Sounds & Images
“We’re not dumb. We know we’re dealing with a certain level of expectation.”
Andrew Savage of the brilliant Brooklyn-based post-punk band Parquet Courts and I are lingering by the bar inside a fashionably unfashionable bowling alley in Williamsburg. It is Friday afternoon in late April, and Parquet Courts’ third record, Sunbathing Animal, is a month and a half from release. (It is due June 3.) I’ve just spent three hours talking, bowling, and drinking four pitchers of expensive locally brewed beer with Savage and his bandmates at the Gutter.
According to the Gutter’s website, this particular bowling establishment is outfitted with eight “authentic wooden lanes” imported from some broken-down dive in Ohio. Being a temporary Midwestern import myself, I am simultaneously amused, annoyed, and comforted by this factoid. But mostly I’m feeling an obsession creeping on about Parquet Courts, the fantastic Sunbathing Animal, and whether Savage’s band is the final incarnation of a particular strain of “cool,” “exciting,” and “underground” New York guitar rock.
Parquet Courts’ previous LP, 2012’s Light Up Gold, was an unlikely hit — originally released on Savage’s own microlabel, Dull Tools, it made Parquet Courts indie-famous enough to tour the world and garner a reputation among music critics as one of America’s best young groups. Light Up Gold “is exactly what one wants New York City rock ’n’ roll to sound like: attitudinal, casual, funny, trickier than it seems, a little bit mean-spirited and in a big hurry to get to the good parts,” the respected rock critic Douglas Wolk wrote in Time, indicating that Parquet Courts’ remarkable for a rock band that puts out its own records market penetration had reached even our nation’s defining mainstream news publication.1
Savage, 28, is the group’s de facto leader. By the way, I never suggested he or his bandmates were less than intelligent. But I understood what he was driving at when he said they weren’t dumb. Savage had already explained what is currently at stake for Parquet Courts during a phone interview one week earlier.
“I feel like it’s important to make this band different, for there to be something special about this band. And I think that the world that we have entered recently — which is, you know, the commercial pop kind of world — there are mechanisms within that world that kind of spoil things sometimes,” he said. “I don’t really like being part of a content-generating device for people to get hits on their website. To me, that spoils it. But also, I really don’t like talking about press, because it makes me seem ungrateful. It’s not the popularity that gives me anxiety, because naturally I want people to hear the music. I guess there are certain associations that make me anxious, the auxiliary things that surround that notoriety.”
If you’re at all familiar with rock history, Parquet Courts’ sound is easy to deconstruct into the usual set of indie reference points. The Velvet Underground’s urban grime. Television’s spazzy guitar solos. The Fall’s rigid repetition. Pavement’s ironic detachment. Guided by Voices’ brevity. Sonic Youth’s candy-coated noisiness. But I’d recommend avoiding the deconstructionist urge. This impulse almost always hurts up-and-coming bands. It “spoils” them, to use Savage’s word. It is the last refuge of cranks and olds who want to dismiss anything new as instantly passé. It disregards the fact that every legendary pop artist (even the “innovative” ones) can be broken down this way. What are the Beatles if not Buddy Holly + Chuck Berry + the Everly Brothers + Phil Spector? Originality in rock music has never been about creating something out of nothing. It’s about creating something out of a previous something and making that new something feel young, vibrant, and sexy.
This is what Parquet Courts does exceedingly well. Light Up Gold and now Sunbathing Animal are first-rate examples of how well-worn tropes of rock’s fringe culture can still be recontextualized as authentic expressions of a big-city, bohemian, twentysomething version of modern life. In less egghead-y terms: Parquet Courts plays simple yet sophisticated pop songs that are both philosophical and danceable. The lyrics are insightful, the Fender guitar licks intoxicatingly jittery, and the rhythm section moves at a restless velocity. Depending on the proximity of your life to the lives of the people behind these tunes, Parquet Courts may make you laugh from recognition, wince from recognition, or simply desire one more night of zero responsibilities and a deep supply of drugs. Parquet Courts’ records are like parties full of kinetic, fascinating individuals who will probably bug the shit out of you once the sun comes up. But who cares about the impending sunrise so long as music this great is whipping through you?
