It would seem that crossover time beckons for Brooklyn’s finest, as they prepare to release their best album yet. But despite their burgeoning success, things aren’t as rosy as you’d imagine…
New York’s Parquet Courts belong to the tradition of fourpiece rock bands with great dual songwriters who strike gold a few years into their career. And like, say The Clash or Beatles, Parquet Courts are also founded upon the abiding creative tensions of its twin writers. Andrew Perry delves deep and discovers scars that run nearer the bone than anyone imagined.
Ellen DeGeneres is a big fan of the whistle. The sitcom actor, who stunned America in 1997 by coming out on Oprah and has since become a ratingstopping afternoon chat show host, was apparently already a keen aficionado of Parquet Courts, even before the Brooklyn-based alt-rockers appeared on her show last month. Performing the title track of their fourth album proper, Wide Awake!, the band unveiled a hitherto concealed funky proclivity, busting out a four-on-the-floor beat, a street-walkin’ bassline, some Latin-tinged cowbell percussion, and – the icing on this uncharacteristically sugar-rush-inducing gâteau – syncopated blasts on a ref ’s whistle. As its blower, Austin Brown, one of the band’s two singing guitarists, reflects a couple of days afterwards, DeGeneres “knew our stuff. She actually watched us soundcheck.” “And she talked a whole lot about the whistle,” adds their other co-frontman, Andrew Savage. Such liberal deployment of this titchy wind instrument is in itself a trivial detail, but it feels like a pivotal development in the Parquet narrative. As we join them in Austin, Texas – the music capital of the state where both Brown and Savage grew up – for an artery-choking dinner at their fave local Tex-Mex restaurant, there’s a real sense that this outsider combo are about to step up to a higher league. Thus far, they’ve emerged in the grand tradition of New York City underground rock, carrying on the baton from such too-cool-foreverything ledges as The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Their angular post-punk style (Pavement was another key reference) initially suggested a band happy to bash away at the margins. Gradually, they came in from the cold: 2016’ s Human Performance found Savage, their fierce alt-DIY driving force, ditching lyrical obfuscation for more relatable confessionals after a romantic break-up. Two years on, Wide Awake! is explicitly their response to the bewildering political events of the intervening months, yet it’s not made up of sweary diatribes against Donald Trump. Instead, the bulk of its lyrics offer broader meditation on the daily orgy of bad news – systematic corruption, gleeful prejudice, uncontested violence – and the terrible sense of paralysis that anyone in opposition to these horrors feels. The album’s unqualified genius is to present a viable alternative. Perhaps most appealing to British ears is the opening Total Football, which espouses the ethos of the Dutch soccer team of the 1970s, where stars such as Johan Cruyff were encouraged to express their individuality with unfettered freedom, while never losing sight of the team’s overall purpose. Many might be surprised to hear indie types from Brooklyn banging on about “soccer”, but Parquet Courts have often claimed allegiance to Manchester Utd in interviews. “And we had Louis van Gaal as manager for five minutes,” notes Brown the much maligned Dutchman actually held office for two seasons], “but that was more boring football.” “It’s certainly not just a song about sports,” adds Savage, author of all the record’s political tracks, between bites from a veggie enchilada. “It’s basically applying their concept to the USA today, where many, including a lot of younger people, are craving a cultural model that’s against the American individualism that’s been so heavily emphasised for generations here” – for which, read: the kind of NRA-affiliated maniacs currently getting Presidential endorsement. “You look at the wave of demonstrations that are going on in the US right now,” Savage continues, “and it’s obvious that people are seeking a more collective ideology, but because we are Americans, I guess there will always be this craving for individuality and autonomy, so the song’s about finding a more nuanced version of collectivism that also allows an opportunity for strong personal expression.” So, Savage’s lyrics celebrate “rebels, teachers, strikers, sweepers”, as well as “workers, authors, poets, stoppers”, while somewhat far-sightedly tagging the Dada artistic movement, The Black Panthers and The Beatles as “total football”. “Better protected whenever collected,” they chant, and, making the song’s statements all the more potent, throughout the ensuing LP, PC audibly qualify as total football themselves, with bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage chipping in with vocals on what Andrew Savage aptly daubs “a very rhythm-forward record – so those guys are just as important as me and Austin.” However, much like the Fab Four at their most evolutionary and “total” in the late ’ 60s, this band is an uneasy alliance of conflicting personalities, with abiding tensions at its core.
