Surfs Up: Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers Talks About Developing Their "Beach Goth" Sound

Jake Uitti
photo by Mason Poole

Brooks Nielsen has a golden voice. The lead singer for the California-based “Beach Goth” band The Growlers, who play Seattle two nights this weekend at the Neptune Theater (Sep. 7th and 8th), sings like his vocal chords are made of precious metal-encrusted bouncy balls. The prolific group, which just released a B-sides album called, Casual Acquaintances, worked in the studio with Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, to produce a more condensed sonic vibe. And while The Growlers keep experimenting with their stuff, the band is perhaps best known for their deliciously eerie LP, Chinese Fountain, a pastiche of poetry and musical profundity. Prior to their upcoming Emerald City weekend shows, though, we wanted to catch up with Nielsen to ask him about The Growlers’ early days, how his vocal tone developed, and how he feels when he writes a new song. 

KEXP: I adore the sound of your voice. How did you develop it as a young singer?

Brooks Nielsen: I remember singing to the radio a lot or whatever. At some point in high school, I realized that I had a low voice. I was singing along to The Strokes or The Doors or something like that. But most of all, I was into reggae and I wanted to sound like Bob Marley. Other than that, I’ve been smoking since I was a child, since like 11 or 12 years old, most of my life. It surprises me given how much I beat the crap out of it. It doesn’t give up. It’s like running your engine hard and it still keeps driving. 

Do you remember what it was like playing your first gig with The Growlers?

I think it’s hard to remember the recent ones because it all becomes a blur. But the first one we did I remember. It was at a dive bar in Dana Point called the Shooter’s Saloon. We packed it full of friends and someone ended up punching the bartender in the face. It was a total mess. Matt’s parents were there and they said I had a horrible voice and we weren’t going to go anywhere. Matt said, “What! He’s got a great voice. He sounds like a soul singer!” They were like, “No, he does not.” It was definitely reckless and wild and probably somewhat pathetic. But it was exciting because we were in a bar. 

What was the most important thing that happened to help shape the band’s trajectory?

There wasn’t like one moment or anything. But early on I was protective of the band and I moved everybody into a warehouse to live with me. We worked extra hard to pay that rent to create this little bubble for us to kind of slowly turn into The Growlers without any outside influences. I was very protective — like, this is our thing and I don’t want anything to ruin it. That was important. 

photo by Mason Poole


What part of you does the stage magnify most?

I think I get to be a kid on stage. The same way I drink to kind of get into that spot where I can zone out and forget that I’m there. I feel like I start dancing and doing things I wouldn’t normally do out of fear of, like, being an adult. I just really zone out and start dancing to the music and I think that, for me, it feels really good. 

When you write a new song, what do you try to keep in mind, stylistically? 

I almost try to check out so that something else is kind of guiding me. If I don’t do that, it doesn’t work and it feels forced. It feels like I’m trying to channel something of myself. Like, “Come back!” Whatever it is that I do there is definitely a lack of knowledge of music and my understanding of it. I don’t like anything that’s forced. It has to feel natural to feel good. 

You write such catchy, thoughtful lyrics. What do you enjoy about language?

I feel like I just try and soak up a lot. I read a lot. I take in a lot. I like being around people that are talking a lot of b.s., surrounding myself and pushing myself to be in weird circumstances. Then it all comes later; it resurfaces. And I think having just a bit of a salty perspective — I’m not trying to think about what everyone would like. I think it’s very personal and also dependent on things that are directly around me. Someone’s like, “Is that song about me?” And I’m like, “No, man.” But, of course, it is. 

photo by Mason Poole


Do you have a favorite story working with Julian Casablancas?

He did things the way he knew how to do them. And he’s very hands-on. It’s cool to see someone I pictured just as a singer holding the mic with two hands and then seeing him in the studio picking up a guitar or whatever. I think when he’s just bored and walking over the piano to sing, that’s so special. He’s really a melody machine. He’s really naturally gifted with melody. He’s someone that we loved when we were kids, so to see him next to you, just like a Normal Joe, that’s special.

What have you learned about yourself as the band has continued to evolve?

I think I’ve learned to appreciate everybody. It’s a sacrifice for everyone and seeing how they’ve all worked so hard is great. The most important thing is to keep people together and to keep motivated. Some people get left behind because of drug habits or a lack of work ethic. Real life things get in the way. So, it’s important to feel like a family and keep going. Because most bands can’t stick around long enough to feel all the benefits of this kind of lifestyle. It’s just gratitude as I’m going. 

The Growlers perform two nights at the Neptune Theatre, Friday, September 7th and Saturday, September 8th as part of their "Beach Goth Tour 2018," following their annual Beach Goth Fest, which kicked off in Los Angeles in August. Described as a "multisensory concert experience full of variety acts, drag queens, killer bands, and a mental stage design," the Beach Goth Tour 2018 continues nationwide throughout the Fall. (As always, costumes are encouraged.) 

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