The Growl: ‘I Just Followed My Instinct’
The Growl may not be named for Cameron Avery’s raspy baritone, but it’s as much a defining quality as the blown-out blues on the Perth band’s debut LP. Avery, who also drums for Pond, tells DOUG WALLEN about his ‘heavy’ church upbringing, his love of Elvis and touring America with Tame Impala.
It’s not been a straight road to The Growl’s first album, What Would Christ Do??. The Perth band began as the solo project of Cameron Avery, then of Red Shoes Boy and Abbe May’s band. Soon he had teamed up with guitarist and eager self-recorder Clinton Oliver with happily gritty results. From there the band evolved into a proper six-piece and released a 2011 EP.
Avery and Oliver and company have been chipping away at a full-length record since then, though they’ve had to juggle it with Avery’s duties drumming in Tame Impala sister band Pond. But now it’s done and out – in all its rusty glory – and the band got to celebrate by touring the States with Tame Impala themselves before returning to Australia for their own national headlining tour here.
Interviewed during the US adventure in early March, Avery opened up about the massive influence of the blues – and growing up the son of two church leaders – on The Growl. And also, about getting the band’s “screechy, screechy guitars” and “visceral kind of sounds” just right.
How’s the tour been with Tame Impala?
Yeah, great. We’ve been playing massive venues and they’re all sold out. The reception has been overwhelming: nice crowds, nice people. It’s been crazy. They sung along to one of our songs the other night. A tour doesn’t get much better. The Tame guys are my best friends anyway, so touring around with your best buddies at sold-out venues, it’s been great. The best tour I’ve done, ever in my life.
So you just know those guys from Perth and playing shows together?
Yeah, I just started hanging out with Kev [Parker] and Nick [Allbrook] and Jay [Watson] three or four years ago. Then I lived with Kev and Nick for three years. And I play drums with Pond, so they’re all my buddies. And Clint, who plays guitar in The Growl, recorded the new [forthcoming] Pond album. So everyone’s really buddies on tour. It’s great fun.
The Growl started as you and Clint’s thing, right?
It started originally as my thing that I wanted to do. I had songs that I wanted to record and Clint had this Roland eight-track digital [recorder]. I was playing in another band [and] I didn’t feel like the songs would translate in that band. Clint wanted to start recording bands and I wanted to start my own solo thing. The Growl was originally just a moniker for my solo project. Then it grew out from there to me and Clint recording stuff in his mum’s laundry on an eight-track.
Does the name The Growl have anything to do with your style of singing?
No, not at all. It was just something I came up with it. Wrote it on the side of my friend’s fridge in texter. I like the letters. I just like the sound of it.
“It was something I grew up with. My mum listened to a lot of soul and blues. As I got older, I got more into delta stuff.”
From the lyrics to the music, there’s a real old and gritty blues thing throughout the band. What’s your history with that genre?
Well, when I was a little kid, I was growing up with my mum and she was big into Aretha [Franklin] and Elvis Presley. When I was a kid, I adored Elvis. He’s probably my favourite of all time. I had this tape of box set [of his] that my grandma gave me. Then as I got older, it sounds ridiculous but my mum said at my 21st birthday that I used to play back the section in Back to the Future with ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in it over and over.
I don’t know, it was something that I grew up with a lot. My mum listened to a lot of soul and blues, and like Sarah Vaughn and Louie Armstrong. And then as I got older, I got more into delta stuff and listened to a lot of Skip James and Son House. For two or three years all I ever played was bottleneck and Southern blues music. In my later teen years I got really into heavy blues music.
“It was a heavy, heavy church; my mum was a church leader, my dad [too]. We used to go to church two, three times a week.”
There’s a version of ‘John the Revelator’, which a lot of people have done, on the album. What made you want to put your mark on it?
I heard it on a mixtape that got given to me. I think it was out of a MOJO mag or something. Then I listened to a lot of chain-gang music as well, when I dug into deeper delta/soul stuff, like gospel music. I love the idea of just a cappella singing and clapping. That song just resonated with me. My dad’s a pastor, like a preacher, and I’m not in any way religious, but I just sort of understood what the song is talking about. Even though I don’t read the Bible [any more], I knew what the metaphors in the song were about and what the Biblical reference was.
I didn’t know about your dad, but I was going to ask about Biblical stuff. Partly from the album title and that choice of cover song, but also some press I read compared your live delivery to a preacher. It seems like a recurring theme.
Yeah, I mean, I consider myself pretty agnostic. Hypocritical Christianity is something that’s always intrigued. I think there’s obviously some wrong there. It intrigued me a lot. I find it interesting, different people’s beliefs. Growing up in the church … it was a heavy, heavy church; my mum was a church leader, my dad was a church leader. We used to go to church two, three times a week. I haven’t seem him in years, but dad still is the leader of a large Australian Christian organisation, I think.
