When asked if he would consider himself an "old soul," frontman Brooks Nielsen of the Growlers provides a self-effacing response: "You could say that, or, an old asshole? Grump? When I read interviews after, which is rarely, it's like, 'God I sound like an old, grumpy, miserable person.' But I'm not. I'm content and I'm happy."
Nielsen has lived a whole lot of life since he and guitarist Matt Taylor took the implausible path of leaving their small southern California beach town of Dana Point to make music. Nearly a decade on, the Growlers are still creating hypnotic sounds.
Their sixth full-length, Natural Affair, is due for a release this fall via the band's own Beach Goth Records imprint. The singles released thus far are full of the band's signature allure: rumbling garage rock paired with groovy island jams, all fused together with Nielsen's raw, raspy vocals and enthralling lyrics.
The Growlers' secret origin story is grounded in the isolation of a small beach town. Illegal warehouse parties, blue collar values, and a perhaps more than healthy dose of drugs and alcohol all loom large. A self-described "shitkid," Nielsen, without any previous interest or experience in songwriting, discovered his gateway musical drug, reggae, in a very relatable way – while getting high with friends. For Nielsen, it was a musical awakening.
"This was way more tough and punk than any American rock & roll," Nielsen says. "First thing I fell in love with was Bob Marley and then I fell in love with lyrics; I was drawn to the Johnny Cashs and the Bob Dylans."
The Growlers' music is a genre all its own: reggae woven into pop, melded with psychedelia, punk, and swells of surf rock. It draws fans across the world, along with sold-out crowds of the faithful at the Growlers' annual Beach Goth fest.
Nielsen credits his and Taylor's lack of experience as their strength – since the two didn't know the rules, breaking them was the only option.
Reflecting back on their roots, Nielsen talks about "not knowing how to play anything, not ever learning anything. ... We really didn't know and were not connected to any scenes, didn't have anyone to talk to or learn from. Just stayed together in tight quarters living in a warehouse."
Though in tight quarters, the duo made music without the strict confines of a scene or rigid expectations. They left their beach town to focus on art on their own terms. All the rest is a manifestation of a desire to simply create. The opening lyrics to the Growlers' latest single, "Try Hard Fool," embrace that moment in this band's history: "Pause but don't quit/Don't let a heart forget."
The Growlers never planned to exist, much less be a massive success. They surrendered to their art and to the hustle, and feel immense gratitude for the position they find themselves in now. "In the beginning, we had no desire to be a successful band ... we got forced into it by the songs," Nielsen says.
Figuring it out as they went, as their fanbase grew, the Growlers realized that, purely out of necessity, they would need to tour, find a label, a lawyer, a producer.
Nielsen doesn't allow himself to complain: "It's easier now, having memories of doing it so long and being so poor. These tours are long and they're stacked but any pain or suffering on tour, we do to ourselves [by] drinking too much. We're not allowed to bitch anymore. Things are good."
Pressed on how their bodies have managed to survive such consistent liquid refreshment, Nielsen laughs, "I don't ask. I'm assuming we are pickling and preserving ourselves for later."
Though that would have been a dandy interview closer, we can't help ourselves, and ask if the band had any last words for our readers.
"The mystery lies in our songs," Nielsen says simply. "I'll keep my mouth closed."
– This story is from the Sept. 18, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.