Evolve or Die: Parquet Courts interviewed
After ambitious experiments and "vitriolic" reviews, Parquet Courts aren't about your approval. Austin Brown tells The Skinny about the band's push for progress.
'Nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life,' sings Andrew Savage, sagely, on Parquet Court’s recent single Berlin Got Blurry. That wisdom certainly holds true for reputations. Since the New York band’s album Light Up Gold took off in 2013, a 'slacker' genre tag and comparisons to Pavement have lingered with the persistence of a particularly pungent whiff.
Usually a Malkmus-endorsed Pavement reference is a wonderful thing; the only problem is that Parquet Courts find their influences by looking forwards, not back. In a 2014 interview with The Skinny, co-vocalist and guitarist Austin Brown spoke of the band – himself, brothers Andrew and Max Savage, and Sean Yeaton – as taking “more deliberate” steps to throw off any prescriptive expectations from fans or critics. Later that year, a brief name change to Parkay Quarts for an album experiment titled Content Nausea provoked the NME to ask, “Who are [they], and what have they done with the real Parquet Courts?”
More recently still, the band released two records in the space of six months. Between the divisive EP Monastic Living (Nov 2015) and their most commercially successful album to date, Human Performance (April 2016), Parquet Courts have taken affirmative action in “putting those expectations to bed.”
"It’s not easy, going into the studio and saying, ‘Alright, we’ll write a new kind of song’" – Austin Brown
Revisiting these questions of representation, Brown remains admirably patient. “We never try to describe ourselves in a way that means we have a mission statement,” he explains, steadily. “Or, to have like, an ultimate version of Parquet Courts that means we define ourselves in certain terms, or release certain kinds of records – we’ve done all kinds of songs and records! But for me, that makes it interesting.”
He firmly reiterates that the band have never been interested in “deliberately trying to confuse people, or making any kind of statement.” They work within a simple brief: “We try to stay interesting, we just try to make sure that each song, each record we write is developing and evolving, and moving in a certain direction. Maybe they could just call us a good… or even great, interesting band! With good songs! That’s how I’d liked to be described.”
When the Monastic Living EP dropped with little warning last November, it was received with excitement – which rapidly boiled over into a steamy serving of disapproval. A scathing Pitchfork review (“wordless... also tuneless”) became the go-to judgement on the largely instrumental, aggressively ambient record. Brown hesitates slightly when the conversation turns to the EP, with understandable caution. “We really didn’t consider that it would be reviewed, honestly,” he says. “We didn’t really make it under the impression that people would be… upset.
“We were trying to clean the slate a little. Do some experiments, have fun. We like music that is instrumental and droney and noisy. I felt that people that like the same kind of music that we do, or like the same bands that we do would get it, and be into it?” Brown laughs, a lot. “But what we found was that it drew a really interesting line in between the fairweather indie rock fans and people who maybe understand us on a deeper level. I really appreciate [Monastic Living] for that reason, because I thought it was hilarious when people hated it. It wasn’t some grand statement – it was something we made that we liked, and we felt was right in our wheelhouse. But when people hated it I realised that it was actually important. The vitriol that was written about that record is really what defines it as a success for me.”
It’s easy to see how a listener expecting more of the same band that made Light Up Gold, or the early 2014 follow-up Sunbathing Animal, would have found it a turbulent change in atmosphere. Parquet Courts' earlier releases are punk in ethos, with brutal but immediate interplay between raw guitar lines and observational, blunt vocal delivery. Tough in spirit, but still moreish in delivery, they offer a considerable contrast to Monastic Living’s lack of discernable hooks. But, as a snapshot of the band’s sonic experiments and considerable ambition, the EP stands firm as a valuable, important milestone.
What’s more, Monastic Living’s crowd-splitter isn’t as removed from Human Performance’s commercial success as some fans would have you believe: it was recorded in many of the same studio sessions. The band's fifth LP took an entire year to write and record, a task of a whole different stature than their usual couple-of-weeks process, and as Brown describes it, that decision was entirely intentional.
“We’ve learned how to write a Parquet Courts song. And how to write a Parquet Courts record.” Brown pauses, for comedic effect. “And I think a lot of other bands have learned how to write a Parquet Courts song, too! I’ve heard a few that are getting a little too close for comfort. But it’s hard to know what the next step to take is. It’s not easy, going into the studio and saying, ‘Alright, we’ll write a new kind of song.’ We wanted to evolve the sound of the group. We wanted to not repeat ourselves. We took the amount of time that we did because we were trying to do something new. Through time, you gain perspective.”
The end result of all that time and space is Parquet Courts' most melodic, most ambitious record to date. A discussion of identity, human behaviours and the transience of New York City told through spaghetti western balladry, echoing soundscapes, experimental percussion and savvy, spoken-word rock’n’roll, Human Performance rings with the sound of a band firmly avoiding their own expectations. As Brown remembers, “It was all about understanding that it’s okay not to be comfortable with the kind of song that you’re making. So many songs we’d record, and it was like, ‘I like it… but it doesn’t sound like us.’ But when the record was done, I was like, 'Okay, this sounds like us on a different trip' – but it still sounds like Parquet Courts.”
Asking Brown which songs felt particularly dangerous results in a list comprising nearly half of the album: “Dust, and Captive of the Sun. One Man, No City. It’s Gunna Happen. Already Dead… Steady On My Mind! Yeah, these are all songs that have a very different kind of instrumentation, and it was risky to go with them – for me that became very important. I think we realised that you can be clear with the lyrics, and not miss the point of the song.”
Human Performance portrays the many faces of New York, from the serious subject matter of Two Dead Cops to the comedic frustration of a favourite take-out having closed shop on I Was Just Here. Rather than examining the city, though, it takes a closer look at the humans swarming its streets.
With such a title, it seems obvious to ask if the band are avid people watchers? Brown laughs. “Weeelll... you’re not wrong! A human performance is something that people do every day. It’s about a person performing as human – the way that you perform the act of being yourself, and the way that you perform for other people because you want to be perceived a certain way. Sometimes you believe you’re acting sincere, but maybe no-one believes you? You can start to question a lot of things… Who am I? I’m not the person they’re telling me I am, I’m not the asshole they’re seeing… so how do I act good? You can find it on a song like One Man, No City – what am I, if I’m not my home and what I surround myself with? Where do I belong, if I don’t feel like I belong at home?”
Sometimes such acute self-scrutiny results in introspection; in Parquet Courts it manifests as formidable, brilliant ambition. “You know, when we first started the band our goal was to write and record a record, have that record released on a label – release it ourselves, and go on a tour we booked ourselves. We did that. That was Light Up Gold." Brown pauses for breath. "Our most recent goal was to spend a year making a record, and have it be a different kind of record, and have it be more successful than our previous records. We did that. Continuing to evolve the group, to stay interesting – to ourselves, most of all, but ideally to other people listening… that’s really it. I wish I could say that we hope to write a classic record; I don’t know if that’s really possible, but, I mean, that’s what’s always in the back of my mind. But in the forefront of my mind? It’s just about moving forward.”