By Alejandro Rubio; photos by Taylor Bonin + Alejandro Rubio on April 17, 2013
I begged Andrea not to make me go. I told her I would find someplace where I could hide from my editor and that if I stayed I knew that we could make things better again. But she refused.
“You have to go,” she said, “because if you don’t you’re going to fuck everything up.” When I looked up and saw her face illuminated beneath the naked light bulb, I knew she was right so I got out of bed and gathered my things.
The studio was at the end of a long driveway crowded by a row of warehouses facing a large junkyard. Through a chain-link fence I could see a group of greasy dismantlers amusing themselves by blowing an air compressor through a car horn. It was just after seven o’clock in the morning. But there at the end of the driveway and behind their decommissioned “California Church Teen Choir” tour bus and a yellow 1970s camper stood The Growlers’ home.
Theirs was a one-story beach house painted surf green and decoratively assaulted with lawn chairs, tropical plants, surfing chimpanzees, Christmas lights, beach umbrellas, street signs and all the other forms of California kitsch that a psychotic hoarder could compulsively salvage from dumpsters and thrift stores.
I knew I was late. The night before, Brooks Nielsen had texted me that we would be leaving at 7 a.m. sharp, and at 7:06 I couldn’t help but think that those deranged dismantlers were signaling some aftermarket Judgment Day and that me and the chimpanzees had been left behind. But then I heard it.
“Alejandro!” I turned around and saw Brooks come out from behind the studio, coughing and spitting as he walked towards the dumpster with a plastic tub of a trash on his shoulder. “Everyone’s sick so they’re still asleep,” he said. “Do you want some coffee?” I followed him into the house and when he opened the door the sunlight flashed upon a large portrait of a multigenerational Asian family whose faces had been defiled with spray-painted mustaches and drag queen makeup. Above the portrait someone had sprayed “HOCHIMINISTERS X 13.”
“My mom found that in the trash,” Brooks said. “I wanted to keep it the way it was, but one day when I wasn’t here some asshole spray-painted all that shit over it. Have you ever had Vietnamese instant coffee?” I shook my head and studied the portrait in silence. There was a pained moaning growing increasingly loud over my shoulder. I turned around and a mass of hair and blankets shifted violently for several seconds before an acne-scarred Captain Caveman finally revealed itself on the tattered couch.
“I can’t move my legs!” it screamed and then disappeared again under the blankets. In the kitchen I could hear Brooks laughing as he poured hot water into a mug of Vietnamese coffee.
“That’s Mike McHugh,” he said. “He produced our new record so now I’m letting him crash on my couch. He’s a genius.” Brooks handed me the cup and stepped past me to yell for everyone to wake up. “We gotta get going.”
The first person to appear was Scott Montoya. He had originally joined The Growlers as a bassist and after several members had come and reluctantly gone he made his way to the back of the stage as the drummer. He invited me into his room and I lit a cigarette as he smoked weed from a pipe and read his rejection letter from the Employment Development Department. “Dude, this fucking sucks,” he said as he blew a plume of smoke into the room.
Outside, Brooks was banging on the door of the camper and screaming for Kyle to wake up. The camper swayed for some time before keyboardist Kyle Straka and a small cat emerged from a side door. Back inside, Mike had regained the use of his legs and offered to show me around the studio while the guys loaded the van. Their studio is a converted two-car garage clustered with vintage musical equipment, spray-painted cartoon cutouts and the stainless-steel relics of analog recording. Mike mumbled through the process of recording and proudly proclaimed that he could modify microwaves to blow out electricity meters. “I haven’t paid for electricity in years,” he said with a grin.
By nine o’clock the van had been loaded and everyone seemed eager to shove off, yet there were still a few members noticeably absent from the scene.
