Still Sun-Healed and Ocean-WRAPPED

Run a Google search on “The Growlers interview” and you’ll find scores of similar results: Stories with headlines like, “It’s Impossible to Interview The Growlers,” ledes like, “I tried 10 times to connect with The Growlers,” and some version of “Brooks Nielsen and I were this close to chatting!” The last example is all mine-The Growlers’ lead singer and I traded a series of phone calls, text messages and smoke signals last week, even presumably passing each other somewhere on I-35 under the bright Texas morning sun, his band driving from Dallas to San Antonio the day I pulled in to Austin.

That sort of modern mysterioso is standard operating procedure for this sleazy Southern California surf-rock collective, however. Never ones to have their trippy, sun-fried aesthetic pinned down too accurately by critics, since the beginning The Growlers have moved at their own warp speed. They record, perform and, at times, even live in a converted warehouse studio deep in the industrial underbelly of Orange County. In just a few years, they went from putting out hand-recorded demos for their rabid hometown fans to signing with Everloving Records, which released their first two adventurous full-lengths, Are You In or Out? and Hot Tropics, which cemented their self-coined “beach goth” genre as a lifestyle and, eventually, a music festival in their Costa Mesa home.

But out on the road, touring the country in a converted former California Church Teen Choir school bus, is where The Growlers made their name. A spirit of mad, drug-addled merry pranksterism always trailing behind them, nearly every crowd at every venue in every city gets whipped into a psychedelic frenzy by the band, Nielsen’s smoky, scratchy vocals floating effervescently over the chopped and screwed surf skronk of Matt Taylor, Kyle Straka, Anthony Perry and Scott Montoya.

Many fans consider that lineup and its 2014 masterpiece Chinese Fountain the apogee of Growlers excellence. After a recording session with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, an in-demand mega-producer with whom most young bands would kill to work, Nielsen and The Growlers famously scratched all the tapes because they were unhappy with their artistic direction-and started over again on their own. Because of that, Chinese Fountain retains the band’s woozy weirdness and trebly irresistibility, the whole five-piece firing on all loose yet lockstep cylinders. And where past albums trended darker and more desponding, Nielsen sang on Chinese Fountain of more matters of the heart-clearer, more tenderly, yet still with his trademark hazy, smoke-stained elegance. And the live shows? Shit, they were still suffused with psych-rock madness, each crowd a surge of energy waving their “swan hands” at this cult-like band.

Then came 2016’s City Club. Recorded without bassist Perry and drummer Montoya, produced and released by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, the sound was a drastic departure from The Growlers of old-more slick synthesizers than skewed six-strings, Nielsen’s voice smoothed down to an icy croon instead of set free into its octave-reaching upper limits. A lot of people-fans, critics, fellow musicians-scratched their heads. When the band released a perfunctory statement about Perry and Montoya leaving The Growlers in September, a minor uproar flared up among the faithful, followed by wildly varying reports about the new rhythm section not being up to snuff. Pair that with new press photos featuring Nielsen, Taylor and Straka in sleek City Club leather jackets and complaints that the band’s Beach Goth festival had grown recklessly over the last two years-logistical failures, fan complaints and venue issues, even as the lineup was enhanced exponentially by icons like Patti Smith in 2016-and it was clear The Growlers were most definitely striking out into new territory. The big question became, would their diehard fans follow them or not?

So far, the answer appears to be yes: The band has sold out every show on their current spring tour, from coast to coast, proving that increased professionalism can actually share space with that old Growlers chaos of their first decade. In the one Growlers interview I could find that had been published in 2017, Brooks Nielsen told the Knoxville Daily Times, “There was something cool about almost falling apart at the seams. It was hit or miss on how well we were going to perform, but the vibe was pretty strong. It was way more chaotic then, but now it’s getting a lot smoother, and we’re way more pro.”

So which version of The Growlers will show up when they hit the First Coast? Will they be burned out or on fire? Considering the fact that the notoriously surf-obsessed band will see the ocean for the first time in two weeks when they pull in to the Amphitheatre’s palm-lined Backyard stage-and considering that this is their only Florida performance other than a stop at Okeechobee Music Festival-we’re guessing hell yes to the latter. As Brooks sings on “Pet Shop Eyes,” “All day healed by the sun and wrapped up in the ocean’s lip.” As long as The Growlers retain that spirit, they’ll always be loved in St. Augustine.