[INTERVIEW] Brooks Neilsen of The Growlers

Volume recently caught up with Brooks Neilsen from California’s iconic beach goth band The Growlers. On the cusp of their 2017 Australian tour, we spoke about all things City Club – their latest record – and how a ‘right time, right place’ moment led them to crossover to Julian Casablancas’s label Cult Records.

How was City Club born? Were there songs in the back pocket you dusted off or was it a clean start?
The approach to the record was just like any other one for us. Matt and I went and got away from everybody. He was living in a mountain range near the beach – a world away. We just locked ourselves up and tried to write as much as we could. It took it’s own natural course. We wrote about 60 songs. Some of it was good, some of it was crap and we narrowed it down and presented it to Julian. He had a little trouble picking. He’s not good at saying ‘that sucks’.

How did you get Julian Casablancas to produce the album? We know the switch to Cult records happened for this album but was that part of the plan for Julian producing your album?
The timeline is a little weird, my wife had run into him and he asked about us. We had already met him previously in the past, played plenty of shows with him. Anyway he asked her “Hey how are The Growlers doing, are they making any money now?” And she “No!”. *laughs* He expressed some interest and she said we were looking for a label. We went to a casual meeting and he just said “I want to sign you guys, I want to produce it and be involved as little as possible or completely, whatever you guys want”. We’re big fans of Julian’s, we grew up listening to The Strokes. So we took a chance and it was cool.

Did you expect that? Would you say it was a dream come true?
It took us a while to mature and let people put their hands on our music. We finally got to a place where we were willing to work with a producer. We got a stroke of luck with Julian in the backseat and it was cool because it ended up happening in a natural way.

What did Julian bring to the record being as it was the first time you have worked with him?
I think the excitement of our guitar player getting to record with Julian kinda pushed him into a way of writing differently. It is almost like writing for Julian. And it was like “Woah this shit kind of sounds like The Strokes” *laughs*. Also I think we kind of pushed ourselves more. We’re going to work with a producer, let’s try and make it a more serious thing and we took some serious steps in getting some professionals to play on the record. We took it more seriously. Julian wasn’t interested in doing the same things we’ve always done which is just casual Growlers songs and the same Growlers sounds. He took some interest in some of the songs that may have not made it otherwise. We let him do that so some material got on it that he was attracted to moreso than I was.

This latest album is a noticeable evolution compared to The Growlers’ back catalogue. Are you guys content with the new direction and it’s fruition?
Matt and I never really changed. We’re really outspoken, we enjoy writing and we have a willingness to work even if we’re not getting along very well at which time we make songs. We put it behind us, we work and we enjoy doing it, and making a song is the same way. And people are going to change, as we get older we get a little more serious about wondering if it’ll end up the way we’d imagined it. As well as us being a little bit more serious about how we want things played and how we want it to come out sounding. It feels like a really gradual change to me. It’s also what we have available to us, y’know in the beginning with poverty and low budget and crappy equipment. We recorded everything at home ourselves so later on when we finally got the opportunity to make records the way all the people we looked up to made them. You know going into a real studio with real equipment. It’s good to try it out like all of our heroes did.

But then again they all started off just like you guys did, DIY.
Yeah it’s really the same process the whole time. Anyway we’re in there like schticklers the whole way doing the producing, being the engineer, writing, all the work. You can’t really get rid of us. *laughs*

Should you have a time turner, would you change anything in the last 10 years?
No, I mean part of this is making music and it’s your baby, and you want to have all this control over it. Over the years, we’ve realised how to let go a bit more and be less controlling. So whatever happened has happened. I never really looked back, I’m not going to listen to every little recording I did. I don’t have a favourite song of mine. I got my excitement and my fun from that – running a music festival and the touring, the concerts and trying to make everything different and creative, making costumes and props. It’s going so quickly, it’s a workaholic effort but it’s also fun that way. I just don’t look back. In my life, in order to get creative I have to get away from peers, relocate myself and leave sections of my friendships behind to get away and try things for myself. But even at that, I think it’s just a part of growing and being creative – I make it sound so hard or stressful sometimes. It’s not bad it’s just part of the gig really. You gotta sacrifice some things to keep going, it’s hard to keep the band going and get people to get along and make it through that long period of not making money. It’s always been a good ride and I’m just glad it’s still going.

You’re completely right, you can’t work in any aspect of the music industry if you’re not a workaholic. But you have had quite the year! Not just with The Growlers changing record label and making/releasing an album, you have a little one, you have a new family, all this touring- what’s going on?
I guess I got lucky, things really turned out right. When I was making the last record, I got married to my wife and then she got pregnant and I thought ‘Oh shit!’ It was scary and it turns out I got to make a record and it took really long. We used to take less than a month to you know write, record, mix and it was done. This one (City Club) took months, so for a long time I was home. I got to be home for the whole pregnancy and labour and it’s been really good. I feel really blessed to have this band and be in a position that we’re in now where I can enjoy luxuries and having people helping us. Y’know people to help work with us and go on the road with us and manage us and promote us and have faith in us. So it’s all cooking well. There’s always something I can find inspiration from when it’s good and when it’s bad. Now all is good.

I love how all this came about, City Club – there’s still so much of that Growlers twang in it. I was worried Julian was going to bring too much Julian into it, he’s very experimental.
Yeah sonically things were brought by Julian and Shawn Everett (engineer) for the most part, it was me and Matt writing songs, bringing them to the table and saying “Here you go, all done, what are you going to do with it?” So there wasn’t a whole lot of change to be done. Even some of the original demos are still in there, they just recorded on top of them.

With Growlers Six to look forward to, times like this I wish I lived in L.A. Would you ever consider touring it around the world like a Lollapalooza model?
It’s definitely a dream of ours. Even the festival itself is only an extension of the way we always do a show. It’s to create an entire fantasy out of a show rather than just be generic. Bring in the crowd, selling beer, t-shirts and play a show. It would be cool to do Beach Goth in Australia – ahh I can’t call it Beach Goth anymore *laughs*, but a festival, bring it on the road and bring a whole bunch of crazy bastards with us. I think it’s definitely something that I want to make happen.

You’ll be in Australia soon, what’s on the mind? Anything on the bucket list?
I got back from Mexico a couple of days ago and it’s just full swing trying to fill up the festival and I’ve been so wrapped up that I haven’t put much thought into it. But the band has been touring hard for almost a year now. We’ve learned a lot of material, and a lot of old material so it’s kinda just fun to go back and show how much this band has grown. We’re playing a lot of different sets for a lot longer, just extensions and different changes to songs, it’s cool to show it off. I’m just going to show up pale and full on and ready to party.

City Club is still touring but what’s next for The Growlers?
Well, we’ve never been good at planning *laughs*. But we’re itching to record. We can’t say no, if they say play a show, yeah we’ll do a tour and yeah we’ll do that and make people happy. But after, it’s time to write. It’s a pretty simple thing for us. Make a record, tour it and come back and make another record.

Interview by Leila Maulen.