Before The Thermals play Revolution Hall on Oct. 23, we caught up with frontman Hutch Harris to discuss the veteran Portland punk band’s latest album, “We Disappear,” what it means to retain a DIY identity, and aging out of the PDX house show scene.
Success breaks in waves, rolling in and receding, and it might carry you for a time if you know how to ride it. It’s a strange balancing act, but Brooks Nielsen, frontman for The Growlers, seems to have it down. The band formed in 2006, and they’ve released five full albums and three EPs since, solidifying their status as Southern Cali legends. Now, almost a decade later, the group is still going strong through countless tours, several lineup changes and a fire in 2014 that swept through the band’s communal home and recording studio.
Their latest album, City Club, out last September, is perhaps a bit of a departure from their signature brand of melancholy surf-rock, a sound dubbed “beach goth” at some point earlier in their career. But then, The Growlers have never been a group to be pigeonholed, showcasing a variety of styles on every release so far. City Club features heavy synths over crisp drum and bass grooves, the kind of cuts that seem designed to get a crowd on its feet and moving. The record does feature slower songs as well, throwbacks to some of the mellower moods inhabited by the band in years past.
I caught up with Nielsen via telephone last week — The Growlers are already mid-tour — and as we spoke, I got the sense of a man who’s come a long way, and who also has a ways to go yet. His air wasn’t one of weariness but of understanding, a comfortable familiarity with the life of a touring musician, candid about its pitfalls but also genuinely grateful to be doing what he does: pouring his heart out on stage for people who feel as though his music speaks for them too. The Growlers play Roseland Theater on March 23. (Tickets here.)
Nielsen’s voice over the phone carried its signature gravelly quality, to the point that some of the audio was difficult to transcribe. But in that voice you could also hear the subtleties of emotion, the little nuances that make great vocalists distinctive and contain the true depth of the words being sung. Below is the conversation we had, as best as I could capture it:
Eleven: Hey, thanks for sitting down to talk to me. Well, actually I don’t know if you’re sitting down right now…
Brooks Nielsen: (Laughs.) I am, literally.
11: So you guys are on tour as we speak. Where are you right now?
BN: Right now we’re in a basement in Phoenix, Arizona.
11: How’s Phoenix this time of year?
BN: It’s good. A little less rain than California.
11: You guys have been touring for a while now. How does this current one compare to tours you’ve done in the past.
BN: They’ve gotten shorter actually. We were playing longer ones before, five, six weeks, but we were just wearing ourselves out, so now we’re pulling back a bit. We’ve hit a point where we can do that. But it’s all about the fans, as long as they keep supporting us.
11: Looking at the lineup for the tour you’re on, there are a lot of different venues across the states. Do you prefer to play bigger places, or do you like the more intimate spaces?
BN: You know, it really depends on the night, how the energy is. I don’t really have a preference one way or the other. Sometimes the big shows are really fun, with everybody going crazy. I’m not a huge fan of giant outdoor venues though, and daytime shows. Daytime isn’t really meant for rock ‘n’ roll.
11: And on this tour it’s material from the latest album, City Club, that you’re primarily doing?
BN: We’re doing some of everything, really. We’re here for the fans, and we’ve been around for a while, so we do a lot of older songs as well, but yeah, we’re primarily playing stuff off the new record.
11: You have a lot of material at this point to draw from. Do you mix it up from show to show, or do you have a standard set list that you do?
BN: You know, we play around a lot with the order of things, what sounds good together. That’s something we’re always thinking about. But yeah, we have maybe 60 songs that we’ll do, and we just go night to night and see what works.
11: I wanted to talk a little bit about the latest album, City Club, which, true to the name, sounds more like what you might hear in a club. It’s a little more synthy, heavier grooves than some of your earlier stuff. Was that intentional in the composition?
BN: I’ve made up a lot of stories about the name, how it came to be, but yeah. When we were recording this, we were next to this little Mexican place called the City Club, and we were going there to drink at the bar every night, and we thought it was a funny name. We liked the font on the sign they had, and so we decided to name the album that. And you know, maybe it does fit the sound of the record more.
11: That was actually my next question. Was the City Club a real place, or more like an archetypal club that might exist somewhere in every city?
BN: No, it’s a real place. And my sister-in-law recently called me and told me that there was a fire in the City Club, in the kitchen. And I was like, “Oh no, that’s terrible.” But she told me, “No, it’s still open. I was there getting drinks at the bar.”
11: One of my favorite tracks off the album is “Blood of a Mutt.” In a lot of your interviews you’ve had dogs with you. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit on that song, about you and dogs.
BN: Yeah, I like dogs, I’ve had dogs around a lot, and the idea of being a mutt, not knowing where you’re from. That really spoke to me, so that song is about that, and about life and growing, and I’ve found that the only way you can do that is by getting older and learning from that experience.
11: Speaking of getting older and growing, this last album featured some lineup changes, which happens fairly often in bands that are around for as long as you guys have been. I was wondering if you’d speak a little bit about that, and how you move forward from there?
BN: Yeah, it’s hard, man. I’ve really just been trying to keep this thing going, but people get older and change, and it’s not always easy keeping everybody on board doing this. And we’re really lucky to have fans who support us. A lot of bands don’t make it far enough to see any sort of financial success. And with the way the music industry is right now, things are really up in the air, and it’s hard to navigate that and figure out how to make it work.
11: Going off that, with all the ways music gets released nowadays, online and on streaming platforms and whatnot, how do you see that changing the industry?
BN: Man, it’s hard to say, I really don’t know. I mean, I think it’s a good thing maybe that people don’t necessarily have to get signed to a big label. We’ve been lucky with our situation. I’d like to get to the point where we can just record albums and put them up for free for everybody, and maybe that’ll happen, but that’s a tough question. People are coming out to the shows, and I don’t know if they bought the album or downloaded it for free, but we’re going to keep coming out to play for the fans. They’re why we’re here.
11: From that answer it sounds as though you prefer playing live? Do you think that your music is better in that setting?
BN: I mean, to each his own, but maybe, yeah. Recording is something we’ve struggled with and worked on, and we’ve definitely gotten a lot better at it. But yeah, being there and playing live, I think there’s an energy that doesn’t always make it onto the recording.
11: Speaking of live energy, one thing you guys are known for is the Beach Goth festival, which was so big last year that it made some headlines for being a bit crazy. Is that something you’re planning on doing again?
BN: I’m not really at liberty to talk too much about that, but yeah. It’s something we love doing, and we want to keep doing it. Last year, it was a little crazy, but that was all stuff beyond our control. Where it gets complicated is the business aspect. We’re musicians; we just want to play, and it’s hard for us to go out there and you know, do business correctly. But we’ve surrounded ourselves over time with people that we can trust, who are able to do that stuff.
11: Who have you been listening to recently?
BN: You know, I’m in such a Growlers mode right now, I haven’t really been listening to much other stuff. I’ve mostly just been playing with the guys. We just sit in a room and play, and listen to each other. I used to think I liked things ghetto, but really I like things simple. I like to listen to people who are really good, and who can play stuff that’s really simple. I’ve been listening to a lot of classic reggae these days.
11: You’re not touring with anybody else, correct?
BN: No, we’ve been playing longer sets this time around. It seems to work better that way. We’ll do two, two-and-a-half hours. But yeah, it’s been just us on this tour.
11: And you guys are going to be up here in Portland at the Roseland on March 23, correct?
BN: Yeah man, we’re excited. It should be super fun.
11: Awesome, thanks for talking to me.
BN: Thank you, catch you later.
– Henry Whittier-Ferguson