I expected more than three people when Growwler took the stage at the Night Light in Oakland a few Sundays ago. Their new LP Even Tenor, after all, sounds like an army of talented musicians and producers descended upon the project to create a refreshingly rich and unique soundscape, incorporating everything from psychedelic head trips to bluesy rockers to folk-tinged melodies and countless sub-genres in between. It’s a big, ambitious album in an age when most indie bands are scaling back due to either financial limitations or purposeful creative choice.
“We got to play with the Red Beans and Rice horn section at the Great American a few weeks ago,” lead singer and guitarist Davis Il tells me at a Nation’s adjacent to the Night Light, his eyes noticeably brightening at the recollection of the experience. He runs a hand through his mad genius haircut and continues, “Ideally we’d love to have a full band all the time but that’s just not realistic at the moment. Four schedules is hard enough to juggle.”
“Plus we don’t wanna be Chicago,” drummer and backup vocalist Patrick Weber adds playfully, a gloriously greasy cheeseburger in his hands. “It was a big venue and a big opportunity for us, and we wanted to be a bigger band for the night.”
“And having horns all the time wouldn’t make it nearly as special,” bassist Kazmo Vilmar thoughtfully points out in his soft-spoken manner. “It’s nice to bring it out at certain moments, but we don’t need that backup to express our sound.”
Kazmo’s certainly right about that. Though the band did, admittedly, sound a bit raw without their keyboardist/backing vocalist/saxophonist Robert Gibboni, they nevertheless put on one blistering rock n’ roll show. During our conversation we discussed their new album, their peripatetic existence and covering Lana Del Ray (and actually making her sound cool).
The Bay Bridged: Your latest album was recorded in both Oregon and California over several years. Did you ever fear that the sporadic and spread out recording process would result in a messy, disjointed album?
Davis Il: No, but if I could do it over again I would stay in one spot. There is definitely a Smorgasbord of vibes and sounds on it but most of that is intentional.
Patrick Weber: I personally thought about that a lot. The record is split by location. When you listen to it straight through, it has this patchwork quality, a sort of quilt-like effect reflected by the cover. In a weird way it’s consistent and I think it makes sense overall.
DI: That’s funny, I never thought of the quilt analogy before…There is a purposeful split with the A side recorded in San Francisco and the B side in Eugene. In my opinion, you just go where the studio is, where you think your sound will best be captured.
PW: The fact that me and Dave have been playing together for about ten years now helps with the consistency too. I think this band has always existed in a constant state of change. Some of these songs have changed completely over the years and they each have a unique character. That’s just the sound of Growwler.
TBB: Some of the songs off the LP have a loose, almost improvised feel to them. Did these creations result from jam sessions or were they carefully planned out from the beginning?
DI: I’m pretty meticulous in the studio and think it’s important to plan out ahead of time. Some of my favorite artists have that off-the-cuff sound but, in actuality, it’s all really mapped out. For us, most of it was planned before we entered the studio. When we hit the stage it’s a whole different experience. We like to change it up live, especially for the fans who have seen us numerous times. We want to give them something new at every concert, something to get excited about. Maybe that seeps into our songwriting process as well.
TBB: The band has been through a number of incarnations over the years. Has the constant movement and tenuous formations ever threatened to permanently derail this project?
PW: There has definitely been a cloud of people that have come through and we’ve rotated numerous members over the years, but the core of me and Dave was always pretty solid. I think that has helped to sustain Growwler.
DI: We’ve separated at times but when I decided to come back to San Francisco in 2012 things became more solid. The addition of Kazmo on bass has really helped too.
Kazmo Vilmar: Yeah, these guys had two bassists before I joined. I kind of fell into it too. I contacted them through a craigslist ad about a pedal they were selling. I didn’t even know they were looking for a bassist at the time, but one thing sorta led to another and now I’m in Growwler!
PW: Rob (Gibboni) being a solid member really helped us out too. He really fills up the live sound and the fact that he’s a multi-instrumentalist is a huge asset. The turnover can slow things down but the fact that we’ve held on this long is a positive sign of the band’s future.
DI: It’s kinda like Jenga. If it falls down you just have to build it back up again. Perseverance is the key.
TBB: I have to ask–whose idea was it to cover the Lana Del Ray song?
DI: Well, Pat originally brought in Lorde’s “Royals” as a potential cover.
PW: Yeah I thought we could do a blues-rock version of that song. I felt like we could really make that one our own. But then Dave countered with an arrangement of “West Coast” and won out.
DI: I couldn’t get behind “Royals” one-hundred percent. I jammed on “West Coast” by myself and came up with an arrangement that fit our sound. Sorry Pat (laughs).
TBB: Even though you just released this great album, you’ve mentioned you’re already working on new material.
DI: Yeah, we have a three-song EP in the works planned for the summer. This is where Kazmo comes in and really contributes.
KV: Yeah, I’m not on the album but I’m involved in the songwriting process for the new EP. I guess what I’m trying to contribute to the band is more texture to the sound and more melodic bass tones. The Beatles were a huge influence on my playing style so that’s what I bring to this group.
TBB: Do you ever fear your unique, eccentric sound can potentially turn off an audience?
KV: It’s a matter of finding that balance. It you try to sound too pop it can become artificial, and if you go too far off the meter people can’t relate to what you’re doing. I think we’re close to a good balance at the moment.
DI: I think we definitely do alienate some people. I love the music scene in San Francisco but, if I’m so bold as to make one slightly controversial statement in this interview, it doesn’t really represent us. We’re always trying to familiarize our sound with different vibes and sometimes it doesn’t fit into the larger scene. But I think we’re okay with that. If we’re making the music we want to make and can find some kind of audience for it, then we’ve succeeded.
The Chapel Bar
May 20, 2015
11pm, free (21+)