“Where the fuck is Matt Taylor?” asked someone. Along with Brooks, Matt Taylor is the founding member of the band and although he had known Brooks since middle school, Matt would claim that it was only after they had graduated and started doing drugs that the two began writing music and formed what would eventually become The Growlers. Matt staggered from his bedroom in a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Maui Wowee” and red cut-off sweatpants. His fermented eyes gleamed the same color.
“I’m not going with you guys,” he said. “I’m just going to fly out there tonight.”
“Why?” Brooks asked.
“Because I have to go my unemployment hearing.”
“Well, make sure you don’t show up to court wearing that fucking weed T-shirt,” Brooks said, and Matt nodded as he shuffled back into his room. Everyone climbed into the van and after a few minutes, bassist Anthony “Anstonio” Braun Perry flew into the parking lot, jumped out of his truck, ran into the decommissioned bus—his new home—and returned to the van with a pile of clothes. “Taylor and I just moved out of our place last night,” he said. “I’m running on two hours of sleep but I did a bunch of coke and Adderall, so I feel great.”
“Alright,” said Brooks. “Let’s go.” It was a short drive to Taylor Bonin’s house, the band’s tour manager and photographer. Somehow it seemed fitting that our tour manager was the last person to join the group. With that, Brooks pointed the van towards Tucson and The Growlers officially began their 2013 North American tour.
It was January 4 and the night before, everyone had stayed up celebrating Brooks’ 29th birthday. Because of his energetic greeting at dawn, it hadn’t occurred to me that the singer could’ve been hungover or even tired—at least not until the rumble strips on the 10-East rattled the van as he veered it towards a ditch.
“Did you fucking falling asleep?” Kyle yelled. Brooks shook his head and flashed his crooked teeth at us in the overhead mirror. Nobody was convinced. At the next exit, Kyle took over as captain. From the passenger seat, Brooks explained how I should sleep with my legs pointed forward just in case the van ever crashed.
“That way you’d only break your tailbone instead of your neck,” he said. I shifted positions but found it difficult to get comfortable.
What am I doing here? I thought as I watched the sun cower behind the ancient plateaus of California. I knew that I was mentally unfit for such a trip but I no longer had a choice. I felt as if I’d been abducted by these saltwater extraterrestrials of rock and roll and forced to endure this alien experience in the name of making good on all those years of wanting. I thought about these things as we flashed across the desert and after a while I forgot about breaking my tailbone and went to sleep.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Scott shouted as he read something on his phone. “Matt just texted me that his plane doesn’t get into until 10:40 tonight.”
“What time’s the show?” Brooks asked.
“It starts at 9,” Taylor said.
“Well, I guess we’re going to have to go on later then,” Brooks said.
We pulled into Tucson a little after eight o’clock and steered the van into the gravel alleyway behind Plush. Taylor and Brooks climbed out to meet with the promoters and talk to them about the Matt Taylor situation while the rest of us unloaded the equipment and began to carry it inside the venue. After a couple trips, I noticed a small tattooed man watching us from the shadows and it was clear from his nervous demeanor that he was a man with something very heavy on his mind. Once everything was unloaded, Anthony and I took a smoke break and the tattooed man approached us from the dark.
“Hey,” he said and stared at us.
“Hey,” we said.
“You guys are The Growlers, right?” he asked.
“He is,” I said and Anthony nodded.
“Listen...I know this is going to sound weird but…my girlfriend loves you guys and…well, I want to give her my grandmother’s ring tonight during your set.”
“Like as a gift?” Anthony asked.
“No, no. I want to ask her to marry me. Do you…do you think you guys could say something before I give it to her?”
“Sure, I’ll ask Brooks. I’m sure he’ll say it’s cool,” Anthony said, stamping out his cigarette before heading back into the venue.
“Thanks, man,” the tattooed man said, shaking my hand. “My girlfriend really loves you guys.” I patted him on the shoulder and wished him luck before stamping out my cigarette and going inside.
