Parquet Courts' Sean Yeaton on Sympathy for Life
A year later than scheduled, Parquet Courts’ dance-driven new album is the post-pandemic club record we need
On 9 March last year, Parquet Courts were headed into the eye of a gathering storm. Having just finished recording on their seventh full-length album at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire, where they’d been working with both John Parish and Edinburgh’s own Rodaidh McDonald on production duties, they flew back to their hometown of New York City, unaware that within weeks it would be the epicentre of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
There was a particularly perverse irony to this; the record they’d just finished up, Sympathy for Life, plays like a paean to the vibrancy of the city, and particularly to its club scene. They found themselves putting the finishing touches to it at a time where the streets were eerily deserted, when the most prevalent sound on the streets was of ambulance sirens, and when the venues that had so inspired the group were shuttered indefinitely.
“For us, especially, we’ve never been the kind of band where one guy brings in a song and the rest of us flesh it out,” says bassist Sean Yeaton on a Zoom call (an irony in itself, as we’ll discover later). “We work everything out between the four of us – everything’s written together. And suddenly, we’re going through this super intense period of isolation.”
Given that the band continue to eschew social media, they found themselves cut off from the world – and, especially, their fanbase – at a time when, ordinarily, they’d be gearing up to go out on tour. It means there’s something particularly cathartic about their emergence, now, with the album they sewed up just days before then-President Trump banned flights to the US from Europe.
It remains precisely how they cut it back then; this is their grooviest, most danceable album to date, turning away from the taut post-punk of 2018’s Wide Awake! in favour of a record that fizzes with the irrepressible positivity of the again-thriving nightlife of their hometown.
“So much of the record is rooted in us going out to parties at places like The Loft and dancing to so many songs that we were hearing for the first time,” explains Yeaton. “Just amazing stuff from the 70s and early 80s, white labels and extended mixes I didn’t know existed, and the one thing that they all had in common was just this feeling of real, true positivity. We were having so much fun together, and we wanted to make something not that necessarily sounded like the music we were hearing, but that conjured the feeling of those parties.”
That involved a shift in approach, with long jams that would run on in excess of 20 minutes leading to sprawling, groove-driven behemoths like Plant Life, as well as the irresistibly funky lead single Walking at a Downtown Pace. Yeaton would take his cues from his heroes and from the sampling culture of the club scene, learning classic basslines from artists as diverse as Fela Kuti, Herbie Flowers, Paul McCartney and Gladys Knight, chopping them up and then splicing them together to create something new. “I didn’t even really know what I was doing,” he laughs. “We were just having fun screwing around, and I feel like that’s kind of why the sessions worked so well.”
Reflecting on the extra weight that Sympathy for Life now carries, Yeaton admits that he sees new meaning in the songs as they’re presented in a post-pandemic context. “I mean, we could do that all day long – 'whoa, man, you said ‘mask’ on that song!'" But I think, thematically, we were dealing with ideas of the world being crazy and that we have to pull together to get through what’s happening around us – that was born out of the positivity of those amazing parties. I think the title says a lot; you know, that we have a responsibility to appreciate the good things in the world, and to work with one another and make the best of what we’ve got, because we’re kind of in the shadow of something that’s bigger and more chaotic than all of us.”
As the gradual return of live music continues, Yeaton, an eternal optimist, is hopeful that the new normal will involve a more progressive touring model for bands – and that we’ll all get back to real, in-person interaction. “I’m much more suited to that,” he explains. “I suck at talking on the phone; to me, it’s a terrifying, Pavlovian torture device.
“It felt like some Twilight Zone shit to me that people took so readily to living behind their screens, even before the pandemic, and it’s a little bit sad that a lot of people are still going to have one foot in that digital world moving forward. I do have a lot of optimism that we can work things out in the music industry moving forward in a way that we as people can be proud of – but, for now, I’ll settle for just being able to delete fucking Zoom!”
Sympathy for Life is released on 22 Oct via Rough Trade; Parquet Courts play the Barrowlands, Glasgow, 15 Jun 2022