, there was a lot of luck happening around them at the time they recorded it–their first fully completed attempt at recording in a modern studio with their manager, J.P. Plunier, co-founder of Everloving who is used to working with artists such as Don Cavalli and Jack Johnson.
It's also the first album they've made since the December 2012 electrical fire that caused their house to burn down. The pad never stood a chance. It was a giant, poorly maintained, surf-green abode with all sorts of frayed wiring and ancient recording equipment in the center of a big boat junkyard. It always seemed one spark away from a blaze, which finally happened while the band were away one evening.
"I went to dinner and came back, and there were, like, 15 to 20 fire trucks and the building was on fire," Nielsen says.
Montoya describes the fire as one of the scariest things he has ever seen. "A couple of people ran in there and got burned pretty bad," he says. "I managed to save all the Growlers songs on the hard drives; that was all I cared about."
With another tour scheduled a few weeks later, there was almost no time to grieve. After that, they packed up, went on the road and have rarely been home since. (They did manage to sell a lot of their burned band merch on eBay.) Nielsen references the ordeal in the sobering reggae-tinged track "Going Gets Tuff": "No home since the fire/Me and the ash can't settle down/I'm unsure of where I'm bound, so I sink another round."
At first listen, the new album sounds uncharacteristically clean. It even drew some Internet backlash because of the disco-sounding title track and the polished vocals. There are times when some of the songs don't translate as well when sprayed with a pop-record sheen. But for the most part, the cadre of new songs is in line with what the Growlers have always done.
At the shows like the one the band played in Fresno, however, the response has been overwhelmingly positive–and rowdy.
Backstage, the band members prepare by sipping whiskey and throwing on some shiny matching Members Only jackets. Holding up a compact mirror, Mars is busy becoming DMTina, balancing a lit cigarette in his red lips and rocking a gold, sequined fuck-me skirt and a retro, Divine-style wig.
As the lights dim, he trots out to get a club full of Fresno fans all riled up.
"You want the Growlers?!" DMTina shouts. The surprised crowd roars and raises their glasses. "You'll Get the Growlers . . . when I say so!" After being warmed up by Tina's ass-slapping cabaret, strip teasing and stage diving, the Growlers are ready for action, as they launch into the song "Gay Thoughts."
The dragon heads and other Far East regalia onstage contrast the bouncy, West Coast wash of percussion and spangly guitar of the band's song "Big Toe." Unsurprisingly, the live renditions of Chinese Fountain tracks fit seamlessly into their massive catalog as Nielsen sways to rolling rhythms, shouts echoing into a reverb-laden microphone. Toward the end, DMTina runs back onstage to do some stage diving and surfing on a giant cooler lid. The excited crowd lifts him a little too high, smashing his head through one of the brittle ceiling panels as the band members laugh at their goofball buddy.
The Growlers know that sometimes you need a drag queen to get a crowd going. Just as sometimes you need an outside producer in the studio or some extra minds or pairs of hands helping with the Beach Goth party.
For the Growlers, growing up means asking for help, and modifying the band's staunchly DIY approach to things. Maybe one day that will mean going old-school and spending months in the studio with a producer to whittle down their mass of songs to a precious few that hit all the right notes. But for now, they're more worried about their hometown festival, just days away. Every waking hour on the bus not spent partying is dedicated to obsessing over the details of Beach Goth, right down to their entrance.
"Maybe we should have an orchestra in the pit and have 'em play a few of our songs before we start," Nielsen says. "That could be cool, right?"
"No, dude," Taylor says. "Are you kidding? That's like the most conceited thing we could possibly do."
The pair immediately laugh off the idea. A stuffy, grandiose entrance has never really been their style. At a certain point, they understand that all the hype and bluster in the world doesn't mean anything if the band's vision and integrity aren't intact. Everything else that stresses them out eventually just rolls off their back like waves on the shores of their hometown.
"I always had a fear of us getting too big too quickly, and we made a lot of decisions to make sure that didn't happen," Nielsen says. "There's times where I know we could be making more money. But we chose to do this, and we chose this path, and we're still proud of what we're doing."