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Ask Yourself the Same Question: An Interview With Parquet Courts

parquet courts, human performance, interview

Suddenly it felt as if the show was scripted — you know, like that sensation of involuted meta-thought when you get way too high. There was guitarist Austin Brown, playing Parquet Courts’ album-release party for their latest record, Human Performance, not as himself, but in character as Snakeskin Dubai. Standing stage left at Brooklyn’s Bell House in early April, Snakeskin looked like a strong cocktail of Neil Hamburger and that friend who got way too high and found a funny hat.

Wearing a wide-brim fedora, bug-eyed sunglasses, a thrift-store blazer, a white button-down, and black suspenders, Snakeskin used his mic time between songs to slag off the Mets and the Yankees to an utterly nonplussed crowd (“I’d piss on Derek Jeter if I had the chance. I’d piss on A-Rod but he’s not even worth it. Yeah, I’d piss on all the Mets”). Guitarist and singer Andrew Savage, drummer Max Savage, and bassist Sean Yeaton grinned and bore it alongside him.

Later, Snakeskin tried to infuse the setlist with some Cream and Deep Purple riffs, and after popping a bottle of champagne and passing it around to the crowd, he ran off stage, removed his cocaine-cowboy disguise, and returned as the graphic-tee wearing, long-haired, introverted, Texas-raised Austin Brown for the last few numbers. Everyone’s performance was sensational.

A few days later, Brown and Andrew Savage, both 30 and now serene counterparts to their onstage personas, sat down at a cafe in Brooklyn, the borough with which the band has had a complicated relationship for six years. On the unflinching Human Performance, Brown and Savage made sure to use the city not just as a concrete backdrop for bodega shopping and petty drug delivering, but as an environment where interrogating the self becomes increasingly difficult.

Throughout the record, the band charts a careful, well-plotted path through a mental jungle of love, heartbreak, homicide, and loneliness, with the sharpest, most vulnerable songwriting they’ve done. It’s a struggle to tear down the many capitalistic and emotional systems that prevent us from being human, which is why it has become so easy, if not preferable, to perform outside of them. Turning naval gazing into a blood sport, Parquet Courts dive into these systems to find out what it might take to be a human.

Who is Snakeskin Dubai?

Austin Brown: I haven’t seen that guy since he left that show.

Andrew Savage: We don’t talk about Snakeskin.

Brown: Um. Yeah. That’s a really hard one to explain. I don’t really fully understand it. Leading up to the record-release show, it was very busy and overwhelming.

Savage: Sometimes you have to call in reinforcements. Enter: Snakeskin. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror, lock all the doors, turn all the lights out, and say “Snakeskin” three times.

Brown: Yeah. I think there is a term for it… it’s not escapism. My therapist told me all about it. It’s when you deny the reality around you… it happens when you get overwhelmed and it’s the act of escaping reality and creating an alternative world. I’m not really sure why it popped up on that particular day, it kind of came out of nowhere.

Savage: Snakeskin’s a good guitar player,

Brown: Drugs were involved. That’s all I’ll say.

Where did you write Human Performance?

Savage: I don’t have a writing spot, I usually write anywhere. I carry around one of those brown Moleskine notebooks. A lot of these songs we wrote together at Dreamland Studios [in West Hurly, New York]. We were living there, working around the clock, and there was never any time where we couldn’t be loud. It created an environment where we all encouraged each other to explore. It felt like this force that was bigger than us that we all had to submit to, and the faster we did that, the faster we started cranking stuff out. I imagine it’s what recording The White Album would’ve been like except the whole band was getting along and nobody’s girlfriend was there.

What is the relationship between Human Performance and your first EP for Rough Trade, 2015’s Monastic Living?

