Sep 16, 2016
Less Surf, More Synth: The Growlers’ Brooks Nielsen on City Club, Their New Julian Casablancas-Produced Album
The Growlers are busy–that much is obvious.
Since 2009, the California scuzz rockers–or, purveyors of Beach Goth, as their sound has often been dubbed–have put out four studio albums, a host of EPs, and, oh, by the way, founded their own festival, the eponymous, self-embracingly titled Beach Goth. Led by lead vocalist Brooks Nielsen and guitarist Matt Taylor–the band’s songwriters–The Growlers’ 2014 record, Chinese Fountain, was the band’s closest step yet towards crossing over to a wider audience. Embracing the sort of amalgamation of sounds they’ve always been known for, crossing surf rock, garage rock, psych rock, and even certain country sounds, the band has a style that’s all its own.
Now, on September 30, The Growlers are back at it again. They’re preparing to release City Club, their fifth LP and first since signing to Cult Records, the label founded by Julian Casablancas–frontman for The Strokes and an NYC-rock icon. Casablancas produced City Club himself, and the early results have been hugely rewarding; the two singles released thus far, “City Club” and “I’ll Be Around,” are both infectious, the distinct sound of Nielsen’s voice pairing wonderfully with some deeply Strokesian production from Casablancas, heavy on funk, combining anthemic beats with loads of synth instrumentation. The resulting songs sound like they could serve as a companion to The Strokes’ underrated 2013 album, Comedown Machine.
The band remains extremely busy; they’ve planned an extensive world tour, along with putting together the fifth year of Beach Goth. This year’s festival is planned for October 23 and 24–the band headlines both nights–and also will play host to a massive range of talents, including Bon Iver, Gucci Mane, and Patti Smith. In the midst of a crazy day getting suits fitted for that World Tour–beginning tonight at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, and wrapping November 17 in Paris–I had the chance to chat with Nielsen over the phone. He sounded stretched a bit thin from the frantic schedule that comes with releasing a new record and planning a world tour, but nonetheless excited and thrilled to talk about what he described as “The best Growlers that anyone’s ever heard.”
Brooklyn Magazine: You guys have a new album, City Club, coming out at the end of this month on a new label, Cult Records. How did the move happen, and what’s it been like?
Brooks Nielsen: We had met Julian a handful of years back–we played a show with him when he had first gone solo–and that was a loose meeting. But after the fact, I think he paid attention to us a little bit and my wife had run into him at a bar. They kind of shot the shit about us a little bit, and at the same time we were looking for a new label. We had been at Everloving Records since the start, and it was time for us to try something else. And everything else is kind of a blur. I think it all just somehow worked out, and we’re happy for the new adventure.
Julian produced City Club. What was it like working with him in that capacity?
It’s cool. It’s a guy that we looked up to a lot. A pretty solid reason for us, that we wouldn’t be making music if we didn’t like The Strokes’ first albums. It’s like anything, meeting a celebrity–if you want to call it that. He’s just a normal dude, and a super sweet guy. He kind of left it up to us on how much we wanted to involve him, and we wanted him hands-on, and it was really fun making all of these together. You know, you take it in and it was a cool experience. I’ve always been scared to get a producer, and let anyone else touch my baby, but I think it worked out well.
So you guys were big Strokes fans from the early days?
Yeah, Matt extremely was. I like them a lot. I think that was something I’d kind of sing to, when I’d hear it on the radio, and be like, ‘Oh shit! I can kind of sing! I can sing The Strokes.’ It’s cool coming full circle like that.
I noticed a lot of sound evolution between your last album, Chinese Fountain, and the singles that have been released from City Club so far. What was the intent as far as changes in sound?
I think it’s just natural. Matt and I don’t really talk about what exactly we want to do, or what we’re trying to sound like, or anything. We just let it take it’s course. But all those things are in the back of our head. You know, we got stuck being called Beach Goth forever now, and it was kind of neat for us in the beginning, and we’re fine with that, but at the same time, I think we naturally wanted to get away from some of these cliches that we’ve always dealt with. I mean, we write so much music–the public’s only hearing 5% of it.
