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Tripped Out 

The Growlers’ Brooks Nielsen on nihilism and the resurgence of psychedelia

Although psych rock's revival began arguably with Brian Jonestown Massacre's formation in 1990 (though some would put it a little further back with Echo and the Bunnymen), the last five or so years has seen the genre completely explode—with specialized labels and festivals including Austin Psych Fest (or Levitation as it's now known) and Burgerama hosted by one of the genre's biggest players—Burger Records. Even Orange County's The Growlers put on an annual one-day festival called Beach Goth at Santa Ana's Observatory. Frontman Brooks Nielsen talks about being a part of the scene that's bringing psych and surf back, what a beach goth is and The Growlers' analogous drug.

Your first album came out about five years ago. How has your approach to songwriting changed?

Not a whole lot. There's definitely room for it to get better, but it's really about trying to get your point across without trying to hurt anybody ... There's no real science to what we do—it's fairly simple.

What do you mean when you say "not trying to hurt anybody?"

Part of songwriting is you opening yourself up, but you do have to keep each other in check. It is rock 'n' roll and there's something about it where you want to be cool, but we have to leave room to beat up each other's ego now and then.

Your music does a pretty good job of having both poppy hooks and being more substantive. How do you find that balance?

I have to remind myself that it's not just for me. In the writing process it can get pretty "I don't care about anyone except for me" because initially that's how this started—making music for myself. I do remember that other people are listening and that means I have to dumb it down sometimes—sometimes that's what attracts me to music too. Times have changed and some people can't even read a sentence of Shakespeare. When I start to get too poetic I get grossed out and I have to bring myself back to Earth. It's a happy medium, sometimes it's a hit and sometimes it's a miss.

Recently psych revival and surf rock, which are certainly genres your band falls under, have seen a big resurgence. What do you think is attracting people to the genre again?

I think the new drug culture is a little bit boring and a little bit vague. No one really wants to devote themselves to the music of ecstasy or the music of molly. They're looking back at something else that's a little more romantic. The truth is, every kind of music goes with a drug or, you know, a bunch of them. Part of being young is drugs. If you're not taking them, you're definitely around them. There's a lot that these people are attracted to, whether it's the fashion that's being recycled heavily and the drugs and the music. There were a lot of sexual icons in that time period, mostly men. I mean, I don't think Janis Joplin was ever that attractive.

Fair enough.

Yeah. The music is easy too. It's simple and repetitive and really droney. The surf beat is really simple. That's how we got started: Laid on a surf beat really thick, put on some reverb and I was popping psychadelics and trying to figure out some lyrics from it.

If your music was a drug, which drug would it be?

I don't think it is anymore. It's all become a big blur. I think it'd mostly be drinking—the in and out of being drunk and sober, back and forth. That's why there's so many songs of regret and downer side songs.

The whole Burger Records scene is pretty popular here in Tucson. What do you think the connection with a place like Tucson and that whole Burger Records vibe is?

I don't know. What's wrong with you guys? (laughs) I don't know about specifically Tucson, but Burger is just really freaking cute and lovable. They're giving everyone a chance. It's for everybody: there's an element of coolness and an element of nerdiness. That's the best ever ... They're putting out tapes that no one else would put out, and it's all coming from sacrifices from the two guys who run it. They've lived in complete poverty and sacrificed their lives and health to build this community. It's hard not to like them I think.

Do you think there's some feeling of that selflessness that transcends the music and that's what people are connecting to?

It's what makes the whole thing bubblegum and not pretentious. Other labels can have 50 failing artists and still claim to be a success because they put out one good record. That's the thing with Burger—no one is really failing. It's a better vibe.

So, what is a beach goth?

I don't know. (laughs) Write that down.

Well, what does it sound like?

It was a pretty simple stereotype for The Growlers. We're all surfers and grew up with surfer dads, but we were also experimenting with some pretty dark shit—singing about death and stuff no one else around us would be singing about. We didn't know who the hell was on the pro surfing circuit or cared. We didn't give a shit about the Beach Boys because the older men we grew up with hated them. Beach goth is a fun, vague term for people to take as they want.

I was listening to this episode of Radiolab and I'm taking a long, drawn out concept they discuss and boiling it down quite a bit, but basically they were saying millennial culture is attracted to nihilism and not giving a fuck because in the face of things like mass extinction and a failing economy, going forward head on and saying I don't care is the new way of being brave and coping with everything. Do you think psych rock's revival is a part of that not giving a fuck mentality?

Yeah, we did and it's kind of dangerous. It can stop you from creating because it's basically the biggest copout there is. We've done it for so long that it's hard to remember why you want to be taken seriously and why you want to treat everything like a joke. It has messed up a lot of things for me ... relationships, family relationships. I can't get myself to care anymore about anything. I literally just don't care about anything anymore. It really pisses people off because they want to force you to care and I just can't do it.

Why?

Nothing really affects me. I'm kind of an emotionless person. I'm not a monster, there's just no real consequences for me. I just go to bed and wake up and it's another day.

Well, what about when people talk about your most recent album and say it's too produced? SPIN said it was "spit shined." Does that make you feel anything or do you not care?

I mean I knew it before everyone else did. Every review isn't new information. We've been doing ghetto home recordings for a long time. It was like when are we actually going to get into the studio and do this. I think we deserve it. I wish we had more time, but the next record we're going to get in there and spend a lot of time rather than trying to squeeze a record out in one month. I think it turned out good though. It was wonderful to let go of the reins and let other people work with you. We were always afraid of that.

Do you think it changes the feeling of the music at all?

Yeah. It was a lot of lo-fi recording and low skill playing before. This one is more laid out and clear as to what's going on. We've been doing this a while now and we're taking it seriously. It's nice to have that professional approach. We did about 300 or 400 songs on our own. It's nice to do one album the real way.

The Growlers are playing Club Congress on Wednesday, Feb. 11 in support of their new album "Chinese Fountain," which was released through Everloving Records last year.

More by Heather Hoch

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