The promoters had agreed to push the show back so now we were faced with a few hours of free time. Anthony and Kyle went out in search of a billiard table while Scott, Taylor and Brooks stayed behind to order deli sandwiches from the bar.
Matt eventually made it to the venue but was visibly upset with the results of his court hearing. “I’m just not very good at lying,” he said as he smiled into a glass of whiskey. A little after 11:30, The Growlers took to the stage and Scott counted in “Someday,” the first song off their new album, Hung At Heart. Brooks swung his hips to Matt and Kyle’s reverberating guitars while Anthony slouched behind his rolling basslines and guided the undulating mass across the dance floor. Blood pressures and bar tabs increased as the band moved through songs like “Sea Lion Goth Blues” and “Gay Thoughts” and from the corner where I was standing it seemed as though everyone was in ecstasy—except for one person. Throughout the set I watched the small tattooed man as he bit his lip and avoided questions from the woman who would soon be wearing his grandmother’s ring. His uneasiness was so palpable that it managed to shake Anthony from his stupor and remind Brooks to make the announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all in for a little treat because we’ve got two people here tonight who are getting married!” Brooks realized his mistake when he saw the tattooed man’s soul escape his body. “Wait, wait, wait…uh…I guess you gotta ask her first… Well, c’mon, man! Get on one knee and ask your woman!” The man acquiesced and when his soul returned it was met with a new mate. Everyone cheered, the show carried on for a few more songs and by the end of the night there was a newly engaged couple in Tucson and some newly acquired furniture taking up space in the van.
By the time we made it into Phoenix, it was obvious that the band’s self-prescribed pharmaceutical wellness combination of somas, Adderall, Xanax and DayQuil had failed. Rumors of walking pneumonia spread through the van and somehow the only person unshaken was Kyle, who had kept himself healthy with a strict diet of pomegranates and burritos. There was a sentiment of quiet jealousy in the van as it turned into the alley behind the Crescent Ballroom. We unloaded the equipment and after a quick sound check, we retreated into the green room.
“Why do they call the green room a ‘green room?’” Brooks asked. Nobody knew.
“On Wikipedia,” Taylor said, looking down at his phone, “it says that in medieval theatre, the backstage area was covered with grass. It also says that in Shakespeare’s time, green plants and shrubs were put backstage because they believed the plants would help soothe the actors’ voices.”
But there were no plants to be found here. In accordance with the band’s rider, the venue had provided only two packs of Marlboro Reds, a fifth of Jameson, a fridge of cheap beer, nachos and a box of C&H sugar cubes to be used in the event that an adoring Growlers fan would present a vile of liquid LSD. Whether or not these items would soothe the band’s voices was yet to be seen, but Brooks and Matt were happy to test the whiskey.
Brooks would explain more than once during the trip that one should never play a rock-and-roll show sober. “You’ve got to get to some weird part of yourself to play,” he said. It was like a mantra. The feeling of abduction increased within me as I gazed upon this strange fare spread across the table. These items did not reflect the needs of individuals who had spent nearly three decades on planet Earth.
The crowd was considerably larger than the night before. A metal barricade divided the 21-and-over crowd, who burped and flirted in the back, from the underage Growlers fans who shouted jailbait obscenities from the front. Despite their differing intentions, the sections unanimously came together to lose whatever decencies they had left when the late Tony Curtis’ Stargames flashed upon the band as they shook the railings with “Drinking the Juice Blues” and the new favorite, “One Million Lovers.” Everyone had already learned the words to most of the new songs and it seemed as though the tunes on Hung At Heart were being received with the same intensity as the older stuff.
After the show, the band returned to the proverbial green room, where Matt and Brooks sought to the second half of the Jameson as Scott and Taylor counted a large stack of money from the merch table sales of the new record. Once all business was settled, we packed up the van and drove a few blocks to the cheapest speed-freak motel in Phoenix. This was a place where the majority of its guests had not been 86’ed for drugs or violence but rather for removing and sneaking out with their room’s sink and toilet. We checked into our chambers and smoked in bed to clear up the smell as we tried and failed to make it through The Magnificent Seven.
