Rational Anthems: Parquet Courts interview
Parquet Courts’ joint frontman A. Savage tells Jonathan Wright about the American rockers’ new LP and its “anthems against nihilism”…
There were, says A. Savage, two primary emotions he wanted to explore when it came time to record the new Parquet Courts album, Wide Awake!: “Joy and anger”. These are not emotions you readily associate together, but perhaps it helps here if, like Savage, you’re steeped in the American punk scene. “Take a band like Youth Of Today,” he says, name-checking a straight-edge Connecticut hardcore band first active in the 1980s. “All the lyrics were about not drinking and being positive, but the music was angry: it was all still angry boys screaming into a mic, but being positive. I think that aggression needs to be there.”
It’s an observation rooted in disquiet over the current political situation, especially in the USA, but the reason Savage emphasises joy as well as anger is because it’s self-defeating to counter those who espouse populism on their own terms. “All these leaders – Trump, Putin – they’re nihilists, they don’t believe in anything,” says Savage. “Nihilism, it’s not like a thing where you can fight fire with fire, you need to believe in something right now. And so that was the overarching theme for me: anthems against nihilism.”
It’s a succinct description of Wide Awake!, a state-of-the-world record that deals with big themes, such as the first rush of political consciousness on the title track, “collectivism versus autonomy and about how mutually exclusive they need to be” on Total Football, and global warming on the sardonic Before The Water Gets Too High.
But if Wide Awake! nods back to punk conceptually, that’s by no means the full story. Sonically, it’s an album that’s far more expansive than anything Parquet Courts have recorded before, incorporating funk influences and electronica. It also marks the first time the band have worked with an A-list producer, in Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, many more).
Perhaps surprisingly, Savage says this didn’t have much effect on the way Parquet Courts approached recording at Sonic Ranch, ‘the world’s biggest’ residential studio, in Texas. “Process-wise, not much changed,” he says. Then again, one reason the band wanted to work with Danger Mouse is because he’s not a producer with a style so distinctive that it becomes more important to the record than the artists he works with.
“He was somebody who genuinely wanted the band to sound like the band,” says Savage. “I honestly wasn’t familiar with him at first and when I listened to what he had done, there didn’t seem to be a sound, which is good and encouraging, because what it means is he respects the artist and wants them to sound like themselves, not to enforce his will and his mark on something. There are different kinds of producers, but I think we knew we definitely wanted to work with one who was going to recognise and be a fan of what we do, and want to push us and encourage us rather than put his own stamp on something we’d already been establishing for the past eight years.”
For all this, there’s a snap, a commercial savvy about Wide Awake! that is, if not wholly new, far more finely honed than on previous Parquet Courts records. It could well be an album that pushes the band towards the kind of unlikely mainstream success enjoyed by, say, The Decemberists. Bearing this in mind, did Savage feel any pressure around expectations of the record?
“No, not really, no,” he laughs. “I probably have only thought that once, and that was for Sunbathing Animal , because it was the first time we had come into the studio with an actual audience that was listening to us, which wasn’t the case on Light Up Gold  or certainly not the first record. But no, expectations are only going to get in the way.”
If Savage seems taken aback by the question, it perhaps helps to understand that Long Live Vinyl meets him at The Louisiana in Bristol, a waterside pub with a modest-sized upstairs room for gigs. Later on the same day, he will perform a show to promote his 2017 solo album, Thawing Dawn, released via his own Dull Tools label, a collection of songs that’s quieter and more intimate than his work with Parquet Courts.
Savage doesn’t begrudge going back to smaller venues. Rather, he relishes it. “There was a time that playing places like this would have been beyond my imagination, so going back to playing rooms for 200 people or 150 people, I really do miss it,” he says. The solo work, he adds, is a way “to express myself differently”, because: “I’m not just a musician in Parquet”. Besides: “I don’t really go to shows resembling the ones Parquet Courts play in civilian life, the ones I go to would be more similar to this in New York.”
You could, of course, see this as posturing. It’s the kind of thing musicians routinely say to prove they’re of the people, yet it’s a remark in keeping with Parquet Courts’ history. The first LP from the band (Savage, brother Max on drums, co-frontman Austin Brown and bassist Sean Yeaton), American Specialities in 2011, was initially a cassette- only release. For all Parquet Courts seemed to break through suddenly in the UK, the reality is the band gradually built an audience through graft. To use a word not much associated with the music business, there’s a rigour to Parquet Courts, a quality that mirrors hardcore’s emphasis on self-reliance and honesty – ahem, keeping it real, even.
