Join Three B Zine writer Dustin Lothspeich as he sits down with San Diego’s own The Howls! Get to know about influences, favorite venue to play and lots of inside information about their new record Rocky Ground.
Rocky Ground, the debut album from The Howls, starts off unassumingly with “Rio Grande”, a slow-burning acoustic ballad, the likes of which is usually buried at the end of a record (or even used as a hidden track – remember those?) to imply some kind of somber end to an epic bender. Except, it’s not. It’s just the beginning, and they start you off easy. The group (guitarist/vocalist John Cooper, bassist Caleb Chial, drummer Dave Gargula, guitarist Chris Garcia, and keyboardist Nik Ewing) have crafted the kind of record that remains in a record rotation for awhile. It’s a healthy mix of mellow, acoustic numbers (with just a touch of indie rock experimentalism), countryfied sing-alongs and a couple barnburners thrown in for good measure.
One of the appealing things about Rocky Ground is that while it foreshadows the feeling that you will be drinking hard tonight, it’ll also still be there lulling you to sleep when your head hits that couch pillow, exhausted and drunk. An enabler and a comforter, if you will. For every buzzing, electrified rocker like “Crime”, there’s an equally chilled and beautifully crafted song like “All”, complete with vocal harmonies, buzzy echoes and subtle piano. The ten songs on the album seem to straddle a line between Ryan Adams’ “Why Do They Leave” and Wilco’s “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” – and while it’s easy to make a general comparison like that because those artists have defined the alt-country-rock genre for so long, admittedly this album rivals most of what those artists have released in the better part of a decade. And that’s not really a knock on those artists – it’s just a statement to the kind of record The Howls have released: every song on this album can stand on it’s own. There are no fillers, no throwaways, no laziness; each song lends a story – fulfills some part of the album arc.
Simply-put, Rocky Ground is just well-written, and the songs bristle with energy – even if it’s subdued. One of crown jewels on the album, “Vacation”, is a glorious midtempo sing-along until Cooper erupts (as he is bound to do, at any given moment) on the refrain of “I was dying for your kingdom come!”, like the lyrics are forcing their way out of his mouth. John Cooper is a lot of things, but insincere – he is not. Three B Zine got a chance to ask him some questions recently, and this is what went down.
First thing’s first, tell us about yourself and The Howls: when did you start playing together, and when did you know you were doing something special? Was there a collective goal or was it just to hang out and have fun?
I’ve known Dave and Caleb about as long as I can remember and it was basically the three of us with a rotating fourth member for a long time before we locked in Chris and Nik. But I think Dave, Caleb and I felt like we were doing something different or with some sort of meaning all along, even when the songs were horrible and we couldn’t play them right. That said, the collective goal has always been to have fun and they’re some of my closest friends, so hopefully we can kill two birds with one stone.
What bands or artists influenced The Howls and your songwriting, in particular?
Well, some of the obvious ones would be Wilco, Dylan, Petty, Hank Williams…but we also all listen to a lot of different bands and that kind of bleeds into the songs we like. Whether it be country, rock, weird dance pop, chill wave or whatever Pitchfork says is awful these days.
Also, name some records y’all have been digging on lately.
I can’t keep up with most of the other guys ’cause as my friends say, I’m a “wearer outer” – where I get stuck on one record and just listen to it over and over for months. Personally, I’ve been on a big Marvin Gaye kick lately. Also been listening to a lot of songs from The Jayhawks.
You’ve played some great shows at some of SD’s premier venues: The Casbah, the Belly Up, the Bro-Am festival thrown by Switchfoot – what is your most memorable show to date?
That’s tough, we got really lucky in 2011 and played with a lot of amazing bands. Our Record Release show was awesome because I never expected to sell it out – and even the whole night I just expected everyone to leave before we played. But sure enough when we went on, it was packed and people were actually there to see us. Last year, Bro Am was awesome just because of the sheer volume of people! When we played, there were 5 or 6,000 people there and they were all going nuts on the beach so that was pretty rad. But playing with Portugual, The Man, Belle Brigade, Telekinisis and The Love Language was also pretty rad because they’re bands we all love and we have all of their records.
Weave us a tale about a particularly horrible show….