Savage: I think the same relationship between [our first album] American Specialties and [our second album] Light Up Gold. Monastic Living felt like a cycle in the band starting over again. [Monastic Living and American Specialties] have a very similar relationship in that they are very different sounding than anything else the band has done. There’s a lot of stuff on American Specialties that didn’t really get revisited in the band, although its essence has informed everything the band has done. The same way with Monastic Living. It became apparent that we’ve got all this material that is experimental and drone-y and less song-based and more concept-based, so obviously these songs need to have their own record.

Was it sonically conceptual or philosophically conceptual?

Savage: Both. It’s called Monastic Living for a reason. It’s something that was always in us. The first Parquet Courts practice was me and Austin getting together and playing guitar at the same time and stumbling into these ideas. Improvisation has always been part of Parquet Courts. We’ve had songs that have been on written onstage, like “Bodies…” was written onstage in Portland. Monastic Living was our first time doing pure improvisation, and I think it would’ve been less interesting to have our first release on Rough Trade be Human Performance, instead of arguably our most challenging record to date.

Brown: We never really conceptualized what its greater impact would really be. I never considered it would get reviewed. It didn’t seem like that much of a departure, or that odd, really. But I’m glad we had that experience because it helped define our group in ways that I didn’t realize [we] needed defining. When people were taken aback by it, I realized that’s something we may not have translated as well. Then it became really important.

Savage: I think the conventional wisdom with that one seems to’ve been, “Just ignore that one.” Or, “They’re just fucking around.” That’s unfortunate, but I guess I’m not totally surprised. It’s going to be one of those records that will reveal itself in the way that it sits in our body of work. It’s something that was not built for rapid critical consumption.

As far as lower-case monastic living goes, what is the difference to you between feeling lonely and being alone?

Savage: I think “alone” has to do with being comfortable with yourself, and comfortable in your own silence and being able to hear the thoughts in your head without being nervous about it. And when you can’t have that level of peace, that’s lonely, but being alone is being able to confront the voice that’s going on in your head. That’s probably why people feel uneasy around silence and sitting in a room by themselves, because we’ve always got music around us and sound going on. All these things we can use as excuses to distract ourselves from being alone but kind of end up making ourselves more lonely.

Do you have a hard time being alone?

Brown: I really prefer it. It’s something I’ve really grown to crave over the years. It is a tough balance, it’s a hard thing to think about. I guess I don’t like having to provide an expectation to someone, like being at a show there is an expectation to be Austin from Parquet Courts. A lot of being in this band has become really exhausting, in a physical way. We challenge ourselves and set a high standard, it’s not easy to achieve. I can allow myself the time and space whenever I’m alone. I’m pretty easy on myself.  

How do contrast your love for monasticism with your history in the punk community and donating agency to other people?

Savage: I have a really collectivist mindset because when I first got into the punk scene it was a worldwide community. It was the first place I felt a kind of hum. Monastic living is not the celebration of the individual — being with people versus being alone — it’s more about submitting to something. I was talking about this in the recording process earlier: Devoting yourself to something like religious music is devotional music — that’s why so much of it is chanty and trance-based so you can lose yourself and devote yourself to something whether that be god or creative practice or something bigger than you, like this band is bigger than all of us. It’s about concentration.

Do you feel what you write about is that — with the way the culture and the city exist — it’s becoming more difficult to concentrate?

Savage: I’ll let you meditate on that because really the whole point of Monastic Living was really to make a statement without saying anything.

The song “Two Dead Cops” is about the 2014 double homicide of two police officers in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Were you both in the neighborhood when it happened?

Savage: I was. It was just before Christmas, I remember. My studio and the bar where I go to is right there. That night in a mile radius, every police officer in New York City descended upon that area. It was truly strange.

What else do you remember about that day and night?

Savage: It was around happy hour. Helicopters in the sky. All the trains and busses through Bed-Stuy were shut off. People huddled up on that corner, people bringing votive candles and teddy bears and flowers. It being freezing. And also this weird feeling that we all get whenever you hear about something like this in America, like that thing that happens so often that you can’t really appropriately mourn it or react to it. That feeling is the most alarming thing that drove me to write that song because I needed to find a way to mourn this sort of violence that happens all the time.

