Restless NYC four-piece Parquet Courts released their latest full-length 'Wide Awake' last Friday. In their eight years as a band Parquet Courts have gone from gone from DIY punk beginnings to touring the world and Grammy nominations and on their Danger Mouse-produced new album they’ve unearthed their finest and most accomplished work yet.
Stylistically it’s their most eclectic record to date but what separates it from the rest of the band’s back-catalogue is the subject matter. It’s an album full to the brim with passion, anger and sincerity but still delivered with their trademark sardonic wit and slacker nonchalance.
At its heart, the album is an indoctrination in navigating 21st Century Bullshit – tackling themes of the normalisation of violence, finding truth and meaning in the endless social media void, overcoming the defeatist trap of nihilism and finding happiness in collectivism, without having to sacrifice individual autonomy and creativity.
Ahead of the release of 'Wide Awake', we sat down with Austin Brown and Andrew Savage to discuss the new record, the politically-charged manifesto behind it and what’s it’s been like navigating the path from their DIY beginnings to being one of contemporary guitar music’s most vital bands.
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The term ‘prolific’ gets thrown around far too liberally, a sure-fire term in every music journo’s lexicon, but if anyone’s deserving of the categorisation it’s Parquet Courts. Their last album, 'Human Performance', was released in 2016 and in the two years leading up to 'Wide Awake' they've kept themselves ridiculously busy. There was an incredible collab record with Italian composer Daniele Luppi titled 'Milano', Andrew released his first solo album 'Thawing Dawn', Austin produced the debut record from fellow NYC band Rips and bassist Sean Yeaton released an album with Sun Kill Moon’s Mark Kozelek.
Talking about what it was like juggling all of that, Austin explains: “It had been a little while since 'Human Performance' came out and our tour schedule ended up a bit lighter over the last year. That allowed us to explore all these different things which I think is really cool.” He continues, “I think it was really helpful for the group to be able to step away from it but still be productive and pursue all these different ideas. It allowed us to exercise different muscles.”
Returning with a refreshed creative outlook and said muscles fully-flexed clearly paid off, whilst being their most accomplished effort to date it’s also their most collective effort, with every member of the band offering vocals for the very first time. A gesture they claim falls in line with the communal message that runs through the album.
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I think it was really helpful for the group to be able to step away from it...
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The band have always been driven by a relentless DIY attitude. Their earlier recordings were released on their own label and all their iconic and simply-unmatched visual art has been the work of Andrew. Despite their humble beginnings, in the last few years the band have gone on to tour across the world, work with celebrity pop producers like Danger Mouse and end up being nominated for a Grammy for the vinyl packaging for 'Human Performance'.
On what it’s been like trying to maintain that do-it-yourself attitude when faced with all of that, Andrew admits he struggled with it for a while until looking around him and realising that even the most ‘underground’ and ‘DIY’ bands still had teams of people working on certain aspects of the music – DIY becoming more of an empty signifier, in most cases.
“I don’t consider many bands to be more DIY than Parquet Courts. You know, we don’t put out our own records anymore but that’s just because Rough Trade is much better at it than us.” He reasons: “Parquet Courts are special because we’re all very intensely involved and engaged with the band. Not naming any names but I know a lot of bands that seem to be stuck on auto-pilot.”
Austin seems far less phased by it all, sharply declaring: “if people are writing us off because we don’t have the right DIY credentials, well, that’s more their problem. If we’re judged by anything other than the music we’re making then that’s not really on us.” Echoing this, Andrew admits the band aren’t centred around any kind of pseudo-ideology on what DIY is, for them all they’re interested in is being a great rock band.
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If it’s the desire to be the next great rock band that drives them the most, then 'Wide Awake' might just be the album that affirms that goal. It’s one of those rare records that can veer from bursts of anger and existential dilemmas to moments of pure hip-shaking joy. When pressed for their influences on the LP, the band list everything from old-school dub and 80s American punk bands like Minutemen and Big Boys to the avant-garde funk soundtrack of cult Blaxploitation film 'Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song'.
For this record, though, their biggest inspiration came from outside of music: “I think the biggest influence was the state of the world, and specifically the state of America, right now”, says Andrew. 'Wide Awake' is a caustic reaction to the political climate that’s plaguing the world around them and from the first second the band make their intentions glaringly clear.
