Howler hit the right notes with debut album
Local rock quartet Howler's rise to international prominence has been so swift that if you blinked twice in the past six months you might have missed it. Virtually unknown as recently as June, the group had become required listening for British music hipsters by the time 2011 came to a close, thanks to a record deal with august U.K. label Rough Trade and incessant fawning from kingmaker magazines like New Musical Express (NME named the band's frontman, Jordan Gatesmith, "one of the 50 coolest people alive" in addition to ranking Howler third in its survey of the best new bands of the year). Combine all the overseas love and worldwide blog buzz with heavy spins for tracks from the band's debut EP on 89.3 the Current (not to mention landing on the cover of City Pages' Year in Music issue), and Howler find themselves in the simultaneously enviable and unfortunate position of being somewhat overexposed before they've even been properly introduced here in the Cities.
Thankfully, their debut album, America Give Up, doesn't sound remotely burdened by all the big expectations. A carefree blast of sunny garage rock with surf-tinged riffs, its 11 tracks get by on manic energy and youthful bravado, making up in sheer spunk and insidious catchiness what they might lack in originality. Countless bands have trod this fan-fertile spiky-pop terrain to great success before, and Gatesmith's detached lower-register croon recalls the Strokes' Julian Casablancas on more than one occasion. Highlights include the caustic mod-rock nugget "Back of Your Neck" and the distorted mid-tempo ramble "Free Drunk," which shows the band is surprisingly adept at serving up cracked Pavement-style balladry.
Fresh off a mammoth U.K. tour, Gatesmith took time out to talk with City Pages about the band's ardent British following, his love of snarky lyricism, and why he never reads his own press.
City Pages: Immediately after signing with Rough Trade, Howler went on two extensive tours as an opening act, one here in the States with Tapes 'n Tapes and one in the U.K. with the Vaccines. How did the experiences compare?
Jordan Gatesmith: I have to be honest, with Tapes 'n Tapes it was definitely a struggle for us. Not personally, those guys are great, just the actual performances. Because literally no one knew who we were on any of the tour stops, so we definitely had to win people over each night. The U.K. experience was just surreal by comparison because for whatever reason we just have a much higher profile over there. We would be playing sold-out venues like Manchester Academy [which has a 2,300-person audience capacity] in England and the first two rows of the crowd would be singing along to every word. It's still weird just thinking about it. [laughs]
CP: Any idea why the Brits seem particularly into what you guys are doing?
Gatesmith: I can't say for sure but it definitely helps us over there that we're American. They've been sort of starved for American garage-rock type bands over there, whereas here in the states it seems like we're just one of many. There's good guitar rock all over the United States, and I think they're kind of craving some of that in the U.K. We just happen to be the ones that caught on right now.
CP: You write songs with a lot of sardonic and confrontational lyrics, expressing the sort of sentiments that would likely get you slapped if they were dropped in to casual conversation ["I hate your lover and his friends/I want all of it to end/And there is one thing that is true/You're a bitch and I hate you"]. Do you enjoy playing the provocateur in song?
Gatesmith: I do. I'm a fan of poking at people. There's a long musical tradition of great bands and artists that did that, whether you're talking about the Replacements or someone like Jonathan Richman. It's never meant to be actually mean. We just have a dark sense of humor.
CP: A lot of great things have happened for Howler in a relatively short amount of time. Do you allow yourself to stop and enjoy the successes or prefer to keep the blinders on?
Gatesmith: I'm very excited about all that's happened for us so far but I don't like thinking about it too much. About a month after we got signed I just decided it would be better off I stopped reading any press about us, both good and bad. It's an unnecessary distraction. Right now I'm mostly just excited to be home for a whole month and able to focus on writing music. I'm happy about everything, but there's still so much more for us to accomplish. We're eager to get out on the road and support the album.
CP: Any life lessons from the road so far?
Gatesmith: I think no matter how big a tour you're on, the challenge is just dealing with each other. Being stuck in that van with five, six people for weeks at a time turns out not to be all that glamorous, even if some of the gigs are. You start off as friends but can move into some weird territory fairly quickly if you aren't careful. [laughs] There's definitely been points by the end of longer touring stretches where it's like, "Let's avoid each other at all costs or something bad is going to happen." [laughs] We're good about giving each other that space though, and then by the time we've been back in town a few days we're all buds and want to hang out all the time again anyway.
HOWLER play a CD-release show with Radiator Girls and Prissy Clerks on SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, at the Triple Rock Social Club; 612.333.7399
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.