Growl is an Austin band whose recently released album ‘Won’t You’ is regularly getting played on my earphones and car speakers. I was therefore very pleased to interview them while sitting at a table under the trees, sharing a pitcher of beer at The ABGB. They were great to talk to, and so let’s proceeded to my chat with Santiago [vocals, guitar], Jonny [bass], and Ken [drums]. [Guitarist Sam was sadly unable to make it]
Kiwi Cowboy: Nice to be talking to you guys…
Santi: Whereabouts in New Zealand are you from?
KC: I’m from Auckland, the big smoke of NZ.
Jonny: Have you made it out to Christchurch?
KC: Yeah, a couple of times now.
Kent: We have mutual best friends who are from Christchurch.
Jonny: I’ve heard it’s stricken with earthquakes and a depleting population? Otherwise I’ve heard good things! I have heard it’s pretty.
KC: It is nice. Going down the Avon river is a great experience.
Kent: When we all lived together we hosted someone from Wellington.
KC: That’s cool. I sometimes feel like the only New Zealander in Austin.
Jonny: They are here. Surprisingly. I’ve seen some “Sweet as” bumper stickers.
KC: Ha! That’s a good way to keep an eye out. The first question I have for you guys is how did y’all meet and how long have you been together?
Santi: We’ve been together going on 5 years now. I have Facebook’s ‘On this day’ constantly reminding me. We were at my parent’s house.
Kent: It’s a documentary.
Santi: Kent and I started it as a project in my parent’s kitchen when we were starting college. We didn’t really play any live sets until we had Jonny join us on bass, and then played as a 3 piece for about a year. Then we hired Sam on lead guitar, and a keyboardist who we recorded our first EP with who has now gone on to do her own thing.
Kent: We’ve recorded two EP’s and now an album. The 2nd EP was recorded while we were still in college, and so our most recent release [Won’t You] is our first out of college; when we’re supposed adults and all.
Santi: We’re all super proud of our record. Been working on it since as long as we care to remember as far as the recordings go. And we’ve been playing a lot of this stuff live for a while now.
KC: That’s cool. Well I’m just going to ask you the intense questions straight away. What would be the intention of your music? Are there actual messages to convey or are you just having fun?
Jonny: I think it’s different for each of us. It’s super fun to play music live to people, but then one of the things I also want out of our music is that people can listen to it and say; ‘Yeah this song is about where life is at right now. In this moment.’ My favorite songs are where I like to think they’re narrating my life. I don’t know if we do that!
Santi: All of my favorite songs are ones that whenever I hear them, they immediately feel familiar. I’d like to create music that feels like that.
Kent: I’m not one of the song writers, I just play the drums, but I always feel in general that our songs represent where we are as a group. We’re all around the same age and going through similar things; just in a different context.
Santi: We’ve worked the same jobs in many respects. We’ve all been friends and living in the same little bubble of life for the past 6 years
Jonny: It’s really incredible we don’t hate each other.
Santi: We got past that.
Kent: We hated each other for a while.
Santi: We lived together for 2 years, so we got all the hating each other out of the way.
Jonny: I still hate you guys
Santi: That’s fine. It’s a working relationship.
KC: If you could only list one band in your list of influences which would it be?
Jonny: I think one for the whole band would be Built to Spill. It would be the strongest overlap in the Growl venn diagram.
Santi: Yeah, that’s where we seem to agree the most.
Kent: I think they’ve always been the home base. Where we disagree on a lot of things, but we all agree ‘Keep It Like a Secret’ is an amazing album.
Jonny: Not that we sound like Built to Spill, but we like to believe that we do.
Kent: On our last tour we were fortunate to play the Tree Fort Festival, and they were one of the headliners. We got to see them in their hometown [Boise, Idaho], and we were technically ‘in the mix’ with them so that meant a lot.
KC: Do you feel like you’re in a supportive music community in Austin?
Kent: If anything we’re the poster band in regards to that community, because we were in a bit of a plateau after our EP came out years ago. And we were working on this new album but we didn’t really know where it was going. But then a lot of people got behind us and allowed us to take it to where we wanted it to go. And with that in mind, Austin has been a really supportive music scene for us.
Santi: A ton of locals just came to our album release without us really asking too much of them, so they’re super supportive. I wouldn’t say we haven’t worked hard in this process, but they’ve given their love back to us, and it’s been nice. We live in such a nice live music scene, so you get to see a lot of each other around the city. There’s a lot of places to play and you have a community where you’re constantly seeing each other, exchanging numbers, hanging out. You get a lot more direct support.
Kent: Austin definitely has a saturated market of bands, but everybody wants to help each other. As much as a band wants to play and wants to do something with their music; people get behind that. Nobody’s going to shut you down in Austin.