Album-opener ‘Total Football’ takes its name from the Dutch football theory that requires every player to be able to play every position in the pitch, it’s a roaring call-to-arms that summons everyone from teachers and strikers and artists poets to pool together as the lyrics chant mobilising lines like ‘Only those who stay awake can an institution be dismantled’. “I think that people right now are really seeking something ideologically to unify under and you see that starting to happen with a lot of the activism and resistance that’s going on right now.”
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I think social media is more of a projection of individuality...
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The key mantra behind the album is one of collectivism and community, for Parquet Courts this putting aside of differences and coming together is the only way to find optimism and meaning in the current climate. Since the beginning, the band have refused to have a presence on social media so we were interested to see how they thought Facebook and Twitter fitted into this idea of collectivism.
Surprisingly they were somewhat optimistic, though admitting that the digital world has left individuality more nuanced than ever. “I think social media is more of a projection of individuality which is why I think it’s something that appeals to people. That’s why it’s been an important part of self-expression for a lot of people younger than us”, says Andrew.
Despite its obvious problems and their personal distancing from it, it’s clear the band aren’t too quick to dismiss the role social media plays in collective resistance – retweets, hashtags and live streaming an undeniable weapon in the arsenal of modern social movements. This is how Austin sees it, anyway: “Although social media can be very self-indulgent and self-obsessed, people are finding ways to use that to find community and affect social change. It’s a new tool that people are still figuring out how to use – in some kind of sinister ways but some really beneficial ways, too.”
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Whilst on the one hand an inspiring collectivist mantra, another reoccurring theme on 'Wide Awake' is the denunciation of the normalisation of violence in contemporary life – taking issue with the fact that we’ve all become so immunised to the horrors unfolding around us on a daily basis. ‘Violence’ tackles this head-on - revolving around the vocal hook ‘Violence is daily life’ - and as does ‘Normalization’ which wrestles with the ‘contemporary dilemma’ of finding autonomy and truth in the loudness of modern life.
On the track Andrew bellows ‘Lately I’ve been curious / Do I pass the Turing test? / I’m not sure I wanna know’ – developed by Alan Turing in 1950, the Turing test measures the capabilities of artificial intelligence to see if we’re able to distinguish their behaviours from that of a human. (Sidenote: a Google AI just passed it so, yeah, we’re all doomed.)
Talking about why he believes violence has become so naturalised in American life, Andrew explains: “I think because of the sheer frequency of it and how omnipresent it is. When you think about it, in 1999 when the Columbine Massacre happened in Colorado, that dominated the news for like a whole year but now when something on that scale or bigger happens it gets forgotten by the public conscience much quicker.”
As an example he points to the Las Vegas shooting that occurred last year, the deadliest mass shooting in US history: “That should have been something that really shook people to their core but that disappeared fairly quickly too and that’s just because the news can’t really keep up with the pace of violence anymore.”
“All these extreme things have just become totally normalised and it’s become hard to react to them and mourn them so as a band we felt we had to come together and find a way to react and express ourselves,” Andrew continues – outlining the personal urges that would lay the groundwork for 'Wide Awake'.
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The news can’t really keep up with the pace of violence anymore...
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The album navigates a very fine line between ferocious pessimism and joyful optimism, it’s the sound of the band coming to terms with the world that surrounds them and shunning the overbearing cynicism in favour of hope and unity. Whilst laying out their grievances with the 21st Century human condition, on 'Wide Awake' Parquet Courts also offer the perfect remedy: finding joy and meaning in those around you and not succumbing to nihilism.
As Andrew puts it: “[Wide Awake] is about finding meaning in everything that you do, not falling into those traps of thinking that you don’t matter. It’s not the easiest path but it’s a valuable one.”
For Austin, this nihilism and pessimism is what’s got us into this mess in the first place: “It’s just important for us to be on record being against it all because it’s so prevalent and ultimately I think it’s the road that’s got us to the dark place America and the world is at right now.”
There’s not a doubt in my mind that one day people will look back on Parquet Courts with the same reverence that’s placed on the many cult New York bands of generations yore. On 'Wide Awake' they’ve carved out an album that makes you want to spit with rage, cry, laugh and jump around your room like an idiot all at the same time. It’s a zeitgeist-defining album that captures all corners of contemporary life in both its highs and lows, all the while refusing to shake the same acerbic wit they’ve mastered through the years - offering serious life-lessons without taking itself too seriously.
Which, to me, is exactly what we all need right now.
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'Wide Awake' is out now on Rough Trade Records.
Words: Jack Palfrey
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