“It’s incredibly jaded and it’s kind of pessimistic to say everything’s been done, and there’s nothing new you can do with it” was how Savage put it over the phone. “I still think there’s some new tricks you can teach the old dog.”
Why go bowling with a rock band? You go bowling with a rock band to observe chemistry in action. In the case of Parquet Courts, I wanted to see if the naturalism of their albums — the sense that they simply plugged in, bashed out a bunch of tracks in 40 or so minutes, and then exited — was real or a powerfully vivid illusion. Do these guys fit with each other? I wondered. One way to determine this (maybe not the best way, but certainly a way) is by engaging the band in question in an activity that involves 2 percent physical strain and 98 percent day-drinking.
“We all synced up really well psychologically in the last year,” bassist Sean Yeaton insists as the five of us settle into a booth with an inaugural “pregame loosening of the joints” round of drinks. “We all got on the same psychic level, and the songs that we all were drawn to and decided we wanted to have on this album were ones that we all gravitated towards really strongly.”
Just listening to Sunbathing Animal, you can glean enough evidence to support the idea that the members of Parquet Courts are presently locked in on a powerful shared wavelength. Recorded during three separate sessions in April and October 2013 and this past January, as the band continually toured and amassed around 30 tracks (five of which were released last year on the flinty Tally All the Things That You Broke EP), Sunbathing Animal exudes pent-up energy and spontaneous inspiration. In some respects, it’s noisier and less hook-y than Light Up Gold — the frothing, furiously amped title track was released as the first single and seemed like a deliberate provocation directed at those expecting another album of amiably driving, ’90s indie-inspired songs in the mold of Gold’s breakout song, “Stoned & Starving.” That’s the one you might have heard on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon back in January that weighs the relative dietary merits of roasted peanuts versus licorice when one is trying to eat one’s way out of a pot-induced stupor.
Sunbathing Animal is a little darker, a little dreamier, and a lot more surreal, with expansive, meandering songs like “Instant Disassembly” and “She’s Rollin” slowing down Parquet Courts’ usual frenetic pace. There’s plenty of frenetic stuff on Sunbathing Animal, too, like the clanking “Black and White” and pogoing “Duckin and Dodgin,” both of which spotlight Savage’s manic cokehead bark. But, lyrically, Animal is physically and emotionally introspective — there are ranting bromides about repression and the struggle to maintain personal identity against the assault of contemporary spiritual and technological warfare contrasted with numerous references to actual blood and guts.
“What’s sharp as a knife, followed me all my life, waits never rests, till it eats me alive? Excuse me as I slip on out,” Savage sings on “What Color Is Blood” Wishes for escape also abound on the title track, where Savage seethes, “Faces change in shape but represent the same old stare / I want to flee but I can only stare.” In “Duckin and Dodgin,” Savage’s paranoia appears to address the looming specter of rock stardom: “The velvet stage, the concert stage, the glass perimeter of me / All my friends are disappearing / All my letters are in codes / Everything I think and feel, in your shadow, it erodes.” I say “appears” because Savage declines to discuss his lyrics, allowing only that there’s a unifying theme of “confinement and freedom, free will, and captivity” on Animal.
“I guess one thing you should know about me is that I don’t really see any point in defining [lyrics] for people, because part of the joy about being a listener is coming to meaning on your own. That’s an important part of the experience for me,” he says. “I like talking about songs and songwriting, but I generally shy away from defining what exactly things are about, just for the sake of kind of saving that for the listener, and not spoiling it.”
