Howler: The Best of What's Next

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Hometown: Minneapolis
Members: Jordan Gatesmith (guitar, vocals), Ian Nygaard (guitar), France Camp (bass), Max Petrek (keyboards), Brent Mayes (drums)
Album: America Give Up
For Fans Of: The Vaccines, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Replacements

Jordan Gatesmith is only 19. But the precocious Minneapolis musician has already survived so many failed outfits that he can barely remember their short-lived monikers. “In total, I could say I was in a million groups, because that’s what it felt like,” the tall, angular axeman chortles. “But realistically, I’d say about 40, or something like that.” The names he can recall are hilarious and appropriately sophomoric—Tits, The A-Cups, Gay Animals, Our Dark Lord and Total Babe, who actually licensed its slick pop tunes to TV show Grey’s Anatomy and even German candy commercials. What did he learn from all this? That he absolutely despised being in bands. So much so that he gave up on them entirely at 17.

Eventually, though, Gatesmith was able to form Howler, one of the most buzzed-about new groups of 2012. The Rough Trade debut America Give Up brilliantly blends some great rock ’n’ roll sounds—wah-oohed Beach Boys surf, scruffy Replacements ebullience, the folk-finessed punk of their UK touring mates The Vaccines, and the Gothic white-noise rumble of vintage Jesus And Mary Chain. That’s all compressed into pile-driving anthems like “America,” “Black Lagoon,” “Back Of Your Neck,” and “This One’s Different,” songs so addictively chiming that—upon first hearing them—Rough Trade exec Geoff Travis instantly dispatched an A&R man to Minnesota to sign Howler, who, at the time, were barely a unit at all.

Currently, Howler is comprised of guitarist Ian Nygaard, bassist France Camp, keyboardist Max Petrek, and drummer Brent Mayes. But make no mistake—it’s singer/guitarist Gatesmith’s show, 100 percent. He wrote all the material, recorded every early Howler demo at home, and carefully hand-picked these talented members from the cream of his hometown crop. He’s learned his lesson, he swears. “Groups always start out with somebody saying ‘You know what would be so cool?’ And then you get together and everyone’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know what to fucking do’,” he grumbles of his past also-ran combos. “So it usually turns out like, ‘Alright—we’re gonna write Western music, but we’ll have this super-hardcore, heavy metal breakdown in the middle of it!’ That shit always happens—really stupid shit like that.”

The final straw? Gatesmith’s stint in a septet called We Valedictorian, where he was wrestling for creative control with a second key songwriter. The other five fellows wanted an equal say, too. Finally, he sighs, “I just wanted to walk away from all that and only rely on myself—it was a very conscious decision.” He set up studio shop in his basement, with a microphone, loop pedal, guitars and a drum kit, and began mad-scientist experimenting. A certain Ventures-catchy riff grabbed his ear one day, so he looped it, laid down percussion, then a bratty chorus. Sensing a brand-new beginning, he dubbed the DIY ditty “This One’s Different.” And how right he was.

“It wasn’t written with anyone else—it was just me, by myself. Not really taking any influence from others,” Gatesmith recalls of the turning-point track, which wound up on an EP of the same name. “It was written really, really quickly, and I remember being completely excited, so I demoed it out that same night, again by myself, using Garage Band. “It sounded so dreamy and magical that I kind of freaked out—I told myself ‘This is something that should really be explored.’ So Howler started out as just me, in my basement, just trying to figure out the rest of this sound that I’d started with that song.”

Howler’s catalog consisted of a scant eight anthems when Travis sent his man to Minneapolis to catch a concert, with only two days’ notice. The group was nervous, jittery—until they met the guy. “That A&R agent was just the goofiest British man I’ve ever met,” laughs Gatesmith, who’s already so revered in England that Howler just clocked in at #1 on NME’s “100 New Bands You Have To Hear!” issue. “He was a really cool guy, but you couldn’t understand a word he said—he’d be talking, getting really serious, and all I really heard was ‘Blah blah blah, mate. Blah blah blah.’ And we were playing this little shit club—only 70 people could fit in there—and he got really drunk and just stood in the very front, just nodding his head. And after the show, he came up and said ‘You want a Mustang guitar? I could buy that for ya!’ And then he disappeared.”

The next morning, it was final: Howler was joining the prestigious Rough Trade family. Gatesmith already knew about the label’s rich history—knew much about a lot music, in fact. One minute he’ll be rhapsodizing about The Everly Brothers’ catacomb-grim “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” the next he’ll break into an impromptus version of Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang.” Then he’ll go on at length about his favorite shoegaze bands (he’s even planning an all-shoegaze Howler EP), before musing over which Jesus And Mary Chain album is more definitive, Psychocandy, Darklands or Automatic. And he’s not afraid to wear these influences on his tattered T-shirt sleeve, either.

“When I went about writing our song ‘Back To The Grave,’ it was almost like I wanted to do a rewrite of a Jesus And Mary Chain song,” admits Gatesmith, also a huge fan of JAMC descendants The Raveonettes. “I’m not ripping them off—I was like, ‘I just wanna do a song in the vein of the Mary Chain, but I’m not gonna do a chorus at all.’ And to write a song like that without a chorus? I thought that was pretty cool.”

The anthem “America”—and the album title, as well—are tips of the humble hat to Bruce Springsteen, circa Darkness On The Edge Of Town. “Which goes along with the album cover—it’s supposed to be a pack of Lucky Strikes, for that all-American-tobacco feel,” says Gatesmith. “So we’re flipping the whole ‘American’ thing backwards with this totally goofy, sarcastic, twisted kind of political song, even though our album is not entirely political.”

How did the Howler honcho become such a musical authority at 19? He doesn’t see anything unusual about it. “It was just what me and my friends listened to growing up,” says Gatesmith, who recently met another hero in Paris—Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. “It started with punk rock for me, then it turned into ‘What influenced punk rock? Who inspired Black Flag? The Clash? The Sex Pistols?’ And then it became ‘What happened after punk rock? What was this whole alternative music scene that came next?’

“So it’s always been about exploration for me. From the get-go, I was always trying to dig up all these other bands.”