You said you want to move away from the ‘Beach Goth’ label. How would would you instead describe the new sound?
I think I heard Matt say “less surf, more synth”–I think it’s a good progression to our age as well. We started making some very punk-y stuff, and then were just like, ‘I’m not even feeling that right now.’ I’m too old for that shit. It’s a little more mature, and it’s still a bit of The Growlers, it’s just trying to lay down a lot of different rhythms and melodies, and talk to each other, and throw spaghetti at the wall, naturally, really just going on feeling. These songs were pretty much finished by the time we even got into the studio with Julian, because Matt and I had been doing this for so long that we had written, I think, 60 or 70 songs, and narrowed it down to the ones we liked, and they were pretty much ready to go.
I had read that the process for making Chinese Fountain was super streamlined, and the whole thing took about a month to put together. Was this the same way?
This was the complete opposite. Matt and I had more time to write than we’ve ever had. We did two different month-long sessions, and went in and tried to play with the band a little bit, went back to the drawing board, did some work on a fixing on a computer, which we’ve never really done before, and then the whole process with Julian. I mean, he would not make a schedule. It’s was just, kind of, “What are we doing today?” With us always being poor, and knowing that records cost money, it was like, “Time is money! What the fuck is going on here?” But he made it so that wasn’t the case. We finally had that time to sit on the material and be creative, and it made for a more thought out version of Matt and I’s songs.
Do you think Julian’s free-wheeling production style fit well with Matt and your songwriting style?
I think it does. I think he puts out that vibe. I mean, inside his head it may not be the same thing; there’s a lot of stuff I can’t take responsibility for. I mean, sonicially, I don’t know what the vision was for that; we tried to do it on tape at first, but it quickly turned into something else. A lot of computer work, and stuff that I just don’t know what’s going on. Shawn [Everett, who previously worked with Alabama Shakes and The War on Drugs] is a very talented engineer, and I don’t know who takes what credit for that, but I think sonically this thing sounds way more current than I would’ve known how to do.
This isn’t the first time you guys have worked with a big time frontman: The Growlers had some sessions in 2012 with Dan Auerbach [of The Black Keys] that didn’t quite work out. What was the the difference between working with the two?
Julian was a bit more hands on; they both reminded me of the same thing, and I don’t want to use the word… I mean, I don’t know. I think it’s really me that’s changed. I went in with Dan with too many songs, and I wanted to work nonstop, and I was pushing too hard. I wanted things done really quickly. I didn’t know how that world worked, because I had always made records at home. So, I think I pushed too hard, wanted too much, and got cold feet. I got scared that I wasn’t sure what direction was going to happen with our baby, and pulled it out. So, maybe it was more my fault; I’ve learned to be more patient, and give some room and some time for other people.
So, finally, with the new record, where do you want City Club to have The Growlers, say, six months from now? What do you want the conversation around the band to be?
I have no idea! I guess a long time ago I got really content with not knowing, and not that I don’t care, but it’s just that I know that this industry is hard work and talent, but also a lot of it is luck. I just am going with the flow of it now. I want this thing to resonate with our fans, because that’s really the only thing I see as a future for us is a connection with them. Obviously, we want new fans, but that’s even weird to say. The people that are there and sticking in there? We want them to grow with us, to accept changes, because we’re going to constantly be changing, just to make this interesting for us. I think that’s kind of hard for people to understand sometimes, but for the most part we’re making this music for ourselves, and choosing to share it with people. I do want them to get it, but at the same time, if they don’t, I’m not a quitter. I’m obligated to be creative for the rest of my life, and this is the path I’m on.
City Club releases on September 30 via Cult Records.
The Growlers’ City Club World Tour begins tonight in Las Vegas. They will perform at Music Hall of Williamsburg on September 29 and Webster Hall on September 30.
Tickets for Beach Goth 2016, in Orange County, CA, are available here.
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