PAR­QUET COURTS

Q (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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