Orange County Rockers The Garden Are Wild, Wacky—And Totally Undeniable

·12 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

“I’ve always liked the word ‘horseshit’,” declares Wyatt Shears, with all the certainty that one had better summon in making such a simple statement. “It’s a strong word, honestly,” cosigns Fletcher Shears, his twin brother and bandmate in the wild and wooly Southern California art punk duo The Garden. They first visited the h-word in 2018, on the guttural, emoticon-titled track “: ( ”—pronounced “sad face”–with Wyatt shout-singing, “We all make mistakes / And one of mine was putting up with the horseshit.” The boys returned to the term just last week, dropping Horseshit on Route 66, their fifth album, opening another chapter for one of the more breathtakingly original, witty and anything-goes experimentalist outfits of the past ten years. “There’s some nostalgia in the word as well,” Wyatt continues. “Yeah, it reminds me of a word an older person might say, like, ‘Aw, horseshit!’” adds Fletcher with a laugh. Twins, it seems, really can complete each other’s sentences.

Of course they do. It's precisely that kind of weirdness, with words, musical mashups, and hilariously provocative takes on the world, that has made The Garden so singular, the embodiment of “vada vada”–their own invented word for a “why not?” approach to art that dismisses rules and conventions. Rip-roaring hardcore here, drum and bass grooves there, forays into rap and electronica, and unexpected stops, starts, time changes, and samples at every turn. Also, they frequently perform decked out as jesters. The Garden’s sound and presence has attracted collaborations with other provocateurs over the years, from 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady, James Bulled of Kero Kero Bonito, Le1f, and even Carrot Top. The band’s greatest flirtation with larger pop culture awareness came in 2017, when they opened on Mac DeMarco’s North American tour, then teamed with the beloved indie rock everyman on the sparkling 2019 one-off single “Thy Mission,” accompanied by a deranged music video set in a devil-meets-Jerry Springer-style talk show. Minutemen, The Strokes, Beastie Boys, B-52’s, Dublin’s Gilla Band, and many other touchstones may race through your head when listening to The Garden, and yet they really sound like no one but their vada vada selves.

Here’s a tree-falls-in-the-forest-type question: When are identical twins not identical twins? How about, when you can’t see them? Here I am, getting ready for a late August Zoom call with two guys who look alike, wondering if I’ll be able to tell them apart, when I discover that we’re not doing video. Okay, then. The guys are in different locations–Wyatt currently lives near Long Beach, California while Fletcher, who joins us a few minutes in, after a doctor’s appointment that ran late is adjacent to downtown L.A. And while I do have their names in black boxes, popping up so I know who’s speaking when, I quickly realize that their speaking voices are different. Wyatt, The Garden’s bassist and more frequent lead vocalist is the louder and more exuberant of the two, given to bursts of laughter, while drummer and vocalist Fletcher is slightly more measured and deliberate. But both, to be sure, share a wicked sense of humor.

Photo credit: Ashley Cue
Photo credit: Ashley Cue

Just look at their titles: albums The Life and Times of a Paperclip and Kiss My Super Bowl Ring, the EP U Want the Scoop?, and tracks including “Call This # Now,” “Who Am I Going to Share All Of This Wine With?” “Clench to Stay Awake,” and “The King of Cutting Corners.” Their lyrics, whether sung, shouted, or screamed, are reliably satirical, droll, Dadaist absurd—fun. “If you don’t really make art yourself you might take us as, ‘Oh they’re not taking this seriously because they’re not serious musicians that act seriously and behave seriously in their art,” says Wyatt. “But for us, we like to add lightheartedness to our music. That’s just who we are.” Which is not to say, as Fletcher comments, that they aren’t serious about their work. “We’ll talk about serious subjects, but it’s always woven in with humor,” he explains. He adds that his long-running solo project, Puzzle, tends to be less humor-driven. (Both Puzzle and Wyatt’s solo endeavor, Enjoy, have generated 10+ albums themselves)

