Inside the World of The Growlers’ Brooks Nielsen

The last year has been all change for The Growlers, in particular for frontman Brooks Nielsen. Within the space of just over twelve months, the California outfit have rounded up touring 2014’s successful Chinese Fountain, seen Nielsen get married and lose two band members while switching to Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records (one of whom, bassist Anthony Braun Perry, may still return). It’s not been an easy time for the frontman and his band (now consisting of himself, and guitarists Matt Taylor and Kyle Stratka), but they’ve managed to overcome a whole host of obstacles and recently put out the career-defining City Club. It ditches their washed-out Beach Goth sonic musings, replacing them instead with groove-laden rhythms, huge choruses and a slick production sheen for which only Julian Casablancas could be responsible. We caught up with Brooks ahead of The Growlers’ sold out show at the Paradiso Noord in Amsterdam.

Brooks Nielsen onstage in Amsterdam. (c) Jack Parker
Brooks Nielsen onstage in Amsterdam. (c) Jack Parker

Hey Brooks. Before I get down to talking about City Club, I just want to talk about the time leading up to it – your transition from Everloving Records to Cult. How did that come about?
Brooks: I’m not sure specifically how things happened date-wise. We met Julian briefly before shows and when he was in LA he bumped into my wife. He said to her, “oh, how are The Growlers doing? Are they making any money yet?” and she said no. She brought it up to me and said he wanted to work with us. We went from there, to be honest. We’d been with Everloving for a long time since the beginning, but they wanted to shift from being a label to going into management. Because of that, we wanted to go to a new label. We had trouble with that at first, because there wasn’t too much demand or whatever. It was about time for us to move on, though, so it all worked out with Julian. We switched label and manager and it felt great. Every time we make changes in the band it’s good: new blood, even just for a minute.

Julian produced the record as well. What did he bring, from a production perspective, to the table?
I think he was more attracted to the songs that he’d heard we already made. Matt and I had written stuff which sounded different to what he was used to hearing from us. We went into all different directions during the writing process and eventually presented Julian with 60 or so songs. It was nice to have a fresh perspective. It’s hard to make Julian say which songs he specifically likes, but we could tell which ones he grasped on to after a while and which ones he had an opinion on and wanted to change. He slowed the process down a lot, which I was getting frustrated over. Now, looking back, I appreciate it because that helped us see the songs through.

Was that the longest you’d spent working on a record?
Yeah, ever. Probably all of them combined. It took a couple of months in total of Matt and I to write and get them as close to finished as they can be for us, and that ended up being really stretched out with him.

Would you work with Julian again in the future then?
Yeah, I think so. Now knowing how he works, it would be totally different next time. I was really adamant on doing certain things that I wanted to do in pre-production. Before we went in there, I recorded on tape and stuff before I realized that these kinds of things were not Julian’s forte at all. We ended up going in there and trying a bunch of different ideas in front of the computer, and then…it was just a long process of sitting in front of the computer. I’m making it sound boring, but it actually really was not boring at all. It really helped us loosen up.

The Growlers' Matt Taylor. (c) Jack Parker
The Growlers’ Matt Taylor. (c) Jack Parker

Before Julian got involved, you and Matt had already written most of the songs. Right?

Because the songs are very much stylistically varied compared to your previous work. Was this already in place before Julian got involved, or was this his input? For example songs like Vacant Lot and Dope on a Rope.
Those were actually two songs that Julian didn’t touch. He had input on City Club, which is two songs combined together.

That one definitely has a Voidz vibe to it.
Yeah. He played a lot of the guitar on it. Umm, let’s see. He did the singing melodies on The Daisy Chain, but to me that one sounds like an old Growlers song.

That one has a real Motown vibe to it as well.
Yeah. What else did he do? Ah yeah, some songs that got cut, haha! It’s not the obvious songs though, not the ones that sound like a branch-off of what he does himself. A lot of the songs that didn’t make it were, as a whole, not right. It’s hard to tell which songs were Julian’s, because most of them were already done and just needed a little bit of manoeuvring back and forth until they were complete. It was usually a melody here or a melody there, a lot of trial and error really. We passed the microphone around between myself, Matt and Julian just singing ridiculous phrases without any lyrics.

Live bassist Brad Bowers (left) and guitarist Kyle Stratka (right). (c) Jack Parker
Live bassist Brad Bowers (left) and guitarist Kyle Stratka (right). (c) Jack Parker

Did you ever worry that City Club would end up sounding like a Julian Casablancas side project?
Nah. I predicted that fans of the Growlers would generally quite like that; The Growlers plus The Strokes or, well, Julian. At the same time, it’s just never been a worry that I had. We’re familiar with Julian’s stuff, and we’ve always liked him. I didn’t know any of his music, so there was a little concern there. Now that I know him, I can make music with him very easily. We’ve grown a lot since the start, and we’ve changed a lot too. I used to be very close-minded and try to push too many things into a short time span, but now that we’re working with producers I learnt that you really have to work at their pace. We’re growing up.