Backstage at Austin’s 2000- capacity outdoor rock shrine Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, Andrew Savage combats the mid-afternoon springtime heat by entering the climate-controlled Airstream trailer that serves as Parquet Courts’ dressing room, and popping open an ice-cool pale ale. With his sky-blue Afro-artprint shirt tucked neatly into his jeans, Savage, 32, is a fairly hostile interviewee, even when sitting out under a shady tree with a beer in his hand. All the band’s more caustic energies derive from him. Savage first got involved in music while at college in his hometown of Denton, Texas, where he put on gigs, formed his first outfit, Teenage Cool Kids, and got linked into America’s DIY alt-rock grid system. On moving to Brooklyn’s low-rent hipster ’hood, Bed-Stuy, circa 2010, it was he who put together Parquet Courts, to include: Brown, another Denton alumnus who’d relocated a year earlier; Yeaton, a sometime Vice journalist from Massachusetts, whose old band, Daniel Striped Tiger, had cut a split single with TCK; and Max Savage, his little brother, younger by six years. Savage Sr, who self-released their debut cassette, American Specialties, on his label, is very much their alt-politico conscience. “My songs are generally maybe more highly strung,” he admits, “where Austin’s are more laid-back.” This balance shifted on Human Performance, where his self-questioning post-break-up tunes led to what he perhaps unfairly calls “a ballad-heavy record”. He goes on: “Those songs were from a different point in my life that’s not really apropos right now. For me on Wide Awake!, writing introspective or self-indulgent songs would’ve felt inappropriate. But then, Austin’s songs are all personal songs – he didn’t really have the same sentiment as I did.”
Brown’s songs tackle themes of death and impermanence, often at a far gentler tempo, but the changes in pace are masterfully handled. Savage’s near-feral sense of engagement is memorably imparted on the track Violence, where he barks, “Savage is my name, because savage is how I feel.” Asked about those words, he counters, “Yeah, but you need to say the full lines, which continue, ‘…when the radio wakes me up with the words “suspected gunman”.’ It means that I feel savage, uncivilised, because I live in an uncivilised country, where this massive amount of grotesque violence is allowed to happen on a daily basis. Just by living here, I feel complicit in that allowance, even though as an individual there’s very little I can do. It has so much to do with money and corporate interest. So, as a citizen of this country, I think we’re all brutish. I’m sure it looks that way from the outside, looking in.” These are uncomfortable truths, of far greater complexity than, say, the binary boo-hiss politics of Green Day’s American Idiot. Savage writes with an uncompromising, self-examining rigour, as if to scour away any vestiges of apathy in his psyche. Even the album’s dancefloor-struttin’ title track, which seems an unequivocal ‘eureka!’ of political awakening, has, he says, a darker twist. “It’s a tiny bit tongue-in-cheek, about how quick people are, especially young people, to boast how socially conscious they are.” He pauses, then deadpans: “But it’s 90 per cent sincere.” “There’s meant to be a feeling through the album of, ‘You’re on the precipice of change, because it does feel like maybe all this ugliness will resolve in a change for the better.’ You can see people getting mobilised right now, so the hope is that this will be a period of change, and that for some people this record can be a soundtrack to it.”
Outside on the necessarily shaded stage, Parquet Courts whip through Wide Awake!, their collectivist principles extending as far as drafting in their tour manager, Doug, to batter the cowbells. Job done, satin-jacketed Austin Brown leads the charge across the road for more tacos. With his extravagant fringe and goofy drawl, it’s easy to cast Brown as Parquet’s answer to Thurston Moore. Where Savage’s conversation is littered with references to Ramones, hardcore, and obscure anarcho-punkers The Mob, Brown, as befits a songwriting spar in a classic Mick-’n’-Keef-style duality, is more of a Lou Reed man. “I guess a load of taking drugs and listening to the Velvets just kind of took its toll,” he grins, and goes on to concede that there’s friction over their differing aesthetics. “Andrew and I would both agree that we can write any kind of song we want in Parquet Courts,” he says, “but our vision for where we want the band to go next might be different, so there’s this constant push and pull. Like I wanted this record to be totally different to everything we’ve ever done, with lots of dub influences, and dance tracks, and all sorts of different instruments, and he was like, ‘I want it to sound like a band playing in a bar!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do that!’ But then, through working on each other’s songs together, we kind of wind up in this middle ground. Because neither of us wants us to sound like two different bands on the same record.” Brown’s vision of widening their remit manifests on Mardi Gras Beads’ sophisticated Caribbean shuffle, but for the first time, PC enlisted a name producer in Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, to broker between their conflicting impulses. “People’ll see his name,” Brown smirks, “and be like, ‘Oh, so they’re gonna be Adele now? Or The Black Keys? Or they’re gonna be rappers?’” In fact, Burton left them to their own devices, and concentrated on streamlining the 30-35 tunes they’d written, and all their varying influences and ideas, into a coherently sequenced finished article. With coincidental thematic relevance, most of the recording was done at Sonic Ranch, set on a 3000- acre pecan farm in Tornillo, Texas, a three-minute bike ride from the US border with Mexico – so, if construction had started on Trump’s wall unannounced, they’d’ve been the first to know. Such looming atrocities in the external world, says Brown, were probably not unrelated to how his lyrics delve into unpleasant corners of his own psyche. “We’re all having heavy conversations right now, aren’t we?” he reasons. At its most extreme, the lilting, kids’-choiradorned Death Will Bring Change deals with the emotions arising from the death of his sister in a car crash, when he was a kid. “It’s been a defining characteristic of my personality all these years,” he says, “but I always thought, ‘Well, if I write a song about
a person grieving, then I’ll have to talk to people like you about what it means.’ I don’t particularly like to talk about it – at all – but I guess I just felt like it was time. “It’s hard to write about being upset about the politics in America, when I’m struggling with something like that. You know, grieving can make huge problems seem small, and small things seem impossible. But I guess it’s a reaction to everybody – not in the band necessarily, just people in the country – being extra-sensitive right now.” Even Andrew Savage, the swingeing politico, responded to that mood with the track Freebird II, which similarly explores a bitter feature of his childhood. “I grew up blue collar, and had a mother that was incarcerated, and that deals with drugs,” Savage reveals, his voice unusually faltering, and understandably so. Again, he says it’s taken him years to build up to writing the song. “There’s a line, ‘I’ve learnt to brush over my history, and how it’s sequenced’, because sometimes people ask, ‘Are you close to your parents?’, or about the way you grew up, and you just figure they’re not gonna be able to relate, so you just brush over it, to not make things awkward for people.” Having such fearless private exorcisms alongside the broadsides makes Wide Awake! an album of rare substance and redemption.
Back at Stubb’s, a lively crowd of textbook Texan loons are converging for tonight’s banner show in 2018’ s Levitation Festival (formerly known as Austin Psych-Fest), which also features garage guru Ty Segall. For the occasion, bassist Sean Yeaton sports a black Venom T-shirt, proudly referencing his metal past. Another big personality in the ranks, Yeaton’s a hilarious East Coast motormouth, who shuttles in from the remote forest cabin in North-East Pennsylvania he shares with his wife and two kids, to bring the incessant mirth and broader life experience that surely help stabilise Parquet Courts’ volatile chemistry. “At home,” he says, “I’m the town freak. I roll in listening to the Butthole Surfers with the windows down, and buy things at the grocery store to make tofu scrambles, and everyone’s like, [ sappy parochial voice] ‘Well, I’ll be! He has a tattoo of a thumbless hand, will you believe?’” In the band, he’s more like the voice of reason. Though he’s written songs on previous LPs, he says his task this time “was more confined to getting everything out of Austin and Andrew”. The unbeatable alchemy of a four-strong rock band – so discredited in British pop these days – is there for all to marvel at later at Stubb’s. Onstage, Parquet Courts are tight, taut, fit to explode. A hardcore-esque battery of Savage’s latest tunes leave their author’s face purple and voice in tatters, all deftly offset against Brown’s sashaying polyrhythmic counterpoints. The kind-of-hometown audience respond with waves of crowd-surfers, but their appreciation finally enters the rapture zone three-quarters of the way through, when Wide Awake!’s jittery disco beat kicks up, Brown gives it some whistle to whooping approval, and dancefloor carnage ensues. “What can we expect to achieve with this record?” Yeaton wonders aloud afterwards by the Airstream, his Venom shirt reassuringly soaked through. “The best-case scenario is it’s gonna make someone somewhere have an Ayahuasca-esque transcendental experience, and the worst case is everyone says it sucks a biggie.” Q confidently predicts the former outcome.
“I had a mother that was incarcerated. There’s a line [on album track Freebird II], ‘I’ve learnt to brush over my history’, because sometimes people ask, ‘Are you close to your parents?’” Andrew Savage
Sweet and sour: Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown (left) and Andrew Savage.
Nice shirt! Parquet Courts (from left, Max Savage, Andrew Savage, Austin Brown and Sean Yeaton).
Brooklyn heights: Parquet Courts keep up their artistic balancing act, for now, Austin, Texas, April 2018.