In the past, the four members of Parquet Courts have been uncommonly open about their influences, even making a mixtape of songs they were into. Most of the track list is punk and indie rock; an exception is a song I’ve loved since I was 8, Dire Straits’ “So Far Away.” The song is a bit of a left turn from Parquet Courts’ DIY, vinyl-centric aesthetic. (The album it comes from, 1985’s Brothers in Arms, was one of the first all-digital recording.) But Savage remains a fan of “So Far Away.” “It kind of has the same chord progression as a song on our new record called ‘Instant Disassembly.’ It’s just a good classic-rock chord progression, and it’s got a good melodic guitar line. I had an ex-girlfriend that was living so far away from me, and I definitely sent her a tape called So Far Away From Me, leading off with that one.”
For Savage, the spoiler-iest of potential music spoilers is the cult of personality. Both on the phone and in person, Savage routinely steers the conversation away from even a whiff of possible mythmaking. A devotee of punk since his tween years — he credits a mixtape made by an older acquaintance with introducing him to bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Crass — Savage has been recording, pressing, and selling his own music for as long as he’s been making records. He still owes fealty to that culture. Add an extra dose of self-awareness from growing up in an intensely reflective age informed by social media and the Internet’s omnipresent troll-verse, and Savage can’t help but be concerned about how his work and image are perceived and twisted once they enter the public sphere.
Savage is especially touchy about Parquet Courts’ status as a “cool” New York rock band. Parquet Courts is the most significant iteration of this type since the Strokes, though Savage is hardly the sunglasses-and–leather jacket type. It’s more the feeling that Parquet Courts’ music evokes, that “attitudinal, casual, funny” thing Wolk describes. Of course, “New York rock band” isn’t merely a term with geographical and musical connotations. It’s also loaded with decades-old “rock-and-roll savior” baggage, which Savage instinctively rejects.
“When I said that in an interview, because you’re definitely not the first person to ask about that, it had less to do with the myth of what it is to be [a New York band] than that, literally, we are a band that exists in New York,” he says. “We’re not going to move anywhere. I’m not a big fan of mythologizing New York. Other people do that enough. It’s not up to me to define what that means. I don’t really see the point in romanticizing something that has been so heavily romanticized by everyone. I love living here. I consider it my home, but I don’t really like to build up the usual visual lexicon that people think of when they think of New York. To me, it’s kind of played out and cheesy.”
Nevertheless, Savage is ambitious and thoughtful about what a rock band can signify in 2014. He might be too smart and self-conscious to indulge in any “saving rock and roll” talk. But he’s done plenty of pondering about how rock can theoretically be preserved.
“When you think of rock music right now, it doesn’t really get the kind of broad appeal that it used to when I was growing up,” he says. “I think an important step in rock music continuing its life is maybe becoming less available and kind of scaling down for a while until it starts over again. When you look at rock’s short history, you can see the cycle end and begin again in the ’70s, when things got a little out of hand production-wise, and it strayed so far from its roots. Punk had to happen for it to keep going. That changed the course of pop music. We’re still feeling the ripple effect of that. We’re also reaching another time where a certain bubble is about to break.”
Based on my experience hanging out with them at a bowling alley, I have concluded that the members of Parquet Courts complement each other as well personally as they do musically. But while each member of Parquet Courts is vital to the overall ecosystem, this is not the same as a democracy.
Let’s start with 22-year-old drummer Max Savage: He’s Andrew’s little brother and Parquet Courts’ unassuming and deferential Bobby Brady figure, judging by his unassuming, deferential demeanor. Max started drumming at age 11, learning to play by closely studying Fabrizio Moretti’s metronomic beats on the Strokes’ 2001 debut, Is This It. Savage was recruited into the band last, joining just two weeks before Parquet Courts’ first gig in December 2010.2 Fortunately for Max, Parquet Courts had only a small handful of songs at that point, relying mostly on improvisation to fill out sets. This “loose” period is portrayed on Parquet Courts’ shambolic, cassette-only debut, American Specialties.