It was a guy who said he came up from Baltimore, right?

Savage: He was a drifter. He said, “This is for Eric Garner.”

The song forces you to deal with a very complicated kind of humanity.

Savage: I had a fan who was a Boston police officer email me about that song. He hadn’t heard it yet, but he saw the title and said, “I hope I don’t have to stop liking Parquet Courts because of this song.”  

Did you respond to him?

Savage: Well, first of all, I’m glad I pissed off a cop. Yeah, I basically said, “All the info’s there in the song. There’s nothing I can tell you that’ll alleviate you, and you haven’t even heard it yet, so I suggest listening to it and judging for yourself.” And he said, “Okay.”

Have you found as you’ve gotten older that you’ve taken down some barriers in your life that allow you to be more transparent and vulnerable in your songwriting?

Brown: Before this record, I had a tendency to really obscure lyrical phrases just to have a barrier up. This time I didn’t want to use that trick anymore, and if I wanted to say something I just needed to find a clever way to say it without obscuring it. With “Steady on My Mind,” when I wrote the melody for it, I knew this was a love song. For me to deny that would be denying that song to exist. Before there was a barrier up where, if there was a love song, I could turn a lyrical phrase in a way that would make me seem a bit tough and nonchalant and arrogant. And that was a lot more comfortable than being, “This is what it is.” But I have a lot of pride in being able to just do it.

“I promise that I’ll say ‘hello’ as often as ‘goodbye’” is a great line.

Savage: Great line.

Brown: As I’m writing it, I want to feel like I can use a bigger, smarter word like that.

Savage: It’s not always necessary.

Brown: At a certain point, it is what it is. It’s simple. It’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

Savage:  It’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

A recurring theme of Parquet Courts songwriting is writing about the now.

Savage: We have a song called “This Is Happening Now.”

Is there ever a worry that a song will be dated?

Savage: No, because if you do it right, it won’t be. You can make something very site-specific and the essence that idea has will still be able to translate even if the song that you’re rooting it in has passed. That’s the key to make something that will remain hopefully relatable, and that was something I was always hesitant to do in songwriting: address really contemporary things.

Like, making a reference to cell phone service in “Berlin Got Blurry.”  That’s one thing I admire about hip-hop is it kind of has no anxiety about being disposable. It’s different from rock where you’ve got classic-rock stations still playing Dire Straits or Pearl Jam, or soon White Stripes will be on there, but there aren’t really classic hip hop stations. They play current music and I’ve always admired the way that it’s goal has always been to be now.

There’s something wonderful and trashy about modern ephemera. Like, I know that if I get you guys to talk about the Crying Jordan meme, it will do so well, because the medium this interview will be done is over the Internet.

Savage: I don’t even know about that one.

Brown: I’ve seen but I don’t understand it.

What makes you feel overwhelmed?

Brown: It can change from day to day for me. For myself, it’s less of a trigger — it can be just a feeling of, “This is all a bit too much.” It often happens when I wake up, just a feeling of waking up and being, “Ahh… this again.” It’s an illness, it’s not justifiable. That’s where meditation became important to me to just slow down and take stock in what’s actually happening, not what I feel is happening.

These days my laundry has gotten really overwhelming. That’s a trite example of a greater whole. I’m not a very put-together person, but I’ve gotten into a position where I have to… do things.

Savage: [Imitating Brown] You shouldn’t trust me with anything.

But isn’t that just endemic of not having a washer and dryer in your building?

Brown: Yeah, and New York City is an easy place to fall behind the curve. So much of my day is just trying to stay ahead of it.

Savage: Whenever I meet someone who has a washer and dryer I’m like, “Whoa, are you a duchess? Is your dad a senator?”

Brown:  We tour a lot, and we’re gone a lot, we live a lifestyle that’s different than our friends and it makes social situations pretty overwhelming. I have a hard time settling into any comfortable conversation about anything.

