Interview Switched on, turned up: Parquet Courts
After a more melancholic turn on 2016’s ‘Human Performance’, Parquet Courts have reignited the fires for ‘Wide Awake!’: their most direct, confrontational and downright important album to date.
“Can the headline be, ‘Parquet Courts have recorded their ‘Tubthumping’?’” asks Andrew Savage wryly, as he and co-frontman Austin Brown both let out a dry chuckle. Yes, in case of any confusion, they are talking about Chumbawumba’s beery anthem. And yes, we honestly are talking to the right band.
Of course, the twitchy Brooklynites haven’t actually recorded an album of laddy sing-alongs and there’s precious little mention of getting knocked down and then back up again across sixth album ‘Wide Awake!’, but there is something to be said for the analogy. Ditching the more introverted, downbeat tendencies of 2016 predecessor ‘Human Performance’, ‘Wide Awake!’ instead thrives on wired and punchy directness. There’s even an exclamation mark in the title, just to make damn sure you know they’re going for the jugular this time around. The quartet’s newest, like the aforementioned ‘Tubthumping’, could even, perhaps, be labelled almost… accessible? “Accessible means something different to me but I understand that point,” muses Austin.
“When I think of more accessible music I think of something more generic, which I don’t think anyone would say about our band. But the music isn’t challenging to listen to, it’s not a noise record, and that was kind of part of the concept - to be something that you could dance to and that was groovy, but that also had strong meaning in the songs too. Accessible can be advantageous…”
Having broken through with 2012’s ‘Light Up Gold’ as an uncompromising, unflinching proposition with an encyclopedic knowledge of punk’s more esoteric side-roads and about as much personability (in matters of the press, at least) as that description might suggest, the fact that Parquet Courts are now even entertaining words like ‘accessible’ is a new development. Despite their success, they’ve always seemed like a band who’d rather be loved by few than liked by many. “Even bands like The Fall and Psychic TV have their accessible periods, and then periods that are really austere and challenging,” shrugs Andrew by way of explanation. And if this is their version of the former, then let’s not forget they’re secretly packing a fair whack of the latter in with it, too.
“When people examine this moment in time, I want it to be clear what Parquet Courts stood for.”
— Andrew Savage
See, although you need only listen to the scattershot beats and shakers of the album’s title track to see that ‘Wide Awake!’ exists in a largely different sonic realm to, say, 2014’s ‘Sunbathing Animal’ (“That was just like, one note [throughout]. That’s challenging to a listener,” notes Andrew), what Parquet Courts have actually done this time round is far from simple. Thought they’d just written a load of upbeat bops? Come on, you should know them better than that by now. Existing firmly in the politically fraught and tumultuous modern world, ‘Wide Awake!’ instead rings with energised and combative missives designed to grab people by the shoulders and force them to sit up and think. “It’s shaking people up, you know? Don’t be seduced so easily into nihilism and apathy. Because that’s definitely an easier road than actually taking this stuff head on, right?” questions Andrew. “Young people are growing up in a culture where there’s the internet and Trump and then there’s more progressive, idealistic politics; there’s basically hope and wilful non-hope.”
Here, Parquet Courts are actively and determinedly choosing hope. On opener ‘Total Football’ – based around the sporting theory of the same name that suggests that a team is best when all of its players can take the place of and cover each other – they assert that “collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive.” On ‘Violence’, Andrew barks a barely-contained, speak-sing stream-of-consciousness that crescendoes with the line “Savage is my name because savage is how I feel… My name is a threat”. ‘Normalisation’, meanwhile, finds them questioning personal agency in the modern world: “Lately I’ve been curious, wondering do I pass the Turing test [conducted to see if man is smarter than a robot]? Do I think?”. The whole thing is an impassioned tumult of words designed to question the status quo, wrapped in a deceptively perky exterior. Parquet Courts, essentially, are going full-on Trojan Horse.