Savage doesn’t disagree. Parquet Courts, he says, are rooted in punk, but he’s realistic about where the band may be headed, if suspicious about the genre labels – indie, alternative – that come along with finding a bigger audience. “I think we’re more of a rock band now,” he says. “We come out of punk, that’s the reason I do a DIY label with smaller bands, I never want to leave that world. But Parquet Courts kind of has and that’s fine, I no longer have existential dread surrounding that. I’m at peace with that, because I’m still active in the scene in New York with my label, the venues that I go to, the bands that I support, my friends all are there… but Parquet Courts doesn’t play those shows in New York anymore.” Even when the Brooklyn residents did play a hometown show in 2017, it was at Silent Barn, a community arts space. “We always like to play weird and odd spots, even if they’re very large odd spots, and something to always kind of keep us at a distance from the standard trajectory of what a band like us should be doing,” says Savage. “One thing that distinguishes Parquet Courts is, too many people take these kind of placeholder milestones as gospel stages of ascension, whereas part of being in Parquet Courts is this idea that we have agency and we can choose our own way.”
In this context, it’s perhaps telling that, at one point, Savage notes: “I like bands that stand out, that are outliers to an outlier scene.” Or even outlier records by outliers. A big influence on the young Savage was Yes Sir, I Will by Crass, the 1983 album where the anarcho-punks improvise and offer up “one long manifesto over the course of two sides that goes from raw noise to soft parts”. As a fan of “capital ‘p’ punk”, here was a record that went against the teenage Savage’s preconceptions of what punk should be.
From a different angle, Savage also namechecks George Clinton’s Funkadelic, a band he was listening to a lot before the recording of Wide Awake!: “I consider Funkadelic to be one of the punkest bands ever, because ideologically, they were so separate from everybody, be it rock or r’n’b, nobody was like them,” says Savage. “They didn’t have a scene, the whole band was a scene.” Add in drummer Max’s recent interest in synths and drum machines, and suddenly, the latest iteration of Parquet Courts’ music starts to make perfect sense.
Wide Awake! is, in Savage’s view, partly an exercise in finding a creative middle ground between punk and electronic music – although: “To me, my ears, because I’m so within it all, it sounds like a Parquet Courts record, it sounds like us.”
It’s almost time for Savage to go to soundcheck. Essentially studious and serious, but someone who shows flashes of humour and pays you the courtesy of trying to answer questions rather than just promoting his wares, he’s been good company. Were he your friend, you’d go to him if you were in trouble, although any advice he gave would probably be near-distressingly honest. But there are still a few minutes to talk some more about records and an unexpected influence on Savage’s vocal performances on Wide Awake!, Divine, the outré, poop-eating star of John Waters’ early films and sometime disco singer.
“I love Divine’s voice and the way that she didn’t try to hide the fact that she was biologically a middle-aged man,” says Savage. “Just sing, all gritty, I love that.”
A. Savage has 3,000 albums. “I’m starting to entertain the idea of moving into my own apartment,” he says, reflecting on his shared accommodation. “I’ve put that off for four years, probably just because of the moving records bit of it. Soon, whether I do that or not, I’ll have to have a frank discussion with myself about how important these things are I’ve amassed.”
Savage’s not too interested in “the cult of vinyl”. Nevertheless, it’s still his favourite format: “The music interests me, but as an artist, someone visual, someone who gets really into designing the packaging of Parquet Courts records, it’s the best physical format I’ve found so far.”
He doesn’t go record shopping on tour as often as he used to do because: “I guess I’m more interested in buying food now”, but he’s still able to rattle off a list of favourite record stores.
“Probably one of the best stores selling new punk and hardcore stuff is called Material World and it’s in Brooklyn. It’s great. Academy Records in Brooklyn is wonderful for all types of music. The Academy on West 18th Street is great for jazz, new music, avant kind of stuff. There’s a store called Record Grouch in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that’s wonderful. I don’t even walk down that block unless I know I have money in my pocket, I know I’ll go in there. And the Captured Tracks store is really good. I guess when I’m on tour, there are places I always like to go: End Of An Ear, in Austin, Texas or Double Decker in Pennsylvania – those two might be the best record stores I’ve ever been to.”
Any final thoughts on vinyl? “I would encourage your readers to take the sleeves outside of the jacket and file them away that way. It was a long afternoon, but an afternoon well spent, I’d say.”