Parked outside the Growlers' Costa Mesa complex is a full-size gray school bus with California Church Teen Choir crudely spray-painted on the side. It's a joke, of course. The crew of friends and hangers-on that often accompanies the beach-goth four-piece on this makeshift tour bus, bought used for five grand, are probably the furthest thing from choir boys imaginable. Probably better to describe their live adventures as weird, prop-filled sideshows, bordering on madness.
For the last six years, the Growlers have been pumping out their brand of post-apocalyptic surf rock. They manage to be dark and sun-drenched at the same time, catching the attention of Coachella (where they're performing this year) and Dan Auerbach, vocalist for festival headliners the Black Keys, with whom they recorded an LP last year. But there's a problem: Because of their fierce, ostentatious independence, the future of that record is uncertain.
Still, they don't seem too concerned; after all, they're already living the life. Beyond the tour bus is a warehouse space that the Costa Mesa–bred band has converted into a live-in studio. From the mini-mall-infested sprawl of Orange County, you enter through a tiny door into an interior seemingly designed by a depraved mind. Baby dolls and duck pontoons hang from the low ceiling. A papier-mâché dummy sits impaled on a chandelier. A stuffed deer's head leers down eerily. It looks the way you would imagine the Joker would decorate his house, if the Joker happened to be a hoarder. The place's weirdness is fueled by lead singer Brooks Nielsen's impulsive collecting.
“I always collect stuff. Stop at thrift stores and Dumpsters, find stuff and put it in my truck,” says Nielsen, whose scratchy voice purrs all over the band's minimal, gothic songs. “After a while of being a weirdo like that, people start giving you stuff.”
Nielsen lies prone on a couch, his constant fidgeting and spastic mannerisms assuring that he is actually a very strange boy, and not just playing the part of one. He wears a Zissou-esque red beanie; on his jacket is a mammoth pin that reads, “I Hate Everybody.” It is red and blue and looks slightly patriotic, as if he just voted.
Besides living here, it's also where the band records a lot of their strange music. Drummer and engineer Scott Montoya, 28, is the tallest guy in the group: '70s porno mustache, shoulder-length curls and a mostly unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. He plods around barefoot, fiddling with dials on soundboards that stand not five feet from where he sleeps.
This space is a physical manifestation of the band's unconventional, some might say impudent, style. Their label debut, Are You In or Out, and 2010's Hot Tropics, released on L.A.-based label Everloving, are solid, original records that hint at the promise of something great to come; the latter's title is actually a pun that encapsulates their sound perfectly: a mocking combination of the goth-teen store Hot Topic and a post–Beach Boys surf vibe. The riffs are creepy and the lyrics obsessed with death and despondency. It's music that has been called “beach goth.”
They say they feel stifled by traditional recording processes; Nielsen is particularly brash, especially when he talks about the unreleased LP the band recorded in Nashville with Auerbach. None of the band knows exactly how Auerbach found out about them, but they ended up going out there last October to record with him. But all has not gone according to plan: The band has had issues with the post-production process, which is all being done long-distance and has taken months longer than they would have liked.
“We're not used to letting go of the reins. We've always done things ourselves,” Nielsen says. “Shit's taking longer than we ever wanted it to, to have this record come out. It's too much bullshit we don't want to deal with.”
Most musicians would jump at the chance to have their record produced by Auerbach, like Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John, whose recent collaboration with the Keys vocalist, Locked Down, has been very well received, and local favorite Hanni El Khatib, who has had nothing but the best to say of working with Auerbach. But the Growlers stay grumbling, walking a fine line between youthful zeal and callow disrespect. As a result, it remains unclear if the record will even come out.
The ballad of the Growlers begins in 2006, when guitarist Matt Taylor and Nielsen were cactus farming in a garage in San Clemente. The only original members of the current lineup, they started surfing together and listening to “weird cactus music” while helping a friend harvest San Pedro cactus, which he turned into “juice.” They won't elaborate on the operation, but one of the active alkaloids of San Pedro cactus is mescaline, a well-known hallucinogen.
Taylor had a guitar and Nielsen would drunkenly croon over his strumming. One night a house party they were attending needed a band, so they wrote six songs together in one day — a back catalog of built-up angst cathartically released. “We were, like, oh shit, it's easy to make songs, let's start a band,” Nielsen says. A couple of pit stops later, they took up residence in their eccentric warehouse.
Through several lineup changes, the current group assembled. Guitarist and keyboard player Kyle Straka came in after a “stony Humboldt stage,” Montoya when he tricked the band into thinking he knew how to play drums. Bassist Anthony Perry is rawboned and birdlike, with long, dark hair. He's the newest addition, having played with the band for only three months.
In summer 2011 Auerbach invited the Growlers to come record with him in Nashville. “[It] definitely wasn't a dream come true,” Nielsen says. “We knew of him, but we didn't listen to him.”
That's not to say they weren't grateful or didn't have a good experience working with Auerbach; they've just been dissatisfied with the pace of post-production.
“Dan's a great guy, supersweet, but he's also a very busy guy,” Nielsen says. “We're a band that likes to put out an insane amount of music. We had people telling us maybe this record should just be 13 [songs] so it's something that can be reviewed. Like I give a shit if someone gets bored of my 20-song record.”
If the Nashville record is ever released, the band will stand behind it. But in the meantime they've returned to making songs in their weird little complex. The band plans a massive output in the coming months, and isn't really concerned who puts it out. They'd rather have more control than work with someone famous. “It's, like, how good of a baby sitter can you get?” Nielsen asks. “Even with the best baby sitter, it's still your kid. We want to raise that kid ourselves.”
It's clear the Growlers are more concerned with pushing forward — self-sovereign and brazenly autonomous. “We're taking the reins of this shit,” Nielsen declares.
That the Black Keys are headlining the festival they're playing at this weekend seems to be a piece of irony that is lost on them. Or maybe they just don't care.