THE idea of the four members of a band as a gang is the exact type of guitar music cliche that Parquet Courts love to subvert.
The band’s new album Wide Awake presents a bold step forward for them. The jittery guitars and anxiety-strewn lyrics remain. However, musically it’s indebted to funk, Afro-beat and hardcore.
From the title track’s evisceration of performative “wokeness” to
It’s a communal record, the type a band in control of their own career feels comfortable making. There’s also an increased level of participation from all four members, as well as their first time working with an outside producer in
Over four separate interviews, I spoke to every member of Parquet Courts about what Wide Awake’s themes mean to them, the emphasis on funk, and what working with a producer for the first time contributed to the record.
A. Savage (Vocals/Guitar)
I begin with the band’s principal songwriter, Andrew Savage, who’s in his Bed-Stuy studio painting when the call gets connected. A visual artist as well as musician, Savage is currently knee-deep in a new project as the creative director of an LA hotel (“I’ve been here like 12 hours a day for the past two months”) as well as doing press for Wide Awake. He begins by speaking of the album’s outward-looking focus.
Wide Awake is definitely a more outward looking record, whereas Human Performance (2016) was certainly the most most inward looking record because I think typically we combine an outward looking perspective with moments of personal writing. Although saying that, looking at the track listing for the record there’s a few songs, both of mine and Austin’s, that could probably be described as being more on the personal side.
That outward focus was also a product of the political climate in which the record was created in, and wanting to explore that in detail.
I think that probably would have felt strange not addressing on the record. I think it would have been on the peculiar side if there wasn’t a conversation about violence on there, especially. It would have felt a lot for me anyway just because this past year in American life we’ve seen the most grotesque displays of mass violence, and it’s a weird kind of thing, being sort of complicit in it all as an American. You feel as if you are complicit and it’s a weird kind of thing where your emotion numbs to it, which becomes a scary thing to realise.
We approximate the culture to these really interesting times politically around the world, like we’ve done for the Vietnam War for example. I think that 2018 will be like that and this record will be a document of that because I want it to be on record where Parquet Courts stood.
"This past year in American life we've seen the most grotesque displays of mass violence."
Andrew also made a solo record (2017’s Thawing Dawn) in between Human Performance and Wide Awake, a first for him.
There’s a lot of melodic music that got out of my system. I was writing Wide Awake and that record at the same time and I think it was helpful for me to restrain myself from putting the more melodic stuff on the Parquet Courts record. It didn’t feel appropriate to me so it made me realise exactly what I was doing on each record. I had one record that was very personal and melodic and I had one record that was very outwards looking and redneck.
The band also has a well-documented background in hardcore (“I think what’s fascinating about it is this way that it’s very angry music that makes you feel happy”), which was an influence on Wide Awake’s structure as well as the sequencing.
‘Total Football’ is definitely the most classic, hardcore sounding song on the record although it isn’t even really a hardcore song. To me, that’s kind of like the imagery I get when I hear a bunch of slayboys moshing and it’s got that mosh structure of the intro and outro, the mid pace bit and the fast bit in the middle. The gang vocals that happen throughout the record as well, that’s definitely a pretty big hardcore staple.
The album ends on an optimistic note with ‘Tenderness’, a song with a Motown lilt that’s unlike anything Parquet Courts have done before.
‘Tenderness’ and ‘Total Football’ have the same sort of message to them and they both speak in the “we” tense rather than the “I” tense, so I think it was important that Wide Awake begins and ends on this optimistic note. ‘Tenderness’ was definitely the hardest song for me to write on the record, the hardest part being me coming to terms with it actually being a Parquet Courts song because it probably is the biggest outlier on the record.
Austin Brown (Vocals/Guitar/Keys)
Austin Brown is walking around Union Square when I speak to him, killing time before a dinner. The band’s other songwriter, his three songs on Wide Awake (‘Mardi Gras Beads’, ‘Back To Earth’ and ‘Death Will Bring Change’) are slow and harmony-laden, sprinkled throughout as a counterpoint to the jittery, faster sound of the record.
All the songs on there are really succinct and direct. I think we were really focused more on songwriting and groove and less about kind of open ended jams.
I guess I wrote it (‘Mardi Gras Beads’) right after Human Performance; and it was one that I wasn’t really expecting to end up on the record. But everyone seemed to really like it. For me, it was kind of a song that had been around for a while, I was a bit tired of it. But everyone was really into the harmonies and the lushness of the production.
‘Death Will Bring Change’ is a song about grief and grieving, and what it’s like to live with that as a person in grief. It’s a description of how things will change after death. It’s something that you never really move on from, you’re just changed by it. Grief doesn’t really have an ending period.
Maybe I was feeling a little death obsessed but yeah, it was a present theme in my life the moment of writing the record. I’ve been a person in grief for over a decade now. And it’s been something that I’ve wanted to express in song, wanted to write about but never really felt up for it.
What I don’t know about grief is if it really is all darkness. That’s what I was trying to say: death will bring change because there’s some positive bits about it, too. It’s the hardest lesson you can learn in life, I think. It informs the way that you live, understanding that life is temporary and that those sorts of things are difficult to accept and difficult to talk about. It’s not like something that can be wrapped up with a bow on it.