The visual of this disposition is The Garden’s longstanding affinity for donning jester looks, in face paint and even costumes. They introduced the practice sometime around 2014, and the centerpiece of the new Horseshit on Route 66 is “What Else Could I Be But a Jester?” “It’s almost like asking ‘What else could I be but myself?’,” says Fletcher. “We’re naturally sarcastic, trickster-y,” adds Wyatt. “On stage it translates to a kind of roll around, somersault, entertaining vibe.” It’s evolved over time–there have been baggy zoot suits with jester makeup and a mischievous, grotesque court jester duo on the cover of 2018’s Mirror Might Steal Your Charm. The release party for the set, filmed for the French culture channel ARTE, saw the twins fully jestered-out under a circus big top.

This summer they gave us creepier jesters, joined by skaters in a So Cal swimming pool, in the video for the outstanding “Orange County Punk Rock Legend,” and the cover portrait on Horseshit might be described as “jester meets Pierrot meets the Sunset Strip.” In their live shows, The Garden don’t do the jester look every night. In fact, the 2021 tour for Kiss My Super Bowl Ring had an aesthetic that was more about top hats, garbage cans, cobwebs. “Not much thinking even goes into it, honestly,” says Fletcher. “A lot of times I won’t know if Wyatt’s gonna have jester garb or face paint on until moments before we get ready to go on stage.” Adds Wyatt, “We don’t ever want to have to box ourselves into a ‘we’re expected to do something every night’ thing, by the audience.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Between the vada vada philosophy and jester outfits, a taste for irony and faded glam, and Fletcher’s erstwhile penchant for genderfluid looks, The Garden has the ingredients of a cult band on tap. Wyatt concedes that their intention has been to create a world of their own. As for their following, he adds that The Garden’s crowd has morphed over time. “We have a primarily pretty young fan base,” he explains. “You see cycles, where people age through stuff and drop off, and then a whole new crop of people are into it.” There are, of course, long-term fans as well, which is part of why the brothers have kept at it. “There could have been points where would have maybe stopped, and the hype and the interest around us definitely would have dropped off as well. But we just kind of kept going?”

The latest output from that factory, Horseshit On Route 66, is another freewheeling ride. The set draws on the brothers’ long-held obsessions with ghosts and the supernatural. “We made a semi-conscious effort to bring it up a little more on this album,” says Fletcher. “It’s a part of ourselves that we haven’t totally elaborated on.” The brothers once took a road trip to visit two reputedly haunted Nevada hotels–the Goldfield and the Mizpah–and “a bunch of weird shit happened.” They toyed with recording the new LP in a haunted space. “But I looked around and there’s just not a lot of options to do that sort of thing in small towns,” explains Wyatt, “and even if you do rent out a warehouse, it’s kind of difficult.”

The theme is obvious from the album’s lead track, “Haunted House on Zillow”–a suitably spooky, wacky opener peppered with sound bites about ghost sightings. Other Halloween-worthy songs, including “Chainsaw the Door” (brighter and bouncier than its Leatherface-evoking title would suggest), “At the Campfire”, and “X in the Dirt” follow. The record even strays into real-life horror. On best-title champ, the sludgy “Squished Face Slick Pig Living in a Smokey City,” the twins conjure the sometimes claustrophobia-inducing experience of urban life, with an especially dark spoken-word section by Fletcher that retells a true scene that he witnessed in downtown L.A.. Recalling it now, he says, “I just saw some guy getting his face kicked in, on the side of the street by somebody else. His face was all red, you couldn’t even see what his face looked like cause he was getting the shit kicked out of him. It was just 2 p.m., in broad daylight, and it’s the kind of shit you see around here. You get used to it, but it has an effect on you, long-term, when you see it every day.”