I wished we could have driven into Albuquerque during the day. The unreachable New Mexican horizon I’d seen in films and magazines was blotted out at night by a troubling nothingness. It was only occasionally broken up by the brilliant glow of run-down independent gas stations and corrugated warehouses. I had imagined cinematic scenes of natural color and shadows but instead there was an inky void spread across an entire state. But again, that’s because we drove in at night.
The venue we pulled up to was called Low Spirits and although ours were high when we arrived, they’d be low when we’d leave. The place was small but there was a large crowd of Growlers fans in secondhand clothes and hiking shoes looming around the corner of the bar where the band sucked at their drinks in boredom. Kyle and Matt took advantage of the pool table in the back and played a round against a couple of fans that had beaten them the last time they were in town. They would be beaten this time as well. In the van, Scott and Anthony met with a generous Growlers fan who had surprised them with a gift basket of pharmaceuticals meant to heighten, obscure, speed or slow one’s perception of—and reaction to—reality.
Meanwhile, inside the venue Brooks was making friends with an intimidating androgynous cowboy (or cowgirl) who, after the show—which was somewhat ruined by the number of drinks consumed while the band impatiently waited to play—would invite The Growlers back to his (or her) place for a couple eight balls of coke and a home-cooked meal. But these un-seized plans wouldn’t be revealed to us until the following day since Brooks instead had passed out under our table at Denny’s, thus leaving the promising adventure’s outcome forever unknown.
Once our patient Native American waiter had packaged up Brooks’ Moons Over My Hammy, I was asked to take on the overnight shift and drive the van as far as I could go.
“See if you can make it to Roswell,” they said. I said I would and so I did, and if you’ve ever passed through Roswell, you know from the look of their liquor stores and travel agencies that the town is like some Pacific cargo cult awaiting the return of those strange and wonderful men from the skies. But the men I was ferrying had returned from the sea, and as Roswell’s street lamps flashed upon our silent party I was able to see the sleeping Growlers’ true forms. Somehow in those flashes all the fears and troubles of the real world—of planet Earth—left me and I finally accepted my position amongst these untamable extraterrestrials.
In San Antonio, rather than rage along the river, we stumbled into a few thrift stores and visited and remembered the Alamo. However, an even greater feeling of nostalgia would overtake The Growlers in their hotel room as we sat through a marathon of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. To the band, especially to Kyle, these episodes weren’t simply entertainment. It was as if these were their own home movies, and that they were watching themselves as people who now seemed so distant and imaginary. In a way, they were right.
The show at Korova fared better than the night before in Albuquerque and I stomped my feet along with the crimson-eyed madmen who howled as the band oscillated through “Nosebleed Sun” and “Row.” After the show ended, the band collected their gift baskets and we pointed the headlights towards Austin.
“So what happened with Dan Auerbach?” I asked Brooks as we brushed our teeth in the gas station bathroom. At this point, the van was stopping more for tooth brushing than for piss breaks. “Nothing really happened,” Brooks said as he squeezed a bit of toothpaste onto his brush. “He was a really nice guy, but a little passive-aggressive.” As he brushed, foam began to form at the corners of his mouth. “The whole process was really long and confusing, and when we finally got the record back it wasn’t what we wanted, so we just got cold feet and bailed.” He spit in the sink and talked to my reflection in the mirror. “But Nashville was rad because we got to meet that dude Cowboy Jack. He used to work at Sun Records and produced everybody from Elvis to Johnny Cash to Patsy Cline. One day we were drinking and he told us how he’d go up to chicks and tell them, ‘You know I’m hung at heart, right?’ We thought it was so funny that we named our record after it.”