Sean Yeaton, 28, is the goofy comic relief, and the only member of Parquet Courts who’s not originally from Texas (he’s a Boston native). Yeaton was a guitar player until Andrew asked him to join; they originally met when Yeaton’s former band played a house show at Andrew’s place in Denton, Texas, and Andrew found Yeaton to be a “really silly and good person to have around.”3
The twin leaders in Parquet Courts are Andrew Savage and fellow singer-songwriter-guitarist Austin Brown, 28, old friends from their days at the University of North Texas back in Denton. Savage and Brown bonded back then at the Knights of the Round Turntable, a club for music nerds to share favorite records — everything from Ornette Coleman to Belle and Sebastian — and talk about them like an EMP panel. You probably have to be between the ages of 19 and 21 to not find this concept more than a little precious (“It does seem kind of silly, I guess,” Savage admits), but Brown found it educational after growing up in the wasteland of Beaumont, on east Texas’s coastal plain.
“In high school, I was probably the most musically aware person in this small, shitty town that I lived in,” Brown says, “and to go to Denton and meet people like Andrew who were similar and had all sorts of other insights to offer and talk about was really cool.”
Brown was the first to move to New York, arriving in 2008. “I wanted to play music and I wanted to play music in New York, I guess,” he says. But for a long time, Brown couldn’t find anybody to play with, so he recorded songs by himself in his room. Savage followed in 2009, gaining a measure of indie acclaim for a Frank Zappa–inspired experimental outfit called Fergus & Geronimo. But Parquet Courts was already germinating by the time F&G released its debut LP, Unlearn, in 2011, once Savage reconnected with Brown and they decided to turn their friendship into a musical partnership.
Whenever Parquet Courts is described as a “slacker” band, what’s really being singled out is Brown’s sensibility, which melds the appearance of supreme confidence with innate magnetic aloofness. (Brown also resembles “Loser”-era Beck, so this might be an entirely superficial impression.) Brown is funny, but in a different way from Yeaton — where Yeaton is witty, Brown has a way of talking that makes even non sequiturs land like one-liners. While Savage writes the majority of Parquet Courts’ songs, the most quotable lyrics come from Brown’s contributions: “Socrates died in the fucking gutter!” (from Gold’s kickoff track, “Master of My Craft”). “It’s a long walk to the DMV” (from Gold’s “Yr No Stoner”). “Whoever she might be going to bed with, you can read about that in her Moleskine” (from Animal’s “Dear Ramona”).
“Slacker” is definitely not an appropriate adjective for the intense, artistically earnest, and somewhat controlling Savage, the only person in our group to arrive at the Gutter with his own pair of bowling shoes. Savage carries himself like a man apart. While bowling, he sips whiskey while the rest of us swill pints of beer. When we part ways several hours later, he announces that his Friday night plans involve decamping to his rented studio space — a sparse 13-by-11-foot box that he’s considering outfitting with a stool — ordering in food, and painting. (Savage does all the artwork for Parquet Courts’ albums.) Savage pays the closest attention to band business, responding to emails and making decisions until the wee hours about what Parquet Courts will or won’t do. Most recently, he turned down an offer to appear on a TV talk show. (“It’s pointless,” he says, dismissively waving his hand.) Parquet Courts was already scheduled to appear on Late Night With Seth Meyers the following week, which also made Savage angsty. He wanted Parquet Courts to play “Sunbathing Animal,” but was told the band had to perform the catchier “Black and White” instead. Savage was also annoyed that Parquet Courts was going to play the same show they’d played just four months earlier. Technically, this is true, because it’s still Late Night — but now it has a different host. “I’m not crazy about being told what to play,” Savage says.