There are other highlights, especially the immediate, irresistible “Orange County Punk Rock Legend,” a song that’s already booked a spot in my top five singles of the year. The beauty of The Garden is that a song this relatively simple and utterly bananas doesn’t just work in a minute and 41 seconds, it kills. The elevator pitch? Well, it opens with these sawed-off drums and Sugar Ray-type guitar… Hold up. Sugar Ray? Oh yes. I defy you to listen to “Orange County Punk Rock Legend” and not think “Every Morning.” “That’s okay!” says Wyatt, laughing, when I make the comparison. “I love Sugar Ray, and when I made it I was kind of messing with an acoustic guitar a lot and I probably subconsciously channeled my inner Southern California on that one.” On top of the track, Wyatt–a man of many voices–lays into an especially bratty snarl.

If they aren’t yet legends of Orange County, they are surely among its modern musical treasures. Still, the brothers’ native county is many things. John Wayne Airport. No Doubt. Disneyland. The Offspring. Ty Segall. The O.C., Laguna Beach and The Hills. The Shears grew up not on the beach, but in the city of Orange, and they’re happy to represent. They are also well aware that it can be a polarizing place, but are quick to point out that the O.C. is so big, it’s hard to make generalizations about it. “It gets a bad rap, the TV show, and a lot of other people are like, ‘Oh, racist rich people!’," says Fletcher. “But a lot of people who say that aren’t even from there.” Fletcher is especially proud of the county’s seminal place in punk rock. “One of the first hardcore punk bands that ever existed, The Middle Class, came from Orange County,” he says. “Orange County had a massive punk scene in the early Eighties, even the late Seventies. And a lot of that stuff is what my brother and I grew up listening to. You know, born in Orange County, raised on Orange County punk rock music, and raised on U.K. punk rock music, and L.A. punk rock music–I mean, that stuff to us was our lullaby music basically, when we were kids. I’m not even exaggerating.”

What else could they be, then, but punk rockers? Still, that comes with a caveat. The Garden’s idea of “punk” doesn’t mean looking, sounding, or thinking like a thousand other bands, but rather centers on experimentalism and non-conformity. When the Shears formed the outfit in their late teens, it was the early 2010s and lo-fi punk and garage bands were still a big part of the indie landscape. The twins increasingly found themselves sharing a bill with those acts–and not much else. “We would always play shows with those bands, but we weren’t really listening to them,” says Fletcher. “We were listening to a whole different thing that was going on, more left-field style, like the rap stuff that was coming out of New York, with Mykki Blanco and Le1f. That was really punk rock to us.”

Likewise, their earliest releases, with Fullerton-based Burger Records found the boys on a label where they weren’t an ideal fit. “They were into power pop, and psych rock,” explains Wyatt. Punk rock wasn’t the focus. “We just kind of got mixed up in it.” They left the label years ago. And with Horseshit on Route 66, The Garden have parted ways with Epitaph Records, the label synonymous with So Cal punk, with whom they released their last three LPs. Now, they’re self-releasing for the first time since 2013. “For us, being on a label was an interesting thing to try,” Fletcher offers. “We had never really tried it before, like with an official label where we signed a contract and did the whole nine yards. We were in a deal that constituted three albums, so that’s what we did, and then when the deal was over, we weren’t really interested in doing any more of that stuff.”

“We’ve always thought we were in a lane of our own,” he adds, maybe the best summation of The Garden available. Soon that lane will include highway lanes, literally, as the Shears DIY-it across America in support of Horseshit on Route 66, beginning in New York on October 2. Will the tour include a stop along the iconic American highway in their album title, as some of the vada vada faithful have been urging? That remains TBD. “I’ve spent a lot of time on Route 66 actually,” says Wyatt. “We don’t have any dates there on this next tour, unfortunately, but it would be cool if we did do that.” “Some people have definitely given us shit for that,” adds Fletcher. “Like, ‘Why would you call your tour “Route 66” if you’re not even gonna be on Route 66’”? Never say never. Turns out, the legendary roadway even has a ghost town on it–Two Guns, Arizona. Sounds like just the spot for two ghost-loving twin brothers known as The Garden. Vada vada.

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