Even though the bulk of the record was written before producer Danger Mouse was in the picture, Austin was initially apprehensive about working with him.
We all were a bit concerned or curious about how he would influence the record. He wasn’t interested in that either though, he really wanted us just to make the best Parquet Courts record that we could make and he was really there to just kind of guide us through the process and be an outside perspective on the best way to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves.
He was a lot more hands off than I was anticipating. He really let us like do our thing and would steer us in the right direction as far as like being able to understand what our vision for something was and help us get there.
Sean Yeaton (Bass)
Sean Yeaton is currently on a fitness kick. I speak to him as he drives to Philadelphia for a show, hurriedly scoffing down a protein bar and telling me of his plans to run a 5k marathon soon. The band’s gregarious and out-sized bass player, Wide Awake presented him with a new opportunity: for his playing to be the main melodic instrument in the band.
I really don’t know how the hell it all happened. I just remember that we were really all listening to a lot of exceptionally groovy music, what we’d refer to as party music, and that we were really gelling together as the four of us. We had really strong bass lines and I was excited to have an opportunity to really fuck with the instrument a little bit more.
I’ve only just played bass since being in Parquet Courts and I’ve always played guitar before that and I kind of missed spreading around on the neck a little bit. I didn’t necessarily realise how many of the songs had these really prominent basslines because we were just recording everything we had. Once we got to the point where we were deciding on the tracklisting it was like, “All those songs in a row have pretty crazy basslines, I hope we don’t play them that way live”, and we have been and my hands are just a total disaster.
I was looking to educate myself more on theory, but through this really inconvenient way. I was getting into super experimental, more modern classical music and also just fascinated by finding ways to turn non-physical objects into instruments. So I really got into this whole other side of music, realising I needed to feel the same sensation of picking up a guitar or bass or feeling that raw, caveman energy of picking up an instrument or creating an instrument, making it make sound until you feel good.
I did it through a different means. Through that process, I was doing a tonne of mathematics and music and sound waves. I was getting into things like branch posing, where you use free software online to physically change the sound of a conversation and then run it through this really weird crowdsourced software. It would give me a committee version of it, and then I would put a messed up instrument on it and that’s what all those songs are.
"I just remember that we were really all listening to a lot of exceptionally groovy music."
Sean credit’s the band’s immersion into funk as helping his own playing on Wide Awake.
I had always thought of the bass as an instrument that I understood provided multiple pumping rhythms but I never really, when I think about bass as an instrument, I always assumed that the best way of approaching it was to not be too showy, but still be able to really hold everything together.
I’ve become a lot more cognisant of the role that I need to play in this position where before I guess I was more concerned with the four of us all together, creating whatever it was that the audience hears. It didn’t matter if all I was doing was adding a couple of frills here and there as long as the end result was this cacophony of sound. But I’ve since become a lot more focused on nuance and the details of what each member is doing, and I think that with the music on Wide Awake, each has its own place.
Max Savage (Drums)
Max Savage is waiting for the rest of Parquet Courts in Philadelphia when I speak to him. A quiet, engaging presence, his drumming on Wide Awake is a further extension of the band’s experiments with percussion and rhythm on previous records. Like his brother Andrew, he’s also in the mood to discuss the album’s overt political and social themes.
I guess it’s probably the most political record that we’ve made so far, and I think it would almost be inappropriate if the record were not that way just because the current climate that we live in and the way the things are in America. It would have just sort of felt irresponsible not to speak out about some of the stuff that we did in the songs.
I mean, we all have very strong opinions about what’s going on right now, and this sort of seemed like the perfect opportunity to vent our frustration about what’s happening. It definitely feels like the most collaborative record that we’ve made. There are many songs that sort of have everyone’s voice in it. It really was collective effort, and it echoes all of our frustrations at the moment.
The album’s title track features a groove destined to be sampled verbatim in the future, and Max took me through how he created it.
When I was working on the percussion for that song, I built it track by track and started with just the most basic dance speed on a drum kit, started adding shakers and then it took on this Latin feel whenever I added the cowbells and the conga drum. Some of it was that I wanted to do more, I set out to do more than I would normally do and then a lot of it came about as I went along and I started hearing these different parts I feel would contribute nicely.
My goal was to make a beat that you could dance to, or at least move your feet to, and that’s literally where I started. I was just playing this very basic four on the floor dance beat on the drum kit and then I slowly started to add things as I felt they would be appropriate. I thought about, just taking on the form of a dance song, what would I want to hear? What kind of percussion would you want to hear in a dance song?
Max shared Austin’s trepidation in an outside producer coming in, something the band had never done before.
We didn’t want to compromise any part of our identity as a band. We weren’t sure. We didn’t even know how much creative control that working with a producer necessarily entails. We didn’t 100 percent know we are getting into, but we did have the chance before we actually went in to hang out with Brian (Danger Mouse) a little bit. We spent a few days at Electric Lady in New York just kind of having fun, working on some songs from scratch. Building them from the ground up. We figured out that pretty quickly that he was only gonna add to the project and that his voice was really important and that working with him would ultimately be a positive thing.
I guess every producer is different, but our experience working with him was really positive and he was able to get the most out of us without being too hands on and without controlling anything. He just really was into the idea of us being ourselves and pushing us. Yeah, I would definitely be interested in doing it again.