Savage arrives late to the Gutter, so I talk to Brown, Yeaton, and Max Savage for 20 minutes. It’s more like shooting the shit than conducting a proper interview. (We talk for several minutes about Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.) When Andrew arrives, the tone shifts noticeably. Andrew dominates the conversation — not in a pushy way, exactly, but his unspoken authority in the band is obvious. I broach the topic of the band’s drug use, which is featured prominently in a Vice-produced documentary about Parquet Courts’ swing through Mexico and Austin’s South by Southwest festival in spring 2013. Over the course of 27 minutes, the band members ingest (or at least it’s implied they are ingesting) LSD and peyote in the company of beautiful women and breathtaking scenery. I ask whether they consider drugs to be part of their creative process.
“We’re not, like, a party band,” Savage says, vaguely irritated. “It’s a weird thing that I think kind of is adjacent to the whole slacker thing that gets applied to us.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a pretty easy narrative,” Brown interjects. “There’s one song, ‘Stoned & Starving,’ but it is about more than that. Even my dad, who doesn’t do drugs, could make that connection.”
“It’s so inconsequential. We should just leave it at that,” Savage concludes, signaling that this line of questioning is over.
“Ready to get annihilated, Austin?” Savage says to Brown as we begin the first of our two games. Despite the bravado, the men of Parquet Courts are, shall we say, not good at bowling. “How many frames is it?” Max asks me at one point, quizzically looking at the computer scoring screen. I answer, but Brown apparently doesn’t hear me. Which is a shame — I lose the first game because he doesn’t throw his third ball in the 10th frame, which means my strike is attributed to his score.4 Brown is less concerned about the game than the upcoming NFL draft, and he’s dismayed over the Houston Texans’ presumptive first pick being Jadeveon Clowney and not the guy he wanted them to pick, Johnny Manziel.
Brown’s argument in favor of Johnny Football grows increasingly impassioned as the afternoon wears on. “It’s so important that they take Manziel,” he says between gulps of beer. “It’s not even a question.” Later, he makes an emphatic closing statement: “Drake wears a shirt with Manziel’s face on it!” Brown says this like he’s talking about Socrates in the fucking gutter.
Savage is the only one taking the game seriously. He’s trying out a curve with little success, sending most balls skidding toward the gutter for frustrating two-pin pickups. Each time Savage hurls the rock, he tosses his shock of curly brown hair back like Kramer biting into a life-changing mango. But no matter the poor results, he doesn’t abandon the maneuver. He leans into it like another art project.
After the games, the rest of the band heads outside to smoke and make phone calls. Savage and I linger. Unprompted, Savage mentions he’s working on a book of writing and art about his epilepsy. He tells me that, as a kid, he suffered “absence” seizures, which came and went suddenly and made him appear as if he were constantly spacing out. They would last between 45 seconds and one minute and occur as many as 40 times a day. Now, these “bangers,” as Savage calls them, happen less frequently, only four to five times per year. But they are far more intense. Savage now likens his seizures to “going in and out of a coma with strobe lights flashing, all day long.” They are triggered by drinking too much, not getting enough sleep, and stress — standard working conditions for a touring musician. A Parquet Courts gig in San Diego last June was canceled after Savage passed out during soundcheck and had to be taken to the hospital. Another time, at Yeaton’s bachelor party, Savage had an attack after taking some speed.
Making art about his condition is Savage’s way of trying to understand what’s happening inside of him. “One of my favorite books is The Idiot,” he says. “Dostoyevsky says [having a seizure] is like being closer to God. I don’t feel anything like that.”
I wonder if Savage’s epilepsy is the skeleton key for understanding this record I can’t stop playing. Maybe the battles for control described on Sunbathing Animal — and among the members of Parquet Courts, and regarding how the media portrays Parquet Courts — are related somehow to Savage literally fighting his own mind and body. Could this be what’s sharp as a knife, and followed him all his life, never waiting or resting, till it eats him alive?
If I asked Savage about this, he would dispute it, I’m sure. He’d rather I just excuse him while he slips on out. So I do, and he does.
Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.