Like the “beach goth” term The Growlers coined to describe their music, the name Chinese Fountain was there before the band found the meaning behind the words.
The Growlers’ fifth album deals a lot with notions of luck and good fortune, with songs that get a little philosophical about the band’s out-there lifestyle, their years of making music together and their commitment to just keep going.
“Seeing things growing and getting bigger around us, at some point you have to realize that a lot of this music industry stuff is based on luck,” says the band’s lyricist and vocalist, Brooks Nielsen.
It’s the first time The Growlers have brought in an outside producer and engineer, and the added polish blends well with their more focused songwriting. But Nielsen says the only thing calculated about this new album is the band marshaling its experience to make the record their best music yet.
“Everything around me is asking me, ‘What do you think is going to happen with this record? Is this the one that is going to break you?’” Nielsen says. “We’ve never had that thought going into making a record, and we’ve never had it afterwards. I just can’t think that way. If we did that, it would kill the band. We’re just trying to make good songs.”
Chinese Fountain had its roots in The Growlers’ displacement after a firework accident left them without a home or a studio. The band’s home base in Costa Mesa, Calif. was what Nielsen describes as a “boat warehouse-type spot,” with a big parking lot and retro RVs around it.
“We were reckless at the house, basically non-stop,” he says. “It was a haven for every misfit around, so there was constant partying and raging and fireworks going off everywhere. A friend of ours threw a firework that found a bad spot to be in and lit the place and burned our studio down and part of our house. We had to pack up what we had. We were leaving on the road three days later, so we threw our shit in storage and bailed. When we came back we didn’t have a house.”
So The Growlers set up temporarily at a friend’s place in Topanga Canyon and began writing songs to follow up 2013’s Hung At Heart and Gilded Pleasures EP.
“We didn’t have a plan. We never really have,” Nielsen says. “That’s how we’ve always worked. We have to make a record and everyone gets really excited, and we just have to start from scratch. We get into a spot where we can sit and work for two weeks.”
“We’ve always wanted to have a plan, but it never works out. For a second we say we should go in a direction, like when reggae hit England and mixed with early punk, or something like that. But we can’t stick to it for more than five minutes,” he says.
The Growlers have always worked fast, with guitarist Matt Taylor feeding songs to Nielsen to flesh out lyrically, while the other musicians—Scott Montoya (drums), Anthony Perry (bass) and Kyle Stratka (keyboards, guitar)—add in their own parts.
“All the guys have something to bring to the table, and I have some scraps to start from. At this point, I don’t worry about anything any more. I’m an over-thinker, I know, but I’m not worried about material as far as my end goes, and if the guys hit a little block, we just keep pushing,” he says. “We don’t want to sit for a year and make a record. We have two weeks. We step up to the plate and work things out.”
As for The Growlers’ oddball sound that blends everything from surf music to psychedelic rock to old Bakersfield country to punk, Nielsen says it’s just what the band does.
“I get confused when people say something sounds new because from day one, we kind of tried everything. We didn’t know any styles, we didn’t know any bands around us, we had a simple knowledge of older music and we just tried everything,” Nielsen says. “Over the years now, our knowledge of bands throughout time has all just blended to me. So nothing sounds new. It’s just the band playing better.”
The songs on Chinese Fountain reflect the different sides of the band’s worldview. The Growlers stick fiercely to their DIY roots, but know that also comes with its challenges. “Going Gets Tuff” brings an uplifting reggae feel to the band’s story.
“It took me a while to write it and then I just turned it back to me and wrote about experiences and all the times I have to tell myself to keep going,” Nielsen says. “Between our house burning down and constantly being poor and living out of a suitcase on the road, the going gets tough, but we’re doing it for a reason. I set myself to do this goal, to make music and inspire people and keep them happy and keep doing it.”
That sort of dedication to the band’s original vision fits within the framework of their self-described “beach goth” style.
“Originally we were making songs and I was singing a lot about death and spirits. I grew up with Mexican-American Catholic on one side of my family and the other side could care less. And we grew up around surf towns, so it made sense,” Nielsen says. “People really caught on even though they’re not from the beach, people I met in Europe and people I met in the middle of the country, and it started making sense to me. It’s about living with what you have.”
Nielsen says The Growlers are their own sort of tribe, surfers without the surf culture, finding dark stories to tell in the land of golden sunshine.
“We don’t go buy new surfboards. We’ve had old crappy boards. We ride them at night and ride them on mushrooms and all sorts of weird stuff and we’re just doing whatever we want,” he says.
“It’s almost like an anti-Beach Boys. I love the Beach Boys, but we’re not that Gidget type of thing. It’s totally different. It’s not all lollipops and sunshine. There is a darker side to our music,” Nielsen says. “It’s all starting to make sense now. Originally I wasn’t so sure.”