“We played a show in Atlanta, which is what ‘Almost Had To Start A Fight’ was inspired by, and there was a young guy in his early 20s wearing Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” recalls Andrew. “It was deeply upsetting that somebody who endorsed a far-right wing demagogue would be coming to one of our shows and be a fan of our music. I was really ethically conflicted on how to react to that – do you fight this person or does that just embolden them further?” He continues: “In a way perhaps [that gave me a sense of] responsibility for Parquet Courts to articulate where we stand on what’s going on right now. When people examine this moment in time as they surely will, just as we examine previous interesting moments in history and the culture that surrounds it, people are going to be looking at music and assessing it in that context and I want it to be clear what Parquet Courts stood for in this moment.”
“People have this perception that we're hyper-serious people, but so much of what we do is just like, 'ah why not…'”
— Andrew Savage
As well as making a social and political standpoint, what Parquet Courts also seem to stand for in this moment is the breaking down of their own former habits. After five albums recorded entirely in the insular band bubble, what might account for part of that new ‘accessibility’ is the introduction of a new pal to the fold in the form of producer Danger Mouse [he of Gnarls Barkley / ‘The Grey Album’/ general A-List star fame]. “He approached us and was enthusiastic about us considering him. Then when it came time to make the decision, we ended up doing it because I always like throwing something out there that might subvert the expectation of even a really hardcore fan and cause some confusion,” explains Andrew, in typically left-of-centre form. “The idea to me of someone who’s in the more mainstream area of pop working with a band like ours is funny. People have this perception that we’re hyper-serious people that take our work really seriously and make these really calculated decisions, whereas so much of what Parquet Courts does is just like, ah why not…” And did six-time Grammy Award-winning, million-selling Danger Mouse ever explain exactly why he wanted to work with Parquet Courts? “He’s pitching his train to our shooting star,” deadpans Austin. “Exactly, he’s riding our coattails,” joins in Andrew. “People know the name Danger Mouse now…”
If there are already a few surprises up ‘Wide Awake!’s sleeves, then this sense of humour is perhaps also another. Whether they’re ludicrously titling a song ‘Freebird II’ or roping in a children’s choir to sing the title line on ‘Death Will Bring Change’, there’s a sense of playfulness here that one might not traditionally associate with the band. “I think we’ve always been evidently humorous people at certain points in our records and our lyrics, and I don’t think anyone that knows us would necessarily define us as being really serious people. But maybe when you do interviews, because it’s your art then you wanna take it seriously, so the mindset you’re in is a serious one,” shrugs Austin, shooting one of his frequent impenetrable stares. “When we first started doing interviews and people were trying to figure out what our personalities were like, we were really on guard,” he continues. “People have a habit of defining you before they allow you to define yourself,” Andrew picks up. “We came at it a bit combatively because we lost the trust a little bit.”
Were there certain things you think that people got wrong about you? We ask, in a move that it’s fair to say does not go down brilliantly. “Even just to answer that question perpetuates it, which is why it’s kind of tricky. We’re having a conversation about it now and it’s fine to talk to you about it but then you’re going to go and write an article saying, ‘They USED to be called this but they REALLY want you to know they’re not like that…’” Austin sighs before catching himself. “I’m not trying to be combative or anything, though. I’m definitely not that. I’m definitely not argumentative and I’m definitely answering all of your questions, just so that’s clear. And I have a sense of humour too.” He’s back to joking now, but there’s an underlying sense of truth.
And there’s the thing with Parquet Courts. Even at the dawn of their most direct album yet, they’re still never going to be the happy clappy, smiley pop stars that always play ball, and that’s what makes them so damn good. On ‘Almost Had To Start A Fight’, they question “What if I’ve grown tired of being polite?” It might not be the most socially easy one to ask or answer, but it’s one that someone needs to have the chutzpah to put out there. And right now, it seems like a very important question indeed.
‘Wide Awake!’ is out now via Rough Trade.
Taken from the May issue of DIY. Read online or subscribe below.
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