Why do you think that is?

Brown: Maybe I’m conditioned to be… tired? It takes me a while to recover from being on tour. A lot of people are better it than I am. I’m not great at being able to sustain my energy resources in a way that is healthy. It has a lot to do with not living a super-healthy lifestyle, self-medicating, I mean just playing rock music every night there’s a certain amount of drugs and alcohol that is required… I think.

Savage: It definitely helps.

Brown: That’s the way it works in the movies at least. There’s things you can do to be healthier but those don’t feel as good. It’s definitely not a sob story over here. You asked a hard question.

Do you take any medication?

Brown: No.

Savage: I’m epileptic, but [I don’t take medicine] often because I don’t really like it, so not really.

Brown: Not daily medication. I don’t go to a psychiatrist who I would consider anything besides a drug dealer.

Part of the self-interrogation in Parquet Courts deals with being implicit in consumerist systems. Have you thought about reasons why recently we’ve become so over consumptive?

Savage: There’s so many more opportunities for us to be. We’re moving back into cities, you step out your door in New York and you’re in a marketplace. There’s a whole new marketplace that we have at our fingertips. We have so many opportunities to feel inadequate and want something, and so many holes in ourselves that we fill with material things that are fleeting and ultimately unsatisfactory to our souls.

If there was less a sense of nihilism or disillusionment with the environment or politics that people would be more engaged in things that aren’t as material? How do we overcome that in the face of this looming dread?

Savage: I feel that dread… it would be nice to think that things would be different if we all weren’t so cynical. It’s hard to imagine the alternative. I continually find ways to be inspired by other people’s actions or art, there’s always something to feel inspired about to remind you that the world isn’t as brutal as a place as it often makes itself out to be.

Brown: Sometimes things are just nice to have, right? It’s hard to rail against consumerism as a whole. I’m a consumer and I like stuff. I like nice things, I want things that I can’t afford.

Savage: Yeah, nice things are good.

Brown: It feels like being a modern person.

Savage: I agree. I’m obsessed with structures that are imprisoning that we’re more or less powerless against, and so I approach consumerism that way. Take [Content Nausea’s] “Pretty Machines”, that’s pretty much pointing the finger back at me which is the best place to start if you’re making a critical statement about overconsumption — glass houses, that whole thing. That song’s more about my own relationship with being a vocal, anti-capitalist and also being very beholden to that structure and also having only so much agency in it.

What are other structures you like to write about?

Savage: Love. Well, it is an economy, right, and there’s always an exchange, and it’s a back and forth. You get what you give. Being in love with somebody, human emotions, these are feelings that as much as you might not want to be preoccupied and obsessed by them, they control you, and we all have the inclination to love — for better, mostly, and sometimes for worse. For better because that’s a good trait for any person to have, to feel comfortable in loving something. It’s one thing that we’re all collectively obsessed with, love. It’s the common denominator of pop music.

Brown: Would you say that it’s… all you need?

Savage: Love hurts.

Brown: As cynical as I can be, I really believe that sentiment.

Savage: We’re romantics, you know?

What strips you of the cynicism more, heartbreak or falling in love?

Savage: Both of them, really. Leave it to love to be the one that can sock you in the gut and say, “Don’t overthink it, idiot. You don’t have to be such an intellectual dummy all the time. Use your heart.”

Were you faced with that a lot on Human Performance?

Savage: Love was something that was on my mind a lot, and how I factored into it, and what I thought about it, what it means to me. The song “Human Performance” is probably the most explicit meditation on that — not exactly a fun song to write. Actually a painful and hard song to write, just because it’s not always fun to always look yourself in the eye and ask yourself these deep, uncomfortable questions about love. That was a cathartic experience that I needed to get through in order to address that feeling and purge all the negativity associated with it out of me.

I love the group vocals on the line “Curved in the dark” on the title track.

Savage: That’s the Greek Chorus of humanity reminding you that we’re all in this together.