It’s a rare treat to catch an opening act that can capture a crowd, and an even rarer one to find a band that can do it twice. This past August, we watched Costa Mesa psych-surf rockers The Growlers win over more than their fair share of new fans when they played SOhO, just prior to Devendra Banhart’s sold-out set. Then, in October, the six-piece returned to take the stage before Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros as part of S.B.’s inaugural New Noise festival, and there again the crowd was left awestruck. Whether it’s the experimental vibe, the inescapably danceable guitar hooks, or the general sense of drunken fun that these musicians exude onstage, we don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: The Growlers have “it,” and others are noticing, too. Since their tour with Banhart, the band have played alongside everyone from Vampire Weekend to The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas.
This Friday, December 4, the band returns to Santa Barbara with the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band in support of Are You In or Out? I recently spoke with lead singer Brooks Nielsen about the album, the band, and how his music career almost wasn’t.
Tell me a bit about Are You In or Out? You recorded the album yourselves, correct? Yeah. We live in a warehouse in Costa Mesa, where we built a little studio in, and we all live here. We just got some old machines and just did it all in there.
What do you guys get out of using vintage equipment instead of digital? I think in order to do something good digital, you have to have really, really top-quality digital, or else it sounds like crap because it’s all just trying to be real sound. It’s not there yet, but you can get close. You’ve got to be really good to do something like that, and we never wanted to screw with that, and we didn’t have the money or want to spend the money to go do something like that. I have no preference in recording, whether it’s on a cell phone or on some little recorder; it doesn’t matter to me. But the old tape machines, they come with a lot of character.
Are you excited to get back to playing smaller shows again? Yes, very much so. We went from playing with Julian Casablancas and his massive show, and the following day we went and played at a surf shop in San Diego where there were about 20 people. There was a little 4-year-old girl dancing in front of the stage, and I was just like, “Dude, that is so much better.” I was stoked. It was this moment of, “Cool, we’re back.”
Care to dish about some of your favorite albums growing up? I didn’t really listen to music. I’d hang out with my greaser friends and pretend I knew about rockabilly, but I didn’t really care or listen to it. Then I started smoking weed and I started listening to things like hip-hop, then reggae. That kind of got me infatuated with music. Then one of my friends started playing guitar and I started singing along with it, and that’s how it started. I started re-listening to the things I had heard about that my friends were into. I just became a whore after that, and had to hear anything and everything. Since then, I’ve just kind of been a freak of music.
So when did you realize you could sing? I remember singing in the shower and, even if I was joking, my sister being like, “Shut up!” Then I remember singing dumb song ideas and people thinking it was funny, but I never heard, “Oh, that’s a nice voice you got there.” I have no idea. I didn’t think I was any good. I think I just kept doing it and the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel and the less you’re trying to sound like something else. There are certain times where I can recall being like, “Holy shit! I think I just liked the sound of my voice.”
The Growlers play Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) this Friday, December 4, at 8 p.m. Visit clubmercy.com for tickets.