Ascending The Animal Kingdom: Parquet Courts' Austin Brown Interviewed
Simultaneously everyone’s favourite band and completely misunderstood in 2013, Parquet Courts are back to clarify their position with Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts are not as sullen you think. Sure you might think it – after all, plenty of the music press have tried to claim it. However, as their guitarist Austin Brown speaks to The Skinny enthusiastically over a Skype line from his Brooklyn home, while preparing to head out and watch the New York Yankees, there’s nothing like the hostility or antagonism that was reported last year in the wake of the group’s sleeper success story of an album, Light Up Gold. They leave that to their music.
“Yeah some of those interviews seemed like we were being rude, right?” Starts Brown, addressing a handful of articles written in the UK last year that suggested something of a distaste towards the press from the punk four-piece; “but on most of those occasions we were talking for well over an hour, talking about specific lyrics in detail and giving anecdotes – and quotes were being taken from the first five minutes of them meeting us. I understand that for a writer there needs to be a narrative – but for me it was a frustrating experience and as a new band it then becomes hard to fight off the reputation that comes from that type of writing.”
Part of the problem seemed to be that, initially released in late 2012 by the band themselves through Dull Tools, Light Up Gold wasn’t picked up until months later by a music media who – kicking themselves for missing a trick in the ever vapid race to be first – hastily tacked on a narrative before meeting the people behind it. It’s easy to see why they opted to paint the band in the image of disaffected mid-20s caricatures; although it was the group’s second album, Light Up Gold bristled and spat with the unedited rage of youth. It was a record that was – as Brown says – “about growing up in 90s America and figuring out what our place in the world was. Working out how to explain it.”
“Although we’re talked about in the greater indiesphere now, where we exist is in a different place" – Austin B. Brown
With an intelligent, caustic wit to it too, it felt like one of the most vital punk records of recent times – though Brown admits he wasn’t happy with where some people seemed to want to bracket them. “We were being put into this slacker rock/90s nostalgia kind of thing – and we didn’t really feel like we were doing that at all,” he says, before admitting that such misappropriation in part influenced their forthcoming record – describing the band as “more deliberate” in their intentions now.
Recorded over a handful of sessions with friend and long-term producer Jonny Schenke, Sunbathing Animal certainly shares traits with its predecessor – the sense of disillusionment waiting for a promised future that never arrived; a vocal delivery that toes the line between snarling sarcasm and aching sincerity – but in its thirteen tracks lies an even greater sense of claustrophobia. Guitar tones are so clean and jagged that they sound like they’ve been scrubbed until they’re bleeding and raw; lyrical imagery is discomforting in its up-closeness. “Bodies made of slugs and guts,” yelps Andrew Savage on its opening track; “what colour is blood? The same as it always was,” he drawls elsewhere, as the ante is upped further by instrumental melodies that pick and bite as they pass, nipping enough to aurally draw crimson. Blurring man and animal throughout, the claustrophobic nature of the record peaks at the seven-minute Instant Dissassembly, which sees the refrain “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” repeated over and over again, the band seemingly fully aware that they’re pushing its repetition beyond tolerable levels.
“When we started out to make this record, the focus was – more than ever – on the lyrics,” Brown says. “They came first in the process and are meant to be right at the front, so that you’re forced to listen to them. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a hook or chorus on the whole record; but that forces the audience to create their own, depending on which lyric pops out to them – so in its own way it becomes the chorus.” The intention is that the narrative is broken down by each individual, allowing for a myriad of possible interpretations to arise – although Brown is keen to iterate that there is a cohesive concept behind it too.
“The songs are written from a place of longing for something better,” he elaborates. “This record has a lot of themes, finding the grey areas between obligation and freedom, between oppression and expression and filling your duties to yourself but also working out how they fit into your place in the world.”
For Parquet Courts, their place is on the brink of changing rapidly, even while they get used to their recent ascension. If they were the most anticipated act of the week at Texan music showcase SxSW in 2013, then this year saw perhaps an even greater demand as the music industry – now fully up-to-speed – licked their lips at the prospect of another band to sculpt and mould. Brown, though, is insistent that won’t happen. “We did some official showcases, sure, but all that did was give us the money to get there – and with the extra cash we rented out this DIY venue called the Owl on the east side of Austin and booked our own show and it was awesome.”
Brown says that it was the best line-up of the whole weekend “because it wasn’t put together by industry content providers or brands” – and it’s hard to argue with him. Eagulls, from Leeds but cut from similar cloth as the Brooklynites, and Sacred Bones’ guttural garage-psychheads Destruction Unit were among those that played on a bill that re-asserted the company Parquet Courts feel they truly belong with. “We have a duty – and a desire – to maintain the relationship we have with the community that has supported us up until this point,” Brown says. “Although we’re talked about in the greater indiesphere now, where we exist is in a different place. We’ve a pretty strong will and determination to show that and maintain our place in that world.”
Before coming to Europe the group have a show coming up in New York and, backing up that quote, the venue they’ve chosen is Sugahill Supper Club – a food banquet hall in Brooklyn. “We could’ve played a standard venue but it didn’t feel appropriate given that we’re playing at home,” comes the explanation. Decisions like these allow Parquet Courts to maintain their sense of where they came from – self-funded, self-released and truly DIY – even as they take advantage of the opportunities that are coming their way, so long as it suits them. “It would be impossible to ignore the machine,” Brown admits. “But I don’t see where we are now as a different place ethically; it’s just an extension of what we’ve always been doing. We came from a place in New York playing DIY shows with our friends and that goal hasn’t left at all.”
Last year The Guardian wrote that the band were at the forefront of an “outernet” culture, purposefully minimising their presence online and what information people can find out about them. While such a movement is surely inevitable in an age of internet over-saturation, Brown rejects the term when applied to his band – pointing to the fact that they have a Wordpress and admitting that someone ultimately set up a Facebook page for them anyway. “I guess what we don’t want to do, though, is get into the advertising business,” he ruminates, talking – as he has for our whole conversation – in a slow but concise manner. “Part of the fun is people finding you for themselves, right? I mean people are writing about us and we can’t really help that – and to be honest I don’t feel a desire to stop that, because we do want to share our music – but it’d be a bummer if you watched a Parquet Courts ad before you watched a video on YouTube or something. It does fans a disservice to make them feel like they’re being advertised to. As a band we make records and play live, and I don’t think our duty should really go beyond that.”