Harper Simon Talks the Growlers’ Chinese Fountain

The Growlers’ garage-psych might recall California hot rods and surfing, but it speaks to a disaffected contemporary counterculture.

If I were to relapse and head down to Tijuana to stock up on some cheap pharmaceuticals, the Growlers would be a good band to play in the car. In this fantasy I might also have a girl along for the ride who looked a little like a Chicana Amy Winehouse, with a groovy beehive and too much eyeliner. I might also be driving a hot rod out of Kenneth Anger’s 1965 film Kustom Kar Kommandos. Or maybe the Orbitron, the car designed by the legendary Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

California subcultures come to mind when I consider the Growlers. Pure ones like ’60s car culture and surf culture from some other time. Maybe it has to do with all the retro reverb, Farfisas, analog delays and Silvertones lightly strummed. As a musician I felt inspired by their ability to keep the playing soft without sacrificing energy.

The Growlers apparently refer to their sound as “beach goth” although I don’t hear a lot of goth in it. I do hear a kind of slinky psychedelia that sounds like it’s being made in a garage somewhere in the stoned-out beach town of my dreams. Which it probably is. Or was.

Their new album Chinese Fountain was produced by J.P. Plunier of Everloving Records (always a sign of quality) and I believe it was recorded in Los Angeles. It’s the fourth album by this little psych-rock combo formed in Dana Point, California in 2006. This is their follow-up to last year’s Hung at Heart and they pretty much stay true to their sound — Chinese Fountain is just a somewhat more refined approach to an established aesthetic. So there are no big leaps into experimental terrain here, no fussy production, just good vintage gear and sexy surf guitars helping you get through your dead-end life. And good songs. There’s some Cramps in there, maybe, and a dose of garage rock and a lot of songs in minor keys. From time to time, bitchin’ guitarist Matt Taylor throws in a kind of klezmer scale — in fact, if Roky Erickson were Jewish and 13 years old and your son, the Growlers would be a good band to hire for his bar mitzvah.

When I saw them live I thought the singer, Brooks Nielson, sounded a bit like a very sleepy Darby Crash. But really, most of the time he’s crooning in the style of Julian Casablancas, or maybe a bit of Morrissey, which could be a little played-out but what the hell: I like the Strokes and I like that style of singing. Anyway, the vocals are… attractive. Not pretentious or overly affected. The lyrics are clever and evocative without being literate, exactly — it’s more about cool attitude and it does have a bit of a throwaway quality, but I suspect there’s a hidden depth there. There’s some dark, fucked-up ladies running around and some pining and lovesickness that’s good for the kids. There’s also a good amount of suburban wasteland, as on the title track, where “the water’s so filthy it’s no wonder we’re drunk,” and “every little kid wants a computer in his pocket.”

But the Growlers are a genuine counterculture band singing to a new disaffected generation out there in the sprawl. Singing to kids who can’t relate to the top of the pops or whatever dumbed-down garbage is being fed them by their siren servers and dinosaur entertainment conglomerates. The Growlers have come to us via the plain old subculture route. No hits. No placements to speak of, just what’s left of an old-fashioned punk/alternative DIY ethic fostered by the ascendant Burger Records scene. Isn’t it good to know that still exists?

Also: the Growlers are upping their game. Oh, and did I mention that if you’re planning on relapsing and heading down to TJ, Chinese Fountain is the album for you?

Harper Simon is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer. In 2010 he released his critically lauded self-titled solo album, which Rolling Stone called “a gorgeous collection o fvintage-sounding country-folk tunes and dreamy psychedelia.”  Division Street, Simon’s second solo album, was released in March 2013 to critical praise.  Simon recently co-produced the short film Fruits De Mer directed by Hala Matar for Nowness and hosts TALK SHOW on TheLip.tv. You can follow him on Twitter here.