Austin, at first glance, is like a Wild West San Francisco where the Mission speaks with a Texas drawl and ends every conversation with “keep Austin weird.” At first this coda seems unnecessary, but once you see how Austin’s vegan taco stands, mothball thrift stores and scattered record shops have staved off Corporate America’s pink tentacles, you realize that you can either “keep Austin weird” or “make Austin Walmart,” which would undoubtedly end in an apocalyptic hair-plug nightmare. Thankfully, Austin was still very much weird when we parked the van up the street from Red 7.
It was billed as a free show and so there was a mile-long line of boys and girls dressed up as their favorite Growler. The venue reached capacity well before show time but that didn’t stop a group of demented girls from trying to sneak in through an open window, nor did it prevent a future AA Newcomer from scaling an eight-foot wall only to fall twenty feet to the lowered embankment on the other side with a sickening thud.
It was a little past 8 a.m. but we were still wide awake and the wet reverberations and siren rhythms of “Row” and “The Graveyard’s Full” at Red 7 were still ringing in my ears as I crossed the motel lobby with Matt and Taylor in search of breakfast. A table of ashen oil riggers looked up when we walked in and watched us from under their eyebrows.
“Will you look at that...doesn’t that earring mean that one’s a faggot?” said one.
“I think it means they’re all faggots,” said another.
Whatever little appetite I had quickly disappeared. This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed someone ridicule us, nor would it be the last. In nearly every gas station or Waffle House we’d visited, I’d caught someone staring, laughing or rolling their eyes at the way the way we dressed, talked and behaved. We were becoming aliens in our country. It disappointed me: here was a band, a group of Americans—young people—who actually love their country. They are out there, out here, chasing their own American dreams. All I know is that it's been 44 years since Easy Rider was released and there’s no excuse for that portrait of America to still exist.
It took a couple of U-turns before I finally found my way into the French Quarter. We looked up at the wrought-iron balconies and flickering gas lamps and giggled at the easy promise of debauchery as I eased the van down the narrow street to One Eyed Jack’s. We parked illegally around the corner, unloaded and suffered impatiently through another soundcheck before hitting the bricks towards Bourbon Street. Miniature women in neon wigs stumbled past topless stepmothers, uniformed centaurs and gold-toothed Haitians while a bestial babel surged in the background. If there was one place for The Growlers to let themselves be aliens without consequence, it was here.
We wandered into a bar where we drank beer and gagged on gargantuan oysters with an actual illegal alien from Canada who vomited after her first mollusk. Feeling strong, we ventured down to the Mississippi River, where a Cajun offered us paper plates of pizza and stressed the importance of happiness and charity. We sat on the banks, staring at diapers floating in the deep water, and paid the Cajun to tell us jokes until it was time to go back to the venue.
Scott arched his back behind his kit and counted in the set with “Someday,” and the crowd shuffled their feet beneath the watchful eyes of the velvet nudes. Jerry O’Connell was there and studied Anthony’s catatonic performance with vacant eyes of his own. Shielded by driftwood, Kyle split his time between his guitar, the keyboard and the many bottles of Heineken at his feet. On the opposite side of the stage, beads of sweat clung to Matt’s strings as he sang his nihilistic sermon “People Don’t Change.” And amid all this confusion, Brooks swung his clenched fist at his side while leading the crowd in an impassioned chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
After the show, we dragged our feet to Harrah’s Casino, where we ended the night and welcomed the morning beneath the pulsating lights and screeching whistles of a veritable mothership of unattached extraterrestrial existence. I had a plane to catch, so I reluctantly bid farewell to my space brothers. There was no more reason to hide. As I turned to go, Kyle pulled me by my sleeve.
“A-le-hound Dog!” he said. “Watch me win all this money.” He pushed a stack of chips onto black and concentrated as the little wheel spun the ball into orbit. He laughed when it landed on red and turned his massive dark eyes and gray face towards me. Without moving his lips, he spoke inside my mind.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll win it back someday.” F