Jonny: That’s what I was going to say too, even when were first starting out we played so many times at the same bar on 6th street, this Elvis themed bar called Beal Street Tavern, which is sadly no longer there. Our experience when we first started out wasn’t unique, in the sense of us simply wanting to play. And there were some venues that’d have us. We might be playing to an empty room and an angry bartender, but we were just so glad we got to play. And I feel like whenever bands are starting up and they don’t want to play those shows, it’s doing yourself a huge disservice. Those early years really help lay this foundation to think ‘Why are you in this? What do you really want out of this? Do you enjoy this?’
Kent: It kept us humble anyway.
Santi: I think that any band that starts up in Austin needs to say ‘if we want to play on a Friday night, we can, but even if it isn’t the sickest spot, it’s somewhere.’ If you’re wanting to play then just get whatever you can get, then eventually you’ll get better gigs.
KC: I remember been told that one gig is worth three rehearsals.
Jonny: Yeah. In-fact if nobody’s there, that’ll really test if you can keep your energy up. To perform as well as you would otherwise. It’s super cheesy to say it, but if you can play to 2 people you can play to 200 people.
Santi: It’s so much easier playing to a crowd of people. If playing to an empty room you have to take control of your situation. And if there’s a thousand people then the nerves go away.
KC: It’s because you know they’re there to see you and so you start to naturally have a good time.
Santi: Trying to make those 2 people not feel awkward for even been there, you have to go really out of your way. That usually means performing at your best.
KC: I had a question planned for you about any advice you could give newly formed bands in Austin, but it seems like we’ve covered that already!
Santi: Cherish the gig.
KC: I’ve found since I moved to Austin that any gig I go to, the ability of every band or artist is to such a high standard. I’m always prepared for an act at a small bar to make the odd mistake, or a voice not always hitting the mark, but everyone I’ve seen here is almost flawless.
Santi: The bar in the United States is a lot higher in general. In Austin especially.
Kent: Touring will teach you that as fortunate as we are for every show we play on tour, you learn going from city to city how the standard of bands in Austin is so high.
KC: Austin isn’t the biggest city, but I’ve found the amount of music, bands, and venues is incredibly high for the population.
Kent: It’s crazy that we can sustain as many venues as we can. It’s a testament to how many bands are playing any night of the week.
KC: This is where I’ll get insightful and arty on you; would you consider your brand of rock a piece of art?
Santi: Subjectively, I’d say it’s definitely art. For any song.
Kent: I’d say if you measure art by sincerity, we’re definitely very sincere. [band laughs] So there you have it.
Santi: I wouldn’t say we’re art rock. We wouldn’t sit around together in the practice room and say [whispers] “Guys… let’s create a piece of art.” [band laughs] At the same time the songs that we write, as many influences as we have, they’re always going to come out in a unique voice. We write every song in a type of committee, and all of us have a voice involved. So the songs come out in a different way. But we will never be one of those bands where if somebody says that they don’t like us, we’re not going to reply “You just don’t get it man…” We’re more likely to say “That’s fine. Now go away.” [band laughs]
KC: I’m now interested in how you guys go about in writing the songs. Do y’all contribute individual songs?
Jonny: Santi writes most of the songs.
Santi: I’ll come in with a pretty bare bones idea of a song and then everyone will come in and change it completely. I’ve never had it happen when the song turned out exactly as I expected it to, which is great. And Jonny has written songs; Sam our guitarist has written songs; everybody has a song represented on the album.
Kent: Every album we have has songs written by at least one of us. Except for me, but I play the drums so that’s fine. [laughs]
Jonny: No song that I’ve ever brought to the band and have completed has never been exactly what I had in my mind, but that’s not all a bad thing. That’s always been good because A, it’s a community thing, and B, it’s our song now. I don’t think I’m a very good songwriter, so I need them to contribute parts and tweak things all these ways so it’s stronger than what I first came to think.
Santi: It shows that if everyone in this band didn’t have full confidence in each other, there wouldn’t be this music. The songs that we enjoy the most are always the most collaborative.
KC: I read that you recorded the whole album on a classic 8-Track at Daniel’s House studio. How did that come about?
Santi: Daniel McNeil, he has 3 tape machines, and we chose the cheapest one. [band laughs] We recorded the drums on 4 tracks, and then the rest of us recording to the others. We went in with the idea that this is going to be a live record. The bass, drums, and guitars are all played together live.
Kent: For us that’s the only way to record. It makes sense in my mind, as we write and perform songs to played be live, so it would feel awkward if we didn’t record in that way. Tape works really well for us. We’re not a band that does well being rigid or polished.
KC: With the album name, “Won’t You”, is that a question aimed at the listener?
Santi: It’s one of the songs on the record, so yeah, won’t you? Won’t you listen to the record? I figured it was intriguing. Inviting you.
