For good chunks of the past 12 months, the Growlers were hunkered down in the studio with one of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll, Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys singer-guitarist is a big fan of the Costa Mesa, California, quintet, to the point where, at a bargain-basement rate, he was happy to take on production duties for the songs that would eventually form the band’s third full-length, Hung at Heart. His motives, according to Growlers singer Brooks Nielsen, were nothing but good.
“Dan approached us and said, ‘Let’s start making a record,’ ” says Nielsen, reached on his cell during a day of surfing in SoCal. “When we were in Nashville, he told us to come by and check out his studio. We saw it, and the guys were like little kids in a candy store. They were like, ‘We have to record here!’ So we lined up and did it. Dan really wants us to be successful—to make money and have more people listening to us and all those good things.”
The only hiccup was that, having gotten used to doing things their own way over the course of the band’s six years together, the Growlers weren’t able to let go of the steering wheel in the studio. Nielsen can’t say enough nice things about Auerbach, noting that it’s humbling that he’d even want to help out. Still, the Growlers eventually realized that they were making a record that they didn’t like, leading them to shelve everything and start from scratch.
As career moves go, it might not have been the smartest, but there’s no arguing that it was admirable, especially considering that the end result is one of the most oddly engaging records of the year.
“He was a great guy, and we had a lot of fun, but after a while we got scared,” Nielsen says of working with the Black Key. “We were like, ‘I dunno—it sounds too different.’ So we ended up going down the street and doing it on tape. I wanted it to be tape—I’ve got an obsession with it—and what we did originally wasn’t. During the mixing it just sounded weird, very digital and sub-woofery.”
That’s not a problem on the version of Hung at Heart that fans will hear this November, when the Growlers release the rerecorded album. Judging by the finished results, the band did the right thing, the songs having a cheeba-dazed warmth that makes you want to pack up the bong and enjoy the last days of summer on the beach.
The Growlers’ most admirable accomplishment is the way they sound indebted to a whole shitload of genres, but never to the point where they are imitating any one of them. Witness the trace elements of vintage cowpunk in the echo-bathed acoustic number “Living in a Memory”. The swirling “Salt on a Slug” takes ’60s garage pop and then soaks it in carnival-ride organ, while the breezy “Someday” is sprayed with infectious Afro-pop–tinted guitars.
Through it all, Nielsen leaves you thinking he’s learned everything he knows about singing from the likes of Bob Dylan and Les Claypool, which is nowhere near as off-putting as it sounds.
It’s great stuff (prepare to get chills from the dreamy country waltz “Pet Shop Eyes”), and it adds up to one of the year’s best records. The only downside? Well, that would be the fact that, despite the best efforts of folks like Auerbach and invitations to such festivals as Coachella, the Growlers are still a ways away from world domination.
“I’m not going to complain about running out of money and the other issues that come with being on tour and being in a band,” Nielsen says. “I don’t want to give off those vibes. In the end, I’m happy about what I’m doing.”
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The Growlers play the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday (September 7).