Brooks Nielsen is not a good dancer.
The Growlers frontman shuffled around The Warfield stage for over two hours this Friday on their City Club tour, his back straight, arms gesticulating casually to the thumping bass. He resembled a pirate when he put on his embroidered trench coat halfway through the show, and when he started drinking something out of a clear plastic cup I thought he might actually loosen up. It never seemed to happen and it didn’t matter — the sold-out crowd got exactly what they wanted.
If you have ever been to a Growlers concert, it becomes quickly apparent that this very, very, attractive man has a cult following for good reason. With a style fit for a Tumblr dashboard, Nielsen has been the iconic cornerstone of the band’s music and huge back-catalogue of homemade videos since he left farming San Pedro cacti out of Matt Taylor’s garage in 2006. The 33-year-old’s voice, which sounds something like an old chain-smoker’s (in the best way possible), seemed to get raspier, riper, throughout their set. Surrounded by three guitarists (lead guitarist Matt Taylor and keyboardist Kyle Straka are the only other current members of the original quintet), the band had an incredibly full sound, characterized by psychedelically distorted vocals and synth soaked in heavy bass lines. “Look how far we’ve come,” Nielsen said between songs, “We’ve got, what, three guitarists!”
For someone acquainted with the band’s growth, this declaration might be said with a tinge of bittersweet irony. The Growlers have emphatically resisted becoming mainstream pop since the release of their first album in 2009, having scrapped entire months of studio sessions with producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys) because they felt the sessions sounded too manicured. “We were like, ‘I dunno—it sounds too different.’ So we ended up going down the street and doing it on tape,” Nielsen told The Georgia Straight in 2012.
With the release of 2016’s City Club and the subsequent album tour, this is the biggest the band has ever been. The new album, met with mixed critical review, is a departure into the squeaky-clean; gone are the fuzzy guitars and hallucinogenic vocal effects. In the past five years, The Growlers have gone from relative lo-fi obscurity to being center stage in the fully blossomed Los Angeles “beach rock” movement. Still, their unique sound is almost impossible to pin down, comprised of an eclectic cocktail of surf, country, and 70’s sonic rock. The effect is like a bouncy carnival on shrooms, filled with lyrics saturated in Neilson’s self-proclaimed “Beach Goth” diary; a diffuse mixture of drunken nights, existentialist languor, and SoCal sand. “So how do we get to be so far away from the things we love / So sad to see a boy’s love for the waves be replaced by a drug,” he bemoans in “Beach Rats” off 2013’s Hung at Heart.
For a DIY band named after a hangover shit (“’cause we’re shitty and it’s funny”), it’s impossible to avoid overthinking their current professionalism. Rapping up the tour in Europe this June, the band has been on the road since last September, and their cohesion on stage is palpable. Even in their oeuvre’s pretty messiness, the performance was so well orchestrated, from the perfect harmony of the six instrumentalists to Nielsen’s consummate nonchalance, that it seemed…well…staged. Saving one of their biggest hits for the encore (“Going Gets Tough”), they said a brief thanks and walked out to the bus bound for Anaheim, where they will play two sold out shows in forty-eight hours. It brings to mind a sentiment off of their 2014 single “Monotonia”: “Another cigarette, another stiff drink / Getting tired of the same things.”
It’s impossible to tell if or when The Growlers will ever get tired of touring, but we can only selfishly hope that they don’t. Brooks Nielsen’s voice over three guitars is more than enough to look forward to next time they play in the Bay Area, even if he is no Michael Jackson on the dance floor.
Written By John Lawson
Photo by Dick Thompson for Wilcox Sessions