Why does the album title have two question marks?
I don’t know, I think it had more of a hilarity. I didn’t want it to be too serious, like an actual question. I used to always go on about hilarious Biblical references to my girlfriend, and I was talking about the album title because I didn’t know what the fuck to call it. And she said, “Why don’t you call it Winner Winner Chicken Dinner? And I was like, “Oh, WWCD. Wait a second, that means ‘What would Christ do?’” So it came about that way.
The two question marks, I don’t know. I’ve got that question two or three times in the last week. It was funnier rather than a serious [affects low and doomy voice] “What would Christ do?”
Yeah, it gives it an exaggerated, comic edge.
What the fuck would have happened if I’d done three?
“I realised I like visceral sounds. I started stacking cymbals up on top of each other so they’d get this loud clatter.”
Have long have you been working on this album?
Nearly two years. It’s just been bits and pieces here and there. It’s really annoyed me, though, because my vibe on things and what I learn about recording stuff changes, obviously, as you learn. Just as the [Cleaver Leaver] EP came out [in 2011], I started writing and recording all this new stuff. Just here and there, wherever I could finish it. I did some of it at the place where me, Nick and Kev lived, I did some of it at [drummer Mike Jelinek’s] house, I did some of it at Clint’s house.
And then when Pond started touring, I lost a lot of time working on it. Mike and Clint were always waiting for [my] final say, so I didn’t want to approve things from the road just through my headphones. And I didn’t really want to rush it either. I wanted it to be finished and good and done.
It’s a really interesting-sounding record. It’s got that blown-out, rusty, clattering thing. Some of the percussion almost sounds like rubbish cans.
Yeah, there is a bit of that on the recording. Weird old cymbals. Ever since I started recording, I liked to just see what it sounded like. That’s the best thing about Clint when we started: he didn’t really know much about it and I knew fuck all about it. Clint humoured a lot of my ideas.
On ‘3, 6, 9’ [from the EP], for instance, there’s three drum tracks: there’s a left-hand drum, a middle drum and a right-hand drum. Like hard-pan left, hard-pan right and one in the middle. As I developed into recording more stuff, I realised I like visceral kind of sounds. Like clatter-y, weird sounds. I started stacking cymbals up on top of each other so they’d get this loud clatter.
There’s not many cymbals on the album; I tried to use the least number of cymbals possible. I hate hi-hats. I don’t hate them, but I don’t like using them and I don’t like chime-y ride cymbals. I found things got heavier when you took the cymbals away. It got a bit more of that gutty thing about it, rather than [makes ‘psh psh’ sounds].
That high-frequency thing.
Yeah, yeah. If your drums are taking up the lower frequency, or like the lower-mids, then you’ve got less room for screechy, screechy guitars. All that top end, you can hear it all the crazy [stuff]. You spend so much time moulding your guitar tone, but you can’t hear it if there’s fucking ride cymbal or something exploding overtop of it.
I want to ask about the song that’s a massive acronym [‘NIYWTLWOE’]. It sounds more electronic, almost like a remix. Is there a story behind that?
Yeah, it used to sound a lot different. The riff in the beginning, that bass riff, was the thing I came up with it when I was just stuffing around playing one day. This evil-sounding, weird riff. And Mike started playing drums along to it. So we recorded a version live and I just didn’t like the live sound of it. I always wanted it to sound like this computer-y … not computer-y, but … it did end up sounding a lot like Skrillex. [Laughs]
“I just tried to not pigeonhole us as any kind of band, and just try to make it sound weird and fun. In my head that’s how I wanted it to sound the whole time.”
But that’s the last one I mixed. I was stuffing around with Kevin one night back in Perth and I just started really, really thinking outside the box. As much as a lot of stuff is pretty roomy on that record, I love presence. One of my favourite records is Embryonic [by The Flaming Lips]. There’s this present thing that’s like right in your face. So I just wanted to get that on the album. I never wanted that song to sound organic. We even got it mastered and I was like, “This sucks,” so I completely ripped the song to bits. Like you said, I remixed it. I remixed the whole thing and made it sound glitch-y and stop-y. The middle bit, Kevin was making jokes: “Meanwhile, back in the iron yard…” That middle section is all [makes industrial noises].
I don’t know, I just followed my instinct and didn’t filter anything. I tried not to pigeonhole us as a garage-y band at all. I just tried to not pigeonhole us as any kind of band, and just try to make it sound weird and fun. In my head that’s how I wanted it to sound the whole time, which took me a while to realise.
‘What Would Christ Do??’ is out now independently through MGM. Launch dates below.
Wed, Apr 24 – Workers Club, Melbourne, VIC [w/The Demon Parade + Them Bruins]
Fri, Apr 26 – Cats @ Rocket Bar, Adelaide, SA [w/The Sweet Decline + Less Than Three]