I’d like to focus on City Club’s art direction as well. It has a very specific atmosphere going, a night life-meets-neon lights kind of thing. Where did the ideas for City Club’s art direction stem from?
Partly from giving up, I think. We had a deadline, not a lot of money and a difficulty in finding artists to work with. We already had trouble with band posters, let alone record art. We had worked with Warren Fu a bit before, and he works with Julian too. That additional help was good. We were basically staring out across the street at the City Club every day, drinking beer over there and eating food. We liked how generic it was, like, “who names a bar City Club?” Then we just decided to call it City Club, which is when we started figuring out how we would do it. Do we have a photograph, or do we have a picture painted? We tried the painting, but that didn’t work out. Matt had some ideas about doing it in the street, so we took it from there and created some characters who we dressed our friends up as. Our friend Pamela came out to take the photograph and then it all clicked. You kind of fit the mood to it, but there was no real strong reason for it other than that we had to get it done. We had to consider a vibe too, though, particularly musically and in terms of the synthesizers and sonic sound of it. I can’t take credit for what Shawn and Julian did in the studio, because they did a great job themselves in it. It all fits.

When we spoke last year, you told me that Chinese Fountain’s lyrical aspects have nothing to do with its visual side. Has that changed this time?
Yeah, I think so. I’m literally talking about Los Angeles a lot, and kind of throwing it away being from Orange County. My work had been up there, and my lover too of the last ten years. I finally just felt like I couldn’t hide in Orange County anymore. I used to live on the beach, but now I live in the city and drive to the beach. It’s so different, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to living in a small beach town. I’ve always done that, though; I pick up and I move. It’s part of being an artist sometimes, cutting ties off so that you can grow. I did it in Long Beach, and now in Costa Mesa. Now I just feel very, I don’t know, global local?

You mentioned that the album cover featured characters who your friends dressed up as. Do these characters represent certain themes or people in your personal life?
Maybe, haha. I find that out as I sing it, and it all comes to life while I’m playing it. Not really, though, because I tend to leave a lot of stuff behind in past cities. I’m trying to be more visual on City Club, but at the same time I’m trying to let them be my little secret. I’ll let other people think what they want of it, and let them apply the lyrics to themselves.

Matt Taylor. (c) Jack Parker
Matt Taylor. (c) Jack Parker

Say that you had to move to another city for your next record. Is there anywhere in mind?
Yeah, I think I would definitely like to go somewhere tropical and take it back to the beach. Whether that be Mexico or the Caribbean, maybe something like that where they also let us use their instruments. Something like that. It’s something we’ve always talked about, but we’ve never had the money for it. If we did, we wouldn’t want to waste the money. Now that I’ve seen how this process can be, I think that everything is possible. It doesn’t have to always be exactly how I pictured it, which is go in and grind for a month straight until we lose our minds and the record is done. Now we can schedule things and plan them.

You just mentioned Warren Fu, who directed the video for I’ll Be Around. Have you got any more plans to produce videos for City Club?
We weren’t actually sure how that was all going to work to be honest. Warren is a very busy guy, and we’d never been able to work with him before. None of this shit seemed possible to us. In the past we just had to do it ourselves, because we just didn’t think it was an option moneywise or timewise. This is a great step, because it’s what happens when you work with a pro and take away 90% of the workload. They take your idea, and they make it possible. We would love to work with him more, but at this point I’m just very uncertain on how it all works and how worth it everything actually is. Y’know, dropping money on everything like, “there’s a video, here’s our songs and now let’s go and play them all everywhere and watch it grow”. I know the way these things work; a record becomes a campaign which a lot of people work for. They’re all envisioning it going somewhere, and they want content in every single way. Music videos can sometimes feel puppet-like and contrived, and they play with people’s attention spans.

Do you ever miss the whole DIY lifestyle?
I did it for so long, so no. I’m done with that, and handing all this work off to other people is such a great luxury to have. At first it was a necessity, but now I can dream bigger and that’s the whole idea. People will miss it, and we’ve trained Growlers fans to like it. That’s part of growing, though. For the sake of our sanity, I would never go back to all that DIY shit.

When we spoke last, you said you wouldn’t stop until you were at the top of festival bills as headliners. Is that ambition still there?
Umm, no. Haha! I mean, yes and no? I guess it’s not that specific anymore, but I am on a mission to be closer to better musicians for the making of this record. I was to push this band harder to be better musicians and work with better musicians. Due respect for them, but some of them would easily cop out or make comments like, “ah that’s too dorky” or “that’s too simple”. I mean, I like simple things but I guess that just makes us great musicians playing simple things, and not just monkeys. We’ve been on the threshold of being able to do that but not quite doing it, so now I want it more than ever. We’ve been feeling it, too; the shows have changed, they’ve gotten a lot stronger and it feels better than ever. It’s eradicating moments onstage where I feel nervous, bored or wonder what I’m doing. Serious playing and rehearsing is creating bigger and better musicians out of all of us.

Well good luck later, and thanks a lot for your time again!
No worries man, thanks!

City Club is out now. Stream it below. All above pictures taken by Jack Parker during The Growlers’ show at the Paradiso Noord in Amsterdam.