Kent: It was one of the few things we decided on quickly, and then after our decision we became aware of the cliched implications people could use. I remember KUTX saying: “Won’t you? I think we will!”
Santi: Would you not?
KC: You could perhaps put that on the cover. Would You? Would you not?
Kent: Any band that’s thinking of naming their album with a question, be cautious.
Santi: Be prepared for some dad jokes.
Kent: It’s the perfect name to whether you like us or hate us, can use it both ways.
KC: I like that it has no question mark. I didn’t think about it as a question at first, it’s a statement.
Santi: We’re just saying: “Please listen to us.”
Jonny: Won’t you pleeease?
Kent: “No, I won’t.”
Santi: We have do have some arbitrary song titles, like ‘Duck Sauce’.
Jonny: You wrote it, and I said we should name it duck sauce, and it was just going to be a place holder name, yet it stuck around.
KC: I love the song ‘Brunch’.
Santi: That’s one our guitarist Sam wrote. It’s originally written about a pseudo friend of ours, about the idea of a brunch culture in the United States. How you can go anywhere and yet brunch is going to be the same; with the same people going to the same restaurant, doing the same stuff, acting just as petty as the last person. I think he wrote it about this one girl he went on a date with who just gave him the run around, and seemed like she was very much the social climber. So afterwards he went home and thought ‘well fuck this.’ [band laughs]
KC: I was going to say, it sounded very much like a personal experience.
Santi: All our songs are based on personal experiences. It’s a very personal experience based record.
Kent: I think that’s a testament to how the song writing on this album is a personal thing for everyone involved. Except me, I play drums.
Santi: You can’t keep saying that!
KC: You keep the beat, so they all have to stay in line.
KC: I’m going to keep asking some crazy questions about ‘Brunch’, as 11 tattoos is quite a specific requirement for a partner.
Santi: Sam said it was about how even everyone’s guilty of it, even the hipster that thinks they’re a perfect, most welcoming human; they still have a whole criteria to follow. You have to be this person for me to like you.
Kent: You’re unique if you have ‘this’ criteria. Suddenly you’re going to be unique; just like everyone else.
KC: I love the lyric “If you swear you’re not a cat freak, ‘cos you know I hate religion.”
Santi: Oh, it’s Catholic!
KC: It is?!
Jonny: Cat freak is good too though! I was just thinking ‘it says cat freak?’
KC: I thought it said Catholic to begin with, but it came to my mind after the previous lyric “If your dog is not a pure bred.”
KC: You could put it in the album liner notes.
Santi: We already printed those I’m afraid.
Kent: This is a whole different conversation about Santi’s pronunciation of things.
Santi: Hey, do we need an intervention? ‘We need you to enunciate.’
KC: It can be cool when that happens, where my ears heard something different…
Santi: I do that all the time. A bunch of Fleet Foxes songs. I’ve derived entirely different meanings from what was originally sung.
Jonny: Now I hope that people hear cat freak.
Santi: All the lyrics on the album are completely up for speculation.
Kent: If Sam was here he would agree with you. ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant!’
KC: You lived together, play in a band together, what is like touring together?
Santi: At our place we had our own separate rooms, but then while we were on tour we decided ‘Oh let’s all share one tiny room.’
Kent: One of the reliefs of touring is when the tour is over, you don’t have to see your band mates for at least a week or so. With us on our first tour we all came back and thought ‘…shit… we live together.’ [band laughs] But that been said, we all like touring.
KC: Have you got some touring coming up?
Kent: Will be back out in the fall, east coast this time as we’ve played a lot on the west coast. The catalyst is we’re playing at the Athens Pop Fest in Georgia, and we’re excited about that. We’re going to turn that into an east coast tour. Up to New York and back.
Santi: Pop Fest is a great festival because one of our main influences is headlining, which is Superchunk. We’re stoked. It should be a fun time.
KC: To finish things off, when you hear the term ‘kiwi’ what first comes to mind?
Jonny: It would be the bird and the fruit! If I see the kiwi eating a kiwi fruit, it looks like cannibalism.
Kent: We’re the wrong group to ask because we have a friend from New Zealand, and she immediately taught us what the kiwi really is.
Santi: I just think ‘en zid!’
KC: That’s a good impression!
Santi: I just think of the shire. That would be quite an insult. I have a lot of flat white drinkers at my coffee shop.
KC: I feel like I’m the only one who orders a flat white as it’s never on the menu, but the majority of places here make them for me. And taste great.
Santi: Flet whyet
KC: Haha, that’s good impression too. I think.
[P.S I went to their gig at Hotel Vegas the next night, and not only were they awesome but bassist Jonny played New Order’s ‘Age of Consent’ for his bass soundcheck, and that was beyond rad.]