We had one show over the summer, like 4 hours north of San Diego, where we hit the worst traffic getting up there and sure enough there’s a super small crowd and long story short – we’re messing around in the dressing room after and Chris ends up in the hospital ’til 4 or so in the morning. We didn’t get home until around 7 a.m. and everyone had to work the next day. Other than that, just the usual meaningless stuff bands whine about like bad sound guys or getting one drink ticket and so on.
In that same vein, what’s your favorite place around town to play and why?
It’s a toss up between the Casbah and Belly Up. Casbah is awesome because of the history of people who have played there and just the gritty rock factor. Kinda like when you’re a kid and you get to run the bases at a baseball stadium, like, “We get to play on the same stage that Jack White played back in the day???”
On January 31st, The Howls’ debut album was released – tell us about it: how long did it take to make? Are all the songs new or have they been around for awhile?
That record was a long time coming. We finished one version in January 2011, and got an opportunity to re-track it in a studio later in the year. Probably with writing and all – it was two years in the making. A few of the songs came about while we were tracking the final version of the record though and we just threw them on there.
Who did you work with and where? Tell us about the experience – any particularly memorable moments?
Our guitar player, Chris, has a pretty nice studio in Vista (Von Stache) and he produced/engineered the record along with the rest of us. It was pretty cool for me because everything we tracked before was always Caleb and I trying to figure out Pro Tools, not really knowing what we were doing – the blind leading the blind, if you will. Chris also brings a pretty awesome new element to the band, so having his input on songs that had been around for a while was pretty refreshing.
As far as memorable moments go, I remember Chris and I going back and forth trying to figure out the guitar part for the end of “All” for a pretty long time, and one time he just nailed it and I sat back and was just blown away. It got so big and so epic, it just tripped me out to hear the mellow song I wrote on my bed get so big and have so much feeling.
Were you going for a particular ‘feel’ for it? Was there a theme you wanted to album or was it approached with the thought of just recording a group of songs and seeing how it comes out?
Lyrically, there’s definitely a theme pertaining to a certain time period in my life. All those songs are about real experiences. Some people have said the lyrics are obvious or cliches but I don’t really care because writing them was my way of processing the things I was dealing with. As far as musically, we’ve never been a band that just stuck to one particular sound. If we all like the way it feels and sounds we’re gonna play it and track it.
When you listen back to Rocky Ground, which song do you enjoy the most? Like when you hear it, you go “YES. We nailed it on that one.”
I can’t speak for everyone in the band but for me, “Weight” and “All” stand out. I know “Vacation” and others stand out to the other guys as favorites.
Half the record seems rather atmospheric, and the other half are exciting barnburners: is there an intentional split in your music? And is it more difficult to play the “slower” ones live?
Not at all. Nothing about what we do is “intentional”. Like I said before, we all listen to a lot of different stuff and it obviously influences what we write. If it feels right, we’re gonna play it. We’re not trying to put ourselves in a box and say “we’re this type of band”.
For me, a lot of the slower songs that we play hit me harder. For instance, “All” is written about a specific person and situation. I remember getting a call from that person saying they were in the hospital, and going down and being there till 4 or 5 in the morning after one sold out Casbah show – then playing a sold out Belly Up show the night after and while we played that song, just losing it. One of the lines is, “Who’s got your back when I’m done?” and at that time and place, it was made very real and present again.
What’s the plan now that it’s out?
There’s a lot within music that you can’t control. We’re definitely pushing this record and trying to get people to listen to it and there’s been a lot of pretty insane stuff that’s happened or almost happened – but it’s all out of our hands after we write and record the songs. We’re just gonna keep doing what were doing and explore whatever opportunities that come or we can create.
Are you guys writing new music, or are you focusing on supporting the new record?
Both. I have probably 30 or 40 songs that we haven’t explored as a band yet and a bunch that we have. We’re definitely pushing the record but pushing equally as hard at writing new songs as a band. I’m really excited about some of the new tunes – they’re really fun to play.
Lastly, if you could open for one band or artist in the last 50 years, who would it be and why?
The Beatles, no reason needed. The Clash, because it’d probably be nuts. Wilco, so I could hang out with Jeff Tweedy (we’d probably be good friends, he and I). And Skrillex, so we’d be relevant.